Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Two recent events have propelled the subject for this blog post, although I’ve been thinking about it for quite some time.

I recently interviewed and wrote about my friend Jen Schwartz who recently released a new album. Jen and I had a discussion about the business side of being an independent musician today and the challenge of actually getting building an audience. Go here to learn more about Jen's new music.

I also recently spoke at the Center for Cartoon Studies about the history and motivation behind adapting comic books and strips to another medium. After the class, several students approached me and for another half hour we spoke about the difficulties in getting new comics to potential markets.

In the comic book fields this is nothing new. When I worked at Kevin Eastman’s publishing company, Tundra, in the early 1990s doing marketing and public relations, I quickly realized that in the comics industry the big question was whether or not you were trying to appeal to the reader to buy the book or to the shop to stock the book.

Back then though there were several distributors serving the direct sales market – comic book shops and subscriptions services – and all of them were willing, in the light of the out of left field success of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, to consider independent product.

Now there is essentially one distributor undergoing financial problems and unwilling to accept independent titles.

Comics and music share some marketing characteristics. Within these two pop culture genres, it was certainly possible for an independent to gain exposure and shelf space, but that chance has dwindled.

Consider that there used to be enough independent retailers in both categories who could be approached to take a chance. Consider there used to be enough music radio stations that were programmed locally that a band could approach directly with a record.

Consider as well there used to be magazines that served a common points for fans of a particular type of pop culture and the stories and the reviews they ran could help elevate an artist.

The glaring irony is that while digital technology has made the creation of comics, music and film music much more easier, the Web has not ensured easy access to an audience.

The Web is narrowcasting to an extreme. While a creator can launch a site, tie it into Facebook and Twitter one still has to find it. If you do not have a lot of name recognition, how do you get people to it?

I think we have to think as much old school as new school.

For new comics creators, there is no replacement at this point for actually working conventions, handing out some sort of freebie with your Web and social media info and hawking your wares. Make sure that every other independent has copies of your books and info. Form collaborations to lower the costs of tables and trade table space.

What the independent comics scene needs at this point is a monthly comics reader, not unlike the Utne Reader, only for new comics. Screw comic book shop distribution for this publication. It needs to be in bookstores and magazines shops to reach the readers who would like this material but would never take the time to find it for themselves in a comic book shop.

Select ten or so new comics people and run their stuff over the course of a year. Don’t run a serial unless it is completely finished. Keep it back and white and print the thing as a tabloid newspaper to save costs.

Like any magazine, though, it would have to make its money on advertising, which means the comics reflect a “Big Bang” lifestyle – the whole nerd/geek chic thing with ads for shoes, t-shirts, energy drinks, etc.

What my musician friend Jen is doing is using the Web and social media in a wise and aggressive manner, but she, too, is old school. She is forming a band and will get gigs to help sell CDs and spread the word on her music.

This, by the way, is exactly how rockers back in the ‘50s and ‘60s sold records and built their careers.

The Web is a wonderful way to distribute content, but only if people know the content is there to start.

If was advising someone today, I would stress the importance of having a web site, a Facebook account and a Twitter feed. But I would also tell them they have to have a business card, an elevator pitch and be willing to sell their content; work a table at a convention, seek publicity about themselves in newspapers and stage events that could attract the eye of an audience and television coverage.

Hey, you know I am for hire.

I think people are beginning to grasp that as “virtual” as people believe they are, the market conditions today compel people to realize that nothing can truly replace old-fashioned one-on-one personal contact.

© 2011 by Gordon Michael Dobbs

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