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Comic Books

A whole new song and dance: What comics can learn from music in the digital age

As digital sales boom, comics may find a path forward in pop’s post-digital business model.

Maybe it’s the coming promise of summer, but the world feels especially bright and optimistic. That’s especially true for the nerds: Endgame continues to straight assassinate the box office; Game of Thrones has ended (for better and also worse); and the next few months are jam-packed with comic conventions and fan events.

Perhaps the best dose of good news, however, has more to do with business than, like, totally chill vibes. Per a recent analysis by Comichron and ICv2, sales of comics and graphic novels reached record highs in 2018 – a whopping $1,095 billion total (an $80 million increase versus 2017). Plenty of reasons to celebrate, and though figures like this can feel nebulous or arbitrary, it’s clear evidence that comics remain a valued entity.

Yet at the same time, the industry suffers. The Guardian recently published this really interesting overview, detailing how despite the bump of Endgame and other nerdy trends, comic stores are shuttering left and right. From June 2018 to April 2019 alone, roughly 32 comics shops closed throughout the US and UK. Again, it’s hard to connect these figures, but it’s clear an already niche industry is undergoing some downsizing.

Courtesy of Comichron and ICv2.

There’s lots to unpack between these two tent-posts, including what this all means and what it holds for the future. But one thing to note, per the analysis, is that a lot of that growth is thanks in part to “gains in book channel and digital sales.” That last bit especially reminded me of something: the music biz. In the early to mid-2000s, the global music industry found itself in a similar place: digital sales exploded overnight, promising to overtake beloved physical mediums and violently reconfigure popular music sales as we knew it. (This is a pretty handy guide for the unaware, or those who only listen to Dio on cassette.)

But after years of apocalyptic rumblings, the global music biz is in relatively good shape, with a near 10% spike in sales from 2017 to 2018. So, how did that happen? In short, the record biz evolved, and while things are never perfect, and the marketplace will likely never again achieve its sales heyday, that change has nonetheless helped right the ship. There’s things the comics industry can learn from this, or at the very least, a roadmap of events and trends to expect in the coming years as digital sales flourish.

Because, dear readers, it’s not always ice cream and sunny days.

Here To Stay Or Gone Away

It only takes one trip to an abandoned Tower Records to recognize just how hard that industry was hit. In the US, the mid-2000s was the start of a total retail collapse, with big names like Virgin causing a wave of shutdowns eventually impacting a slew of indie outlets. Meanwhile, in the UK, it took less than a decade for 75% of record shops to close. Of course there’s plenty to mourn here – music is as much a physical experience, and these shops are where people go for both suggestions and camaraderie. But consider, then, the old adage about survival of the fittest, and how those shops with actual importance and consumer value made it out alive (albeit not entirely unscathed). The great retail culling slashed heaps of fat and left those stores who were dedicated to the art of collecting and not just looking to strike rich on an extended fad. There’s no definitive number of comic stores in the US (somewhere around 3,000, according to ICv2, and that number was, coincidentally, up in 2016), but not all are created equal. We have a romantic view of these shops: there’s so many stories about young folks in tiny towns (including many future creators), being gifted access to a store that changed their lives. But the reality now is that we should be more concerned with quality than actual proximity, and good comic stores need to provide the kind of engagement and atmosphere conducive to cultivating long-term relationships. Cause there’s always Amazon…

More Than Just Business

As someone who covered music for many years in the 2010s, one of the most intriguing developments was the ever-shifting dynamic between musician and fans. Gone were the days where musicians seemed to gift their presence to eager fans, and the distance between the stage and the concert hall floor began to slowly equalize. Places like Kickstarter allowed musicians to appeal to fans directly to fund their work, which only improved the latter’s sense of ownership. From their, these same creators were taking more and more to Twitter and Instagram to engage with fans in real and meaningful ways. That’s ultimately been the greatest democratizing force for music – this huge sea change that’s infused money into the biz as the whole model got spun on its head. Obviously, comics is a different medium entirely, and there’s always been a more even-keeled dynamic between fans and creators. Which is to say, a more organic back-and-forth aided by cons and such. That said, expect added equilibrium as stores close and the sales landscape shifts – a chance for these groups to commune and communicate in increasingly interconnected ways. Some of these interactions may feel forced (like a musician’s bad social media presence), but the closer the pairing, the less interference or tomfoolery between the money and the artist in need. Fun fact: comic-centric Kickstarter campaigns have a 70% success rate.

Come And Get It, Y’All

Another side effect of the musical landscape’s metamorphosis is that more artists began emphasizing touring atoo bolster business. First, consider that even on a big-time platform like Spotify, artists make somewhere between $0.006 and $0.0084 per stream, as The Verge reported. As such, it takes a truly huge artist like Drake to make the truly big bucks ($23.7 million from streaming in 2017, per Bandbasher). But even that’s a pittance compared to the $85 million Drake made from 2016’s ‘Summer Sixteen” tour. And, yes, his popularity and market share are the core reasons he’s done so very well, but the lesson here is the value of touring. Even if club-level bands aren’t making millions of dollars, they’re also doing quite well – and as Billboard‘s handy chart indicates, touring goes beyond just the artists and props up its own support industry. The larger point, then, is that face-time is important, and I think you’re seeing that more and more within comics. Conventions continue to grow in scope and size as more start up each year, and these events are an invaluable chance for creators to appeal to and engage with fans in real-time. Same goes with the ever-expanding Free Comic Book Day – not only do stores enjoy a hefty boost in sales, but it’s a way to drive home some of the human elements, remind people of what they’re supporting as well as their role in the industry’s successes. Don’t expect creators to go out on “Marvel Speaking Tour 2020,” but daft is the creator or publisher who doesn’t see the value in getting out into the world.

