Great and interesting reading as usual, Jim. All this talk of the mob makes me wonder how things are today. Is there still a mob with significant influence on many aspects of show business (under which I include comics) or did all that fade away a few decades back?
“The fact that pretty much every comic ever published from 1938 up to yesterday can be downloaded for free right now has got to be having some kind of impact on the industry. I’m surprised anyone is still denying this.”
But is this a good thing or a bad thing? With easy availability, a lot of new young people are bound to discover a lot comics that they otherwise never would have seen (both old and new), and some of them will surely hang around as fans and collectors and be drawn to the print versions.
Regarding organized crime having an influence on show business: I do not think things are the same as in Bobby Cohen’s heyday. I suspect mob corruption/influence is more street level these days, rather than all the way to the top. Less corporate, less big business, more drugs. The bad news at the top has more to do with corporate raiders, financial predators and modern-version robber barons. Yesterday, I spoke with a very wise, high-net-worth person involved in entertainment and entertainment finance about this very subject. The legal (but reprehensible) and quasi-legal financial manipulations that go on are stunning. Financial pirates, not mobsters, are the problem. And not just in entertainment.
Regarding all comics being available free for download: I’ve heard both sides of the online piracy argument. The “it’s good that things are available online for free because of the exposure” argument is predicated on that exposure motivating sales. At some point, somebody still has to buy something in some form if content creators/companies are to make ends meet.
I think the exposure thing works if the creators are established and big enough — for instance, someone told me that INXS made an album available free for download and people bought the package anyway when it was released. Had to have it. The exposure theory also may work for new or unknown creators to build awareness so they can become established and big.
In either case, however, it only works if that which is given such exposure is a brilliant, compelling product that inspires the gotta-own-a-copy feeling.
And, don’t forget, the whole team has to be brilliant. Great script with good-but-not-compelling art, or vice versa, won’t cut it. Unspectacular coloring might sink your ship. Or, the writing, art, whatever must be so wonderful that it causes people to overlook the less-than-brilliant bits.
I’m all in favor of rewarding that which is excellent, so, fair enough, but ultimately, available-for-free makes the barriers to entry far more daunting and the bar for success incredibly high.
Available-for-free is happening right now, of course, and it is dramatically changing the business. Companies are struggling and/or dying. We’re headed toward a new business model that’s all about stars — those who have already made it and are established, those who are brilliant on their first try, and those who somehow have the resources to try enough times to develop and become brilliant.
How many great talents facing that discouraging prospect wouldn’t make the attempt, preferring to take their talents elsewhere? How many wouldn’t be able to stay the course long enough? Therefore, how much wonderful entertainment would simply never be created? How much available-for-free wonderful entertainment that people were not quite compelled to buy as hard copies would quickly die? How many brilliant works that are niche-oriented rather than mass-oriented would not garner enough buyers from their limited bases to sustain them? Blah, blah blah, blah, blah.
At first glance, the “star system” seems righteous and fair — let the stars shine. But, then, the business becomes about making stars out of creators/performers — ay, there’s the rub. Take one hundred equally brilliant creators. One labors at night after his or her day job, does something brilliant and bootstrapping it, with a dollop of luck, out of nowhere, succeeds. Ten do whatever it takes to get the backing from producing entities/companies, or luckily have the wherewithal themselves to produce. Propelled by PR, marketing, advertising and star-making apparati, three of them catch on and succeed. Seven fail anyway. 89 never get anything like a real chance. “…all the stars that never were are parking cars and pumping gas. Do you know the way to San Jose?”
So, what’s the answer. Two main options, I think:
A) As the music industry did, crack down on people who offer he free downloads and, more importantly, crack down on those who download the pirated works. The music industry went after Napster and others, but also went after individuals who downloaded pirated music. At the same time, the music industry made buying music online cheaper and easier, so, ultimately, it was simpler and less terrifying to just buy the tunes than it was to steal them. Better to pay $.99 than worry about the FBI knocking on your door. Comics could do the same, but being a less powerful and prosperous industry, I doubt the companies have the resources or the will.
B) Embrace the change. Go all-star. Produce nothing but brilliant, compelling, gotta-have-a-copy work. Make or develop stars, yes, but do so in an enlightened manner, as fairly, equitably, honestly and intelligently as possible. Go for or real talent, not flavor-du-jour or one-hit-wonder people. Use the small companies as your farm system,or start one of your own. Do not publish anything except the best of the best. Offer the products online first. Make them easily accessible, well-marketed and at prices low enough to make piracy less appealing. Offer perks and added value at your site to make downloading from there a better experience. Make the print packages excellent and beautiful, to make them extra-desireable as 3-D items. Include things that online downloads can’t — could be slipcases, small collectibles, things you can only get with the 3-D item. (Remember when British comics had a “spiff” attached to first issues and specials? Do they still?) To anyone who says that we’d have a lot of online readers for cheap and few people buying the expensive hard copies, I say that’s about where we are now anyway, but we’re doing it half-assed, wastefully and inefficiently. There’s too much bad stuff produced that no one wants, even free online, much less in a four-dollar book. Too few all-star products that are popular downloads and generate significant sales of the print versions, and not enough effort devoted to them. Embrace the change, do it right.
Of course, A and B are not mutually exclusive.