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Sometimes things seem to upend when you’re not expecting it. And sometimes things aren’t quite as upending as they seem to be.

Right now the music industry – or, rather, the record industry – is going through some rough peradventures. Record companies have been under siege for a few years now. They blame it on illegal downloading, of course, the same way they claimed audio tape would destroy the recording industry, right before they went through a period of unprecedented success and profits. Counterarguments have been made that the “major record companies'” doldrums, like the current doldrums of many long-established businesses, are the result of their own inability to adapt to changing circumstances, and certainly a lot of what’s happening to the music industry is due to their doggedly sticking to boom era practices that are inapplicable to lean eras – followers of comics company policies should be plenty familiar with that one – like deciding what public taste should be then shoving that material down the public’s throat. That kind of works when the public’s options are limited – it worked fabulously well for a few years – but it’s hard to enforce that sort of thing when you no longer have a monopoly on access. Network TV is trapped in the same doldrums, their onetime lock on public tastes – hell, when I was growing up, we had three channels plus public television, and that was it – shattered not only by extensive programming on cable TV (sure, most of it’s unwatchable crap or reruns of old shows, but all that still counts as alternatives, and then there’s access to movies, sporting events etc. that eat up your time instead of LAW AND ORDER) but also now on the Internet, via original programming, downloaded programming from other countries like Britain or Japan, games like Second Life or virtual poker, and the DIY “programming” of simply surfing around a time-consuming virtually infinite space. Phone companies are increasingly facing the same kind of pressure from internet phone services. Fax, not too long ago the must-have technology, has been rendered virtually extinct by email and pdf.

But the record industry has had it especially rough lately. Like most established industries, it believes that the situation where it had the most influence, profitability and control is the natural state of things, and situations eroding those things are by definition abominations. But it’s not like many, especially musicians recording for those labels, haven’t long complained about their business practices: onerous contracts guaranteed to put musicians deeply into debt, creative accounting that keeps royalties low, exorbitant executive salaries, capricious promotion, much higher pricing than necessary, and constant insinuation into the creative processes of recording artists. It wasn’t long ago the recording industry conned Congress into passing a bill that rendered all their contracted musicians work-for-hire, making their output the property of the record companies. The general perception of the record industry, among public and musicians alike, is that they’re all basically robber barons.

And while the long-held perception was also that they were a necessary evil the Internet seems now to have rendered that no longer the case. Part of the “problem” of record companies was their own perception of their role in the scheme of things. Record companies are essentially distribution entities; they do not create what they sell, but exist to facilitate the transfer of a product – recorded music – from the musician to the consumer. For a long time record companies (generally the major companies, but many small companies haven’t had much better “creator-friendly” reputations) treated both groups as existing at their sufferance, and for a long time there wasn’t much anyone could do about that.

Suddenly there’s a movement among musicians to declare independence of the record companies – illegal downloading was already the public’s declaration of independence – and it’s scaring the hell out of record execs that they might end up existing at the sufferance of musicians and consumers. Several years ago, Elton John declared he was fed up with record companies and would thereafter release his music through the Internet. Everyone found that pretty laughable, and at the time it was, and he crept back to his record company. But recently Radiohead cut their strings, issuing their new album online in a “pay what you want” scheme that, despite glitches, turned out phenomenally successful, from the point of view that a few million people buying an album of mp3s at a couple bucks a pop was just as good (better, really) than a few tens of thousands of people buying a physical record at $15 a pop, especially when the band would see all the money from the mp3 sales and only a fraction from the record sales. Which makes sense, given that, once recorded, mp3 are infinitely replicable without additional financial outlay besides bandwidth costs… substantially less than the cost (including manufacturing, marketing and distribution) of physical records. When Elton John made his announcement, people weren’t all that enthusiastic about having to sit in front of their computer to listen to music; he had no leverage. Now the iPod and its brethren are everywhere – it’s the modern music medium of choice, except among the few purists who were also the ones to denounce the harsh sound of CDs against the warm purity of vinyl records, and we all saw how much that slowed down acceptance of the CD – and mp3s lurch toward making CDs redundant. Radiohead’s was a publicity stunt, sure, but it meant a much wider audience would hear their music and more than likely a significant fraction would be interested in paying to see their performances, while the more interested fans would also be willing to buy the physical album, which is also being sold.

This turns out to be only the tip of the musician rebellion iceberg.