The Streaming Wars

Sometimes a little chaos breeds competition. As part of the growth of streaming music as an industry-leading segment, there’s been a much-heated back-and-forth between platforms like Spotify, Apple Music, Tidal, and Amazon. For some people, the differences between services are so minimal they may not as well exist. Yet for others still, they cling to one service with the fervor best associated with a sports team. And these companies recognize that, spending the last several years trying to one up one another and corner the largest chunk of the marketplace. Yes, artists have suffered in this “war,” with the aforementioned wages remaining infuriatingly minuscule. There’s also something to be said about the way these companies operate in other regards – critic Liz Pelly has written a boatload about Spotify’s absurd, occasionally malicious business tactics. But there’s one bright side: fans have benefited from all this fighting, reaping the rewards via greater, more cost-effective access. Fans have a level of power they haven’t before, and they’re able to vote with their wallets. Streaming music isn’t perfect at all, but there’s no denying that people have a huge impact, and companies are desperate to shape platforms in service of that (for better or way worse). I can’t say for sure that more digital sales of comics will stir up the same kind of war; Amazon/ComiXology seems to be the juggernaut, with some attention in services like Scribd and ComicBlitz. And even public libraries are getting deeper into the game, with an increased online presence in digital comics (at least in this writer’s humble southwestern home). What you will see, regardless, is that platforms will work in service of fans, and it’s the decision-making of the faithful nerds that will influence everything from the design features to the content available. People don’t always make the best decisions (duh), but they deserve a larger say. Plus, anything to bolster accountability for companies like Spotify or Amazon (no matter how minimal) is always a good thing.

Shiver Your Timbers Properly

It doesn’t take a genius to realize piracy was always going to be an issue with digital/streaming media. If you’re trusting people to be honest and not straight steal stuff online, then I have a bridge to sell you. Perhaps more than anything else (scummy CEOs, lazy fans, etc.), piracy has taken the most money directly from hardworking creators, impacting the industry’s bottom line and further complicating an artist’s ability to, say, buy food and pay rent. For the most part, the comics industry is still very much dealing with the threat of piracy. And while it may be more a potential landmine than a screaming chasm, there’s going to be struggles as comics buying/consumption becomes an increasingly digital experience.

From the Keio study.

That said, I’ve always felt that piracy is more complicated then “this thing bad,” and there’s data to bolster that claim. Per a 2015 study from Japan’s Keio University, piracy actually helps sales, specifically bolstering the numbers of completed comics (while harming those series in progress). And the same holds true for music sales, too. The issue of piracy goes further still: streaming proves an excellent countermeasure, providing the order and curation people crave as opposed to fumbling for free products in the dark. By coming together and building up a new segment of the larger industry, streaming platforms helped to protect themselves and the product while better engaging with consumers. Piracy perhaps isn’t as massive a concern to comics, but it’s a problem nonetheless, and organization and alignment is key to addressing it head on. It’s also worth noting, per research out of the UK, that piracy can actually bolster concert sales, and whether that’s guilt-related or just the result of folks with extra cash, it places added emphasis on the value of in-person engagement.

All Indie Everything

Indie things – coffee, bookstores, films, etc. – have always existed on the fringe of their mainstream counterparts.  Yet with the rise of streaming and a digital-centric marketplace, there’s been an uptick in the sales and overall market share of these indie artifacts. Indie music, especially, has done well, owning something like 39% of the global industry, and delivering more than $6 billion in revenue for 2016 alone. That’s not to say being an indie musician or other stakeholder isn’t hard, or that they’re doing better than Top 40 acts. Instead, perhaps that highlights something specific to a lot of the indie-centric products/companies out there. Namely, that their fan base is especially engaged (willing to partake in a Kickstarter campaign, for instance), and that they may also have a larger percentage of disposable income. (Despite their many issues with money, evidence shows that Millennials and young adults have a higher disposable income compared to boomers at the same age. Meanwhile, Gen X is the undisputed powerhouse of disposable income.) It’s not an exact translation, but some of that same dynamic most hold true for the indie comics scene. Forbes assembled a really interesting piece about just that, demonstrating that while Marvel and DC struggle, indie outfits/publishers are finding ways to carve out their niche and keep up that sales momentum. All of this speaks to the other issues addressed thus far – that indie creators and publishers may already excel at engaging directly with fans and making use of new technologies. It’s not that the indie shall inherit the Earth, but rather this specific approach is a way to skirt some industry’s failings and actually make a decent living.

…….

There’s times in writing pieces like this when you feel like some trenchcoat-wearing degenerate screaming about the apocalypse on a busy street corner. Which makes sense – I may appear confident in some of these outcomes, but to others, I’ve just said that a whale made out of lemon cookies will devour the world in 2045. These issues are far more nebulous than we can ever truly grasp, and uncertainty is the only true constant. What I can say with a dash of certainty, however, is that it’s the people (fans, creators, publishers, etc.) that determine what happens with, for instance, comic sales. Engagement, awareness, knowledge – they’re all cornerstones of an industry where ideas (and maybe money?) can flow freely. Even though this configuration (modern capitalism) is never perfect, the better informed the players (in their own decisions and the various tides of business and life), the better the outcomes. If nothing else, the music industry of 2019 presents a brief ribbon of silver to this gnarly cloud, albeit after plenty of work and sacrifice. So, sure, plan for that summer picnic – just don’t forget to pack an umbrella and pepper spray.

And just because…

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