Marc Alan Fishman: Where’s the Spotify of Comic Books?
Go check your phone or computer for the date. Did yours denote the year 2016? Mine did. In the immortal words of my muse, Bartholomew Simpson… “God-schmod, I want my monkey man!”
Now Bart was referencing a future in which humanity would have half-man/half-monkey hybrids as pets. While I too would love such an abomination on the open market, I come today in search of another future technology that seemingly should exist, but for whatever reason… isn’t. I come in search of a universally accepted streaming comic book service.
To date, I believe the most ubiquitous platform for digital comic book consumption is comixOlogy. They, like iTunes, offer an exhaustive catalog of periodicals of the pulpy nature. You find the ones you want, you purchase them, and you’re treated to enjoying them in a proprietary reader. Your digital library is always available to you, and can be read on desktops, tablets, and mobile phones alike. It’s not a bad system. But then again… it is.
I have never read Chris Claremont’s X-Men. Nor Peter David’s Hulk. I have not glimpsed at a single panel of Denny O’Neil’s Green Lantern / Green Arrow. In all instances, it’s not that there isn’t desire. It’s that I know to enjoy those tomes, I would need to sacrifice the purchase of modern books. And somehow the threat of missing what’s going on now always trumps the desire to read something that I know I’ll love. It’s the reason it took me two years after the end of Breaking Bad to actually watch the pilot. It’s the same reason I waited 33 years to begrudgingly watch Doctor Who.
In all other major media, there is a shift occurring. Because digital media needs only storage to remain viable to the consumer, the rise of subscription services are creating new audiences by burying them in an unending pile of content. Content accessible without restriction – save only for an affordable monthly fee. With Netflix, I can access an astoundingly large library of TV and movies for a tenth of what I’d spend on cable service. For less that I’d spend on a single CD, I can access Spotify and with it more music than I could ever hope to listen to in a lifetime. It seems a shame that somehow amidst all these successful services, we’ve yet to see comics do the same.
What’s holding them back? Perhaps the complicated legality of it all. Figuring out royalties for an individual item can’t be easy. Hell, don’t we all remember when TayTay Swift threw a (still ongoing) hissy about her music? You see, Spotify and the like pay on a complicated system of plays, royalty percentages, and the actual number of paying subscribers. That way, artists may be inclined to pimp their streaming albums as means to the end. What it equates to is an average of $0.006 and $0.0084 per stream. Music though, is often a repeated enjoyment. Comics, not so much.
Take my music consumption habits for example: I make a few playlists of things I like to jam out to. One list (“Guilty Pleasures”) exists as a bank where songs check in and check out until I’m sick of them. I’ll play this list of 20-30 songs almost 4-5 times in a given week. Each song stays in my playlist for about two months or so. Anyone doing the soft math would eventually realize that in those plays, I don’t even come close to paying even the $0.99 it’d cost to purchase the song outright on iTunes. But, the artists still let ride. Why?
I’d like to think for the same reason I’d be more than happy to see my own indie titles in a subscription service where I was paid pennies for downloads. Because I know at the end of the day, content purchase is only one revenue stream. I purchase tangible CDs and graphic novels from musicians and artists I love via their crowdfunding campaigns. I purchase tickets to concerts. And I socially share things I like to those who I think might like it too. This leads to secondary and tertiary means by which the content creators I love ultimately see success. When it comes to comics, sure, we might enjoy accessing a large library of readables digitally. But we’ll also attend comic-cons where we’ll tempted to enjoy the collectible side of our favorite medium. That means the same book now potentially raises revenue multiple times. I’d consider that a win in my book.
At the end of the day, let’s be honest: It’s Marvel and DC’s passive-aggressive war with one another that will prevent a service such as I desire. They’ll continue to keep a stranglehold on their licensable properties and await the sales to spike when the next movie or TV show debuts. They’ll await the demise of the original creators still drawing a royalty on their creations.
And off to the side, great publishers like Image, Boom! and the like will push the boundaries of the medium, and enjoy their continued rising success in the direct market – small as it may be in terms of bottom line profits. Strange then to think that if the music industry could find a reasonable solution, that pulp and paper will continue to keep their heads in the sand.