16th Birthday Thoughts

Hi All

Restrained Elegance is 16 years old on 1st April! What a magnificent, unexpected, wonderful, lucky thing that is! I never expected anything of it- when I opened the site I was just hoping to help cover the costs of models, and maybe make enough profit for a holiday or something.

Instead I’ve been lucky enough to be doing this as my full-time job since 2003. I hope I’ve never taken that for granted- it is only the support and generosity of everyone who has worked on the site and paid to watch what we make that’s allowed it to happen.

The industry is currently changing very fast, so it’s a good time to have a bit of a think about the future. I’d really like RE to still be around in 16 more years’ time… what can we do to make that happen, I wonder?

Changing Purchasing Patterns

I have to admit I don’t join paysites as often as I used to. Partially that’s because as a producer myself it’s a bit of a bus-man’s holiday, but also it is because of the rise of places like twitter to see a little of what I like for free.

I don’t surf tube sites and pirate forums. By the way, if you see whole videos or whole photosets if different producers on a website, I guarantee you 100% it is stolen and posted without the consent of the creators. And more importantly it is being distributed without sending any money back to the creators to help fund new productions.

But there’s not even any need to view pirate stuff to get a steady trickle of fun little “hits”- just follow your favourite models and producers on Twitter/Instagram/etc.. We don’t know what effect piracy has had really, but allied with the legitimate drip of freebie pics as advertising from producers’ and models’ twitter feeds, it definitely feels easier to see a bit of what you like for free than it used to be.

What’s more of a question is how sustainable this all is. If people stop producing, those freebie streams of content are going to dry up. Reading between the lines of producers’ feeds, I think we are within a whisker of a mass exodus from the industry and sudden, drastic shut-off of new production. We’re close to the point of making production uneconomic for small producers.

Since the financial crash of 2008, and especially in the last year, money has felt tighter and tighter and it is harder and harder to justify luxury spending.

This is bourne out by the data. Median income in the UK has flat-lined. And I think recent political events in the UK and USA (our two biggest markets) have made people more and more cautious.

Although it is horrible to hear it, it is in some small way reassuring to hear that we are not alone in having had a drop in turnover since 2008, and a major drop in the last year. Kink.com have just stopped fetish production at the Armoury and moved to cheaper places; the news reports say their turnover has halved in the last few years. I don’t know of a single producer who hasn’t had something of the same.

Our turnover has declined drastically too, and we’ve already pulled the “move to a cheaper part of the country” trick three years ago. In all honesty if it wasn’t for the dollar-pound exchange rate, my profit margin (i.e. the money I need to eat and keep a roof over my head) would have been zero in February (March is looking better, February is always a rubbish month).

On that depressing note, I have to look forward.

Although producers seem to be struggling world-wide, models are doing rather well. So it isn’t all doom and gloom by any means! Web 2.0 platforms like Clips4Sale and social media mean it’s easier than ever before to connect directly with the models you fancy, rather than viewing them at one remove via producer magazines/videos/DVDs/websites/etc..

So people ARE willing to spend money, and spend money often very generously. It’s just the way we are spending it is changing dramatically, and quickly.

How to still be making BDSM erotica in 16 years’ time?

With all that in mind, how can we work to make sure that Restrained Elegance is still around in 16 more years’ time?

Should we even rebrand and refocus and just shoot Ariel the best we can, and release under her brand rather than the RE brand? It’s drastic, but I wouldn’t mind being her cameraman. On balance probably not; it puts too much pressure on Ariel for starters. But if the industry is moving that way, we’re going to have to make some adjustments. If I end up assisting Ariel more than she ends up assisting me, that’s fine- it’s just that the RE production schedule will have to be scaled down accordingly.

