Starving artists

Memories of XOXO 2016

Starving artists

All five years of XOXO festivals each had a theme. None of them did officially, and as a past speaker myself none of us ever colluded on what we chose as subjects, but whether speakers knew it or not, each year’s proceedings converged on a few common themes. The first couple years it was a lot of here’s what I did that worked though I don’t totally know what I’m doing and a couple years followed with more about the loneliness and alienation you endure when taking your own path towards creativity, about the lack of support and the feeling of isolation (often coupled with harassment as well) of being out there on your own.

This year’s non-official-but-really-kinda-yeah-theme was mostly about money. The lack of it specifically. I know quite a number of online creators and I thought I knew how hard it was doing things like making a living drawing and writing comics, but I had no idea how hard it really was. Like a child, I thought anyone on TV with multiple seasons of shows was paid extravagantly well, not making about as much as I did at my first job out of college.

Speaker after speaker boldly stood up and was transparent about their income sources, amounts, and challenges of doing their work. It was vulnerable, courageous, and downright shocking to see how little musicians, artists, and video personalities made. Sure, we never talk about money in polite company but we also talk about it with peers just as rarely.

At a talk I heard a dollar amount for music royalties when your song appears on a TV show. But I also know another friend’s band also had a song played on the same show, but got paid much less. I started to think if we were more transparent with how much we got paid, maybe artists could tell when they were being paid well and when they were being ripped off by a huge corporation. People are starting to do it with things like speakers fees at conferences and even pay scales to make sure companies are treating us equitably and fairly, but at the same time it’s scary stuff to reveal.

Festival contradictions

Throwing XOXO is an incredible amount of work. It’s a festival that includes anyone in the creative world doing their own thing but has to be exclusive to keep it from being overrun with too many or the crowd of people that want to try and market to attendees.

The festival is popular and has grown, but at now over a thousand people, I had a hard time finding friends I rarely see otherwise and there were a handful of old friends I saw checking into venues on foursquare that I never got to meet up with in the venue, at lunch, or at parties, even though I looked for them. But to make it smaller would make it even more exclusive, which sucks too.

Andy Baio summed up another contradiction during the final moments of the last day. People love XOXO’s broad range of speakers and topics because it’s mostly curated through him but leaving a speaker list to mostly one person means you limit your range of choices no matter how diverse Andy’s interests may be. I love his choices in programming from end to end but who wouldn’t have enjoyed a broader range of games, movies, speakers, and topics too?


Like previous years, the podcasts during the night of Story were all things I’ve never heard but instantly loved and subscribed to right after. I’m not a huge gamer so I mostly just looked at the games being played and skipped tabletop since I rarely play boardgames. The night of film was the first time I sat and watched every single thing from start to end, and it was a blast. The Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared series and follow-up Q&A with the creators was one of the most unforgettably absurd and entertaining hours of my life, spent gasping for air from laughing until I was wiping away tears. It was one of those extremely odd moments that can never be replicated on YouTube. I still can’t explain what the fuck I watched there Saturday night but I’ll never forget it.

The talks

The speakers were undeniably terrific. There wasn’t a dud among the two days of talks, and not only that, but every single talk was a 9 or 10 out of 10.

Saturday was Gaby Dunn talking the unfairness of restrictive contracts at Buzzfeed followed by Talia Jane pointing out the cruelty of a billion dollar company paying sub-minimum wages in one of the most expensive cities in the US, and how her whistleblower post resulted in changes at Yelp. Sammus and Neil Cicierega shared their awesome work with the world and Star Simpson covered her obsessive quest to recreate classic kits from a famous electrical textbook. Starlee Kine (who I never worked up the nerve to say hi and thank you for making Mystery Show—the greatest podcast of all time) talked about making and doing her show and the difficult task of carving out a space for yourself amid the curse of fans wanting more.

John Roderick spun tales and talked money, and was a great bit of comic relief that also informed. Lucy Bellwood talked more directly about money—about how hard it was to make a living doing the art that you love. Lucy especially drove the point home that big kickstarters mostly break even and selling comic books isn’t as lucrative as you might think. Her courageous talk was a perfect end to the day.

I loved Sunday opening with the hilarious Simone Giertz and her “shitty robots” that included a fun exercise where we all brainstormed dumb ideas for a brick, which pointed out sometimes silly ideas could actually have merit. Her work was also a perfect example of the power of throwing shit at the wall to see what sticks, which is something pretty much every creator does online.

