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DeathRay Rants: This Is Not A Digital Revolution

Note: My husband typed this during his usual comics-consumption time. If it was important enough to interrupt that, you should definitely read it.


This is Not a Digital Revolution

or

You Won’t Believe What Watching The Runaways Taught Me About the Fight Over Manga and DRM

In my last year of high school, I wrote an essay that used the French Revolution as a model to describe the fall of communism in the U.S.S.R. as a revolution. The realisation that all revolutions follow such a similar, and relatively simple basic pattern was one of those mind-opening moments that has stuck with me ever since. What does this have to do with anything? Maybe nothing, but I’m going somewhere with this, so stick with me for a few pages and see what happens.

I’ve been reading a lot lately about how manga publishers have jumped on the litiginous bandwagon, targeting scanlation websites like Mangafox in a bid to win digital readers back to the paying model. I can definitely sympathize with this: I am a big fan, and I want the artists that I love to be able to make enough money to keep doing what I want them to do. If reading scanlations is taking food off of their plates, then that’s a problem, in my view. On the other hand, every time I see this sort of thing, be it from manga publishers, movie studios, or the record industry, I just know that it’s tilting at windmills. I can feel it in my gut that they’re going to fail. It will take years; they won’t go down without a fight, but they will fall. What worries me is that they may take a shitload of our digital rights and civil liberties with them, on the way. This fear occasionally tends to sound like paranoia: after all, I know that the record industry or the manga publishers really have no desire to become Big Brother. They just want to make the biggest buck possible. But their efforts to change laws in their favour, to make that buck, are having much more far reaching consequences than they intend.

But that’s not what I really want to talk about. For more on that, you can read the brilliant words of Cory Doctorow almost anywhere. There’s nothing that I could say on that end of the subject that he hasn’t already said, and better. What I am here to talk about is the movie The Runaways. It’s a hugely funny and profound look at the early career of Rock Legend Joan Jett, and Cherie Currie, the lead singer of her first band. This movie is non-stop brilliance, and I do highly recommend it, but probably my favourite parts are the scenes involving record producer Kim Fowley and his brutal attempts to whip these teenage girls into a killer gimmick. And it was a gimmick that he was after. One of the tragedies of the story is that he wanted a novelty act, whereas the girls were trying to develop an actual band. When Joan Jett first approaches him for a shot at the music industry, he is quite clearly dismissive, until he hears her idea of an all girl rock band. Similarly, when it comes time to choose a lead singer, he quite literally picks Cherie Currie out of a crowd based on her look and her attitude, with the tellingly gleeful comment “genuine f-ing jailbait!” He hasn’t got a clue whether or not the girls have any actual musical talent, in either case. What he has hit upon is the advertising potential of an all girls rock band with a killer attitude. The rest is details.

The featurettes on The Runaways DVD show several people involved in the production talking about this as a “period piece”. I found this really amusing at first, because when you say “period piece” you’re not usually talking about 1975. I mean, I’m old, but I’m not that old, right? What really brings home that feeling of history are the scenes from the early band rehearsals: instead of bringing out pre-packaged songs and an auto-tuner, he has to actually teach them how to sing, how to play, and how to write songs. These were the days when producers and managers scouted talent, and actually developed it. Fowley makes it repeatedly clear that he is selling the band based on how their image can fit an advertising gimmick, but they still need to be halfway decent musicians for this to work.