I also have to bear in mind that when I started the website, I was in my early thirties. I was full of energy, I had a day job, and it didn’t matter much what I shot- I could be as experimental as I liked, and I didn’t know enough to be able to do that good a job… but it didn’t matter because everything was opening up on the internet and there was a big appetite for new things. Everything was faster to shoot because it was rough and ready, but that didn’t matter as there were few polished big competitors around anyway. 3 megapixel images didn’t show enough detail to need much editing, and even with 15 years of computer power development the 3 megapixel images were faster to handle then than 42 megapixel RAW images are now. And as for video- our first miniDV videos were 30 seconds long, with resolutions around 640 pixels. Now we shoot at 3840 pixels to deliver in 1920, shooting RAW-like formats on a digital cine camera. It’s awesome, but it’s a lot slower than it was.

Now I’m nearly fifty, middle aged. I’ve got vastly more experience and skill as a photographer and film-maker, and I’ve shot around 5,000 of my bondage ideas already. Shoot days are hard but fun; I’m still energetic, but stuff takes longer than it used to because I know how to do a better job. Processing sets and editing videos is time-consuming, but deeply satisfying because I know I can make technically much more polished work than I ever could in 2001. It does take a bit more time to do the job right, and in classic middle-aged fashion, it is hard to recapture the verve of doing it and making mistakes and ploughing on with the ideas regardless the way one can when one is blessed with youth, innocence and a bad haircut.

One of the reasons model-centric channels like OnlyFans are taking off is that smartphone cameras are now more than good enough for purpose- direct connection with the model and an image adequate to show you what’s going on, plus built-in ability to upload to the distribution platform.

Maybe if I were young, hip and happening, I could figure out a way to make an iPhone based business work for me as a producer rather than a model… but I’ve always been a bit of an image quality fetishist, and I don’t want to let go of the awesome look that comes from a Hasselblad or a RED and decent lighting. Even technophobe Ariel likes looking nice with nice light on her smartphone selfies! To me, shooting for Restrained Elegance *requires* shooting like it’s for the cover of Vogue- that was always the mission statement!

Censorship and Regulation

In 2001, the internet was still in its “Wild West” growth phase. Now we are in the Web 2.0 era of mega-corporations, and even kinky stuff online is dominated by a few big players and platform providers (I’m looking at you, Clips4Sale). Worse, governments are moving in and trying to impose authoritarian control on the freedom of information and people online- something which will be much easier to do if we’ve all centralised onto a few platform providers, incidentally.

In the last few years, we in the UK have seen wave after wave of badly-thought out, badly worded, out-dated and just plain corrupt enforcement come our way. ATVOD were SO crooked even OFCOM realised it, and abolished them. The latest wheeze is age verification- to even look at free previews, you may end up having to have your age verified with some giant database company somewhere.

The costs to fetish producers of doing this may well exceed our turnovers. And would you want to hand over your credit card details even to look at a site’s preview tour? Me neither. In ultimate irony the company in cahoots with the government to do this are MindGeek, the people who have been bleeding producers dry by stealing our content and giving it away for free, generating spam advertising revenue for them at the expense of people who actually shoot stuff.

Leaving aside the asinine security risk presented by MindGeek having a huge database of everyone’s legal names correlated with their porn surfing habits, the feeling we in the UK production community are getting is that it’s probably only a matter of time before something comes down on us which will be SO prohibitively expensive that we may have to shut up shop… or at least, may have to stop running little indie websites and succumb to the inevitable and only sell via platforms who handle stuff like age verification for us, in exchange for a huge chunk of our revenues.

It’s hard not to feel a bit down-hearted about all of this. I’ve had the time of my life being a cottage industry producer, beholden to no-one, making the romantic, elegant bondage erotic art that we want to make and asking for no-one’s permission.

Responding to these big three challenges

I have to face up to the fact that these three big challenges- what feels like a sea change in our buying patterns away from subscription websites, increasing regulation and government censorship, and my own advancing years- means that I’d better not plan on still be running Restrained Elegance as a five-updates-a-week subscription site until the day I retire. (Which incidentally is about as far in the future as opening the website is in the past, hence my thoughts about it today).

