Podcamp and Pirates

This week, Podcamp Boston 3 was announced. Podcamp Boston 3 will be, in part, sponsored by the attendees with a registration fee of $50 , meant to defray the cost of the venue. I will be helping Chris Penn and Chris Brogan organize Podcamp Boston 3, just as I did with Podcamp Boston 2, even though I live outside of Philadelphia.

The addition of a registration fee for Podcamp Boston 3 is causing some controversy. Some people feel that any admission charge to an event that has been free in the past is antithetical, and therefore, the Podcamp Organizers should simply shutter the event and call it something else if they want to hold a new media event with an admission fee. While I think this is simply silly, I think it is important to discuss the evolution of a movement, disruption and commerce.

I am reading a great book, The Pirate’s Dilemma- How Youth Culture is Reinventing Capitalism, by Matt Mason, that speaks to this dilemma directly.

Pirates in The Conference Space

Matt Mason talks in the early chapters of his book about how Punk Rock emerged with the Sex Pistols, based on the idea of breaking with tradition, permission, and control, and doing whatever you wanted- the beginning of a culture based on Do It Yourself- DIY. Matt notes “Disruptive new DIY technologies are causing unprecedented creative destruction.” – This is the core of Podcamp.

Podcamp is, in many ways, the Punk version of traditional conferences. It evolved because there was no new media/podcasting conference on the East Coast like the Portable Media Expo, which was held in California at the time. There was a need, and after attending BarCamp, a developer’s conference, Chris Penn & Chris Brogan, along with others, imagined a lightweight conference dealing with the new media space. While I think it started out as a conference geared towards podcasting, it ended up being about marketing, search engine maximization, blogging, exploring tools, production techniques, video production and more, and it has evolved as the community and technology have evolved to remain an inclusive mash-up of community DIY types with business oriented folks.

Chris x 2 opened up the model and encouraged others to adapt it for their own communities. Podcamp Toronto and the many subsequent Podcamps did this. I’ve done it myself numerous times now, in Philly, NYC and even helping out in Boston.

This has been disruptive for events like the Portable Media Expo. People don’t have to wait for a once a year event anymore, and they can create their own, locally, if they want. They have to put in the effort, but people now have tacit permission, looking at the Podcamp model, to create their own conferences if the main stream conferences don’t suit. It carves away business from conferences like the PME, I am sure, but it also heightens the demand for events that suit the community. The sponsors of the various Podcamps have been enthusiastically supporting the model and the relatively low sponsorship levels, which helps make these events happen with increasing regularity.

The Punk Conference has a reputation and main stream acceptance

If you want to see whether or not Podcamp has reached main stream acceptance, look at the attendee list for Podcamp DC and Podcamp NYC. You’ll see individuals from different branches of government, lobbying firms, traditional media outlets, right next to people producing hobby-based podcasts. You’ll see CEOs of start-ups and venture capitalists. It is an exciting, cutting edge place to hang out, and clearly, people from across the new media/social media spectrum think so.

Punk rock artists found out that it’s disruption and rebellion struck a cord with others. The bands empowered and were empowered by the audience. As Matt Mason says in his book,

“Under Punk, the concept of the gig totally changed. Punk despised the one way flow of information typically found at a rock show. At punk shows the band and the fans occupy the same space as equals. …. It was often a violent hate/hate relationship, but it was fair.”

Podcamp is, essentially, a Punk Conference. The first rule of Podcamp is “All attendees must be treated equally. Everyone is a rockstar”, straight out of the Punk gig playbook. And while the relationship is much more kumbaya than pistols at dawn, it doesn’t mean that Podcamp has not been disruptive to bigger conferences.

What Happens After the Disruption? Mainstream Acceptance and Making a Living

Matt Mason goes on to talk about VICE, a Montreal based magazine that grew out of a free magazine called the Voice of Montreal. The people behind it published what they thought was interesting, and if it got big, that was great, if it didn’t, it didn’t and that was fine too. (Sounds like most podcasters I know…..). VICE is now published in 14 countries according to Matt. He says the founder, Shane Smith, states:

“When we started out, we were really idealistic, and we had a mission, we hated baby boomers and we wanted to be anti-status quo and all this stuff. But the business of running a magazine, I mean most of my favorite magazines went out of business. It’s really difficult. The creative side is one thing, but the business side is quite another.” (emphasis mine)

Podcamp is likewise growing, and people are finding out first hand that running a conference and attending a conference, even one you participate in as a speaker or attendee, are not the same thing. the creative side and the business side are both required to keep the enterprise growing and fresh.