“So all this is fascinating” (I hope) you’re saying, “but what does it have to do with manga?” That’s an excellent question, and I am getting there, if you’ll stick with it just a little bit longer. Kim Fowley, in this movie, is a perfectly crystallized precis of how media was been marketed to us for a long, long time. Content producers, be they record companies, movie studios, or book publishers, would scout talent, develop it, and market it to us. We, in our insatiable lust for entertainment, would hear a song on the radio, see a movie trailer, or read the back cover of a book in the store, and buy the product if it seemed good. Aside from taking a book out of the library, or occasionally borrowing something from a friend, we had no way to know if the whole product was actually good or not until we got it home. There are certainly ways to hedge your bets: when I was a kid, I would make my weekly trek to the local bookstore. I would comb through the SF section and read the back of every book until I found one that I liked the look of to spend my hard-earned money on. If I read one or two books by one author that turned out to be good, I would go straight to his name on the shelf until I had bought everything thing there was to buy by that author. That’s how I ended up with boxes full of Asimov’s books in my parents’ basement. But this method is flawed: I had a shelf full of Heinlein, including two or three mediocre later novels, before I finally realised that he had fully made the transition from “fascinatingly and challengingly original” to “creepy” concerning family dynamics. Likewise, I have read many reviews of newly released albums that make them seem really cutting edge and original, only to finally listen to a few songs off that album and think “really, this is what you were so worked up about?” How many people have emptied their wallets based on this sort of hype, only to be a bit let down in the end? Would you have bought that album, or that volume of manga, if you had been able to give it a more thorough test drive first?

The key logical fallacy of every content producer’s estimate of how much money they have lost to free digital piracy is the claim that everything that was downloaded would have been purchased, if the free download was not available. I have shelves full of legally purchased Cowboy Bebop, Ghost in the Shell, and other anime, but I am not the slightest bit sorry that I didn’t shell out a 100+ bucks on the box set of Scryed or Vandread. They were enjoyable shows, to be certain, but not that enjoyable. Likewise, how many of us have downloaded the greatest hits of Cheap Trick or Loverboy for an ironic chuckle or two on a long road trip? Would you have shelled out the $15-20 for that CD, if you had not been able to to find it for free? Unlikely.

Herein lies the interesting historical lesson from The Runaways: Fowley knew that the Jailbait With Attitude image would generate enough hype to sell some albums, but Joan Jett realised that she would need to be a good musician to outlast the hype and make a living in the industry. She worked hard, developed her talent, and made that happen, as history has shown us. As the music industry became bigger and bigger, the late 90s saw acts like The Spice Girls that were the horrible bastard spawn of The Runaways: all hype and little to no talent. Their songs were pre-packaged for them, and their lack of singing ability could be covered up with advances in studio production technology. Performers like Britney Spears were scouted, packaged, and sold; not developed. Although it’s true that this process has been going on since the dawn of popular music, the late 90s saw it elevated to a fine art, reducing the lead time from Band Formation Notice in your local paper to Pop Gods dropping to almost nil, and what happened? Justin Bieber and American Idol are testaments to the fact that this still goes on, but the fact is that most people got tired of it.

I am reminded of reading Schodt’s book “Dreamland Japan” in which he talks about the process of bringing manga over to North America. When the book was written in the mid-90s this was just beginning, and one member of the industry said that his biggest fear was that manga would become fashionable enough in North America to attract the attention of bigger money: they would start the wholesale importing of any manga from Japan that looked similar to the first popular series, without any effort to pick out works of real quality. This would glut the market with crap and, as he put it “thoroughly piss in the pool”, making people tired of the “fad” and ruining it for the people in the industry that wanted to bring over the truly good works of art.

I am shocked (shocked!) to see that this is exactly what has happened to the North American anime and manga market. To be fair, anyone who has done a bit of looking will find that in Japan this is still far worse. Go to Mangafox or some other scanlation site (if you’re worried about breaking the law, you can always pull the Bill Clinton excuse: “I looked at the titles, but I didn’t actually read any of the scanlations!”) and search on terms like “shoujo”, “slice of life”, and “school life”. For every great series like Fruits Basket, there are thousands of mediocre series that are veritable clones, indistinguishable from one another. The difference is that, in Japan, it costs you the equivalent of about $5 to buy a giant manga collection that will have chapters from several series. You can buy the collection for the one you know is worth it, and try out the others in the hopes of finding something good. Alternatively, you can spend $3-6 on a volume of the manga for a better look at it. Here, that same volume will cost you anywhere from $12-18 (before sales tax), and it will come out 6 months to a year later than it did in Japan. Or you can go to a scanlation site, and try it out for free, a few days after it was released in Japan. Is there any wonder that the publishing industry can’t compete? To make things even worse, my old stand-by for hedging my bet on a good product, buying more by the same author, rarely works because an author will often only work on one series for years at a time, and when they do have multiple publications, it is rare that they will all be localized to North America.