Among those lining up to self-distribute, free of record companies, are Nine Inch Nails, The Charlatans, Oasis and members of the Black Eyed Peas. Madonna and McCartney (not that I care about them, but many do) have already abandoned traditional record labels. The record companies themselves have denounced mp3s as encouraging musicians to rush out single tracks rather than whole albums, but that’s because the record business is predicated on forcing consumers to shell out for 15 songs in order to get the two they want, and cutting to the chase is the last thing they want to see become a trend. But, it turns out, consumers want to be able to pick and choose the songs they buy, and they’re still willing to get whole albums from musicians they like well enough. For musicians, it’s probably a good thing. Why beat yourself up to churn out albums’ worth of material when you can do just as well putting out a handful of really good songs? Let’s face it, a good song is damn hard to write. Various musicians already have different strategies for convincing people to buy whole albums’ worth of material, but these strategies rest on trying to make it worth their while instead of the record company strategy of insisting it’s a necessity.

These musicians are also coming to view recorded music as a loss leader, seeing their real income through increased concert ticket and merchandise sales, not to mention ancillary markets like commercial use of the music. Smaller acts have been getting a lot of traction via places like YouTube and MySpace, where they also give away copies of their music, and can build big fan bases as a result, and these are acts the record companies haven’t given a tumble to because they don’t sound like music that was popular five or fifteen or thirty years ago. It’s not “comfort music” for drones, which is still the emphasis of both the major recording industry and the radio stations they feed. Obviously not every new band is going to be able to pull this off – probably most of them, except in their own locales – but it’s almost to the point now where any band that needs record company support in order to succeed is already beaten. What musicians are riding on now is their own creativity and ability to capture and hold an audience. It’s all down to them now, and how they want to play it. Several new business models, not limited to Radiohead’s and none of them involving record companies, are popping up, and they’re starting to work.

So what’s been the response of the record companies to all this? To push through legislation theoretically forcing any site playing music online to pay a royalty fee for the music, even if it’s on the musician’s own site and the musician has nothing to do with a record company. Because they can’t have people getting the idea that record companies are no longer necessary.

But it’s a little late to stop that horse from getting out of the barn.

So I’m sitting here reading about all this, and I start to wonder: is such a thing possible for the comics industry?

The comics industry and the record industry traditionally have had a lot in common. Both are basically distribution chains that appropriated say over what constitutes “good” and “bad” (meaning marketable and unmarketable), largely commandeered the creative process and traditionally siphoned off the lion’s share of the rewards except in a very few rare cases. (Of course, they also have that in common with most mass media, which have always been the fiefdoms of entrepreneurs rather than creators, and generally the only creators who ended up with anything to speak of had to become entrepreneurs themselves to do it.) Unlike film and TV, though, both comics and recorded music can be made at relatively little cost. Even back in the day, recording a basic record wasn’t all that expensive, and these days anyone with a decent computer and software and a little producing talent can create at least a reasonably professional recording. (Even way back when, there were ways. Stephen Stills recently released a set of demos made in 1969 when he paid a producer a few hundred bucks to keep a studio going for an hour after Judy Collins finished recording a set.) Comics can be produced even more cheaply, since ultimately they don’t depend much on technology at all; if you can afford the modest outlay for paper and ink and the less modest outlay of time, all other things being equal you can produce your own graphic novel without input from anyone else.

There are important, perhaps critical, differences. Most “new models” of the music industry pivot on live performances and the income they can generate, as well as the merchandise that the music fan base loves to buy into – posters, t-shirts, privately produced CDs, and all the other little bits of business fans like to collect. (On the other hand, comics are just as fit for merchandise offshoots as musicians are – there’s no more stigma anymore to wearing a t-shirt with a comics character on it than there is to reading comics, which is to say next to none – and much more open to media exploitation.) Comics, at least as we’ve perceived them so far, don’t have that performance element, Shannon Wheeler’s TOO MUCH COFFEE MAN opera notwithstanding. And both creators and fans in comics tend to look more backwards than forwards, and also assume the way things have always been done is the natural order of things, and this has traditionally been a business where the new is held greatly suspect – at least until it’s proven to work, but even then such successes are often derided as newfangled flukes, even by the people who’d profit from them the most. Readers, especially fans, likewise tend to be hostile towards ideas that require them to reset their expectations; at this point even the more progressive fans have been clipped by con jobs so often they expect everything to be a ruse. (Then there are the paper obsessed, but I suspect those will be increasingly a dying breed as generations of the Internet-bred become comfortable with electronic delivery.) There hasn’t been much of anything in comics in years presented as so cool that everyone wants to be a part of it, no questions asked, and (except for manga) while comics are far more accepted now than at any time since the early ’40s, there’s no real “cool” factor associated with any of them.

