What Comics Can Learn From the Music Industry
The comic book industry is at a crossroads, of sorts. While the local comic book shop is still the driving retail force of the medium, there is a bigger and brighter future on the horizon in the form a digital marketplace. More and more, the comic book world is beginning to embrace the digital world, even if they are doing it with careful, measured steps. Make no mistake, digital comic books are the future, and the sooner the industry as a whole embraces that notion, the better. If there’s something that other artistic industries have learned, it is that fighting the digital market place is a no-win situation. You have to evolve or you die. It’s that simple.
You have to evolve or you die. It’s that simple.
Fortunately, these troubled waters were waded years ago by another creative industry. If comics are smart, they’ll take a good, hard look at the lessons learned by the music industry and take everything they learn to heart. Sure, music and comic books aren’t exactly similar mediums, that’s obvious. They are, however, alike in a lot of ways that matter when it comes to a digital evolution. Comic publishers and creators can avoid some of the major pitfalls of this new digital world by simply sidestepping the mistakes of the record labels and recording artists.
Things really started to change for the music industry on November 10th, 2001. On that fateful fall day, the first generation of the iPod was unleashed on the public. To say this changed everything would probably be an understatement. Were there digital music players before the iPod? Yeah, there were. But none of them had anything close to the success of those magical little devices.
Suddenly, digital music – which had been around for while – became something that people wanted. That they demanded. In four short years, Apple would begin to sell around 20 million iPods per fiscal quarter. CD sales steadily declined as more and more consumers opted to instead download an mp3 and load it on to their iPod rather than drive down to the local record store, buy a CD, drive home and rip it into iTunes and then load it on to their iPod.
Quick note: We will not be discussing the 800 lbs gorilla in the room known as digital piracy. That’s a discussion for another day and another couple thousand words. I look forward to everyone’s vigorous rationalizations when that time comes.
But the music business quickly learned a hard lesson with the rise of the iPod: the digital marketplace is not merely a replica of the physical retail world. The game changed; it wasn’t about album sales any more, it was about the individual songs. Now, when that one band accidentally wrote one good song, we the people could easily just buy that song instead of the crapfest that was said band’s attempt at a full length record. This was a big change for an industry that was used to packaging artists and selling millions of albums off of the success of a single track or two. We all know several people who bought Lit’s A Place in the Sun.
The comic book industry is in a similar situation with the explosion of tablet sales. The iPad is flying off shelves along with several worthy competitors such as the Nexus, Nook, or Kindle Fire. Anyone who has had the pleasure of reading a digital comic book on one of these sleek, high definition devices will tell you, this is the future. Apps like ComiXology make the experience smooth and pleasurable. Now, I can wake up Wednesday morning, stumble downstairs in my underwear, and get my weekly comic fix from the comfort of my own couch.
The only problem is that the comic industry has not yet accepted the fact that the game has changed. They are treating the digital marketplace like an extension of the local comic book store. Comic publishers are used to selling single issues for 3 or 4 dollars. They get away with this because we comic book readers are like bloated, cave dwelling dragons, but instead of gold we crave comics. We collect them. We put them in shiny plastic sleeves and file them away in numerical order. Digital destroys those ideas. The collectible nature of comics is null and void in the digital landscape. Which means the comic industry needs to learn very quickly how to serve its readers twenty pages of digital content for less money than the print version.
Sadly, that’s just the reality of things. There are a lot of reasons, I’m sure, that the industry feels the need to charge the same amount for digital and print books, but most of them don’t really matter. Not to readers and certainly not to new customers who might be interested in jumping into the world of sequential art. One of the most insane reasons that is often tossed around is that the prices have to match in order to protect the physical brick and mortar stores. That’s simply crazy-town-banana-pants. Imagine if the music industry only sold digital albums and not individual songs to protect the physical record store? That’d be crazy, right?
Obviously, there are economic factors that have to be considered. I strongly suggest you read writer Jim Zubkavich’s enlightening post about the financial breakdown of digital comic book sales. It’s easy to see why digital comic books are currently priced the way they are. Of course, these are the financial figures through the old business model. These figures represent a digital marketplace that merely mirrors the physical retail world. The entire system needs to be rethought and reconfigured.
Watch MonkeyBrain and Thrillbent very closely. They’re the future, without a doubt.
The company that seems to be doing this best is MonkeyBrain. They are a digital-only publisher that offers new content by great talent for a reasonable price. This is a massive step in the right direction. Mark Waid’s Thrillbent is also producing comics that are made specifically with digital in mind. These two publishers are just the beginning. The Big Two and everyone under them would do well to watch MonkeyBrain and Thrillbent very closely. They’re the future, without a doubt.
There’s another huge lesson the music industry is learning right now that applies to the world of tights and fights. Access to music is slowly becoming the norm over ownership of music. Services like Pandora and Spotify are taking the place of people buying or downloading songs. The comic book world needs to offer something similar. Marvel has their digital subscription service, but to say it’s lacking would be far too kind. It is only now becoming available for tablet users and the comics that subscribers have access to are all over the place. There are large gaps in runs, missing issues, and glaring omissions.
In the digital world where collecting means nothing, the comic industry would do well to consider the benefits of consumer access — monthly subscriptions and such. There’s also the upstart site ComicBin that offers Spotify-style access with a similar business model, though their selection leaves plenty to be desired.
One of the greatest benefits of digital services is that things never sellout or go out of print. With collector mentality out of the picture, publishers can capitalize on existing products and how to get them into the hands of new generations. There is decades of stuff available. I played guitar in a band for a living in the early 2000s, and thanks to the digital marketplace, the albums I worked on are still available despite my old record label no longer pressing or distributing them.
All of this is not to say that print is the enemy and should be ignored. Your local comic book store offers a unique experience that can and should be embraced. Hell, this very article was written by a guy who still buys all his music on vinyl. Collecting stuff is fun. The comic book industry should absolutely support their partners in the retail world, but they can’t do it at the expense of the digital marketplace. Simply copying and pasting the retail model into the digital world is a mistake that could easily prove fatal. Digital comic books are their own beast and should be treated as such.
The comic book industry needs to rethink their digital game plan. Everything from prices to distribution to business model (do single issues even make sense anymore?) must be re-evaluated. The market has changed.
Evolve or die.
Benjamin played guitar in a rock n’ roll band called Arkham for four years. He lived in van, toured the country, and had the time of his life.Follow Benjamin on Twitter @616Earth, or find him on IGN.