None of this is particularly new, I know. Most of these arguments have been made in some way or form already. Everyone knows that the best long term solution to this problem is for the content producers to stop peddling us quantity over quality: people are willing to pay for the things they really like. The epiphany for me was the realisation of what I believe to be the real crux of the matter: the record, the movie, and the publishing industries most likely know this as well as we do. What they don’t know, is how to do it. Picking winners has always been somewhat of a black art, but with the decline and fall of the part of the industry that actually developed artists, in the 1990s, there is nobody left who knows how to do it at all. They got so good at the process of packaging and marketing that they forgot how to develop the talent. Worse yet: they wouldn’t know how to market that talent, even if they could develop it. After all, they have been telling us all along that every new artist they brought out was “the next big thing that’s going to change your life.” Even if that’s true, now what do you say? “This time, we really, really mean it!” Once content producers stopped actually developing quality artists, and began to rely entirely on the hype-machine to convince us that each new work had that level of quality, whether it was true or not, it was inevitable that we would eventually become desensitized to the message. The thing is that it would have worked; it was working brilliantly, until the internet came along with cheap, easy-to-access digital downloads. Now we can try it out for ourselves before we buy, and all that hype loses its power.

If Marshal McLuhan were alive today, I think he would say “the marketing creates the content”. The industry markets content, they don’t produce it. They have always done the marketing, and hoped that the product turned out to be appealing enough to live up to the hype. So now, when the marketing fails, they they don’t know how to find or create the content that will inspire a new marketing model. All of the entertainment industry’s attempts to foray into the digital world have felt flat because they are still trying to apply the same marketing model to the new medium, without realising that it is the marketing model that promotes a product, regardless of content quality, that has failed, not the medium. MP3s are more convenient in some ways than CDs, and certainly more portable, but let’s be honest: you would still be getting the CD if you could get it as cheaply and easily as you can pirate an MP3 download, in most cases.

The big digital success story has been Apple’s iTunes: the product of a member of the electronics industry, not of the entertainment industry who was savvy enough to see what people really wanted out of digital downloads: cheap and easy to use. Also, their success has mainly been due to touting people’s fears over legal problems to get them to pay the small fees they ask for digital downloads. If you removed the threat of the law from free downloads, tomorrow, Apple’s consumer base would quickly drop to zero. That’s not a success story for the industry so much as it is a stopgap against the trend towards free downloads.

I am always nervous about using terms like “revolution” because they have been so over-played, especially by the afore-mentioned marketing machine, to have lost a lot of their meaning. In this case, I do think that it’s justified, however, and I have a bit of historical evidence to prove it. What I learned from my study of the French Revolution is that every revolution really boils down to a conflict between two incompatible methods of doing the same thing. In the case of the French Revolution, the emerging Capitalism and the nouveau riches that it created in France were at odds with the entrenched power structure of Feudalism over who got to run the country and how. It got to the point where too many established aristocrats had power without the money that the capitalist class respected to back it up, and too many capitalists did not have the power that they believed their money justified. Sooner or later, something had to give.

What we see in the entertainment industry today is a conflict between the industry, which wants to keep selling quantity over quality, and a certain class of consumer that does not want to pay for something unless they know that they really like it. Everything else is details. This is not about freedom of speech, or the ability to backup your files. This is not a moral issue, this is history. History is not moral or immoral. History asks “what happened” and “why?” not “was it right?” If you want to discuss right and wrong, then you’re talking theology or philosophy, not history. And that is why this is not a digital revolution. Everything to do with the electronic media here, such as DRM, faster internet connections, and the ease of copying are contributing factors, but they are not the crux of the matter. We are so insulted when content producers say things to us like “paying for this song just once is not enough, we want you to pay for every device that you put it on”, that we forget that this is not the key issue, any more than Marie Antoinette saying “let them eat cake” was the cause of the French Revolution. This is a Content Revolution: a fight over the right to know, before I buy something, whether or not I really want it. Any analog service out there that allowed people to read as much manga as they wanted with the same ease and cost as scanlation aggregators would have had the exact same effects on the manga industry as the internet. It’s just that the internet came along first and did it best.

