A short history of the online magic course.

It’s just over ten years since I started producing educational videos for the magic market, so I thought it might be fun to talk about the Virtual Sessions, and all the things that went wrong.

For those of you reading who fall into the category of ‘real person’, there is an industry – however small – of teaching magic and its related skills to other magicians. It’s how we all got started, and some of us are passing things along. In 2004 I produced a VideoCD (remember them?) on coin magic. Called, simply, Basic Coin Magic, it had the production values of early Czechoslovakian cinema, in their rough and ready phase, and taught various sleight of hand techniques with coins. It was quite well received, eventually, and it’s still available today.

My success, such as it was, with BCM gave me the pluck to make a series of VCDs. The informatively named Bastard Hard Moves made Easy was next (a pun on a popular series of videotapes from the USA), and Tops, Seconds and Bottoms. Over the years these were joined by Basic Chip Tricks, and Mucking Hard Moves made Easy (don’t ask). My sales were modest, mostly due to my complete lack of marketing skills and knowledge, but they kept me in toy money and people liked them.

By 2006 I had dreamt up another idea; the web was growing – why don’t I make an online course in magic? I could upload a new lesson each week, the members would watch it, and then discuss it in a forum. I would be available to clarify or give advice. It would revolutionise magic instruction – direct to your home!

To be honest, once I get an idea like that into my head, it’s hard to get it out again unharmed. So, I found a corner of my website and installed the myPHP forum software. If you have ever been on an online forum, there’s a damn good chance that you have seen this software before, mostly because it was free, and installed in three clicks on an Apache web server (upon which the majority of private sites run). I chose to have a forum from a few reasons – firstly, it made user control much easier; I didn’t have to set permissions on different pages on a site, and the layout and other gubbins was done automatically.┬áSecondly, I had a dream (notion? delusion?) that we could build a community – members hanging out, albeit virtually, and sharing stories and experiences. A forum would be the logical solution for that.

The next step was to organise everything and begin to upload content. Learning the intricacies of the forum admin panel was a fun few hours, and eventually I had the layout I wanted. In order to seed the site with some videos, I uploaded the VCDs that I had made over the last couple of years. And that’s when I hit my first snag…

My plan was to have streaming videos – I had ample bandwidth in my hosting plan, and sites like YouTube were still a few years away from being mainstream. This way, users could log in, watch a video and then come back for the next one. This would help to build the community I wanted; a constant flow of people.

The reality was different. The forum posts would only take attachments of 10Mb, and most of the files were many times larger than that. Also, try as I might, I couldn’t find a suitable streaming solution; my dreams were crumbling a bit. In the end, I made a post that said a little about each lesson and gave a download link so the user could watch the video from their own machine. This was my biggest mistake of the Sessions! It meant that people didn’t have to come back, and they didn’t in droves (but I’m getting ahead of myself).

So, I launched the site in February 2006, in the week before the Blackpool convention. There was a slow but steady stream of new members, and it all looked rosy. There were already almost four hours of lessons uploaded, and I planned to upload a new lesson each week; another incentive for returning members. And we hit problem number two…

I recorded the lessons in my attic office, when the house was empty. I had a Hi-8 camcorder, and although by this time I was fairly slick with the editing and compiling of the clips, it still took over five hours to create one hour of lessons. It took almost three months before I had the time to make some more videos, and I uploaded them in a blurt, and not the trickle that I wanted. This pattern of sporadic uploads continued for a couple of years, while I watched my online community stubbornly fail to materialise. At the end of ‘Year One’ there was about nine hours of lessons; the original four seed hours, and an additional five hours spread over forty videos.

At this point, I was seriously considering if it was worth going on. So I asked the members; would you pay for a second year? (Another mistake I had made was to have a flat fee for membership, and not a subscription model). I was happy to see a large number were very positive about things, and so I set up, announced and started recording lessons for Year Two. There was a separate section of the forum, and new, often longer lessons.

Four people joined.

So, I was left with the prospect of creating another year’s worth of lessons for four people. I was not a happy bunny, but I had their money, so I had no choice. Over the next few months, a few more people signed up and I created another seven hours of lessons. And I stopped. I told the members that I wasn’t going to be uploading any more videos, and no one complained. A few months later I combined the two years into one, and the site ticked over for a few years.

Every now and then someone would join, and I would go through the rigmarole of setting up the account and sending out passwords. They would log in, download the 3Gb or so of lessons, and never be seen again. I spent a lot of time deleting Spambots who swelled my membership (should anyone be bothered to look) from a few hundred legitimate users to about twenty thousand. And so, a couple of years ago, I quietly turned off the forum. It took thirteen months before anyone noticed.

Now, the Sessions exist as a DVD-ROM on my shop site. It was an interesting experiment for me – and I cannot really think of a better word – and I learned a lot of what _not_ to do in such an endeavour. In the years that followed the launch, several other online courses have come, and some have gone again. Now, the technology we have at our fingertips, and often take for granted, would make my original dream not only a possibility, but achievable; I can say this with a degree of certainty because it’s been done by others.

The physical DVD is becoming redundant, unless it is packaged with a physical product. More and more, downloads and streaming is becoming the norm – my hard drive contains hundreds, with no exaggeration, of downloads that I have bought. Ironically, I get annoyed with sites that stream the content, and don’t let me download to my PC or phone. I wonder if my customers would have felt the same about me?

The Virtual Sessions are not that well known, but they did happen, and I like to think that they blazed the trail for all the other sites to follow. Or something. But I wouldn’t do it again.