Rob Reid: Year Zero and the Future of Media

A book interview article by: Morgan Davis

Rob Reid is an author and entrepreneur who helped found IGN and Rhapsody. He's the writer of three books, the most recent of which, Year Zero, debuted this past July, which had him promoting at San Diego Comic-Con, where he took some time out of his busy schedule to chat about, well, quite a few things with us.


Morgan Davis for Comics Bulletin: Year Zero has a really interesting concept; how would you describe it to a new reader?


Rob Reid: The Universe is very densely populated with a vast alien civilization that is so into human pop music that they accidentally commit the biggest copyright infringement since the big bang, thereby bankrupting the entire universe. All of the wealth in the universe is now owed to us and our record labels and, as the books starts, we don't know it yet.

So that's the setup, and then hilarity ensues.

The suspension of disbelief point, which will save us a lot of time, is that for reasons that are pretty deep in the storyline, the aliens are on the hook to honor our laws as they pertain to our own art, which in this case means our copyright laws. And under American copyright laws, the maximum penalty for pirating a single song is $150k, and the aliens have unwittingly spent the last 35 years illegally pirating massive volumes of music.


CB: What I found fascinating is that you set it up so that they are not just obsessed, but rather that our music is so mind-blowing to them that they cannot even control themselves when they're around it.


Reid: It is the single greatest thing in the universe; it is possibly the reason the universe exists. And the aliens are so advanced that they've solved all the problems of technology and science, so all they have left to explore is the aesthetics of the universe, which is an infinite field, so they really take their artwork very seriously. The greatest art of all to them is music and theirs just completely sucks by our standards, which is to say that our music is unbelievably awesome by all other standards.

So yeah, the degree to which they enjoy our music isn't even fathomable by our puny, underpowered minds.


CB: A lot of the music they obsess over is something we would consider to be nothing, like the Welcome Back Kotter theme. The whole reason the story here even happens is that your character, Nick Carter, is mistaken for a member of the Backstreet Boys.


Reid: Right, the self-appointed alien delegation that comes down in hopes of reversing this terrible situation knows they need to find a very powerful ally, ideally someone with immense artistic credibility, because they assume we revere our musicians as much as they do, but we don't.

And ideally they want one of the greatest musicians who has ever lived, and they go “oh my god, Nick Carter, we've got ourselves a Backstreet Boy!” and they're wrong and he can't stand the Backstreet Boys because he has taste. And so, yeah, there's a little bit of irony in it, but they also like Led Zeppelin IV; they like some kickass stuff too.


CB: Was there a specific copyright issue that sparked the idea?


Reid: It's probably more the state of things in general. I started a company that built the Rhapsody music service, so I spent many years dealing with these things up close and personal, and I think the things that are most outlandish in my view and are so easy to spoof were, firstly, how the $150,000 fine law is insane. In California, the max penalty for drunk driving is 1/57 of that number. It's a little disproportionate.

I personally believe very fervently in intellectual property and the value of it. Obviously I'm an author and I want to make a living writing things, so I am certainly not an absolutist anti-copyright person, but I believe that, as a society, we have erred so much on the preposterous side of copyright defense that we've kind of stopped making creators look like victims who deserve protection and more like a coddled special interest.

So I think that law embodies a great deal of lunacy. The iPod classic alone, by that law, has enough room for $8 billion in pirated music; that's just absurd.

The second thing I saw a lot of was the interaction between these companies and their influence on legislation and public policy. Seeing how media companies manipulate the congress. There's a character in the book, a senator named Orrin Hatch. Now, there's also a real-life senator named Orrin Hatch. And while my book is obviously a work of satirical science fiction, there are certain parallels between Orrin Hatch the character, and Orrin Hatch the politician. For instance, like my character, the real Orrin Hatch is a songwriter. Indeed, I personally have several of his albums. In my book, the character Orrin Hatch is ingeniously manipulated by the music industry, because he wants to be told that he's a brilliant songwriter. It's a kind of soft corruption-- not Samsonite bags full of $20 bills. As for the real-life Orrin Hatch, there's a widely held perception in certain circles that at times he's been vulnerable to this sort of flattery.