While Matt Mason also notes that:

“The future belongs to a new breed of change agents- punk capitalists putting purpose next to profit. Abstract economic constructs have long told us that we are governed by nothing but self-interest, but reality has consistently proved that notion wrong.

I would argue to anyone that Podcamp is this notion in a nutshell- a conference, an “unconference” that started to meet a need, that has the community at its heart, and this is not a venture entered into to enrich any individuals, but to enrich and educate the community who decides to participate.   I look at the new $50 cost as the community stepping up to be a sponsor themselves, and in some ways, it is much more egalitarian than expecting a free ride on the backs of others.  While sponsors come to help defray costs, we ask them pointedly to participate and be part of the community- using their self-interest in getting to know their audience and market right next to purpose, which is creating a community and supporting the people who will be your reputation agents.

Arggh!  Give me Pirate Conferences any day!

7 Comments

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7 responses to “Podcamp and Pirates

  1. Just a detail – when Whitney says “I will be helping…” she’s politely saying, “I’ll be doing a TON of work that is thankless, detail-driven, and tiresome.”

    I’ll say it for you. And thank you. With much love.

  2. When I saw the $50 fee, my first thought was, “How long will it take to drive to Boston?” I didn’t bat an eye at the fee, although it would be great to offer students some sort of discount.

    At Podcamp Toronto, there were far more signups than attendees. What happened was they ended up with far more food than the actual number of attendees could eat. I do believe that Jay was able to bring the sandwiches to Second Harvest, but it would have been a shame if all that food was wasted. Chris Brogan touched on this problem on his blog.

    A small fee will help it so that people who sign-up are the ones really committed to attending.

  3. Great post. As both a participant and a sponsor, it is exciting to be engaged with what happens at Podcamps. We get what we give and asking attendees to become sponsors is just pure evolution.

  4. A simple thought about the sign-up fee. If it’s the stick to get people to attend, maybe you can give a carrot back to attendees by refunding part or all of the fee upon arrival. “Hey, thanks for showing up, here’s $20″.

    FWIW, I have no problem with the $50 fee. That’s a small price to pay for a great brainstorming & networking opportunity.

    You need guaranteed attendance to get higher-level sponsors involved and nobody should under estimate the work required to do these things.

  5. I’ve done PPME/PME/NME/QRZX a couple of times, and a PodCamp NYC.

    PME is exactly what it bills itself to be, a big conference with lots of corporate sponsors.

    PodCamp NYC was waaaaaay more than advertised. There were corporate sponsors, who all seemed to play by Web 2.0 rules. There were sessions on a plethora of topics. There was a planned session I attended, but the speaker never showed. We gave the speaker a professorial 10 minutes, and then took over. I got to see Julien Smith and Whitney speak… I’ve not been able to see Julien as anything but a well-spoken, cogent, genius paired with the monster intellect of Whitney. The conference was awesome… I still have my beach ball from PodCamp NYC 1.0…

    I applaud PodCamp Boston for taking the initiative to evolve and sustain themselves. Would I rather all PodCamps be free? Frak yeah. I’m a cheap… um… guy… Do I think a PodCamp is worth 50 bucks. Ummm… YEAH! I won’t be travelling to PodCamp Boston, because I like the local flavour of PodCamps, but if NYC or Philly want to charge a fee (let’s not go crazy here) I’m sure that the FEE won’t be the key to any decisions I make.

  6. I’m surprised that we’re still having this debate!

    I don’t believe it’s fair to expect PodCamp organizers to defend their decisions. It’s a community event for which a small group invest ridiculous amounts of time and energy — for free — to make everything happen, and smoothly at that. A registration fee takes just some of the financial pressure off of the team.

    PodCamp is a community model for conferences and the (free) licensing agreement allows you to organize the event you would like to hold. If the community is not interested in the event because of a small fee, they won’t know what they’re missing.

    On another note… Whitney, your commitment to and energy in the PodCamp community keeps it moving forward. WE are all very fortunate that you take on the responsibilities you do.

  7. Thank you for the discussion, Whitney. It’s all part of the evolution process. We saw that with the punk movement, too, didn’t we? At some point the business model changed. Er, or at some point they *got* a business model.

    In response to Guinevere, we had about as many people at Podcamp Toronto as we expected and ordered food accordingly (I think we had about 350 people sign up, had about 250 attend, and ordered food for about 180 as I recall). People just didn’t eat as much as we expected. We adjusted the amount the next day, but still had some leftovers. We preferred to have a little too much food than not enough for folks. But we did account for the no-show rate, which was on par with the previous year. So, that was not an issue regarding the food.

    Cheers,
    Connie

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