I’m not totally glum. We can probably find a way through stuff like age verification- I think it is quite likely that Clips4Sale will be big enough to find a solution which all of the small producers can piggy back upon, for example.

People are still demonstrably interest in looking at bondage erotica, and are willing to pay for it if it is offered in the right form at the right price. It just seems that, like magazine subscriptions before it, the model of paying a low monthly fee and staying a member long-term is on its way out.

I certainly plan to be shooting bondage for as long as I’m physically capable- it’s just that I shouldn’t plan on still being able to generate 5 updates a week by the time I’m in my late sixties and ready to retire. So… how to manage the change over the next 16 or so years?

It’s a shame and a challenge- the great beauty of website memberships was that they were the original crowd-sourcing method.

Websites as Crowd-Sourcing

The content over the whole of Restrained Elegance’s lifetime has literally cost over a million pounds to shoot- and if you join the site on any given month you get the benefit of about 18 months’ worth out of 16 years of that… so the stuff on the members’ area of RestrainedElegance.com on any given day probably cost £100,000 to create. That you can download and keep all of that for just $39.95 (about £30) is testament to the power of crowd funding.

Sure, a Hollywood film costing $100 million can be bought for $10, but that just emphasises how important it is to have enough people chipping in. It’s REMARKABLE how ambitious we’ve been allowed to be with our silly little bondage project, given enough people paying to see it.

I’ve made a comfortable living from RE, but consistently over 80% of the money you’ve all paid in over the years has been invested straight back into RE. That’s how we’ve acquired the cameras and lenses to shoot with. It’s how we afford to hire the models. It’s how we’ve bought a storeroom full of bondage gear for shoots. It’s paid for locations, props, costumes, clothes, memory cards, lights, safety scissors… it’s gone back into the business. It’s worked like a charm for 16 years.

But what happens when people just don’t like that subscription model any more? I can run special offers, come up with Game Of Slaves and new features, do a better and more beautiful job. But none of it matters if large scale economic and social change means that people just aren’t interested in buying via the subscription website model any more. And anecdotally I don’t know of a single established producer who hasn’t experienced the same cliff-edge of sales over the last few years. Even mainstream porn production companies keep emailing me with “75% off!!!” sales – and let me tell you nobody reduces their prices by 75% unless they are pretty desperate.

And here’s the thing- even at 75% off, I didn’t want to rejoin their site. Although it was nice enough, it was a bit soul-less and didn’t really offer me what I wanted. I’m sure that’s been true of RE for an awful lot of the 100,000+ people who have joined at some point over the last 16 years. And even for people for whom it’s pretty great, they are still being more parsimonious… in the same way that I’m thinking of cancelling my Cineworld unlimited card and just going to films I really want to see.

What Should We DO About All This?

So really this post is an open question to you, the people who have made shooting that million pound mountain of erotic BDSM art possible… which direction do you think we should go in? I’m determined to still be around and still be producing BDSM erotica for another 16 years, but it looks like the current sales model will probably not last the distance with us.

Restrained Elegance is ours- yours as much as mine. So together we need to brainstorm a longer-term plan. Even if you all think I should switch tack to shooting everything on iPhone and distributing on the day we shoot via OnlyFans, I’ll give it a go!

I should emphasise that unless the government censor arbitrarily shuts down overnight, none of this is going to happen in a hurry. As usual we’ve got 18+ months of content already shot and on disk ready to be processed. We’re looking at how we need to evolve and change over the coming YEARS, not at making drastic changes tomorrow.

What we decide now will feed into our production schedules. There’s lots of stuff we can try, but only so much we can do whilst still running RE at five updates a week. So we’re going to need to prioritise and try things out rather than make any drastic changes too fast.

Here’s a few thoughts of mine, but I’d love to hear your ideas.