So I kind of took all this together and created two equally comical and surreal worlds in my mind. The world of the music-addled aliens and that of the interaction of media and congress, but only one of those is made up, which is why it's kind of fun.


CB: Tipper Gore is another example, too. It's curious that so much of our law is based around these personal interactions, like how the way our system is influenced even to this day by Walt Disney.


Reid: Every time there's any danger of Mickey Mouse entering the public domain, Congress obediently stands up and extends the period of copyright, to the point that now it's 90 years after the death of the creator. The notion that authors like me would be improperly motivated to create if it were only 50 years after my death... it's just gone too far.

What that means is that the once-huge realm of public domain isn't growing anymore. If you go back to Disney's creations, there were all these wonderful stories Disney could access, like Snow White and Pinocchio; he built his entire business on top of public domain stuff, which is good, because he took these stories that were public property and he made them wonderful. But now we don't get to do that anymore, we certainly don't get to do that with anything that that company or any other company or any living person has created.


CB: I liked the aliens' concept of sharing; with all the alien companies spreading their art, with just the stipulation that they honor the local laws.


Reid: Never with all the trillions of societies they have interacted with have they ever run into anything like the fines from the Copyright Damages Improvement Act, which I think is just a brilliant name.


CB: So you feel a system like that is a better way of going about creative art? That the sharing and building of art forms is a better way for creators to create?


Reid: I think we need to go back to the balance we lived under for most of our history. I think patent law is an interesting place to look at, despite that the lawsuits going on right now are seriously endangering our prosperity. Never the less, our notion of patent law, that you create an innovation and are allowed a monopoly on it for 17 years and, at the end of 17 years, it enters the public domain.

All of a sudden there's generic medicine, and not only do rich and insured people benefit, we all can. And there is a reason for that patent, because if there wasn't money made, the medicine would never get invented, so you know, there's a balance, in theory. Historically we had something like that in copyright law, but it's gotten to that lunatic fringe state where nothing ever, ever enters the public domain anymore.

The problem of piracy, then, arises for a couple of reasons. I do believe people who create things should be able to sell them and make money, but piracy becomes rampant when the industries releasing those works don't make them available in a way that any sane person would want to have them. So what happened in music was that the first mass market MP3 player shipped in late 1998, and it was four and a half years before the music labels actually allowed their music to be sold as digital downloads. It was that four and a half year boycott that created the phenomenon of music piracy.

What I would like to see is creative works out there protected for a limited, reasonable period of time. I'm not anywhere near enough of an attorney to say that maybe 17 years is fine, maybe it should be the lifetime of the creator, but that frankly seems too long to me, because we're going to live a long time. But there should be a period of time where a creator gets to maximize their value, and then it should enter the public domain and we should all be able to remix, add to it, build on it, transform it in the ways that we see fit.

And I think that would be very liberating, because I would be able to do whatever I want with all the wonderful characters of the 80's or the great music of the 70's. Could you imagine how much creative energy there would be if all of those were toys in our toybox.


CB:It's a similar thing with what happened in hip-hop where the lawsuits that were enacted against sampling in the '90s caused the culture to shift. Because of the way the law changed, they were on the hook for every single one of those samples, sometimes hundreds on an album.


Reid: And we are culturally diminished for that. And then you listen to the work of Girl Talk, someone who is an extraordinary DJ and on the outer fringe of not giving a damn, and you hear his magnificent work and all I do is say a) I love it and b) what if normal people, instead of just these gutsy lunatics, what if we all got to do this? Imagine what would be out there.


CB: In the book, you've also mentioned this concept of how the music industry has taken to making every single other entity into an enemy. The artists are enemies because they are entitled, the fans are enemies because they are greedy and want everything for free, and promoters are enemies because the industry believes they should have control over promotions. So you bring up this fact that they treat every single other thing in their industry as, not an ally, but a force to be dealt with.


