Monday, February 14, 2011

Colin Meloy on the "race to the bottom"

The quotes below are from a recent interview on Pitchfork with Colin Meloy. I've tried to make a post about this a couple of times on my blog but never managed to phrase it as succinctly as he does. He's referring to the music industry, but what he says is as true for any other entertainment sphere and mine in particular.

(The emphasis of certain sections is mine)

Pitchfork: Sixty-five percent of the sales for The King Is Dead were digital downloads, and a number of those were a result of Amazon's $3.99 album pricing. Not everyone's a fan of that particular practice. What's your take?

CM: It's their prerogative. It's like Costco-- they're just trying to get people onto the site. We don't take a hit. That said, there's bigger things at play. It's the devaluing of music. But music has been already devalued by the consumer. There's an expectation that it should be free so the race to the bottom has already been won. It's just a question of how we continue to protect copyrights and support the people who are making music. We are wiping out a potential generation of new voices because it's not as easy to get into it and support yourself. I have no idea what the solution to that is.

Pitchfork: Well, with new technologies, it seems like there are more avenues for people who want to make their voices heard popping up every day.

CM: Yeah, but when everybody is playing at the same level, there's so much more noise. And there's less incentive for the people who should be rising above that noise to take time and invest in what they're doing. It just becomes about hustling and grabbing attention.

Webcomics is the sphere where you give it all away. All your hard work, all of it. It works to an extent, but only to an extent. Giving away your backbreaking labour then selling someone a tshirt based on a Star Wars joke you knocked out in fifteen minutes is mental. I don't expect this to change, I don't think there are answers, but there are days that I want to shed tough, manly tears as I package up orders or desperately try to design merchandise when I could be doing a fifth, a sixth comic for the week.


Laura said...

You're right John, it seems crazy to me that the work that takes your time and talent isn't what pays. You deserve rewarding for your creativity and time. It seems a very unfair system to me! But then again I always pay for downloads for the same reason!

I don't know if it can change but I'm always happy to support you in whatever way I can. people always ask me about all your pictures that I have on the Walls so try and spread the word as much as possible.

John A said...

Well Laura, all I can say is that people like you who buy the things I make have my undying thanks.

ally mcgurk said...

This is something that's annoyed me for many years – the fact that talented, creative people find it so hard to earn a living from their talents. I've had so many penniless, clever friends over the years (I'm the same myself); we write, draw, create music, make things, and barely manage to pay the bills, while our more boring neighbours are on high salaries working in mind-numbingly tedious office jobs. Why are we all so underappreciated? Can't we all band together and DO something about it? Grrrr.

John A said...


If you understand the business, you can make a living, but it's a business that makes no sense on either side of the consumer-producer divide. It's like being a plumber who fixes the customer's pipes for free then sells them a sandwich to make ends meet.

mustardsundae said...

I consume for free those things I want that are offered to me for free, and pay for those that aren't.

The ONLY way I have of supporting my favourite plumber is by buying his sandwich, because that's all he's selling. I don't wear tshirts, so I don't buy from your shop, John. But I love your comics and would happily pay a monthly subscription to read them.

I read a couple of webcomics every morning while I'm getting ready for my boring, high-paid office job (which I took because my creative hobby isn't financially viable and I don't believe the world owes me a living doing it, Ally). I would pay to do this!

I know I can buy a Decembrists download rather than pirating it - great.

I think the main problem here isn't that people aren't paying you enough for what you're making, it's that there's no way of charging them for what that actually is.

Thomas C said...

You could have a voluntary subscription system: I agree completely that I'd happily pay something to read this, which I do every day.

Or why not have a subscription based site and a free mirror of it that runs a week later? Or even a day later?

Louisa said...

I think more webcomic artists need to be careful to leave readers the ability to simply donate money. I don't buy much webcomics merch- not because I don't love the comics, but because I am already in danger of death by being crushed by falling books, and because I don't get much chance to wear logo t-shirts when I have to work in corporate casual. Also because I am chronically broke. But when my favorite artists mention that their funds are running low and ask for donations, I tend to give some money, no strings attached. I know some artists are uncomfortable with asking for "something for nothing-" but that's nonsense. They're already giving me art; I can give them some cash for it and call us even.

DC said...

It's a troubling issue.