Update Schedule

We could gradually reduce the update schedule. At some point in the next 16 years this is probably inevitable; what should it change to, what mix of stills and video, what sales channels should we concentrate on, and how should pricing reduce to reflect the lower output? What should we do to the archive updates? Should we go for having everything up at once? But if we do that, how do we protect against site rippers, and how to we ensure we don’t lose money on every membership from the huge bandwidth bill?

We reduced the update schedule once before, when we went from daily updates to five days a week. That was more a consolidation and rationalisation; we didn’t actually shoot fewer updates, just stopped splitting them into multiple parts in a way that dated back to the days where one physical roll of slide film, 36 shots, was by definition an update. The average number of photos and hours of video has gone up since then, not down.

At some point between now and the day I retire a genuine reduction in output will become a physical necessity: doing four shoot days in a week is already a bit challenging physically for both Ariel and me. There’s no way I can commit future me to still doing that when I’m 65.

Unfortunately, reducing the update schedule does little to reduce fixed overheads like web hosting and business insurance. The site is so big that reliable web hosting is just expensive. We could certainly shop around, but it’ll mean changing payment provider too, so it’s a pretty drastic step. It therefore needs to be considered “in the round” with everything else.

My personal feeling is that I’d rather see the same quality maintained and fewer updates (and some sort of price reduction, for sure, although it’ll depend on the economics of how many people are willing to join at the lower price point). Do you agree? Or should I concentrate more on quantity at the expensive of quality?

Pay Per Update

We could move towards a pay-per-update delivery model. Interestingly, the two relatively new successful sites I know of made their start this way- shooting customs and their own ideas for Clips4Sale, and only later opening a subscription website with older content.

That’s the reverse of the way we’ve been doing it so far, with new content going on RE first, and on the shopping cart and Clips4Sale quite a while later. We always intended to catch up but never quite did. And my sales via C4S have never been spectacular, for whatever reason… maybe part of that reason is that it wasn’t the latest greatest newest unseen sets going up on there. Maybe it simply forces people to pay higher prices to get just what they want; there’s certainly an argument that the subscription model devalues what each individual update is worth.

The pay-per-update model has some great advantages- the main one being that you can release according to your own schedule, not according to a regular update schedule.

My main reservation is that what sells is stuff which is mass-produced with cheap production, piled high and updating every day. I’m not really up for rolling back technically to shooting stuff on a cheap camcorder in one rolling take with no editing, and I’m certainly not capable of shooting a video a day to RE production standards.

Nonetheless it’s a very attractive prospect for those of us on regular RE billing to get more money from a different pool of customers by putting stuff up on C4S first, then on RE later… you’ll still be able to see everything for one low price, as now.

I will shoot some stuff specifically to test this idea out. And will be adding new sets to the RE cart system on the day they come out, rather than 1-2 years in arrears as currently. (Work is in progress to facilitate this as we speak).

Personally I’m not a fan of individual clip purchases for what feels like “regular” website content. C4S in particular feels massively over-priced to me compared with the awesome value of a subscription site. But a lot of people obviously find the value proposition in just purchasing what they want- individual movie sales rather than paying for Netflix. Where is the right tradeoff for you?

Different Pricing Structures

If we moved hosting and payment providers we might be able to look into more novel pricing structures. I once joined a site where the longer you remained a member, the more of the back catalogue you were able to access. (And I think you could short-cut that by joining for a year all in one go).

That’s quite attractive- it would save me work scheduling archives, provide a double incentive to stay as a member, and allow long-term members to download anything and everything in case they get a hard drive crash etc..

I don’t think that’s something we can do under the current content management and payment provision system. But if we move providers we can look at it. Of course, the fact that this model hasn’t caught on generally is salutary. If it were that good, I’m sure Kink.com would be doing it.

I can’t make over a terabyte of content (16 years worth) available for $0.99, however much I would like to. (The bandwidth costs alone would vastly out-strip the income). So where is the best value proposition for you between individual purchase, subscription site, archive material, and new updates?