Reid: It's weird; I've dealt with a bunch of different industries, from restaurants to tech, and usually, almost invariably, there are very warm feelings between people in a symbiotic relationship with each other. Like in publishing, too. I'm sure the Barnes and Noble people sometimes get grumpy about the Random House people and vice versa, but they're in it together. They hang out together, they're happy to see each other, they have good things to say about each other, and they have relationships. There's something weird about the music industry, that I discovered when I started Rhapsody; it's the only industry where the labels seem to loathe everybody.

The two oddest things were this vitriolic hatred of radio on the one hand, yet nothing could be more important than to get a song on the radio, but there's this anger and hatred that radio should be giving them money, because they were giving the stations this product for free. It's like “no, no, you're actually illegally giving them money to put your product on the radio.” And the other hand, and I talk about it in one of the footnotes, is a similar hatred for MTV. MTV revitalized the industry in the early 80's.


CB: MTV easily made it into one of the most prosperous eras for the music industry.


Reid: And every executive I've ever met in the industry just gets physically angry when I bring up MTV, because they were “making money off of our stuff.” And they don't get that so were the labels, as a result. It's like that with Apple now too. They hate Apple, yet Apple practically saved the music industry.


CB: And it's not just music, the entire comic industry is based on that as well. In fact, it's worse in some ways because if you work for one of the mainstream publishers and you create a character, you don't own that character. At least musicians generally own their songs


Reid: But now you have Image as a result of that, right?


CB: Yeah, you have some creator-friendly publishers, but the point being that most of the major creations we associate with comics, the creators get nothing from them.


Reid: Like a work-for-hire thing


CB: Right, and the way they signed those contracts was by signing away your rights on the invoice, and if you didn't, you wouldn't get paid.


Reid: That's amazing


CB:So it was basically this hostage thing where you either got paid or threw away the work you did, with no middle ground.


Reid: It's almost like how the old studio system in Hollywood worked


CB: But then the '70s brought about the director era.


Reid: Right, right, the old days are way over.


CB: And yet it's kinda bizarre that the music and the comics industry are still dealing with that, and both of them are almost dying in a way as the sales are going away, people aren't spending as much money on them, and they're both terrified of digital.

For you, when you were researching this book, did you look into other industries and how they played into it? Are there plans to continue these ideas with the bizarre laws that also harm other aspects of our creative culture?


Reid: Well, the comparison that intrigues me the most is between music and publishing. Book publishing, that is. I think comics is a whole other thing, with a digital side very early in its infancy, and I don't know how that one's going to play out. On the book side, I think the publishers have done a far better job of the transition, because, as I mentioned, when the first MP3 player shipped, there was a four and a half year boycott; the major labels did not make their music available to what turned out to be literally hundreds of millions of music fans that wanted to have access to this wonderful new format.


CB: Right, and if it isn't available, they will go seek it out. And the only real option at the time was illegal downloading.


Reid: Yeah, it was prohibition. Did prohibition stop people from drinking? No. If tomorrow, we changed the speed limit to 21 and the drinking age to 55, people would not obey the law. By creating one way to get this unbelievably powerful new medium, that created piracy. What the publishers have done is that the day the Kindle shipped, it came with full catalog licenses from all six major publishers.

Now, what happens as a result?

In music, we all discovered downloads through piracy. And then after a half decade, people got very adept at piracy, and they got morally comfortable with it, because there was this notion that “they're not selling it anyway, right?”

In books, we first encountered an eBook in a completely sanctioned environment, which had world-class hardware, Amazon's world-class retail sensibilities, and all of the book titles we could possibly want, with a few annoying exceptions, that eventually came into line, at very fair prices with this really cool distribution. It was this beautifully integrated product that piracy can't touch. And so once you've experienced that, do you want to go back to some sort of low-rent piracy experience? No, you don't.