So the big question is: what strategies are there for making similar inroads with comics on the web? Every company has their standard webpage, some sell their comics through their sites. Various sites sell made-for-web comics. But every business model involving comics centers on the comics themselves as the revenue front. Which traditionally makes sense, but logic changes with circumstances. Record companies are teetering because, as I said, they were always really distribution paths more than anything else and technology has created new distribution paths that musicians themselves are tapping directly into, without the middlemen. Even if they don’t want to go the Radiohead route, what’s to stop musicians now from breaking off with record companies as their contracts run out and going directly to iTunes themselves? While comics will always require the comics themselves, is it possible to give away the comics themselves – or, to mimic the Radiohead model, allow the reader to choose their own price for them? What’s better, to have 3000 people buying your comic in comics shops for $2.95 a pop or three million paying a quarter a pop online? Can we even get three million people to buy a comic anymore? – as a loss leader for something that can be used as a profit center? Is there any creator in comics today, besides, say, Frank Miller, whose profile is generally high enough to draw that sort of attention?

I’m not suggesting that comics should necessarily be copying what’s going on in the music business, though if anyone does it’ll most likely be individual creators and not the major companies, which are not so much focused on growing their markets as interlinking the market they already have, so that the person who’s buying one comic will have to buy three or five instead, in order to get a whole story and a total experience. I’m just saying there are things going on that are altering the way whole media businesses operate now, whether the businesses want to alter or not, and it’s time we started seriously studying the new alternatives and generating new strategies, because the sustainability of the old ones is getting shakier all the time. As the record industry is not the music industry, comics companies aren’t comics, and possibilities that aren’t open to them, that will never fit into their scheme of things, might be available to people talented, daring and innovative enough to imagine and grab them.

At last, the final part of the Boody Rogers SPARKY WATTS storyline, in which all questions are answered. Remember when comics used to do that?

As usual, these don’t figure into the Comics Cover Challenge. The story ended pretty much as I knew it had to, but the quirky little bits make up for it: blatant cross-dressing becomes acceptable as civilization crumbles, and how about that line “She’s a very efficient housekeeper! While we eat, she tidies up the house – she’d certainly make you a good wife!! Ah, young and innocent days. Bonus dating point: if you want a girl to decide she has always been madly in love with her, write a story wherein you’re the last two people on Earth but you reveal you think she’s the most beautiful girl on Earth and you’d say that even if there were any other girls left! Then leave the story around for her to find while she’s cleaning up your trash, and she’ll surely believe it! Comics just don’t tell you stuff like that anymore…

Okay, so Tuesday last week deputy Federal Emergency Management Administration administrator Harvey Johnson holds a press conference about FEMA’s handling of the California wildfires. Johnson went on at some length, though without much detail, about how FEMA had learned from the Katrina mess and was applying those lessons to Southern California, and reassuring the nation that FEMA was operating up to snuff. He fielded reporters’ questions so well you’d think he’d seen them coming. Press conferences clips aired on all the major news shows. Message received: your government is on the ball this time.

Turns out the main lesson they learned from Katrina is that the media must be handled, because the whole “press conference” was a fraud. Seems real reporters were notified of it only minutes in advance, rendering them unable to attend – this was hardly an accident – but phone lines were set up so they could at least listen in and report. Footage was sent around. And the “reporters” in the audience were all FEMA employees, asking canned questions to provoke canned answers. Why they thought this wouldn’t be found out I couldn’t begin to guess (I stumbled across the press conference at the time, and even then something about it struck me as odd) but new message received: FEMA, and the administration, obviously didn’t want to be put in a situation where someone might ask a question they weren’t prepared to answer. Which brings up another question: what about the FEMA wildfire response weren’t they prepared to answer? Or was this just another reflexive administration attempt to control the news – and their image – with deception and fakery, as when they had their own puppet pose at a journalist at press conferences, or manufactured “TV news stories” that were played verbatim as “objective” news on local stations without mention of the source, or paid “pundits” to put out whatever message they wanted to push at the time? Now, of course, the White House is denying all knowledge, and the idiot stunt has punched another big hole in FEMA’s already shaky reputation. (Though, since the administration has openly wanted to dump FEMA for a long time, and part of its inefficiency during Katrina stemmed from many of its resources and capabilities being diverted to the Office of Homeland Security, which now theoretically oversees it, you have to wonder if maybe further damaging FEMA’s reputation wasn’t the point…)

