Webcomic Artists as Subway Musicians


by Steve Ogden and Tom Dell’Aringa


busmodelIn 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.”


Joshua Bell.  Photo by Chris LeeConsider 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!

Webcomics As Subway Musicians

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.




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  1. This is a really interesting perspective! The dichotomy between “giving it away for free” and “our work has value” is as old as webcomics itself, but the thing that really interests me is the notion of people on the internet being “passers-by” to our comics…I would hazard that webcomics are a bit different to the ‘Subway Musician’ in this regard, as although few people would head to the subway *just* to see what new/different/exciting musician is playing there today (ie – their destination is elsewhere), people *do* tend to head to the internet with the intent of checking out new webcomics (and the people that do this tend to stick around for a bit when they find a new one they like). For those people, it might be less ‘trying to get the attention of someone walking by’ and more ‘try to make THIS the shop in the mall that the person who came there looking for shoes will buy at’
    Of course, if we tried to market ourselves ONLY for those people we’d be angling for small fish in a very big river, and the points made above about needing to grip someone out of their “webcomic browsing” routine still resonate, but I thought it was worth noting 🙂

  2. Yeah, Terence – the mall shops might be a better metaphor, as some people do head out specifically to check out our work, and are actually quite loyal customers. But there was something in that Joshua Bell experiment that resonated with me along the lines of what we all are trying to do, and I could see many of us making the mistake of thinking that just by showing up and playing the subway without trying to grab an audience ahead of time, we’d succeed.

    Thanks for reading!

  3. From reading your article I’m guessing YOU have never played in the subway… I’ve been playing in the subway for 18 years: http://youtu.be/lPvTTc7jAVQ
    It is FROM playing in the subway that I got gigs playing at Carnegie Hall, Madison Square Gardens, Lincoln Center, etc., as well as on movie soundtracks, TV commercials, etc.
    However, just as an FYI – I play in the subway because I love it for what it is, not because I am looking for it to be a step elsewhere.

    • Hiya Saw Lady! Thanks for your reply. The inspiration for this article came from the Washington Post experiment with virtuoso violinist Joshua Bell (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/04/04/AR2007040401721.html), which is kind of going about it in the opposite manner from your path. Had he played there for a longer period of time (weeks? months? years?) maybe he would have achieved some attention as you did. So, in comparing subways to the internet… I wonder how the timetable differs. Or, how the “venue” differs, and the attention span or intent of the passers-by.
      The fact that you got such wonderful gigs IS inspirational, and it’s what most of us hope to achieve with our comics. Of course, we have to love drawing the comics for ourselves or our internet readers in the first place, as you love playing the saw in the subway…. but striving for success financially, to at least justify time spent, is also important to many of us.
      Best wishes to you and my your unique talents take you wherever you want your path to lead!

  4. Thanks for the article guys, definitely an interesting analogy!

    You line ‘connecting with people who might like our work’ is the eternal question, one that I’m trying to figure out as I try to grow an audience/fanbase. I guess I’ll keep plugging away in the ‘Obscure valley’ for the time being. *L*

    Thanks again!

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  6. I’ve always compared the webcomic business model to the free sample tables in the grocery store. They hand out free samples of a product and then beg you to buy them. Meanwhile, 95% of the customers circle around for another free sample. But in our case, imagine that sample booth surrounded by thousands and thousands of other free sample booths.

    The webcomic industry is inevitably doomed… or at the very least, plagued by a huge risk factor where your success is directly related more to luck and social networking rather than raw talent and/or ability. Why is it doomed? Because the internet is free. Because of that same analogy above: The AVERAGE reader will not pay to read your strip. Their logic (which is perfect sound) is “why pay for this when I can go over to the next booth and get more free shit.”

    And I’m sure someone on here will say “yes, but the cream rises to the top.” Maybe… But internet popularity does not necessarily equate to monetary success.

    • well put Mike/Wit. I pretty much agree, which is why I am altering my business model and considering more “traditional” approaches like publishers or artist reps. But that’s also based on 7 years of stats and data that has convinced me that most likely my comic isn’t geared towards webcomic readers, or less likely- the system is broken or I’m just not talented enough.
      However, I don’t regret trying out the platform. I networked and made some great friends and have learned a lot- I am farther along than I would be had I just continued to send my syndicate submissions in every 6 months and not sharing my work with the world. Even with the new business model, I am not taking down my site or claiming that my comic is NOT a webcomic. It exists online, therefor it’s at least partially a webcomic, but in it’s simplest form it’s a comic strip.
      Who knows, we may revert to having a syndicate-like overhead that will pick and choose the “cream” and give them a better chance to rise to the top. It’s already been happening in smaller forms: collectives, gocomics, keenspot, smaller comic studios like BOOM. No matter what continues to happen, some indie creators will still find unlikely success. I guess the best bet would be to pursue both– the traditional approach and the indie approach. We can’t wait around to be “picked up”, we have to pick ourselves up and find the right path for our brand/style/audience too.

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