by Steve Ogden and Tom Dell’Aringa
In a previous article, Dawn already talked about the broken webcomic “business model” , but there might be something in all this that’s even worse than a simple broken model.
The web is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it’s a direct route to a potential multi-billion-person audience. Never in history have artists had such exposure potential, and for nearly free! On the other hand, we present our work free to the passing public. In presenting our work for free to people who haven’t sought it out (ie, passersby) we are very much like subway musicians.
“… Giving away your work can devalue your product, so tread with care. The exposure is great, but it devalues our work and the work of others, because we’re all training our audience to expect our work for free.”
Consider the story of world famous, virtuoso violinist Joshua Bell, who performed as a subway violinist in a DC Metro station for about 45 minutes one day as part of a Washington Post experiment. His performance in the Metro station went largely unnoticed except for a few kids who wanted to stop and listen but were yanked along by their busy parents. He only made $32 in tips.
The purpose of this experiment was to discover whether people stop to appreciate beauty, even recognize it, among the drudgery of their daily lives. It turns out they didn’t. Bell’s experience brings to mind the old Real Estate adage that the three most important factors to the value of a property are “Location, Location, Location.” Sure, the time and place of the performance matters, but the state of mind of the audience matters, too. No matter how talented you are, no matter how famous you are, how pricey your tools or fantastic your material, if the audience isn’t ready for it, doesn’t have time for it, or if the venue isn’t right for it, you’re not going to captivate them. Even for Joshua Bell, who only a few days before this experiment sold out a Boston venue at $100-a-seat, the violin he was playing in the Metro station was a Stradivarius valued at $3.5 million, and he was playing Bach, for heaven’s sake!
It also suggests that we need to pull our readers out of their routines to get their attention. We need to get them to approach our comic on our terms, not just as they’re passing through their daily collection of RSS feeds or Facebook posts. And we need to get them to buy our books, not only because we make money, but because they are metaphorically attending our concert, seeking us out as an entertainment option. We place enough value on our product to put a price on it, and they recognize that value enough to hand over their hard earned money to get it.
The other side, of course, is that most of us frequenting this site are not Big Names yet, and in our case, giving stuff away builds an audience (at least in theory). But giving away your work can also devalue your product, so tread with care. A friend likened it to Open Mic nights for comedians, who use that venue to get noticed, and it’s not lost on me that many famous comedians started out this way. But it is another double-edged sword in that it’s hard for talented comedians to get paid so long as there are other talented comedians out there willing to do it for free just for the exposure. Both Steve and Tom had the same problem as a struggling musicians once upon a time, and we see the same thing in writing circles where people are giving their Kindle books away for free. The exposure is great, but it devalues our work and the work of others, because we’re all training our audience to expect our work for free.
We could coin a term for the place we inhabit, we who are trying to build an audience for our work: the Obscure Valley. That is, we’re not amateurs exactly, but we haven’t built names for ourselves yet, either. That means we’re hungry for exposure, and still going up the hill toward greater recognition. Once at the top of that hill – once officially out of the Obscure Valley – our brand, our name, and perhaps the weight of Big Names who sometimes are attracted to up-and-comers, propel us down the other side of that hill where things get a bit easier. Our efforts pay off, we gain momentum like a snowball rolling downhill, and our success is all but inevitable.
But for now, getting up that hill is our collective problem. Some see the solution as giving the work away for free, but the example of Joshua Bell here paints a pretty clear picture. You’ll get your $32 of tips, but you’re not going to sell out any $100-per-seat venues until you position yourself and your work as worth the price.
But if Joshua Bell had put out a personal message to his fans ahead of time that he was going to be at that station playing for tips – thousands of people would have flooded that place and cheered him like crazy! Why? Because he has a real, tangible fan base that he built over time, starting when he was very young. He began in the Obscure Valley himself, playing tiny venues and honing his skills. He built up his audience and his brand, and eventually became this guy that he is.
“…We need to pull our readers out of their routines to get their attention. We need to get them to approach our comic on our terms, not just as they’re passing through their daily collection of RSS feeds or Facebook posts.”
Those of us laboring at making comics and putting them on the web are metaphorically trying to play the subway without having anyone to invite. We’re just hoping the passersby will make us rich, and that’s sort of a foolish, unrealistic expectation.
With that in mind, however, it’s great that we have the “subway” – the internet – as a venue when we’re ready. Until we are ready, we should work to become ready. We should hone our craft, but just as important, we must work much harder at really connecting with people who might like our work. That’s the tough part of course, and it involves a lot more than just spamming your social network, posting links and doing fan art and guest strips for other artists. These things have finite results.
Our task is to build our personal brands – both in cyberspace and just as importantly, real space – so that we can begin to climb out of the Obscure Valley. This is a task that is unique to each one of us, and possibly takes more skill and effort than actually creating comics. But if we can be successful in building up our personal brand, then we are tangibly increasing our audience. Once that happens, we can go back to the subway, but this time we can invite people to come see us play. And when we do that, the rewards should be much more than $32.
Steve Ogden is the Studio Art Director for Firaxis Games by day. By night, he tries to build his audience with comics like Croaker’s Gorge and Moon Town . He is composed primarily of imported beer and flank steak.
Tom Dell’Aringa is the Principal Interface Designer at WMS Gaming in Chicago by day. By night, he tries to build his audience with comics like Marooned and A Tale of Two Robots . He is a professional cotton-headed ninnymuggins.