Do you get the feeling they’re just pissing in the dark in Washington now? These con jobs are so much a part of the landscape, on both sides, that no one bats an eye at them anymore, and guys who should be fired for incompetence are patted on the head like fumbling schoolboys and the rest of us are told that they meant well and anyone could have made that mistake. Yet the big new game in Washington now is fabricating immunities from lawsuit and/or prosecution, mainly for industries like big drug companies so they can’t be sued for producing products that make people sick or worse, which shouldn’t be necessary because all these companies always claim they take the greatest quality control measures possible anyway. (Never mind that regulatory agencies like the FDA have seen their budgets and staffs gutted over the last several years, so that, in the FDA’s case, food inspections are a fraction of what they used to be and usually consist more of a cursory glance than an examination, when they occur at all – but that doesn’t have anything to do with the rising tide of e coli poisonings and food recalls, nosirree.) The latest company to benefit from this largesse is none other than our own corporate mercenary army, Blackwater, conferred by the State Department in order to “investigate” the killing spree that brought the company into the headlines last month. Of course, the ones granted immunity – and the State Department claims no one in Washington authorized it, but once it’s given you can’t take it away, so tough nuts – were the ones who did the shooting. Reportedly most of the Blackwater operatives still aren’t talking – maybe because government investigators determined there was no enemy fire, despite that being Blackwater’s official position, and the operatives mainly got peeved that Iraqi traffic wasn’t getting out of their way as they barreled the wrong way down a one-way street – but at this point it doesn’t matter, since even if they copped to being serial killers they couldn’t be prosecuted anyway. One big question may be getting in their way, though: is the Iraqi government obliged to recognize immunity conferred by the USA? The USA thinks yes, but the Iraqis have other ideas – and have legislation in their parliament now that would eliminate any immunity Blackwater has been promised, for anything. Which may bring who’s really running the country now into focus once and for all, but if it turns out to be the United States it’ll mean all that talk about democracy in the Middle East was just sleight of hooey after all.

Notes from under the floorboards:

Happy Halloween. Though probably my favorite holiday, if I had any use for any of them, I plan to skip it this year.

The housecleaning continues, and I’ve got a slew of material on auction at eBay you should check out: graphic novels/trade paperbacks – Warren Ellis, the Hernandez Brothers, Krazy Kat collections, Neil Gaiman, Frank Miller, tons more – collectible toys, wrestling books, and unique original art. Some of the auctions only run through Thursday Nov 1, so hurry over.

Also, another reminder to get the rest of 2 GUNS, my crime comic from Boom! Studios. As usual, much as I’d like to support the whole idea of local comics shops, if yours doesn’t stock 2 GUNS, you can order issues directly from Boom!’s website. (For those who came in late: two small-time hoods join forces to rob a drug bank. What neither of them knows is that both of them are undercover cops, and it isn’t a drug bank but a CIA money laundering operation. Chaos ensues. Read it.)

The screenwriters voted overwhelmingly to strike if producers don’t pony up a decent new contract while WGA-producer talks seem on the rocks, so the odds of a writers strike in Hollywood on the heels of the current contract’s expiration on Nov 1 look pretty damn good unless some unlikely eleventh hour breakthrough happens. Rumor has it the networks and studios have been buying up scripts and shows (mostly reality shows) at a mad pace, though the town’s been pretty much dead the last week or so, but don’t expect most TV shows to get anything near full seasons if the strike lasts any amount of time. Maybe this would be a good few weeks for Kiefer Sutherland to do his DUI jail time…

