As the Z-Cult story continues to evolve, many are pointing to the recent ups and downs of the music industry as a reference for where comics stand in the new digital landscape. This Wired interview with Universal Music head Doug Morris has been widely quoted this week, and it even contains a L’il Abner reference:
“There was a cartoon character years ago called the Shmoo,” he says in a raspy tenor. “It was in Li’l Abner. The Shmoo was a nice animal, a nice fella, but if you were hungry, you cut off a piece of him and put onions on it, and if you wanted to play football you just made him like a football. You could do anything to him. That’s what was happening to the music business. Everyone was treating the music business like it was a Shmoo.
Well, we don’t quite get that, but we do get this:
Morris insists there wasn’t a thing he or anyone else could have done differently. “There’s no one in the record company that’s a technologist,” Morris explains. “That’s a misconception writers make all the time, that the record industry missed this. They didn’t. They just didn’t know what to do. It’s like if you were suddenly asked to operate on your dog to remove his kidney. What would you do?”
Personally, I would hire a vet. But to Morris, even that wasn’t an option. “We didn’t know who to hire,” he says, becoming more agitated. “I wouldn’t be able to recognize a good technology person — anyone with a good bullshit story would have gotten past me.” Morris’ almost willful cluelessness is telling. “He wasn’t prepared for a business that was going to be so totally disrupted by technology,” says a longtime industry insider who has worked with Morris. “He just doesn’t have that kind of mind.”
And the result? People who do know how to find out new information reap the monetary benefits:
This year, 22 percent of all music sold in the US will move through iTunes. “If iTunes gets up to 40 or 50 percent, they’ll have too much power for anyone else to enter the business,” says James McQuivey, who analyzes the digital music industry for Forrester Research. If the labels want out, they have two choices: Find a way to unseat the iPod or allow iTunes’ competitors to sell unprotected files that can play on Apple’s ubiquitous device.
At the Huffington Post, Howie Klein, former Reprise Records president and current McGill U professor, recalls his own adventures in progress:
Morris may not have known what was going on, but at Warners we clearly understood the value and opportunity of the internet as a marketing vehicle to connect directly with music fans, circumventing the “gatekeepers,” particularly MTV and increasingly expensive and corrupt corporate radio. As we were realizing and taking advantage of the huge efficiency and power of this medium, we also clearly observed the beginnings of illegal music file trading and distribution by fans — and the ramping up of the demand for music delivered over the internet.
We viewed this “threat” as an opportunity. Not an opportunity to sue teenagers and/or their parents, but a new opportunity to let people purchase their music the same way they do at record stores. We didn’t assume everyone wanted to be pirates, crooks or wanted to rip off their favorite bands — we just assumed that fans of new music would be hip to new technologies — it’s kind of inevitable and luddites always lose in the end anyway; people crave convenience.
Obviously, music isn’t comics; iPods and downloadable music are definitely sonically inferior to a vinyl disc and a decent stereo system, but that’s an argument left to the music snobs, not fought over in the “I can;t read comics onscreen!” way that print vs online is debated.
But still, one can’t help but see echoes of the music industry’s avoidance of dealing with the Digital Threat in the comics industry’s reticence until very recently. To be fair, it’s very forgivable — record companies are billion dollar comgloms; comics companies are chronically underfunded. The digital revolution began in a time of dwindling profits for the comics industry, and no one was investing in anything.
Digital comics aren’t an inevitable revolution, but they are surely an exciting evolution. Mainstream comics companies are just beginning to take action because getting a small (or large) piece of this unstoppable pie is better than getting no piece of a pie you don’t even have the recipe for.
And go back to the iTunes stat. 22% of all music! Is an iComics-like digital delivery system in the future for comics? Retailers would fight it tooth and nail. Yet as a Beat poster argued, the easy availability of scanned in comics over the last few years hasn’t killed comics sales — sales are going up, or so they tell us. If digital downloading isn’t yet part of the establishment, digital sampling is: it seems to be the #1 marketing tool for comics right now.
Just to being this all full circle, the Morris interview inspired this comic strip from HijiNKS ENSUE by Joel Watson, excerpted above, a comic that we can enjoy in exactly the form it was intended to be seen in with just the click of a mouse. The future for comics was a long time ago.
SEE ALSO: This long thread on The Velvet Rope, a music industry message board, where woulda shoulda couldas are argued and no one has any clear answers.