Levitz: Free Kills Art

A while back, Newsarama has had their annual chat with DC head Paul Levitz on the state of the industry. Here’s a part that jumped out at me:

NRAMA: Speaking of piracy, obviously you’re aware of the debate going on between fans that it helps bring new readers in via sampling vs. it hurts the industry overall because publishers and by extension, creators, aren’t being paid for their work. You are of course, going to take the “hurt” side of the debate as the Publisher of DC…

PL: The hell with being the Publisher of DC – I’m a comic book writer, and I like my royalties. When I look at the music industry, I think less music is being created and marketed today than there was 10 years ago. I think the effect of piracy has been to discourage creativity. You have a tremendous amount of ground level creativity – the group that would’ve only been a band in somebody’s basement, who now have access to the market by putting their stuff up on YouTube or in some other fashion, being able to have a shot at a moment of fame and some income, which is wonderful. The internet has been very positive and powerful that way.

But the amount of music that’s being created by any form of an established group has diminished enormously. I don’t care for that, as an occasional music shopper – to find that my choice is diminished. I find the amount of effort being made to introduce new music to a wider audience, the amount of money being spent on what I’ll describe as “introductory marketing” has diminished enormously. I don’t think it’s as vibrant a marketplace as it was years ago. I think that’s a bad thing.

Is this true? I don’t have ten years of experience as a mature consumer of music (in 1998 I was just starting to buy used CDs from the dollar bin after church), but isn’t the general consensus just the opposite, that the Internet age has seen a renaissance of creativity? Levitz acknowledges the growth of “ground level creativity” but claims that “established groups” have become less prolific.

Is he just missing the point? Is he an old fogey who’s wondering why the Stones and the Who aren’t putting out albums every year? (hint: Mick, Keith, Roger, and Pete are all over 60. So’s David Bowie, who’s spent the last few years recovering from a heart attack instead of recording a new album). Potentially he’s missing all the new developments in music because he’s only looking at his old favorites (which of course grow less prolific over time).

keith_richards.jpg

Another possibility is that the very concept of an “established group” is changing. As Chris Anderson says, we’ve seen a decentralization of entertainment — the days when everyone in America watched four TV channels are gone forever. There can’t be another moment of Ed Sullivan introducing the Beatles to America because there’s not another Ed Sullivan (or even another John Peel). So any “introductory marketing” that happens is going to be targeting a decentralized market, rather than having some monolithic tastemaker declare the next Important Thing.

On a related note, we know that the major labels have been spending obscene amounts attacking individual pirates; maybe those expenditures have damaged marketing budgets as well, and it’s not merely declining sales that are to blame? But anyway, back to Levitz.

When someone takes creative work that has been made at expense and with effort, time, energy, and says, “I don’t need to pay for this – I can find a way to enjoy it without rewarding the people who created it”…I think that tends to make that stuff go away over time. I think that’s a great challenge for the next generation of society in many media, not just comics. If people become convinced, as a society, that all forms of entertainment ought to be delivered to them free, they’re going to get a lot more advertising in their life. It’s not the worst thing in the world, but it’s probably not the best either, and they’re going to get a lot less investment in entertainment, and I think that will reduce choice over time. We’ll see.

Interesting — and directly at odds with Chris Anderson‘s optimistic vision of a FREE STUFF economic model. Also relevant: this NYTimes article ruminating on the growing gap between the cost of reproducible information (a U2 mp3, the text of the Magna Carta) and unique objects/experiences (a U2 concert, the Magna Carta itself).

Advertising is only one way of subsidizing FREE STUFF. Another model postulates that giving your product away for free greatly reduces the likelihood that casual fans will give you money, but greatly increases the number of casual fans you have, of which a percentage become hardcore fans who are willing to pay for a deluxe edition of your product. Ideally you end up making the same amount of money (or more) and multiplying the size of your audience.

Girl Genius by Phil & Kaja Foglio
Well, it worked for the Foglios.

As for people’s tendency to devalue something because it is inexpensive: it certainly has been known to happen, but I’m skeptical about its application here. You can get Shakespeare for free on the internet and I’m pretty sure his reputation is intact — not to mention the sales of well-edited and/or convenient editions of his work. Ditto for the best comic strip in the universe.

Or you could be like many indie comics publishers, and make books that are beautiful objects which people want to own. Funny how nobody’s complaining about piracy of Darwyn Cooke’s Absolute New Frontier.

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Leigh Walton talks comics and maybe other arts. (RSS)
He also works for the very excellent publisher Top Shelf Productions (which does not necessarily endorse the views and opinions, etc, herein).

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Header by me. Contains an interpolation of the final panel from All-Star Superman #1 by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely. Speaking of which.

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