Jenn Schiffer was a legend, mixing ample humor and incisive observations about online art and culture. I was simultaneously laughing as she explained her jokes, while also feeling frustrated hearing how terrible she is treated online. Jenn was another artist whose work I admire so much I was terrified to say hi to her after, and never did.

David Rees shared spreadsheets of his last 14 years of payments, showing everyone exactly how little he made while being on TV, selling books, and appearing in large publications. Like Lucy on Saturday, it was bold and revealing. Leaf Corcoran shared the story of his accidental empire for gaming, which I could totally identify with. Sarah Jeong talked through the strange ad markets for online publications and why it’s ok to run an ad blocker. I agreed with her that hopefully sites explore non-advertising ways to support themselves since what we have now is kind of terrible for our privacy, security, and time spent online.

The last stretch of talks were incredibly good. Heben Nigatu, one half of Another Round (one of my favorite podcasts) talked about how hard it was to make a space at Buzzfeed and in her show for African American women to just be. She talked about how much she likes covering her favorite things with Tracy without always having to bring conversations back to discussions of race—that there are so few avenues for black women on podcasts to just shoot the breeze.

Bahraini civil rights advocate Esra’a Al-Shafei was totally and completely incredible. I’d never heard of her or her work, but she showed an amazing list of projects, including platforms for sharing protest music, sharing photojournalism from protests, and queer dating sites for the Middle East and North Africa. She explained her deep commitment to social justice was why she remained in the region and wanted to change the oppressive regime from the inside. She was a remarkable, courageous (and funny!) person, literally changing the world building sites and tools for people that gave them a voice. All of her work was wildly inspiring. I am still in awe of her bravery and work.

Frank Chimero ended the day with a talk similar to his essay about XOXO about creativity and feeling alone, and nicely tied up all the themes and undercurrents of the past couple days. The two Andys finished it out with long lists of thank yous and shared how difficult it was to run the show every year and why it was time to take a break.

Random notes

I had a list of random things I jotted down throughout the weekend I didn’t know where to fit in elsewhere.

“The myth of a starving artists is bullshit, everyone should get paid”

I don’t know exactly who said it because several people spoke about getting paid what you were worth, asking for more, and not living the cliché if you can avoid it. I am a frequent backer of Kickstarter projects, I support Maximum Fun’s family of podcasts at a high level, and I always buy books friends and people I follow on Twitter put out, but after seeing everyone share their meager proceeds, I feel like I should be doing more. I should be buying more comics, prints, and contribute to patreons of people whose work I admire. I should be buying tickets to their shows even if I can’t attend, just to help my favorite artists out.

🐊 vs. 🐢—I noticed Jenn Schiffer had a lizard as a symbol of her work being so funny and biting but also leaving her feeling vulnerable to attack, while David Rees talked about feeling like a turtle, who could retract into his protective shell when things got bad. Not to strain a metaphor, but the shell sounded like a good stand-in for white male privilege in that comparison, saving him from having to suffer all the heat Jenn gets when she publishes satire.

Many speakers opened with asides about their privilege and lucky breaks along the way. It was good to be often reminded how the world was unjust — hopefully the more that people build platforms, make art, and maintain spaces also talk about it and acknowledge it, the more we can ensure future things are more inclusive for everyone.

There were regular mentions of checking on our mental health, reaching out to others, and being more serious about self-care, all three things I need to do a better job of myself.

“The cure for imposter syndrome is learning about the sea of mediocrity out there”


Five incredible years of a conference that changes everyone that attends is a damn good run and the Andys should be proud of what they built. I’m old enough to know good things can’t last forever, and if XOXO doesn’t return in the future I’ll relish the years I got to go and meet my heroes and learn about people and projects I never would have otherwise.

Originally it felt like the festival launched as a sort of response to big, corporate tech industry conferences that lost sight of being about creators and the hard work they do. The Andys raised the bar so far beyond anything else compared to other conferences, showing us all how thoughtful every little aspect of an event could be.

I’ve been to probably 50 different conferences around the world and there are very few that even come close to the level of thought and precision and understanding Andy McMillan built into the XOXO festival. Every time a performer opened to questions, there were already volunteers with microphones ready. Onsite child-care, bike racks, and non-alcoholic drinks were things i rarely see elsewhere. Registration that never had a line this year. The logistics of flying in 100 performers and having to track their flights and drives and hotels and the food and all the unforgettable parties that bookend the event too.

What Andy McMillan and Andy Baio achieved over the last five years is remarkable. Thank you both for the incredible work and sharing it with us all.