There was a time of course (one that hasn't gone away entirely: see Qwantz) when people got excited about the particular funding model you're describing here. It can be conceived of as a quasi-commercial co-operation between the webcomicer and her readers. A rough and ready system of quasi-donations which allows the artist to retain almost complete creative control, and fosters a mutually beneficial relationship between artist and artee.

You, however, seem to be bumping up against the edges of its usefulness, and I can absolutely see why it frustrates and annoys you.

Having said which, there are surely more ways than this one to turn your graphic and narrative skills into a living, but I wonder if perhaps they require compromises you aren't willing to make. As well as being difficult and without guarantee of course.

Mind you, given that your specific complaint is that you can't charge for the stories you write then I think the various commenters must be right - take your life in your hands and charge a subscription. If it doesn't work out there are all these high paying office jobs everyone's talking about.

Kent said...

Comic strips are an odd duck in the art world. Even in the days when artists were 'gettin paid,' it was a situation where it wasn't artists getting money directly from consumers. They were just part of the newspaper grind. The problem now is that even when a cartoonists work is featured on a website with regularity, the chances of them getting compensation for that is almighty low. Just look at the horrible hypocrisy of the Huffpo sale in which a person that's supposed to champion the quote-unquote working poor is making hundreds of millions of dollars off the backs of creative professionals and not passing on a dime to them. The model of cartoonists being paid by an outlet for the privilege of distributing their work isn't necessarily dead in a web 2.0 world. In fact, it's a good idea. But as long as cartoonists are willing to have their content shanghaied for the vague promise of 'future exposure and profit,' then such a business model will remain as murky as that of the underpants gnomes. In the meantime, I try to support the artists I follow, though it does get hard since so many of them peddle the same thing. (Fortunately for John, he makes a lot of shirts that I am compelled to purchase.) I think the whole etsy shop thing might be a step in the right direction for cartoonists by getting to sell their original work more easily, so at least they're making money off the art. Of course the problem with that is that so many artists are working digitally these days...

As for music being devalued, it seems to me that the problem stems from it being overvalued for so long. Attempting to charge $15+ for a CD that probably cost $1.50 to manufacture (and most likely only has one song that people want) is madness. If the major labels had backed off their price point a bit or figured out a way to sell singles, it may have been possible to put a tourniquet on some of the bleeding that was going on in the last decade. At this point, it seems to be too little, too late. I buy a lot more albums now than in the last several years since I am able to buy the physical CDs off Amazon for a usual range of $9-11 and I would much rather have a real album in my hands. But I'm probably in the minority. Of course, even my frequent purchases rarely help the kinds of labels behind the RIAA since most of the releases I buy are off indie labels or are self-produced by the bands themselves. Narrowing my search to new releases of about the past year that I either purchased or received as gifts (20), only five of them were on a major label: Johnny Cash, Broken Bells, The Like, Mark Ronson and Weezer's b-sides album. So even at 25%, one of them is a posthumous release and one of them went to an idie label this year (and not coincidentally, put out their best album in nearly a decade.)

Pete Ashton said...

If you were doing Bad Machinery a decade ago you'd probably be reaching 500 people tops. And you certainly wouldn't be making any money from tshirts. All you times would be spent contacting agents and publishers and reworking your comic to fit their arbitrary trends and such. You wouldn't have any actual freedom to do what you're doing now.

Garen Ewing's Rainbow Orchid is being published by Egmont. Talking at Caption last year the publisher said the reason they signed him was because he'd developed a solid audience online on his own with no resources. They take was if he could generate X then they could increase that exponentially.

I'd also recommend reading the interview with Darryl Cunningham on Comics Reporter. Darryl was doing stuff in the pre-Internet days so has a nice perspective on giving his stuff away for free online.

You'll get there. Your stuff is good. It will find its audience. It will be hard but you'll get there.

John A said...

Very interesting points guys, just please don't take my initial post as wholly solipsistic. I'm a well-drilled operator who has a good relationship with his readers and what borders on a punishing work ethic. My concern is less revenue streams and more the abstract relationship of people with the things they enjoy.

Kent: what you say about CDs and CD prices is interesting but are we really better off today? Fifteen years ago I could spend two hours in a record store having the time of my life. I loved magazine reviews, I loved the risk-reward of new releases, investing myself in something new because I had paid for it. I was considerably poorer but I would pay £18 for a US import and I did not care.