Patreon/Indiegogo Supported Production

Moving away from the pure subscription model, we could try something like a Patreon model where people pay a variable amount to support our production in exchange of increasing levels of early and special access, bonus features, tutorial days, etc.. Possibly I could build up a “pot” of sponsorship, then do a photoshoot every time the pot got large enough to pay for it.

My main concern with this is that it relies on a kink-friendly platform provider. My experience from PayPal onwards is that unless it is their core business, you’re only ever one CEO decision away from total loss of your business. (Just wait until Twitter nukes all accounts which have ever posted adult content- something they could do tomorrow if they felt so inclined).

Even FetLife has to instantly kow-tow to the payment providers, as recent events have shown. The big benefit of C4S is that kinky stuff is core business for them, so they’re on our side when it comes to making sure as wide a variety of stuff as possible stays available.

So I think this might be part of the solution. It can’t be the whole solution but for future EleganceStudios.com productions it’s well worth a go. I note in passing that we’ve not done Elegance Studios films in a while unless they were sponsored by custom video- it’s just too expensive to schedule a multi-model multi-day shoot on spec at the moment. Getting some pre-purchases to cover production costs would make a big difference here, and I’m very enthusiastic about the idea of doing big-budget ambitious ES shoots again. I will try this once the summer landscape photography experiment is over (see below).

Some of Everything

I think it is very likely that we’ll end up with some mix of these models. It seems more and more that one needs multiple means of support and payment, from direct sales of products through to paying for behind the scenes access (like OnlyFans).

The only real issue I have is that each of these sales and publicity and support channels takes TIME. Restrained Elegance is currently a full time job for me, and employs Ariel half time as well. If we’re going to have increased time overheads to deal with lots of different platforms, we will need a reduced production schedule in parallel so we can cope. Hiring more people to help is a complete non-starter at this point in time: too risky for too uncertain returns.

Annoyingly we might need to cut production a bit in advance in order to have time to bring these other activities and platforms online, which is a nasty double bind. There isn’t the cashflow there used to be to buy in a bit of extra help while we experiment.

We’ve been trying to get my landscape photography hobby transformed into a little, little business and it has emphasised exactly how fully-committed our time currently is.

We’re doing this because we want me to have at least the germ of a business I can switch to if censorship or government regulation just plain takes us offline, incidentally. This summer’s project is to try to sell landscape photos to establish whether there is a viable business in there or not.

Getting the time to do that has required a nine-month intricate logistical ballet dance just to free up a few weeks of time during the summer vacation to see if we can sell stuff. I’m not complaining- it is good fun, and a break from shooting for a couple of months is always helpful to creativity when we come back. But it does point out how routinely Ariel and I are working 12 hour days already, and forces us to acknowledge that we need to prioritise ideas for the future for RE because we need it to be time efficient.

16 Years Hence???

So maybe by the time I’m in my 60’s we might be aiming at two(??) stills updates and one(???) video update a week? Or a couple of stills sets a week and several longer EleganceStudios.com videos a year, without shooting shorter videos at all.

Production would be partially supported by Patreon/IndieGoGo style pre-funding, plus custom video/stills production. At the very lowest level of support, patrons get to enjoy seeing us tweet samples as now, and get email updates with bonus stuff and behind the scenes. Higher level supporters get early access and exclusive updates that don’t go up on the other sites for a year or more, photography or rope tutorials online and possibly set visits and tutorials and other in-person rewards for big supporters.

New stuff would go up on all the various pay-per-update channels (C4S, ManyVids, YouKandy, direct on the RE shopping cart system, Amazon eBooks, whatever else pays and allows us to distribute via their service).

Then all this content gets put up onto something a bit like the current RE website, in whatever form we’re allowed to have by the legal situation, so that those of you who have been with us faithfully every month for the last 16 years can still get full benefit of the power of crowd-funding to create brilliant stuff by spreading the cost between lots of people, and in this case between lots of sales platforms, too. But it might be that the subscription site becomes the archive for the individual purchase sets… wait a year or two and you can get it all for a reduced price. (Which is a reversal of how we’ve been operating up to now).

