Take Two #11: The Internet is Good for Magic
How’s that for a “Dog Bites Man” headline? Magicians have long recognized the negative impacts of the Information Age on the art of magic. Secrecy has been severely compromised in countless ways, from people practicing not-ready-for-primetime tricks on YouTube, to deliberate YouTube explanations and exposures, to magic marketers who long ago lost the ability to recognize any value in a secret unless they can sell it for money—whether it was theirs to sell or not. Gone are the days when you had to earn access to secrets—when learning to ask was a requisite part of the skill set of developing magicians, lest you find yourself locked out of access to the Real Work. Now, any newcomer to magic can gain access to an overwhelming knowledge of methodology for the price of an instant download or a free YouTube search.
There’s no doubt that cities with the best magic shops always had the best magic communities, because magic shops were not only places to purchase magic, but also to gather and exchange and learn and mentor. This is still true today in a handful of outstanding magic centers like Denny & Lee Magic Studio in Baltimore and Las Vegas, Magic Apple in Los Angeles, Midwest Magic in Franklin Park (outside of Chicago), and the revival of such traditions at Tannen’s Magic in New York City.
Retail magic shops can’t compete with online retailers for convenience and, all too often, price, when large retailers offer discounts. Magic shops are far from alone in this phenomenon; brick and mortar shops in countless markets have been impacted by a combination of factors, including the convenience of online shopping, frequent opportunities to obtain free shipping (as with Amazon Prime), and generous return policies. And at the same time, national chains offer inventories that small independent retailers can’t match, and thus the neighborhood bookshop, hardware store, and pet shop have gone the way of, well, the magic shop. The economic research concerning such trends is voluminous. (The notion that lousy customer service is responsible for the dwindling numbers of retail magic shops, a loony declaration I read in a Facebook post just this week, is testament to the inability of some to do a Google search, and the unwillingness to consider incorporating actual facts into their conclusions. Some folks just insist on talking out of the wrong orifice.)
As small shops offering personal service gave way to national chains, but quality of service deteriorated in such national chain stores, there were further market upheavals and corrections, because that lack of expert and supportive service staff simply drove even more people further toward online shopping. (Some retailers took note and made systemic changes in time to save themselves, such as Best Buy.)
Magic was always a specialty market, and as the costs of retail real estate went up, magic shops had long ago turned themselves into novelty shops and Halloween costume stores. But Halloween has also been impacted by disruptive change, in the form of giant popup stores with huge inventories that only open seasonally, yet another phenomenon that the local magic shop could no longer compete with, when limited to seasonally squeezing in a few racks of costumes amid the magic stock.
And as online magic suppliers grew, upcoming young magicians literally didn’t know what they were missing. If they no longer had access to a local shop with expert advice, then why not just buy online?
So all of these changes have impacted magic, largely with poorer results. Magic books that used to run first printings of 2500 or 3000 copies now run 1000 or 1500. Instant downloads are sold with well produced trailers that misrepresent effects and methods, and continue to promote the notion that magic is all about stunts designed to get young women to scream out in the street, rather than teaching principles of conjuring and effects that can help create substantial magic shows and accomplished magicians. As Josh Jay and Andi Gladwin wrote recently in their “2016 Annual Letter to Customers”: “90% of the magic released is junk. You know it, and we know it. Junk! Our industry has been overtaken by the demand for selling magic. We believe (and have data to back it up) that there is a larger market for selling magic than there is for performing magic. This has created an industry that devours 'new' products, and this is fundamentally unsound. The result is a slew of bad tricks by inexperienced creators who don’t respect or know the scholarship of their craft.” Truer words were never spoken.
I’ve written about these subjects in other essays in books and journals, and I mention these points here merely by way of prologue (and to also suggest that a Google search on “impact of online shopping on retailers” will provide far more information than reading a fact-free rant thread on Facebook). There have always been two magics: the amateur tyros and the cognoscenti. The Internet has created a third class of more advanced amateurs, what a friend of mine has dubbed the “magical middle class,” with a surprising (to old-timers) degree of technical ability rapidly acquired, but far less understanding of theory and performance. That group is here to stay, while beginners drown in bad magic without having knowledgeable sources to throw them a life preserver. A few surviving brick-and-mortar shops have gone the “bricks and clicks” route, integrating online business with retail storefronts so as to help survive in both places, and this is among the best ways of adapting and surviving in the current marketplace, for magic and many other markets as well. But no matter what, the Internet genie will not be returned to its bottle.
* A few days after this Take Two was posted, this story broke: “The Limited is closing all of its 250 retail stores.” Anybody think these stores closed because of lousy customer service?
These incontrovertible facts and impacts notwithstanding, what we rarely see in the magic world is acknowledgement of the positive effects of the revolution of the online world. Certainly the digital archiving of centuries of rare books and journals is a boon, such as the online work of the Conjuring Arts Research Center. But it was only recently that I came upon something—or someone—that made me reassess my own perspective.
What I happened upon was a video of Sara Rodriguez, a young magician in Spain. When I watched this video of her performing a routine dubbed “Spock Aces,” I was astonished. The technical skills demonstrated are extremely difficult, and rarely seen. What’s more, the execution was beautiful, elegant, accomplished. This was not someone limping through technical challenges beyond an average skill set. Rather, this was someone demonstrating a superbly executed handling. And what’s more, I had never before seen this kind of work in the hands of a woman. There are many reasons that magic is an overwhelmingly male pursuit, and many theories, often speculative and unproven, as to the causes, but that is a subject for another day. The point is that this video was stunning to me in more ways than one.
