Oh, isn’t this amazing
Making favorite pastimes into life
They could be just relaxing
But instead they’re laying plans to ditch their 9-to-5s.
— Alex Bradley, “JoCo Cruise Crazy IV”
Attendees camp overnight in a long queue outside Hall H at San Diego Comic-Con in the hopes of seeing something special when they get in. This year, they were rewarded with Stephen Colbert moderating a panel on the upcoming The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, as well as getting an early look at the film’s trailer.
Tech geeks and gamers pound the reload button on the PAX event Web site to snag one of the highly coveted PAX Prime badges before they’re gone, because they want a chance to play a major title early or to grab an exclusive Cards Against Humanity booster pack. (This year’s $110 four-day tickets sold out in 25 minutes.)
But when people climb the gangplank to board JoCo Cruise Crazy, take the Metro to Rockville, Maryland, to attend Intervention, book a condolet at MaxFunCon, or sign up for the Industry Track at VidCon, they’re often looking for something else: a place where they can share ideas, collaborate with other creators, and begin to build a career.
All conventions have a networking aspect; part of the reason people drop by the PAX Indie Mega Booth is to swap business cards and talk shop with indie gaming studios. But some conventions, by choice or by reputation, are less “convention” in the traditional sense and more “creative incubator.”
MaxFunCon bills itself as “a gathering of creative people who wish to be more awesome”; Intervention is “the premier showcase of online creativity”; XOXO is “an experimental festival celebrating independently produced art and technology.” These events inspire and encourage attendees to create new work — and new lives — for themselves. Every panel or event carries with it the same message: “This year, we’re behind the table, leading the discussion; next year, it could be you.”
And that’s precisely — and literally — what happened to me.
Hello, my future
I had never performed at a convention until I booked a gig at the first Intervention, in 2010. It was my second-ever live performance as my one-person band, Hello, The Future! Following Jonathan Coulton’s example, I had been putting a new song on YouTube every week, and had posted week 19 before I performed at Intervention.
I knew my Sondheim — you gotta have a gimmick. Mine was that I billed myself as the only geek musician writing songs about webcomics. In the early days of Twitter, I was savvy enough to realize that writing an original song about webcomics would no doubt get me a retweet by the webcomics’ creators and boost my signal.
To say that Intervention changed the course of my career is an understatement; to say that every year I attend, it pushes my career forward is closer to the truth. At Intervention 2013, convention co-founder Oni Hartstein brought me to the attention of Boing Boing’s Mark Frauenfelder, introducing me as a writer and Mark as a man with a publication, and telling the two of us to work something out. I’ve since published three feature articles at Boing Boing.
Hartstein made a deliberate choice to structure Intervention as a space in which creative people could learn from each other. “When I would exhibit my art I would always get asked how I made things work,” she says. “I’d also meet people who had talent but didn’t think they could do it. They thought that I was some kind of genius or something. I’m not. I didn’t start out being able to do any of this. I had people encouraging me and was able to learn.” She wanted to give back to the community that had helped her grow.
It’s not just Intervention that helps creative people build community. At MAGFest 2011 I invited music producer Mustin to have breakfast with me, and together the two of us planned out the project that would become Mink Car Cover. I booked a ticket for the Industry Track at VidCon and found myself in the middle of creators who were using YouTube to make videos, perform music, and tell stories — exactly where I wanted to be.
Every time I went to another creative incubator convention, I learned more about not only how to succeed in a creative career, but also how to be who I was. Not the Jonathan Coulton song-a-week imitator I hoped would lead me toward Internet fame, but something else: a writer, storyteller, and musician who could craft an independent career on her own terms.
Picture yourself in a boat on an ocean
There are plenty of people who model their creative careers after Jonathan Coulton, starting with his 2005 idea to post a new song on the Internet every week for a year. Some of them board the yearly JoCo Cruise Crazy specifically because they too want to build creative careers; others just like boats, fruity drinks, and geek-themed concerts. (Collectively, we call ourselves Sea Monkeys.)
But the JoCo Cruise has developed a reputation as the place you go if you want to test out your ideas with your peers and learn how to translate those ideas into an actual career. People who attended JoCo Cruise Crazy II in 2012 heard this passionate and motivating advice from John Hodgman:
The real decision that I think everyone is asking, when they ask “how did you do it?” of [Coulton] or of anyone on stage, and the hardest decision, is he quit his job. He quit. And that’s the thing you will put off doing for decades, in order to not do what it is you feel you need to do. But it’s the first thing you need to do, before you can get started.
I followed his advice — after a second, longer conversation in which he and I discussed whether it would be financially reasonable to do so, given the amount of money I was making as an independent musician. It turned out to be some of the smarter advice I’d ever taken. The path I followed by quitting led me through independent musicianry and into a larger career as a writer, all fueled by the connections I made at conventions and similar gatherings.
The next year, I was behind the table at JoCo Cruise Crazy III’s “Quitting Panel,” to share what I had learned and help guide the way for other creative people who wanted to take the same leap.
I’m not an anomaly at these events. People in the same boat as me — sometimes the same actual boat — attend these conventions to try to launch their careers, too. I’ll pick just one example: Alex Bradley and Renée Camus. Like me, they attended JoCo Cruise Crazy II, heard John Hodgman’s “quitting” comments, and followed his advice.
“The Q&A [with John Hodgman] was probably the turning point for making our decision to actually, like, make the hard choice and sell the house, to quit the job, to pack everything up and move across the country,” Bradley says. They’ve been in Los Angeles now for two years. Bradley does video animation, effects, and processing; Camus writes for Los Angeles magazine.
“The first contacts we had here were with people we had met on the cruise,” Bradley says. He jumps back into the voice of Alex From Two Years Ago with: “We may not have jobs lined up right away, but at least we know who to talk to!”
Camus starts naming mutual friends in “the industry” who are both Sea Monkeys and Los Angeles residents. These sorts of indispensable connections get forged over nights on the Lido Deck drinking Wang Wangs, at VidCon’s Disney Day, or at Intervention’s yearly Champions LARP sessions.
Every year, Bradley animates and distributes an original video to celebrate the cruise. This year, the video — fully funded by Kickstarter, of course — focused on the concept of the ship as incubator; Sea Monkeys contributed their likenesses and voices as they sang about launching new projects, quitting their jobs, and the magical effects of a week spent in this rarefied community.
“The cruise has totally become about meeting up with the Sea Monkeys again, rejoining that community, and re-inspiring and energizing each other to do what you want to do,” says Bradley. “It’s fun to see the performers too,” Camus says. “But it’s more about seeing the people that you only get to see once a year. It’s that community.”
At a typical geek con, you might queue up behind a panel microphone to ask your favorite writer where she got her ideas. But these incubator events aren’t about anyone else’s ideas. We may have thought ourselves the next Jonathan Coulton or Hank Green, but we have to find our own path, not borrow from theirs. At these conventions, we learn together not only how to follow our dreams, but also which dreams are worth turning into our reality. As Bradley wrote:
Though you came here to see me
You became who you will be.
Screenshot from “JoCo Cruise Crazy IV,” animated by Alex Bradley used with permission. Intervention panel photo courtesy Oni Hartstein.
Nicole Dieker is a freelance writer, essayist, and occasional nerd musician. She writes the "How A Freelance Writer Makes A Living" column for The Billfold, and is perhaps best known for posting her weekly freelance income to her Tumblr. Her work has also appeared in The Toast, Yearbook Office, Boing Boing, and The Freelancer, among other sites.