So piracy is a very minor issue in publishing. It's not trivial, but it's almost trivial, and that's because the publishing industry did not spend five years training their customers to be morally and technically comfortable with piracy.


CB: And treating their customers like criminals and enemies...


Reid: Yes, precisely. Now I think movies are somewhere in between, because many people have complained about wanting to see a movie and spending the next 15 minutes searching Hulu, Netflix, X-box, then finding out it is on Netflix, but it's VHS quality. Do you rent it then? How badly do you want to see it right at that moment?

So movies are kind of available, but in this crappy, vulcanized way that is driving a lot of people to pirate. So I think that the extent to which a good, fairly priced legal experience is available has more of an impact on piracy than anything else.

Now, in terms of where I take Year Zero, if I do a sequel, I'm more fascinated at this moment and more smitten with my characters and the situation they find themselves in, and the fact that we still have aliens somewhere on earth. And we still have this universe full of people who are madly in love with our music, and we humans still don't know about it yet. I kind of want to keep on this vector.

CB: You do kind of leave it open to explore what it would be like to be an alien, coming from this sharing culture, to live where you are treated like a criminal for trying to seek out things, and also dealing with the fact that a lot of people who have created all this art form are not treated respectfully.


Reid: Right; they're not owners. And getting away from the topic of the book a bit, that is one of the very interesting aspects of this moment we're in right now. I think we are seeing and will continue to see more and more artists going direct in one way or another, because the digital channel allows that.


CB: Which is happening already in music with things like BandCamp and tons of other options for musicians.


Reid: The odd thing about music is that although it's been going on there for a long time, major label market share hasn't changed; in fact it's gone up since 1999. And I think that's because radio still matters a great deal and you need to have labels to get on the radio. Creating an album is far more expensive than creating a novel; there needs to be the venture capitalists, someone funding it. There's a lot of stuff in music that's leading to the sustenance of the major labels, which surprised me.

I think it'll happen quicker in publishing and comics, well, comics I don't know, because they are really early, and I think that there's a large instinct on the part of a lot of comic lovers to have a physical totem, that collector mentality.


CB: Right, although that seems to be going away some now, with all the people coming to comics from, say, The Avengers movie, coming at it from the outside, but there's also part of the problem is that in the world of digital comics, the publishers insist readers pay the same as they do for the physical copy.

On the other hand, you have geeks, who have always been very technically aware and have always been at the forefront of technology, and they're all super aware of how they can get it elsewhere, as well as the costs that go into it, and they are also used to buying music digitally, where it's 99 cents


Reid: Or the eBook is $9.99 instead of $25.


CB: Exactly, so fans ask “why should I have to pay $5 for the digital issue when the physical one is the same amount” and there's no reason why I should have to pay that when there's no physical object. It doesn't make any sense, but the publishers insist because they think it will devalue their physical product to have a digital one priced lower, when really, it dissuades people from downloading the digital copy legally.


Reid: And that was exactly what the record labels said for years, and in so doing, they created a piracy mentality among music fans. It's very interesting to talk to people about eBooks and music. I know dozens and dozens of people who wouldn't think anything of pirating a song, but would never do it for an eBook. You create a mentality by insulting people's intelligence, by treating them as criminals on and on and on, until at some point, they are comfortable pirating your medium.

I think that's potentially a very dangerous path for the comic folks to be taking.


CB: You bring up this conflict where, some entities, rather than pay off their debt, think they should just let humanity die. I wondered whether that was a sly comment on the way that the death of the music industry would be maybe the best thing to happen to the music industry?


Reid: In some ways, it's a comment on the fact that the music industry did come very close to self destructing because it didn't want to give an inch, and so it's interesting to compare, if you get into the minutiae of how things were done in the publishing industry. I wrote a piece for the WSJ about the publishers embracing digital a couple months ago, and I want to do something on the CD as well, because I've done some deep digging and it's fascinating.

