Murder in the City: The Slow Demise of Corporate Media OwnershipA column article, Comics Bulletin Soapbox by: David Fairbanks
The discussion of creators' rights has received a much greater focus in recent years than it did in the past. Whether you swear off Marvel/DC like David Brothers, are just generally fed up like Keith Silva and I are, or think that corporate cape books are the best thing since sliced bread, you probably have an opinion on the subject. Many of the folks I respect tend to believe that, at best, corporate-owned media is a necessary evil, and at worst, it is a relic of the past.
Kickstarter looks to be providing some of the first significant challenges to the prevalence of corporate involvement in entertainment. Whether it's the funding of the Veronica Mars film on Kickstarter to the tune of $2 million in its first day, Amanda Palmer's break away from record labels with Theatre is Evil, the incredible success of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, or some slightly less record-breaking projects like Uzomuzo, God Hates Astronauts, and SP7, things look to be changing.
Despite the success of projects like these, this isn't so much a brand new day as it is the first glimpses of dawn on the horizon. Thanks to ownership issues, Veronica Mars still belongs to Time-Warner, even though the company had repeatedly shot down the film they will soon be profiting from. Even successful projects that manage to completely avoid corporate involvement can come with their own problems. The delays in shipping Sullivan's Sluggers clearly indicate the dangers of the unprepared, suggesting we be careful what we wish for with regard to severing too quickly from the involvement of professionals.
There are other issues with crowdfunding as well. Chris Randle speaks of an unofficial house style that embodies nerd culture and drives the success of projects that don't already have a significant fanbase. Folks like Maura Johnston were a bit less kind than Randle in taking down Amanda Palmer's assertion that the world was changing when she saw the Veronica Mars Kickstarter project was clearly going to reach its goal in a single day.
Is Palmer's tweet overly optimistic? Sure. But when you look at all of the projects that are getting funded, the picture becomes clearer. Many of the projects I've mentioned were unlikely to receive funding from a corporate publisher/studio/record label, if they were not already rejected outright. What bothers me most about much of the criticism of crowdfunding is that, in declaring that there is nothing new going on or decrying Palmer's enthusiasm as not just overly optimistic but wrong, it ignores the small victories because change isn't happening quickly enough.
When you are finding ways around content distribution and production systems that have been around longer than you've been alive, that are heavily ingrained in consumer culture, it's going to be slow going. A new approach is going to rely on at least some creators who became famous via those old systems to draw people over to a new method that circumvents labels and traditional routes of content delivery.
And the criticism of projects which already have fans seems to imply that a project and its creator(s) should attempt to garner all of their support during the lifetime of their Kickstarter campaign. This seems nigh impossible considering that managing a Kickstarter without a large fanbase sounds like a full-time job.
In fact, this is exactly the kind of behavior we should expect at the beginning of a paradigm shift like this. Dismissing the success of the Veronica Mars film Kickstarter because of its fanbase dismisses the thousands – likely tens of thousands – of fresh faces it has brought to the world of crowdfunding.
While Veronica Mars earned its fans through relatively traditional means, they were earned by the skills of folks like Rob Thomas, Kristen Bell, and the rest of the writers and cast. Then there is Nerdfighteria, the fan community based around the Vlog Brothers that is at least partially responsible for the immense success of the Lizzie Bennet Diaries Kickstarter. Nerdfighteria was cultivated through YouTube conversations between brothers John and Hank Green over the last six years and has led to programs such as SciShow, Crash Course, the Brain Scoop, and the aforementioned Lizzie Bennet Diaries.
And Amanda Palmer has fans that go back to her days in the Dresden Dolls as well as those who would have had no idea who she was if Neil Gaiman hadn't worked with her on Who Killed Amanda Palmer. There are probably a few that came on after Gaiman and Palmer became a couple as well. Tell me which of her fans are acceptable when determining whether or not she is too famous to count. What about those of us who flocked to her when we discovered that Ben Folds was producing Who Killed Amanda Palmer?
These are three very different ways of building a fanbase, and there are surely countless more (like Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal's webcomic to print approach). Crawl before you walk, walk before you run, and know that you have a product people are interested in before you launch a Kickstarter.
For the projects that don't have a fanbase established, are their successes and failures at the whims of nerd culture?
Games like Story War are getting funded well past their goals, but is this an indication of some kind of nerd culture on the internet, the popularity of party games such as Apples to Apples and Cards Against Humanity, receiving mention from people with significant internet followings like Hank Green, or some mixture of all three?
Is there an easy explanation for the success of Uzomuzo, a sketchbook anthology that seems like it has a pretty small target audience yet earned over five times its goal? It can be easy to throw “nerd culture” out there as an explanation, but everything I know about nerd culture says that it's a pretty broad thing that is merging more and more with popular culture every day. Are we going to criticize or downplay the success of projects that appeal to mainstream audiences?
Since we are a website focused on comics, I should probably talk a bit about the deviations from Marvel/DC, with some creators even breaking away from publishers like Image. The comics world recently saw the implementation of an alternative publishing route as Brian K. Vaughan and Marcos Martin, with Muntsa Vicente, released a 32-page digital comic on pay-what-you-want pricing through their website Panel Syndicate. I've got a DRM-free PDF sitting on my desktop right now, and I know that the money went straight to the creators.
Will the success of Panel Syndicate cause Vaughan and Martin to be criticized for having built their popularity through more mainstream channels? Will they draw ire for perpetuating the dangerous idea that creators should work for free?
For another route, Comixology's has their Submit program, which embodies the ideal that seems at the heart of a great deal of crowdfunding criticism: anyone can put their comics out there into a storefront that is easily accessible through tablets, computers, smartphones, and more. I'm personally not the biggest fan of Submit, especially what Apple's draconian rules may do to shape its marketplace, but that's a discussion for another day. It's an avenue that will surely work well for some cartoonists and bypasses traditional delivery routes.
Change is coming. It won't be easy, nor will it come overnight. But dismissing progress for being too minimal, for being too far removed from whatever your ideal may be, doesn't help anyone. If you want to write essays about how Amanda Palmer is oblivious to the effect her privilege has on her success, or on the idea that nerd culture – whatever that may mean – is creating a sort of unnatural selection when it comes to crowdfunding, then do it. These ideas are valuable and should be discussed, and I'll surely read and enjoy them in the same way I have read and enjoyed everything I linked to in this piece. But we can't pretend that even with these faults and imperfections, we aren't moving away from what came before.
Will YouTube function as a way to bring together people with similar interests in the same way as it did with Nerdfighteria? Will creators still have to cut their teeth while leashed by a corporation before garnering enough attention on their own? Is Panel Syndicate's method the wave of the future? What about Comixology's Submit program? Are Kickstarter or services like Indiegogo and PledgeMusic necessary?
In the coming years, we'll probably have many successes and many more failures through crowdfunding and other distribution methods. I'm not here to point you toward the future of content distribution and production, because I don't know what it holds.
What I do know is that we are on the verge of something new, something that could be far more disruptive than we know, and I would rather gaze at the horizon for glimpses of that light than focus on how the world around us still looks quite dark.
Note: After publishing, it was revealed that Comixology was to blame for Saga #12's exclusion from their iOS store, which I linked to referencing Apple's draconian policies. I still stand by what I said about Apple and their rules and regulations being potentially detrimental for cartoonists, but they are not to blame in this case.