I complimented the work in the Facebook thread where I discovered the video, and the performer, Sara, quickly responded. She was familiar with my own work, and we corresponded online for a bit, as Sara kindly answered my curious questions. In brief, I discovered that she lives in Vigo, a small city in the southwest of Spain. She is 26 years old, began in magic about five years ago after seeing someone perform a simple rope trick, found an online magic shop and purchased the first two volumes of Card College by Roberto Giobbi. She has not been personally mentored by an older master, although she has received guidance from a couple of well-known Spanish magicians, Kiko Pastur and Miguel Gomez. She performs mostly as an amateur, but increasingly as a part-time professional.
Along with an inordinate amount of focused and demanding practice, how did Sara develop her superb kills? She became interested in this branch of magic—tabled sleight-of-hand close-up card magic—and she connected with a small select group of like-minded amateurs her own age (mostly male), and they tackled the subject on their own. With the help of Internet sources, books, videos, and some guidance from Spanish experts (and the Spanish School is the leading source of innovative sleight-of-hand close-up magic in the world today), Sara and her friends pursued their newfound passions and shared their studies and progress.
It’s a wonderful and noteworthy story. And it's not a story of young people skirting around books and finding an easy way to learn, because what has been learned in this case is not easy or simplified, it’s not stunts or currently faddish or “street magic.” These are classical skills not readily mastered.
Rather, this is a case where people who would otherwise not have had access to expert work managed to gain it anyway. Because they were in a small town, with no magic shop, and because in Sara’s case she was a woman who might normally have difficulty finding guides or open doors at a local magic club, these folks would traditionally have been isolated from any access at all to sophisticated magic—unable to even have the chance to see it. But despite lacking access to personal counsel and mentoring, and thanks instead at least partly to the Internet, Sara and her friends learned that expert work existed in the world, saw what it looked like, and then, seized by personal passion, pursued it toward mastery, without the barrier of geography or glass ceilings of cultural biases. Sara Rodriguez is a win for the Internet, and the world of magic. And her work is simply beautiful. Watch this—and you will likely be fooled, too, because this will fool most magicians, other than specialists. Enjoy the experience.
Moritz Mueller is a teenaged boy from Germany. He first got noticed in the magic world with the posting of a YouTube video of him performing some sleight-of-hand coin magic. YouTube and the web are littered with video of children performing bad magic badly, good magic badly, and comment threads insulting the work and explaining the methods. But this kid and his two-minute video was something else. He had a sweet smile that was as dazzling as the magic, the combination of which charmed and delighted non-magician viewers in substantial quantities. And knowledgeable magicians looked and said: “Whoa. This kid has a great touch.”
I was one of those who noticed but I knew nothing about the lad. It wasn’t long however before he achieved some notoriety, and made his American television debut on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.” He made another YouTube video that now has close to two million views. He released a routine through ellusionist, a popular online magic marketer. He was 14 at the time. He had started in magic only two years before.
I was particularly pleased when, along with the video you’re about to watch, I saw that he had posted these credits: “Thanks to Chris Kenner, Eric Jones, Kainoa Harbottle, Mike Eaton, Marc DeSouza, Geoffrey Latta and Paco de la Luz.” Most magicians wouldn’t even know the proper Geoff Latta credit for the move known as the French Pop, but I gather that Moritz credits it properly on his instructional material. Bravo, young man!
The routine Moritz performs in this video is his version of a plot that has been enormously popular among magicians for the past twenty years or so, sometimes known as the Fingertip Coins Across. Mortiz’s choices are smart, tasteful, well selected. He is a delightful presence with a winning demeanor. This material is advanced, and his technical execution is lovely and expert. Above all, after all the details are attended to and acknowledged, he has a soft touch and relaxed pacing that lend naturalness to the work, and makes the overall experience extremely magical. These achievements are rare.
I don’t know anything more about Moritz’s background. It’s possible that he has had access to good teachers and mentors. It’s also possible that, like Sara, he lacked such access, but used the Internet to see what good work looked like, and unlike many, saw the difference clearly, recognized the characteristics of excellent sleight-of-hand magic, and strove to master it. Or perhaps some combination of all these elements has served him well, along with his own natural affinity, passion, and hard work.
Whatever his story, it seems likely that the Internet helped young Moritz achieve a level of excellence that would have been denied previous generations within such a short period of time and at such a young age. Moritz Mueller is a win for the Internet, and for the world of magic.
I hope Moritz will forgive me if I offer one cautionary bit of advice. I’m sure it was fun and satisfying to market a routine that was so well received. But rather than seeking to teach others at this young age, I would encourage him to simply concentrate on learning, and above all, performing for real people—i.e., the public, not magicians. The longer he waits—ten years would be a wise goal, but twenty or thirty would work, too—the more he will have to offer when the time comes to teach, or to seek recognition from within the magic community, while all the while, his tastes and inclinations will not be distorted by the magic marketplace. What magicians want to see—what they want to buy—is often quite different from what constitutes the best magic: the most original, most entertaining, most deceptive, most … artistic. Getting swept up in lectures and marketing too early in the game—falling into the trap of becoming what my friend Max Maven calls “a young man in a hurry”—can distort and warp one’s own tastes in subtle ways that are not readily detectible within the person being transformed, albeit it can become all too apparent to outside expert observers. I’ve seen it happen, and while success can be found within the magic world, I believe performing magic for real people is a more satisfying pursuit, and absolutely makes for better artists.
I hope Moritz and Sara go far in the world of magic. I welcome them. And I give thanks to the Internet—its faults and foibles notwithstanding—for helping them along in their respective magical quests.
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