This seems like a feasible and reasonable way we might be able to keep Restrained Elegance going as a subscription site too… maybe even for another sixteen years or so, until I’m ready to retire and really step down the production. I’m still going to keep doing BDSM production as long as I’m physically able and not totally prohibited by law, but when I’m 65 I definitely won’t be wanting to be committed to a regular update schedule any more! And as I said, don’t panic and think that anything drastic is going to happen soon, this is a long-term plan.

We’d love to know your thoughts!

About Hywel

Particle physicist turned fetish photographer, producer and director. I run http://www.restrainedelegance.com and http://www.elegancestudios.com together with my wife, who is variously known as Ariel Anderssen or Amelia Jane Rutherford, depending on whether she's getting tied up or spanked at the time.

2 thoughts on “16th Birthday Thoughts

  1. Hello Hywel,
    first of all, congratulations to 16 years of RE, I know it can be hard with a teenager in the house ;).
    I appreciate the honesty in telling us this stuff, and it got me thinking a bit. I think making the content available to buy with out a subscription from the day it is released would be a good start. In a long run I would think that maybe creating less but bigger films,and selling those separately might be an idea, but I am not a businessman.
    Anyway, keep going with RE and your other projects, and keep your customers informed.

    (sorry for the rough wording, English is not my native language)

  2. Congratulations on 16 years and thank you for sharing your careful thoughts on the future. I have lots of possible comments on many aspects of what you say. I claim no deep research but hope everyone’s experiences are of some value to you.

    I don’t think an open blog is an appropriate place for all I would like to say but I hope it helps to offer the following thoughts in the random spirit of “brainstorming” and in the hope of stimulating discussion.

    1. Even without you saying it, it is apparent that both you and Ariel have been working your socks off for some time. I very much hope you will soon both discover what is cost effective and cut back on the rest. I also hope you will be open to building on the “community” side of RE by accepting offers of help that aren’t purely financial. We all have experience that doing things yourself is quicker in the short term than telling someone else what you want but developing a team can be worth it in the long run.

    2. Over the years I have known it, what I will call the “public style” of RE has changed. That’s fine: that’s life. It’s your site. But I’m thinking about the concept marketing people give names like “unique selling point” or “distinct competitive advantage”. When I joined, the preview pages emphasised that RE was the work of a group of enthusiasts, if mostly Hywel and the then “resident slavegirl”, Ariel. That was something that marked RE out for me at the time. Later the preview emphasised the technical quality of productions. That approach was overwhelmingly justified on the facts, but it may not make the site seem sufficiently distinctive in an age of phones that take 4K video. I guess finding the way to mark out a distinct public style is even more important – and maybe more difficult – with platforms like “Only Fans” where everyone’s social media timeline is bombarded with loads of identical, automated messages from different models. As to RE content, I have always said variety is one of the site’s strengths but I have detected changes in emphasis from time to time. Again, this is fine but is it reflected in the way RE is sold? I joined at a time when there was a lot of crazy fun, and historical romantic, material. Currently the heart of Restrained Elegance seems darker, exemplified by #GameOfSlaves.

    3. I suppose there is a natural “life” for membership of a subscription site like RE and I suppose that if I had not got to know you and Ariel personally mine might have expired by now. Even if that “life” is getting shorter, I hope and believe there is great value in trying to keep goodwill with members/customers both to keep them longer and to benefit other products. Outstanding customer service should be a watchword for whatever form RE takes now and in the future. Many people are nervous about approaching anyone running an adult website (I was). A friendly and understanding response can help guarantee business. Conversely, anyone who feels unfairly treated over one “Hywel/Ariel” product is not just going to blame that product. He or she will probably decide they had a bad experience with “Hywel/Ariel” – and they may tell their friends.

    Happy to talk more privately or get involved in a full “brainstorming”.

    Again, congratulations and good luck.


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