The World Series got mildly interesting this year. To the extent I pay attention to such things, I starting out rooting for the Rockies on principle, because I dislike the notion of sports dynasties (though it had been longer than I remembered since the Red Sox won the pennant, so in retrospect they don’t qualify as a dynasty anyway) and because the Red Sox are Kurt Busiek’s hometown team and you really don’t want to see Kurt’s victory dance. It’s just unpleasant. The situation changed, though, when Rockies management and players started talking about how God got them into the Series, with the implication that God intended them to take the pennant and their victory would be a victory for God. Not that I have a problem with anyone believing in God – chacun a son gout and all that – but, assuming for the sake of argument God exists, it seems to me that proclaiming s/he has any proprietary interest in the outcome of a sport that now basically exists, at least on the pro level, to generate obscene amounts of money derogates the whole concept of God. (In anything competitive, nothing makes me dismiss a contestant as quickly as them saying a) God wants them to win; b) they’ll give 110%; c) something along the lines of “That was chosen by myself,” which seems to have turned into a plague on “reality” game shows these days. It’s me, the word is “me.”) Funny, though. It’s now pretty much a staple that anyone who proclaims their eventual victory due to divine intervention ends up losing, a trend continued in spectacular fashion by the Rockies, who lost every game of the Series in quick order. Which suggests five possibilities. 1) There is no God. 2) God exists but doesn’t care about baseball. 3) God is really Catholic after all. 4) God gets a little contrary when people claim s/he’s on their side, when they’re talking about what are essentially trivial pursuits. 5) Whatever else s/he’s capable of, God makes one hell of a bad baseball coach. Okay, Kurt, I’m ready. You can dance now.

Speaking of game shows and things to not forget: the new season of AMAZING RACE (CBS, Sundays 8P) begins this coming Sunday. The teams look like a stitch this time – self-proclaimed Goth hairdressers go head to head (maybe that’s the wrong choice of words) with married lesbian Episcopal ministers and ten other teams – and the show’s always good at finding places and things around the world you never realized were there. That’s entertainment!

Due to circumstances beyond my control, the “ten comics you should be reading now” bumps to next week. Sorry.

Congratulations to Chris Sequeira, the first – actually, the only – one to correctly identify last week’s Comics Cover Challenge as “seating and chairs.” Chris has a strange request: rather than linking to a website, he wanted to provide the covers for this week’s challenge. Which he did. Fine with me; it frees up my calendar some.

For those who came in late, almost every week I run a Comics Cover Challenge: the covers of seven seemingly unrelated comics (thanks to The Grand Comic Book Database for the covers) from throughout comics history are spread, usually not in any particular order, down the column. But a secret theme – it could be a word, a design element, an artist… anything, really – binds them together, and the first one to e-mail me with the correct solution can promote the website of their choice, subject to my approval. (Not that it’s been an issue so far.) As with most other weeks I also hide a clue to the solution somewhere in the column. Good luck.

Available in pdf e-book form at Paper Movies and The Paper Movies Store:

TOTALLY OBVIOUS. Collecting all my “Master Of The Obvious” columns from 1998-2000, with still relevant commentary on comics, culture, creativity and the freelance life, revealing many previously unvoiced secrets behind all those things.

IMPOLITIC: A JOURNAL OF THE PLAGUE YEARS VOL 1. Collecting my political commentary of the early terror years, from Sept. 2001 through April 2005, revealing the terror behind the War On Terror.

HEAD CASES. A collection of comics scripts from work done c. 1992-1995 for various companies, including an unused script. Annotated.

Those wishing to comment should leave messages on the Permanent Damage Message Board. You can also e-mail me but the chances of a reply are next to nil these days, given my workload, though I do read all my e-mail as long as it’s not trying to sell me something. IMPORTANT: Because a lot of people apparently list it in their e-address books, this account has gotten a slew of virus-laden messages lately. They’re no real threat but dealing with them eats up time I don’t really have, to the extent I can no longer accept unsolicited e-mail with attachments. If you want to send something via attachment (say, art samples) ask me first. If I say okay, then send. Unsolicited e-mail with attachments will be wiped from the server without being read.

IMPORTANT PUBLIC NOTICE OF COLUMN POLICY: any email received in response to a piece run in this column is considered a letter of comment available for printing in the column unless the author specifically indicates it is not intended for public consumption. Unless I check with you or the contents of your e-mail make your identity unavoidably obvious, all letters are run anonymously.

Please don’t ask me how to break into the business, or who to submit work to. The answers to those questions are too mercurial for even me to keep up with.

The WHISPER NEWSLETTER is now up and running via the Yahoo groups. If you want to subscribe, click here.

I’m reviewing comics sent to me – I may not like them but certainly I’ll mention them – at Steven Grant c/o Permanent Damage, 2657 Windmill Pkwy #194, Henderson NV 89074, so send ’em if you want ’em mentioned, since I can’t review them unless I see them. Some people have been sending press releases and cover proofs and things like that, which I enjoy getting, but I really can’t do anything with them, sorry. Full comics only, though they can be photocopies rather than the published version. Make sure you include contact information for readers who want to order your book.

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