Issue 232,  published October 29, 2019

For Art and Profit

The last time I kept tabs on Kaitlin Prest — the Canadian creator of The Heart, known for her work around the complicated contours of intimacy — it was on the occasion of The Shadows, her big fiction project for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, which came out around this time last year. I thought the podcast was a solid effort, but my biggest takeaway from the experience was the notion that we were due for some kind of run. If this was the kind of newsletter that peddled in predictions, I would have placed a bet on the idea that 2019 could well be the year of Kaitlin Prest… or at least a year where we’ll see a lot more projects emblazoned with her name.

That prediction would have been off the mark, though, as the past year turned out to be a pretty quiet one for Prest. Like a handful of other podcast talent on the up-and-up, she’s moved out west to Los Angeles, prompted by the prospect of potential television opportunity. That kind of stuff tends to move along its own warped timeline and, in many cases, can take years to achieve fruition, if at all. And so, hearing about the relocation and these discussions, the relative quietness of her year feels understandable in hindsight, even unsurprising.

Also unsurprising: the fact that Prest has now joined the swelling ranks of prominent audio producers forming their own companies. She announces the move today, and it’s a development that seems poised to make her upcoming year much less quiet. She’s calling the venture Mermaid Palace, and there are a couple of interesting things about the effort that’s worth unspooling here.

The core idea, she notes in an overview document that was sent to me, isn’t to build a podcast production company per se, but an organization ostensibly modeled more after dance or theater companies. It’s meant to be an entity that will house a group of artists, associated with Prest, and foster an operating environment where they can collaborate, share skills, and develop works in a way that can hopefully relate to the needs of the marketplace on their own terms. There’s an inherent loftiness to the enterprise, partially expressed in what appears to be the overview’s statement of purpose: “Sound works are largely absent in the art world,” it reads. “Narrative is absent in the sound art world. Art is absent in the podcast world. This project sets out to fill those voids.”

The document also discusses a multi-medium ambition, with expressed interest in making works outside of podcasts — notably film and, eventually, television. For now, though, audio makes up the bulk of the organization’s opening projects, peppered with some performance art.

Among the podcast projects in development: a new show with Radiotopia called Appearances, created by Sharon Mashihi, that’s scheduled for next summer, plus a new show with the CBC called Asking for It, featuring Drew Denny as writer and lead producer, that’s slated for February. And at the moment, there are two scheduled instances of the aforementioned performance art experiences: one will take place next month at the Dynasty Typewriter space in Los Angeles, and another will be staged at Montreal’s Center Phi in June. In addition to these projects, they’re also building two residencies, one for pitch development and the other for experimental works.

When Prest told me about the new venture over the phone last week, her founding story seemed informed by two things. The first is the position of relative leverage she found herself in following the release of The Shadows, when she encountered increasing demand for her work. Though The Shadows, and The Heart before it, weren’t major profit generators, they were nonetheless projects that drew strong, devoted attention. “They were successful within the model of success that was important to me,” she said. “Which is to, like, get good press, push the culture forward, get written into textbooks about the medium, stuff like that.”

The critical success of those projects made her, in her words, a known quantity. Opportunities opened up, as did the possibility of creating her own shop through traditional investment money. She expressed disinterest for that type of funding — “I just don’t want to be beholden to the guarantee that we’ll make the money back” — but she did harbor the desire to, in her words, “level up” in some way or another. The key question, at that juncture, was whether she could find a way to capitalize on those opportunities in a way that felt more appropriate to what she wanted to do.

The second thing that seemed to inform her approach was how she perceives the broader industrial moment in podcasting, which in her interpretation has come to emphasize only certain types of outcomes. “The environment is quickly becoming one in which people are very risk averse,” she said. “It’s no accident that the CBC is the one who’s really throwing money at the work I’m doing. They’re a publicly funded institution, and so they have the freedom to take risks.” (She added: “But again, they were able to say yes to my risk because I had a track record.”)

Such were the cards in her hand: a track record of creating shows with devoted followings, a sense of momentum and some accrued clout, a broader industry environment that seems to distinctly benefit those who create companies, and some desire to build an organization in accordance with her specific value system.

When asked to further articulate that value system, she emphasized the notion of dualities. She talked about creating a non-hierarchical organization, one that’s able to acknowledge the contributions of everybody in the group but is nonetheless able to benefit from her specific personal brand. She talked about a group in the style of an anarchist collective, but one that’s nonetheless able to reap the benefits of participating in capitalism. But most importantly, she talked about doing things in a way that could be remunerative, but not particularly pulled forward by financial imperative.

“We’re not out to make money,” she said. “We’re not out to make the money and fame grab that’s happening in podcasting right now.”

That said, money remains necessary fuel, whether to get an enterprise off the ground or simply keep the lights on. In this regard, Prest was able to capitalize on her unique position, one unavailable to most others, and lined up an intriguing arrangement that allows her to skip out on the burdens of traditional investment (for now). As it turns out, the early years of Mermaid Palace will in large part be supported by wealthy benefactors. The arrangement dates back to the end of The Heart, when the team put out a call for support for business types who could help with their next steps. One thing led to another, and the specific opportunity to tap support from a cadre of wealthy patrons arose.

I suppose you could call it a throwback to the patronage system — or, more specifically, anonymous patronage. “I can’t name them or talk about them,” she said of the benefactors. “But we have guaranteed support for this year and next year.”

Anonymous or otherwise, the two years of guaranteed support gives Mermaid Palace a longer runway to get their own internal support systems going. The idea, I’m told, is to mitigate the upfront risk of experimental work at the top end, opening up a comfortable path for those works to find their positions in the marketplace over time. Within that mode of thinking, Prest articulates a belief that the experimental qualities of those works will ultimately be recognized as key value differentiators. “We’re interested in investing more money than people would ordinarily in things that would never make it through a pitch meeting,” she said. “We want to make work will be so distinct, honest, and craft-forward that the scarcity principle is going to work for us.” She also expressed speculative belief that there’s upside in these works become intellectual property for adaptation, which will yield further value to be cycled back into the company.

It should be noted that Mermaid Palace’s founding arc and structure — seeded by benefactors with a more conventional longer term view of operations — isn’t particularly novel. You see this all the time in the nonprofit world, the arts world, and even the journalism world, with various publications being formed to cover important subjects that are initially funded by philanthropists with the expectation of uncovering a sustainable business model at some point along the way.

Of course, there’s an attrition rate when it comes to these companies coming out from all these worlds, and the operating story with Mermaid Palace, moving forward, is one of whether the organization will be able to find a sustainable condition for its vision with the two-year jump start its assembled for itself. And that story, in turn, should be further juxtaposed with the larger idea Mermaid Palace seems intent on sussing out: the notion of finding ways to extract benefit from the industrial boom without having to comply with its costs.