When the CD came along as a form, the labels started really grinding the artists horribly on terms at the same time they started grinding the consumers horribly. And one of the subtle ways they ground the consumers was that they really stopped releasing singles almost entirely, persuading Billboard to re-architect their charts, the commercially important singles charts, so radios would know what was hot. They arm-twisted billboard to redo their charts to base it on radio play instead of sales.

So at that point, they'd release virtually no singles and the ones that did come out had 500 copies, if that, and look at the number of singles that were bought in the 70's when all the hits were bought on a 99 cent record and then into the CD era when they ground down the artists and the consumer. And when that model was in peril, that petulant five-year period where they said “no, we're screwing everyone and making more money than we ever thought was possible,” that was self-destruction. Had they clung to that a couple more years, there'd be nothing left.


CB: And it basically did destroy regional music scenes, because it used to be that radio would rely on what local stores are selling to get information.


Reid: And local stores don't exist anymore


CB: Which was bizarre too, because that was the same time that Soundscan emerged and gave them unprecedented access to what was selling on a smaller scene, but all these scenes disappeared because the only thing being played on radio mimicked the exact chart.


Reid: The consolidation of radio with Clear Channel and so forth did not help at all. Because you didn't have the dialog between local record stores, DJs, and local bands, and that whole thing just went away.

CB: There's also this part that didn't show up in Year Zero so much, but I thought it fit, was the emergence of the 360 deal in record labels, where now to compensate for decreased sales, they're trying to take money away from elements of an artist's career that otherwise would not have been open to them. Like merch sales, concerts, everything; is that something you feel is going to become more prevalent as we get into the situation where the record industry is looking for more ways to tighten their grip on slipping profits?


Reid: Yeah, I think that there's going to be an ever-expanding bifurcation between the sort of factory generated music and the independent scene. And there was a very blurry line – back in the '70s and '80s, there was a lot of very independent, creative but not particularly commercial, music that ended up finding big audiences coming out of major labels.

I was a kid in the '80s and the notion of a bifurcation between indie and major labels didn't seem like a big deal, unless you were way hardcore, totally DIY. If you were going to print 500 and sell them at shows, and that's it, that's always been there. But outside of that, there wasn't this complete “us and them” notion like there is now.

Now look at how small the major labels have become, and how their artists, which the labels absolutely control every aspect of, get shoved onto the radio. I think what the result is going to be is a much much deeper cultural void between the corporate and that which is everything but.

And I think, ultimately for the music lover who loves the everything but, I think that the independent scene today is probably richer and more vibrant than it has been in any time. The bands that come through small clubs, I am just blown away at the richness of the rosters these clubs now maintain, with the fact that a very high percentage of the artists going through are doing it themselves. Wonderful as the mom and pop record stores were, and I miss them terribly, it was still hard to get through to them.


CB: Right, there was a distribution network to deal with...


Reid: There's this expensive physical distribution network that you had to find your way through somehow, and you know, as big as the hearts were of the owners of those stores, there were 18,000 of them scattered everywhere, and there was a major constraint in that aperture as well, which is blown wide open with the Internet now. And that'll actually be the way it goes now, I think. The people who want to be Katy Perry, who don't care if they write or sing their songs, that will always be a force. It's bigger than I imagined it would be in this stage in history, but I think there'll just be a huge bifurcation between those two scenes.


CB: At the same time, there are a lot of indie practices that are emerging that major labels are trying to copy, like mixtape culture, in hip-hop, that's where most acts break from is these mixtapes they give away for free, and major labels have been forced to kind of look the other way on the legality, because that's how they're able to get these artists out here. And then you have this reemergence of vinyl culture, where vinyl is actually the biggest growing aspect of the industry now.


Reid: It's still teeny tiny, but yeah, it is growing significantly, year after year. I thought it would be a blip when it first started.


CB: Yeah, nearly 400% since 2007. And it's becoming a thing where people treat digital as a commodity that doesn't have a monetary value, but they still want a physical representation, so you have people who then buy the albums they download. But they don't want the CD. Do you feel that that applies less to publishing because of the way the publishing model was set up for digital?


