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How Joseph Gordon-Levitt And His Creative Army Of Artists Are Changing TV

HitRecord on TV, the collaboratively produced variety show, returns to Pivot. Just don’t call it crowdsourced.

How Joseph Gordon-Levitt And His Creative Army Of Artists Are Changing TV
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Now Joseph Gordon-Levitt is doing perhaps the hardest thing one can in the entertainment industry: run a production company. And it’s not just any production company–this is one that bills itself as “open” and “collaborative.”

Joseph Gordon-Levitt

HitRecord, as Gordon-Levitt’s company is known, puts a new twist on the idea of the star-driven production company. Through HitRecord’s website, Gordon-Levitt encourages a community of creators to submit songs, scripts, drawings–anything, really–that may then be “remixed” into finished works.

Most recently, HitRecord’s products have found their widest audience yet in a variety show, HitRecord on TV, which airs on the cable network Pivot (a network owned by Participant Media). HitRecord On TV has just begun its second season–episode three, around the theme of “schools,” airs tonight.

We recently spoke with Joseph Gordon-Levitt to learn more about the origins of HitRecord, the present season, and his vision for a future of widespread collaborative creativity.

How did HitRecord come about? It started back when you were trying to reboot your acting career?

I’d been acting my whole life, then I quit for a couple years, and when I wanted to get back to it about 10 years ago, I couldn’t get a job, which was very painful. I realized at that point that I had to be the one to take responsibility for my own creativity. I came up with this little personal metaphor of the red button, the circle with “REC” on top. Hitting record became a symbol for doing it myself, for not waiting around for someone to give me permission to be creative. My brother helped me set up this website to put some of the videos and songs and stories I’d been making on.

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Gradually, it grew into something else.

A community slowly started to form around this website, and it became evident that what was more interesting than just putting out my videos and having people talk about them was for this little community to be making things together. And that’s what we started doing, on a tiny scale at first. Gradually we started wondering: How could we make grand-scale productions? We figured out how to do that, in terms of the legalities of intellectual property and paying people for their contributions, and in 2010 we launched HitRecord as a company.

HitRecord On TV has an old-timey, variety-show feel, but is also very forward-looking: it’s crowdsourced, and there are design elements that look like YouTube videos.

The term crowdsourcing can mean a lot of different things, but it’s not a term I use to describe HitRecord. To me, the term crowdsourcing undermines the importance of the individual, and puts forth a myth that a crowd can do the same thing that an individual can. I don’t see the HitRecord community as a crowd to be sourced. I see it as a group of thousands of artists.

Today, there’s a segment called “What They Say,” a music video set in a high school. How did the various contributions come together?

We worked on all eight episodes for the season at once, and one theme was “School.” We told the community on HitRecord, “You can write a short film about school, you can draw a character related to school,” etc. Someone named “IamEmma” wrote a song about passing notes in class. What really struck me though was this great doo-woppy melody that she wrote. Then another contributor came along and turned it into a duet, adding lyrics for a boy character.

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We approached Todrick Hall, a great choreographer, singer, and dancer. Todrick said, “I love this song. I want to change the lyrics, though.” What school reminded him of was a mob mentality, and being very concerned about what people think. I found that inspiring, so I took the song, plus the duet concept, and I wrote new lyrics for the story Todrick wanted to tell.

So can IamEmma come knocking at CAA’s door now and have a career?

First of all, she gets paid. I don’t know the exact amount, but we have a pot of $50,000 per episode that goes to the different community contributors, and she’ll get a real piece of that. As far as her ability to parlay it into a music career in Hollywood? Hard to say. First of all, what the fuck is a music career in Hollywood? I don’t know if those exist anymore. But there are examples of artists who, based on work on HitRecord, have gone on to do other things. A talented young lady from Finland named Peppina wrote and sang the last song of the last season. We flew her to Sundance, because we premiered the first season at Sundance last year, and she met a record producer there who produced an EP of hers. You can hear it on Spotify.

You once said the long-term goal for HitRecord was a TV show. So what’s your long-term goal now?

Right now, the Internet is being used to largely replicate television, so people are still in the habit to just sit there and watch, whether it’s YouTube or NBC. I don’t know if that’s really the healthiest way for human beings to be engaging in media. I think the more natural way is for it to be a participatory thing.

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Way back before electricity, people were probably gathering around the fire and telling stories, and singing songs, and it was participatory. It wasn’t just one person who got to talk the whole night. Probably lots of people were chiming in. The whole group was singing. It didn’t matter that some people around the fire were better singers or worse singers–it wasn’t about that. It was good for us as a group to sing together. I think it’s a cool time to be alive, because technology is allowing us to do that again.

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About the author

David Zax is a contributing writer for Fast Company. His writing has appeared in many publications, including Smithsonian, Slate, Wired, and The Wall Street Journal.

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