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Personal Branding

Talent Is Persistence: What It Takes To Be An Independent Creative

How filmmaker Kirby Ferguson painstakingly built a career making independent online documentaries.

The current states of both the music and film industries have taught us to think about the economics of creativity differently. The smartest independent creatives aren’t the ones that sit alone, polishing off the perfect finished product. The smart ones release their work early and often, building a community of supporters who pay not for the art itself, but for its byproduct.

It was using this strategy that Kirby Ferguson, after a decade of making online video, was able to quit his full-time job and focus exclusively on filmmaking. He first made waves in 2010 with the release of the online documentary Everything is a Remix which argues that all creative works are derivative and we should encourage the use of the old when creating the new. The web series was released in four installments for free and racked up millions of views leading to a bevvy of speaking gigs and donations — the new creative economy at work.

Now, Ferguson is switching tactics with his new documentary This is Not a Conspiracy Theory. He plans to release the film behind a paywall in December, opting for immediate suitability instead of wide accessibility of Remix. We spoke with Ferguson about the new economics of creativity and what it takes to succeed in this dynamic.

For the casual observer, it appeared that your first documentary came out of nowhere, but I’m sure you tried tons of things before “Everything Is A Remix” gained traction. True?

I’ve been doing online video since the early days, around ’99 or 2000. I started with comedy. I did that for two or three years on the side. It was hard for me to find my voice doing that. It just wasn’t interesting to me. I actually wanted to make arguments with what I was doing. 

It seems you found your lane here with these two documentaries.

It was the first style that I did where I was like, “Oh, okay, like this is what my talents are for.” 

Everything is a Remix, Pt. 1

That’s the great part of the web, right? You can do a thousand little experiments and stretch. 

Yeah, and you can see how your work is going. Most of the time, you’re working on your voice. It’s just your own journey. You’re just working on your stuff and trying to get better, putting it out there and getting a response from it. Getting a feel for an audience is important, and the Internet is a great place to try and fail. Because if you fail, nobody really sees it, nobody cares. No harm, no foul.

I think that’s a good template: throw everything against the wall because it’s the Internet and space is cheap.


Because if you fail, nobody really sees it, nobody cares.

You released “Everything is a Remix” in installments. Why?

When you put it out in installments, you see the feedback and you can shift course, things can happen that wouldn’t have happened if you were just doing it on your own. It is a way to incorporate the wisdom of the audience into the project.

Which is different than your typical filmmaker, who may think: “I need this to be completely perfect before showing it to the world.” What led you to that iterative approach versus the “normal” path?

I think the interactive method is more approachable. When I think something has to be perfect, I’ll just fiddle with it forever. The truth is, for releasing stuff on the net, I don’t think it matters if it’s perfect. I really don’t. It has to be really good and I try to get the concepts and the ideas as perfect as I can get them. But for the filmmaking, I don’t think people are going to watch it or not because it’s got that extra bit of polish on it.

At the end, when it becomes a movie, it is going to be on TVs and big screens at that point and it has got to look as good as it can. Then I’ll try and polish it up. 

I think for me it is a way to not go down a rabbit hole of perfectionism and it is a way to keep the thing coming out on a reasonable schedule.

Kirby Ferguson. Photo: Gene Driskell, Gel Conference 2011

Kirby Ferguson. Photo: Gene Driskell, Gel Conference 2011

What are the economics of these two projects? Is this your full-time job?

Yep. I’m an independent filmmaker, I make a go of it. I did have a job when I started it. The documentaries get me work, they get me speaking engagements, I sell some merchandise, I get some donations, and it all kind of adds up to a living. And then This Is Not A Conspiracy Theory would be awesome if it could make me a living on its own from subscription fees. 

It seems like that has led you to have complete creative control over everything you want to do, which is where everyone wants to be.

Which is my dream, really. Honestly, like I’d rather have freedom with what I’m doing than be loaded and be working with producers that say stuff like, “we should really have a talking bear in this one,” and advocate for all sorts of stupid ideas. If you feel like you’re some sort of a wage slave, that’s not a good place for a creative person to be. 

If you feel like you’re some sort of a wage slave, that’s not a good place for a creative person to be. 

What would your advice be to the 20-year-old version of you, who’s just starting their career?

I wish I had Everything Is A Remix when I was younger. I wish I knew that you can just start copying other people’s stuff and fiddling with it, and putting stuff into it, and just sort of build from there. It’s okay to be primitive. That’s a perfectly fine way to start making things. 

I wish the earlier me understood work and practice more. Just the repeated concerted effort to get better at things. I wish I didn’t have the notions of talent and genius I had back then. I thought, “Oh, these other people, they just have something that I don’t have.” When really, they are just people who work more. 

I wish I understood work. Work is the key to anything you want to do. If you want to play the guitar—anybody can learn to play the fucking guitar—you can be good at it. Maybe you won’t get to be a genius but you could be good.

You can be good enough to write good songs or make a good film or whatever. There’s no such thing as not having enough talent to get to that level. I mean, persistence is talent, really. Just sticking with it. Talent is not stopping. 

TED Talk: Embrace the remix

Sean Blanda

Sean Blanda is a writer based in New York City and is the former Editor-in-Chief and Director of 99U. Find him on Twitter: @SeanBlanda.

Comments (21)
  • Amy

    A-MEN!! I absolutely agree! I wish I could’ve told my 20 yr old self those exact things!

    • Sarita Rani

      While I have no arguments with the talent-is-persistence argument, this concept is such a sleight of the mind that it boggles the imagination. Things may certainly inspire us.

      But that average pop-culture-icons (and I can hear the huge deluge of nasty comments right here) chose to copy without the effort of making it sound different — is what should define creativity — that is not the basis of the new creative economy.

