Home Comics What comics can learn from the music biz, part XLVIII

What comics can learn from the music biz, part XLVIII


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.


  1. A key thing about Itunes and digital music distribution is that the Ipod makes it easy to listen to, its in fact preferable to CD’s, but having a large online comic book collection is only good if you want to research a comic, not sit down and read it. Although that e-book reader seems to be the invention which would take care of that problem…

  2. “it’s kind of inevitable and luddites always lose in the end anyway”

    That’s it in a nutshell if you ask me.

    And you don’t really need a comics-specific reader like music needed mp3 players. There are plenty of new portable devices coming out all the time with screen visibility and resolution improving in leaps and bounds, and comics are already in the perfect format of words and pictures. If anything I think we’ll see some comics evolve to fit the devices instead of the other way around.

  3. I’m confused how vinyl on a home stereo could sound better than the tunes on my noise-cancelling head phones connected to my iPod. And I collect both LP’s and digital music avidly, so I have at least some grounds for an opinion. But I didn’t think there was a debate here at all, so I was shocked to see the “less than” symbol in place of the “greater than” symbol. Oh well.

  4. I think we’re at least a good 10-15 years away from having tech that’s both appropriate* for comics and cheap enough to be affordable to the mass market. And it’s gonna need a cool name.

    * What I see as being appropriate is a flexible 2 “page” full-color screen that can be compactly folded or rolled up, and weighs no more than what an average TPB collecting 132 pages of comics weighs. The controls for navigating the comics would need to be as intuitive as I hear the ipod’s is (I don’t have one.), and it’s going to need a LOT of memory.

  5. “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.”

    No truer words have been spoken. The web is the ultimate marketing tool – not to beat a dead horse, but if you remember that was my main reason for declining the Xeric money for Fishtown earlier this year. Without web support I would have moved about 8 copies.

    Last night a reader told me that not only has he been reading online, but archiving the pages to his computer, AND he’s still looking forward to a print collection as well. I think that this is the most common reader attitude towards serialized online GN’s – people will read it online, but ultimately, they want to curl up with it in their lap. And they will be willing to pay for a good book.

    But they won’t pay for one they don’t like.

  6. I’m real curious to see what the sales number will be for the Heroes hardbound that was released a few weeks ago. Here’s something that was originally offered for free online and then collected into a $30 volume.

    I bought one.

    I think a lot of other people did too.

  7. Looking down the road, I think we are a couple of generations of tech away from a decent reader for digital material. Rather than ignoring the ticking clock, I think it is important to get in front of it. So, I am putting most of the projects I have worked on onto wowio so that I can get a share of ad revenue from the inevitable downloads.

    A few weeks in, I have noticed that most people will not pay cash money for most of the things I have ever created. (Okay, I knew that going in.) But dead properties have moved pretty well there. 10 year old comics that had mediocre sales are having new life on that site. I think that digital downloads create new revenue streams without significant harm to the old streams.

    Better to surf the wave than drown under it.


  8. We’re not a couple of generations away or 10 or 15 years away from a good digital reader, we’re maybe FIVE away, at _most_. The data storage is pretty much there, the displays are pretty much there, even the rollable, soft LCDs are almost there (though personally I’d prefer a tablet-type reader). I’d also prefer that it be comic-sized so that I don’t have to pan-and-scan old comics. The only thing we might be further removed from is one that is _cheap_, but that isn’t all that far off either.

    I’d read my single issues like this and if I like it, I’ll buy the book since ultimately I prefer reading something that doesn’t need to be plugged in.

  9. Oh and as the music industry story demonstrates, the first company with the user-friendly device and content distribution system wins. The race is on.

    The first real-time MP3 player software was released in 1995. Napster came along in 1999. The iPod launched in 2001. A lot of that history has already laid the groundwork for what is coming with comics. The only thing holding the evolution back will be content providers and those that hesitate (as the RIAA did) will lose.

  10. Jonathan: my and my girlfriends were sitting around listening to LPs the other day, and shocked at how great they sounded. SHOCKED. We even listened to the same songs on iPod and LP through the sound system and the loss in quality was astounding. I’m not saying you couldn’t have good sounding headphones and so on, but the mp3 format itself is known to lose sound quality.

    Brian: 10-15 years??? No way! They already have e-paper. I was reading the SkyMall catalog on the way back from London and was tickled to see that you can now buy digital picture frames that project your favorite pictures electronically. They even have one with wifi so you can beam your new favorites into the frame.

    The Kindle is the first truly desirable eBook — it won’t be the last.

  11. Rick Rottman said:
    “Unlike the music industry, comic book sales have increased since 2004.”
    Comic book sales were down quite a bit before they started coming back up, so one doesn’t relate to the other.

  12. Bill Williams said:
    “Looking down the road, I think we are a couple of generations of tech away from a decent reader for digital material.”
    As fast as tech grows, that might only be 2 or 3 years. The first Kindle is being released. Neil Gaiman says it is excellent for reading while away from home. (He still prefers an actual book while at home.)

  13. The Beat wrote: “Jonathan: my and my girlfriends were sitting around listening to LPs the other day, and shocked at how great they sounded. SHOCKED. We even listened to the same songs on iPod and LP through the sound system and the loss in quality was astounding.”

    To me, WAV files sound like the original analog recording — as opposed to the standard MP3 file used for music downloads and for commercial CDs, which, to the discerning ear, will always sound inferior to both. And all MP3 files are not the same. Depending on the MP3 sampling rate used by a given CD producer, two MP3 recordings of the same song can vary greatly in sound quality.

    The downside of WAV files is that they are much, much larger than the average MP3 file. For example, a WAV file of, say, the 17-minute LP version of In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida will be about 175 MB, while a “dumbed down” MP3 file of the same song might only be a tenth that size.

