Internet is changing magic, not killing it

This pic is from my wedding. It is NOT a promotional shot.

For those of you who don’t know, I’m a magician. I work mainly with playing cards, the things I have loved since I was 3 years old. In my 20s, I experimented with magic: I used tricks I bought at a Wal-mart to perform for kids at a McDonald’s. I wasn’t hired properly as a magician — I was a swing manager at the time, known for being good with kids, so the store owners milked me. Point is that I had no idea about the larger world of sleight of hand.

When I found it in 2005, my world was forever changed. I found a deck of cards called Tally Ho Vipers at a Tower Records in Nashville. An ad card inside led me to an Internet site called Ellusionist.com. On that site I watched videos of people marketing custom decks of cards by performing incredible sleight of hand. I was hooked.

I am an Internet magician. I have learned my art from the Internet, and taken it to the streets. I have been paid for magic shows.

According to Salon.com, I’m one of the people killing magic.

In that report (actually, I think it’s a column, which means it’s full of opinion), Santiago Wills describes the benefits of brick and mortar magic stores, and how they used to be the only purveyors of magic. In the report, Jamy Ian Swiss, an outstanding close-up magician, describes what the Internet killed:

“Magic has always depended on the control of information … The biggest problem with DVD and YouTube exposure is that it has damaged the skill of learning through asking, and it has created the mistaken assumption, perhaps, that all knowledge and all wisdom is available to buy. And there’s so much difference between those two acts, because asking involves a human experience, while buying is just sitting in your coach and passively absorbing countless secrets that you think constitute magic.”

Full disclosure: I am a former employee of Ellusionist.com, the company that rankled Swiss’ hide enough for him to write an 8,000-word essay on street magic and how my former boss is killing it (To put that word count into perspective: My short stories are around 7,000 words. The reputations of magicians being navel-gazers are accurate and well-earned.) Part of my duties included sharing stories about magic and interacting with customers on social networking sites.

Before snagging that job with Ellusionist, I interacted with hundreds upon hundreds of fellow magicians and learned so many valuable things about presentation, handling, ethics and what it meant to be a magician. The friendships I have are solid and as real as any friendship I’d make in real-life — only better, because I count people who live across the world as friends. One friend, who loves packet tricks, I would trust like he was a fellow high-school troublemaker (you know who you are, caterpillar killer).

Wills glamorizes the brick-and-mortar shop days. He is wistful for the days when a kid would hang out in the magic store for hours, then finally be let into the back room, where the good stuff was. And he sees those days ending; that beloved experience he had won’t be repeated. He might be right. But where was the magic shop for me? It was already closed by the time I found magic. My only options to get to a shop were two-hour trips to Kansas City or Tulsa, or searching the Bible-based magic shops in Branson for a decent trick deck (and failing — in fact, the sleight of hand I would show employees at those Bible-based Branson magic shops would get Blaine-worthy reactions. From the EMPLOYEES).

Wills bemoans the thousands of bad YouTube videos out there explaining secrets badly. I won’t deny that’s a problem. But here’s the catch: It’s a problem for those interested in learning the art. It’s not a problem for casual fans, or people wanting to know how a trick is done — and I’d argue the number of those people is quite small. I’ve found that plenty of effort into the performance doesn’t send people scattering to the Internet to know how I did a trick. I’ve also found that kids who just want to know how a magic trick is done doesn’t affect me or my performance in the least. And I even use all those custom playing cards that longtime brick-and-mortar guys hate.

Aaron Fisher explains his techniques during a lecture last year at U.S. Toy in Leawood, Kan.

The Internet is my magic shop. Forums are my back room. Had it not been for the Internet, I never would have known Aaron Fisher existed, and he’s one of the field’s best magic influences. The Internet has exposed me to dozens of outstanding, incredible magicians I never knew existed — including Jamy Ian Swiss.

I’m kind of jealous that Wills got a back-room experience in magic education, but how is his education any better or worse than mine? The main difference is that control of information. Real-life magic shops don’t have it anymore. That’s just a reality for a lot of different types of businesses. I still found out where to go for the good stuff. I paid dues by showing the right people respect and a willingness to learn. So what if it was over Skype?

Besides, the Internet taught me the value of brick-and-mortar shops. I’ll go to U.S. Toy in Leawood, Kan., any day of the week to buy books and props, and to hang out with a great friend and fellow magician who can spin gold out of a Scotch-and-soda routine (you know who you are, Steampunk).

I am one of the new faces of magic. True, that might make Jamy Ian Swiss weep. But the amount of magicians still performing and successfully touring should give him, and all the other magic romantics out there some hope. As the art continues, Internet magicians will get some of those gigs and be just as amazing.

Wills is wrong. Flat-out wrong. The Internet is changing magic, not killing it. The art is not dying, it’s evolving.

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2 thoughts on “Internet is changing magic, not killing it

  1. HeyGetThis says:

    Joe, I am delighted to have found you via the ‘Johnny Kaje’ blogroll. Anyone who loves magic enough to learn the craft and the art, write about it, and contribute to magic is making magic live. And it certainly will live – magic is a part of humanity. If it disappeared tomorrow, it would return the next day. It cannot be killed except by the complete absence of people.

    My interest in magic is rather personal. I cannot claim that I am a magician. My connection is familial. My parents founded Delben Magic : Delben Blotter, Two-Hole Arm Chopper, Quarter Penetration, and more. I was reared in the company of magicians, including a few who are pretty well known. Since you are especially interested in sleights, you probably know of J.B. Bobo. J.B. and my Dad knew each other from their youth, in Texarkana, Texas. It has been delightful to meet many magicians and learn that most are very nice folks, as were J.B. and Lillian Bobo.

    Keep up the good work, Joe. It’s obvious that misguided criticism will not thwart your participation in something that brings joy to many. – Jim

  2. Joe Hadsall says:

    Thanks, Jim! I appreciate the words, and I look forward to hatin’ on science with you. :)

    As for your history with magic, HOLY CRAP. I know of Bobo and his coin magic bible, and that’s awesome how you got to meet him. Did you pick up anything from him? We’ll have to swap magic stories one of these days.

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