Reid: I actually think what's going to drive that a lot more is going to be the tactile interaction of the consumer and the media. I actually think music will probably be the most digital of all, because ironically, even though I'm a huge fan of vinyl and it's a more tactile and interesting thing with a bigger realm for artistic expression, due to their size, once you drop that needle, your consumption of what comes next is not all that different from hitting play on a digital file. I think the resurgence of vinyl aside, music will be the most digital medium

With books, I think there will be a much deeper loyalty to the physical medium for a lot of reasons. The first one is historically, you didn't just sit down and vanish when you read. We all get lost in novels, but you were in a constant tactile engagement with a unique physical object. Unique. They're all different, not even like CD's which are so standardized. And books are also furniture in a way that CDs were not, in a way that Vinyl is not.

So I think music will stabilize at maybe 5% physical, with books stabilizing closer to 80% digital, and some genres, illustrated or children's books, will exist in larger percentages. And bringing up that physical totem idea, it's an interesting point, because you do want the totem. You adore the album, you don't want the crappy cd, you want the vinyl. And I read about 80% digital, but if I find a book that I love, I do get the first edition in hardcover.

I'm not going to get a crappy paperback to put on my shelf, I'm going to get something kind of awesome, and I think that there is obviously that mentality in comics as well. I think if the industry can figure out a pricing scale that people will buy into.


CB: Well, the people want 99 cents, but there's a distributor with a monopoly in comics distribution.


Reid: Yeah, Diamond doesn't want that, and they are very vulnerable.


CB: And they've gotten the stores to think that digital is a threat and that Diamond is on the stores' side, even though some industry figures argue that digital has actually increased comics sales.


Reid: I think that assuming a digital model comes about that enough people can embrace, you'll get collectors who will read it in digital and never crack the cover of their physical copy and there will still be a hell of a lot of sales.


CB: People still want the first issue and things, that doesn't seem to be going away. There's another side to that too, that is especially relevant to the book industry, is that a lot of things about books and your enjoyment is sharing of them. But eBooks are generally very DRM heavy, so you lose this really normal part of book reading. Do you think that also helps the physical industry?


Reid: I think it's all those things, the tactile aspect, the furniture aspect, the sharing aspect; if I get to the point where I want to read a book multiple times, I'm a lot more likely to get it physically. Because you kind of want to turn back to that old friend and you want to lend it and hand it over.


CB: What do you see as the future of institutions like libraries, with the industry seeming to be averse to the idea of checking out eBooks at libraries?


Reid: The library is a very interesting subject. I think there's a real need for us to have a third place in our lives. We have home and work. Once upon a time, people had clubs or volunteer societies or church groups, but that seems to have gone away. And libraries are a great third place, where an incredible, spectacular, wonderful range of media can be gathered. And yeah, there's going to be a tension between the publishers of all media and the libraries.

The library's instinct is to want everyone to have access to media and not charge them because they are a public institution, and this is what they do. The library would rather buy a single digital copy and lend it to everyone in the world. Obviously the publisher can't exist with that, and what I understand is that there are notions of a library buying a book that has a finite number of times it can be loaned out. Or they buy something more like a license for some number of continuous users, I think that something like that will come about, some kind of balance, from an economic discussion.


CB: The growth of digital also has brought up discussion about our future and how, if something happens to our society, all of that is gone. We've learned so much from lost civilizations, because most of them left something behind. Do you see a situation like that being a problem, where essentially all human knowledge could be lost, influencing us to retain physical media?


Reid: I don't think many people think about it that deeply. It's a level of long term thinking that we as humans just don't do. It's intriguing, but I don't think we think that far out. I think we have a hard time thinking much further than, I mean, five years is about as far as we can do it, and it's usually an electoral cycle, hence the situation we're in now.

You can find out more about Rob Reid at, where you can also purchase his new novel Year Zero in the format and from the vendor of your choice.

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