I loved the secondary market of second hand shops, the thrill of a bargain. That whole ecosystem game me some of the greatest pleasure of my young life and for all the convenience and availability of everything at a moment's notice, if you gave me a button I could press to bring back that feeling, a feeling that I will probably never ever have again, at the cost of the digital convenience we enjoy (and by association, my own livelihood), I would probably press it.

Talk about the majors, the RIAA, it doesn't matter. The day there was no reason for me to go into a record shop any more was the day a light inside me went out.

Kent said...

It's an interesting point, John. I certainly understand what you mean, even though my experience in that kind of thing is a bit limited due to where I spent the majority of my formative years. But I spent a lot of time volunteering my services at a record store that was owned by friends, because I just enjoyed the environment. (I still go when I can, but I don't live in that town anymore.) In a way though, I get a similar experience by doing things like checking out music blogs and online communities to find new things. And there's still the thrill of trying to find rare, OOP work. Right now I'm trying to find a copy of The Pussywillow's Spring Break on the cheap, heh. But that still goes back to me liking to physically own things that I enjoy.

Virtualbri said...

It's a nutty industry.

I guess all you can hope to do is minimize the *time* it takes to do the revenue generating stuff, so you have more time for the art stuff you like.

I still think you need to consider some print on demand stuff where people can put your designs on a variety of stuff on their own. You've already done the designs; the overhead of letting someone else fulfill the rest is pretty now, and you get more merch.

Hopefully you can concentrate on the art stuff; I can't imagine how draining the business stuff is.

K said...

You could always outsource to disillusioned graduates... (and I'm sure your manly tears would sell if you packaged them right!)

Sometimes the price of doing what you love is doing what you love, as I've been learning over the past few months.

Oh, and happy V Day.

K xx

Anonymous said...

I have to say, this all sounds like a very "Atlas Shrugged" sort of problem. Except that the the problem here is "the system makes it difficult to make a living making art" rather than "the system prevents entrepreneurs from making obscene amounts of money."

Opportunities for donation are certainly a good idea, since a lot of us would like to support your work but don't want to spend money on merchandise that we don't have room in our houses for. I'd also encourage you to put up the two "Erin Winters in Hell" mini-comics up for sale as PDFs like you did with "HMHAF" and "Girlspy." I didn't have the cash to shell out to pre-order the books the Erin comics came with, but I'm dying to know whatever happened to her after the Bob Crowley fiasco and I'd be happy to give you a bit of financial support to find out.

agent_x said...

I like the people who comment her saying they would pay a subscription to read the comics, or would donate if there was a simple "donate" button on the site.

Unfortunately, they are in the minority, and that is only if they ever actually DID what they stated.
Posts like this often attract comments saying "I would pay, etc" but the truth is that this rarely eventuates.

If it were true, posts like this would not exist, and people would not be complaining that a song or a 58pg digital comic for $2, was too expensive.

strangebiros said...

worth looking at video of Margaret Atwood talking on this on O Reilly site:

it adds a sweep covering last 70 years.

BradyDale said...

It's crazy for now, but I can't help but have faith that technology is going to find a way to make it work. Sadly, what it's probably going to mean is that in our winner take all world, folks are even BIGGER WINNERS than they were in the syndicate days. I could be wrong.

There's clearly a market for webcomics. People really like them. I have to believe that the market is going to find a way to make them pay a bit better.

It could turn out to be really simple: as more and more eyes get on line and the Internet becomes EVEN MORE IMPORTANT, ads simply pay more. At least, for certain high traffic sites, you know.

It could be that simple.

Look, you aren't paying for TV shows either (other than your payments to access cable), and yet shitloads gets put into those things and they make lots of money.

Are you picking up what I'm putting down?

EatThe Babies!

Anonymous said...

I find it difficult even selling badges, and I sell a lot of badges. I don't want to make badges I want to make comics. It's a bitter pill, but I suppose it pays my table costs.

mbsiii said...

I've purchased several pieces of strip-related art from you, John—books, prints, and personalizations—and while I certainly understand your frustration at having to make "Star Wars Joke Shirts" to cover costs, do you list your printed two-dimensional work among the things you wish you didn't have to do to make money?

Anonymous said...

In the end, a comic is not something that can be sold. You can sell a book, and increase the value of that book by making it the only convenient place that a comic can be read. A similar principle can be applied to downloads, though the conventional wisdom is that this would be suicide. Your existing fans will pay, of course, if payment is the only way to get their fix, but that doesn't exactly win you new readers.