      Ever heard of Shoshtakovich? Or Rachmaninov? Or Paganini? No remixes there.

      Hindustani music for which I have no taste — is itself based on a few defined “ragas” which would be Major/Minor chord equivalents in Western Classical music that I love.

      However, pre-50s pop-adaptations of these ragas were each unique. Try this playlist out. Its a mix of 50s- 80s Hindi pop songs. All based on 7 notes of Raag Bhupali. They are long so you can skip through the playlist if you want. But I truly dare you to tell me that each of them doesn’t sound truly original.

      Respectfully, yours.

      • rich

        Thank you Sarita Rani for confronting this lazy sophistry. You are dead on. Glad Kirby highlights Zeplins tactics for what they were, but disappointed by the conclusions he draws which go something like: Zepplin fooled most of the people some of the time, therefore it must be OK to copy and call it creativity. Please.

      • Miguel

        Shoshtakovich? Or Rachmaninov? Or Paganini?

        Folk music remixed and embellished- albeit very, very well.

      • Sarita Rani

        I’d be glad to have you point out the folk music they came from. If for nothing, then from an aesthetic viewpoint.

        Because I know that what Hindustani classical did to Indian folk music was not just remix and embellish.

        That would be like saying early grammarians gave local dialects a remix and embellishment.

        They didn’t. They gave us enormously more than that.

        They gave local dialects and grunts a sentence structure, a grammar; words a definition that would eventually have a universal meaning to everyone. They made Shakespeare possible and Keats and eventually, made it possible for you and I to talk to each other across continents.

        They made it possible for this gentlemen here and you, to call those grammarians and you re-mixers.

        They made globalization possible. And global trade. An exchange of ideas across the world. Those remixing grammarians.

        At the time they were doing this, they weren’t even called grammarians. They were all “philosophers” at the time because the pursuit of knowledge hadn’t yet been divided into sciences and social sciences.

        Give a thought to what they created.

        So no sir, I don’t think it’s all about remixing and embellishing. If it were, I think you would end up saying that the man who invented fire didn’t invent anything at all. He remixed lightening.

        But give a thought to what it took to not be afraid of lightening, and say — I WILL NOT BE SCARED. I will find a way to make that fire mine.

        And take what everyone at the time thought was the wrath of god, and remix it into the rubbing of two stones to create a spark that changed the world and made civilization possible.

        The making of fire. The invention of the wheel. We learn from things around us. All of us see them. But it takes a certain kind of mindset to see that – what is usual and turn it into that what is unusual. Make it his own. That is the mindset of an INVENTOR.

        Without due respect, it also takes a certain kind of mindset, to dismiss it as remix. To say, “bah, I could have done that if I’d thought of it.”

        Well, we didn’t think of it.

        We stand on the shoulders of great men who did. We feed off the contribution of these mens’ minds in everything we do. Even in writing this little remark on this little website.

        Edison. Watt. Torvalds. Wozniak. Paganini. Michelangelo. Aristotle, the list is long.

        They won’t hear our thanks. But if there is any way to thank them, it is to hope that we can, one day, build on their contribution and contribute a little something ourselves to the world’s knowledge that is more than just a dismissal of achievement.

  • Sven Peetoom

    This guy is so inspiring 🙂 Saw all the 4 remix films because of this post, totally worth my time.

  • Robyn McKibbon

    Very good!

  • Christopher Thompson

    Persistence is a highly underated quality, that is a common trait of all successful people.

  • Sirita Wright

    That was fucking awesome. I can’t wait to watch his films. Great advice.

  • Tama Lancaster

    Persistence is definitely talent, Kirby! This is very inspiring indeed. Can’t wait for This Is Not A Conspiracy Theory.

  • Toby1

    Cold shower about Zeppelin. Naively I thought they wrote those blues licks. Pffff.

  • David Roddis

    This is inspiring. It took me years to learn that “keep going” is the most important mantra – once you accept that, you stop looking outward for validation, step out of the paradigm of success/failure and start finding your true voice. The future looks exciting…

  • S. Preston

    Wow that about sums up the last 5 years of my life. I just finally released a set of artwork that people totally get, and will quit my job because of it. It’s a long road of similar failed successes.

  • l.Wilson

    Talent is persistence. Excellence article.

  • Jerrold McGrath

    Great article and nice to hear about the less flashy names in the creative industries and how they make a go of it. There are many similarities to the active seeking of business models that define Silicon Valley success but also important differences. When there is no desire to scale and when barriers to entry are minimal, a lot of interesting stuff is going to get produced.

  • cmacri

    “I have never believed it possible that any natural or improved ability can claim immunity from the companionship of steady, plain, hard-working qualities , and hope to gain its end. There is no such thing as such fulfillment on this earth. Some happy talent, some fortunate opportunity, may form the two sides of the ladder on which some men mount, but the rounds of that ladder must be made of stuff to stand wear and tear; and there is no substitute for thorough-going, ardent, and sincere earnestness.”
    Charles Dickens, David Copperfield
    I’ve been looking for someone to quote this to since I encountered it a few months ago. For me, it was by far the most memorable quote of the whole book.

    • Melanie Muir

      Great quote, thank you so much!

  • chadwarren76

    Thanks for writing this Sean – very inspirational. Well, I certainly want to know the specifics of how Kirby monetizes his self/creations.

    The artist and the industrialist combined make one hell of a package – hard work plus exploring the self and surroundings and sharing the result.

    May we who are the remixers which the internet fosters dedicate ourselves as much to loving each other’s work as our own so we sustain our vision of a better merger of human and the nature from which we are re-mixed.

  • Stan Poet


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