In our technology-stuffed world, the difficulties faced by video artists seem paradoxical. Due to high up-front costs, and the difficulty of handling and selling digital technologies, established institutions such as art galleries and museums often shun their work. Artists may look at the entertainment industry as an alternative, but find themselves unfulfilled, as musicians typically come first in these sorts of collaborations.
Undervolt & Co., a newly born label for experimental video, provides a model for how video artists can work together to face these issues. Undervolt is seeking new paths to their audience, looking beyond conventional channels and methods of distribution.
Founded in 2013 by artist Yoshi Sodeoka, Undervolt is run collaboratively by Sodeoka himself, editor and curator Nicholas O’Brien, and director Johnny Woods. Undervolt’s website promotes a curated collection of videos, making select work by those artists available for purchase by visitors. However, selling videos is only one of Undervolt’s goals. Undervolt also wants to build a community, shrinking the isolated world of video artists and building an unparalleled database of video art.
The label’s structure is inspired by the music industry: they have a roster of artists, and they sell media they create. Undervolt represents its artists by putting together exhibitions, screenings and other similar events. However unlike record labels, Undervolt’s agreement is limited only to works artists specifically make for the label.
The pricing and distribution model is experimental. Generally, video distribution is divided into two main categories: sharing freely on services such as YouTube or Vimeo, or exhibition in a gallery.
Though Undervolt doesn’t entirely neglect these distribution channels they have created their own third-way, Undervolt artists can sell lower-priced videos on the company’s web platform in a curated “album” format.
Undervolt distributes its albums and singles as high quality and flexible video files (.mp4, PDF, .m3u) to those willing to pay a modest price, ranging from $5 to $20. Although video distribution organizations like Electronic Arts Intermix, the Video Data Bank, and LUX share some similarities, none of these outlets have a direct-to-download or digital distribution option.
Copyright is a significant concern for video artists. While valuing and respecting the artists' copyright, Undervolt assumes that its audience is behaving ethically rather than being overly-protective. They do not use DRM technology within the platform but function in an assumption of ethical fair-use by those engaging with the work. The company’s high-quality downloads are replayable across multiple platforms, encouraging the label's catalogue to circulate to the highest degree possible. Undervolt has also noted that downloads, the main form of piracy, are not the primary means by which its artists' works are enjoyed, making piracy overall an issue of limited concern.
Undervolt’s primary objective isn’t generating profit. Rather, they are trying to create and serve a hyper-niche market consisting of avant-garde and experimental media devotees, performance artists, and the video art community, all for the benefit of their artists. Their hope is to avoid being affected by the conventional forces, which drive museums and galleries.
With their inward-oriented focus and by-artists-for-artists mentality it is very unlikely that Undervolt’s model will affect the larger industry environment in the next few years. However its impact is already being felt within the video artist community, facilitating communication, collaboration and the further development of this unique art form.