So the model we've converged on is webcomic-as-shirt-commercial. This model is prone to artistic dysfunction but the infrastructure necessary to make it work is a lot cheaper. And let's face it: merchandising is usually where the money is for any visual medium. A new standard model might be invented, but I'm certain it will still include giving away the comic for free. The more people who read the comic, the more valuable anything associated with it will be.

It's somewhat degrading for a cartoonist to spend their time packing up boxes when they could be doing something to strengthen their brand. Collectives are one way out. Or becoming big enough to have staff. Problem with that is that webcomics don't advertise much, and when they do, they target existing webcomic readers. Need to solve the audience-growing problem. People best-suited to solve it are the existing comic book publishers, with their extensive capital and human resources, but a variety of factors paralyze them.

Businessmen and artists aren't enemies. When they work together and understand each others' needs, they can find success beyond their wildest dreams.

Sara Ellis said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sara Ellis said...

I actually think comics are something that CAN be sold if they break free of the traditional format and start being produced for mobile devices. Would I pay for apps of ten different webcomics I love for my iphone or tablet? Yes. Would I pay a monthly fee for those apps? Probably.

It might not obliterate the need for derivative merch, but it might soften it.

It takes a paradigm shift to make classic entertainment thrive on new technology. I also think we as humans will never lose our need for the tactile, the physical, and the face to face social-- new tech may seem to drive us apart, but we eventually pull back together.

Tristan said...

Wonderful post. I especially liked your comment about shopping in a record store and the thrill of buying a new record. I've stolen music and it amazes me how little I enjoy it compared to something I've bought. It can be a grand work of art and I will be far more critical of it simply because I have nothing invested in it.

I've started purchasing vinyl and I can't tell you how much more intense the experience compared to paid downloads or buying a CD. The large, intense artwork and the ceremony of setting the record on to play is something I really like. I think people have forgotten what it feels like to take that risk of purchasing something that you talked about. To really care about something like that because it's yours.

Anyway, good show, nice post, I've shared it with many friends and had some excellent conversations because of it. Thank you.

duus said...

I think you should consider the membership model, following or Maybe you should connect with other webcomics you like and offer memberships, and have pledge drives and membership drives like public radio.

Damian Cugley said...

How about something like Flattr? The effect is something like Facebook’s ‘Like’ button, except it sends little of your money money goes to the artist, rather than a small sliver of your soul to Facebook.

widebrant said...

I see it as kind of a shared problem between the consumer, who's rapidly losing the notion of paying for art and on the other side the institutional producers, who are dead set against any order other than "you must buy a license ahead of time to experience art or you're BLOODY CRIMNUHL", which just isn't realistic at all.

It is insulting for artists to have to work for a tip jar, but isn't this at least in part due to the divide between big successful artists who can (try to) enforce pre-licensing of their art (by paying for a CD before listening to it, say) and the less fortunate who have to hustle and sell T-shirts?

If society officially recognized that there's nothing inherently less legitimate about downloading an entire Metallica discography and paying for what you liked by buying some CDs or merch from the band than it is to graze through the SGR archive and order something from its shop, it would at least put an end to the utterly phony divide between artists who "control their content" and those who "have to give it away".

It wouldn't do much to solve the "making a living from art" problem, which is clearly a real and significant one, but it might at least put us in a place where the big and popular artists would have an interest in promoting something similar to the (incredibly unfortunately named) Flattr.

John A said...


As a notion, "pre-licensing" is like a beautiful shoe that doesn't fit. It suggests that pre-2000 popular artists were in some way "entitled". People bought Metallica albums because they listened to them at their friends' houses, heard songs on the radio, not because they had somehow been tricked by major labels! Of course it was possible to buy something and be disappointed by it, but that's true of anything you buy: a car, a sandwich.

Commerce is a transaction where a certain amount of risk falls on both sides of the transaction based on certain tacit understandings. The seller has, at the very least, the material risks of doing business - stock, premises. The digital object reduces risk on the part of the seller, but if you reduce risk on the part of the buyer to 0 (which your argument essentially does), it's no longer a "fair" transaction. To my mind, anyway!

I don't have time to say a lot more about this but I think there is one thing that gets forgotten: in large creative enterprises, the head pays for the tail - a big-selling item subsidises many experiments. This never really helped artists (espcially bands, who had to pay the record company back) but it gave the consumer a lot of interesting music, books and films that they might not have otherwise seen.