    So I wouldn’t be too quick to write off digital recordings completely — perhaps just the lower-quality MP3 recordings.

    Regarding digital comics, I think as soon as a low-cost player with reasonable screen size hits the market — one that can be viewed anywhere (even in, say, the bathtub) — then I think the widespread acceptance of digital comics will quickly become a reality.

  14. Russ, next time you’re thinking of listening to In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida, call me and I’ll bring the Boone’s Farm… and maybe a few of those “special” brownies, too.

    OK, man?

    Far out.

    (But not in the bathtub. Nothing personal, man. Whatever turns you on, dude.)

  15. Russ is right that WAV files are about as close as digital can get to analog, but CD audio isn’t actually much different. The main difference between analog and digital is that digital playback is sharply defined, and lacks the warmth of a record, and digital audio has a strictly limited dynamic range whearas analog doesn’t. But CD (AIFF) audio has roughly the full dynamic range that the human ear can hear, and then MP3 compression limits that dynamic range even more, which is why it sounds like crap.

    A true analog record is sort of like a hand-printed comic; you’re getting a duplicate of the sound as actually created, the vibrations having been picked up by a needle similar to the way the human ear actually works. It’s a much truer copy of the actual sound. A CD or MP3 is like a scanned copy of a printed book.

    Interestingly, with comics today much post-production – cleanup, coloring, even all of the inking in many cases – is done digitally to begin with, so we may actually be getting a truer picture of the art in its digital form, rather than printed. Just some food for thought.

  16. IMO I find that a well-encoded 320 kps/VBR MP3 sounds indistinguishable from a CD or WAV.

    For those worried about the size of WAVs, there’s always the FLAC format, which is lossless and about 1/3 smaller.

  17. I think cost is going to be a major factor in the production of a comics-specific reader requiring no panning of the picture, as would likely be required in a reader designed for text-only books.

    There are at best a half million print comics readers currently. Getting the cost per unit down to something affordable and mass-marketable is going to be a tough thing to do anytime soon.

    The trick is going to be making the currently non-comics reading masses to desire the device, and if THAT was easy, they’d already be reading the print comics.

  18. “I think cost is going to be a major factor in the production of a comics-specific reader requiring no panning of the picture, as would likely be required in a reader designed for text-only books.”

    Right now, you can get an older tablet PC and easily turn it into a comic book reading machine for about $100. The screen size and dimensions are just about the same as the standard comic page, so no scrolling required.

  19. There’s problems with attributing “better” sound to vinyl LPs. Analog and digital sound each has its limitations. One thing to remember about vinyl is that the sound that goes onto the LPs is *NOT* exactly the sound that comes off the original master recordings. The signal is processed to compensate for vinyl’s limitations when the LPs are created, and when the needle “reads” the music out of the grooves, the signal is processed again, in reverse. This processing is all standardized in the equipment (that’s what “hi-fidelity” is). Most folks never realize it happens.

    Digital, by comparison, doesn’t have much in the way of signal processing. What you put in is what you get out, in the case of CDs.

    Digital is less forgiving, though, and if you don’t take care in mastering your original recording, digital audio will reveal those shortcomings.

    In the early days, many albums originally recorded with analog tape were transferred to CD by people who (like just about everyone) were new to the technology. Often, these transfers were poorly done. This is one reason there’s a lot of “remasters” of classic albums cropping up in recent years. People know a lot more about handling digital audio these days, and many early mistakes are being corrected.

    A well-mastered CD can be just as amazing-sounding as vinyl, without the inevitable pops and scratches or rumbling. MP3 files are a compressed and degraded version of digital audio, and I liken them to cassettes – cheaper and more portable than CDs, just as cassettes were cheaper and more portable than LPs before CDs came along. Most folks don’t seem to notice (or care about) the difference in sound quality.

    One problem, though, with modern CDs, is the tendency to make CDs “louder” by compressing the sound signal. Compare most CDs made in the ’80s with those produced today, and the later CDs will sound louder when played at the same volume settings. In order to achieve what sounds like a louder sound, the sound signal is compressed*, and the “louder” a CD sounds, the more it is compressed, and the more the dynamic range is reduced. What’s more, the compression distorts the sound, in much the same way turning up one’s speakers louder than they can handle will introduce distortion. Some sound engineers are pretty good at minimizing the effects of this distortion, but as the years have gone on, the push has been for louder and louder CDs.

    (*This signal compression is a bit different than the signal and data compression that happens as audio is converted to the MP3 format.)

    Once this compression is further processed by encoding the CD file to MP3, you can get a pretty crummy-sounding signal, compared to vinyl LPs. But this is not necessarily a fault inherent in the formats themselves – this is a result of trying to push the formats to their limits, to unreasonable extremes.

  20. >>I’m real curious to see what the sales number will be for the Heroes hardbound that was released a few weeks ago. Here’s something that was originally offered for free online and then collected into a $30 volume.

  21. Colin Wales,

    I have a good ear for musical tones. I had noticed quite a bit of odd sounding music over the years. Just a couple weeks ago, I found a link to a YouTube video about the sound manipulation in order to make it sound louder. The video has a sound graph (sonogram? that doesn’t look right) that ran while the music was being played. It showed the difference in decibels while you listened, so the difference in quality was more than quite striking.

    After I watched that video, I said, “So that’s what I have been hearing.” Thanks for more info.

  22. @colin wales —

    my band recently recorded with a guy that told me all about the problems audio engineers are having with groups entering the studio with these expectations of having a “huge” sounding record by just compressing and boosting the shit out of everything. interesting stuff, and it’s kind of funny then to record something but not want it to be dismissed as “quiet” or less dynamic because it’s not as balls-compressed as the latest records are.

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