I know that after all this buildup, that must seem like an anti-climax. You’ve stuck with me for quite a while now, and that is where I was going with this? It’s so simple and so obvious. But then again, if someone in Paris, in 1789 had said “I have managed to make myself rich by successfully developing my business enterprise from practically nothing. Have I not proven that I am at least as worthy to rule as that Upper Class Twit of the Year, regardless of who my parents were?” then it would seem like a no-brainer, but that really was the origin of the French Revolution, in a nutshell.

The irony is that the battlegrounds in this fight over content, like the long term effects on our civil liberties and the moral issue of paying for content will probably be more important in the long run than the real cause of this revolution, in the same way that the Reign of Terror and the rise of Napolean ended up overshadowing the cause of the French Revolution. Even so, they were results, not causes. If you’re asking yourself “why should I care?” then that is your answer. If you can get at the source of the problem, then everything else falls into place. Every legal battle with the entertainment lobby over this or that invasive DRM law is really just a game of whack-a-mole, unless you get at the source of the conflict. Even if you defeat them on this law or that, they will try to find some other way to game the system to force us into buying the cow without sampling the milk first.

Obviously things are a little more complicated than this simple summary thesis: all artists do get some development effort behind them, and the process has worked at varying speeds and in varying ways across different industries. It happened first and fastest in the music industry. The manga and anime industries are only the latest to follow suit. There are exceptions to every rule. Justin Bieber’s rise to stardom seems to fit pretty well into the old model of hype-machine over originality, while many artists that are promoted by Big Entertainment really are original and do have something of value to offer. So what’s the answer? Even if you buy my argument about the root cause of what’s going on here, that doesn’t really solve the problem. The entertainment industry is going to keep trying erode our rights to protect their bottom line, while internet piracy still won’t go away. Shutting down one “pirate” site like a scanlation aggregator is like squashing a cockroach: all you do is scatter the eggs on her back, so that a hundred more cockroaches hatch and grow in every corner of the room.

Part of the solution lies with artists themselves finding ways to circumvent the entertainment industry. Ironically, the afore-mentioned Justin Bieber (I believe) got discovered after posting himself on Youtube. Other artists, like Amanda Palmer, have made a career out of selling as much as possible, directly to the fans. If the marketing creates the content, then the entertainment industry could start by trying to actually change their marketing model. The previous model was always “we will do all the work to sift through the slush and find the content that you really want, just trust us.” When they actually did do that work, it wasn’t a half bad model. But people don’t need that anymore. Search engines and free downloads let us choose for ourselves what we think is good. Maybe they need to stop trying to pretend that they know how to scout talent, and start a model based on becoming aggregator sites. What about a site that was open to free uploading of music by artists, and offered the service of a really good quality search engine to help you find new music simlilar to what you like? Add in the possibility of buying a custom designed CD based of the songs that you pick out. Think of a scanlation site like Mangafox that paid the artists to upload their work directly, instead of going through a publisher. Maybe it could offer some editing help, pay scanlators to localize the work right away, and charge a reasonable monthly fee to viewers. Cut out as much as possible the cost of producing the manga, before the digital version. They could also offer print volumes produced and mailed to you on demand, rather than printing up huge amounts of stuff based on estimates of what they think will sell.

In short, “Only pay for what you already like” is the marketing model that has already been adopted by everyone who participates in the “pirate” market right now. And let’s face it, that’s almost everybody, at some point or another. Anything else you try to sell them is pretty much doomed to fail, regardless of whether you think it’s “right” or “wrong”. Even if you are right, morally speaking, that’s no guarantee that you’ll come out on top. Louis the XVI was probably absolutely convinced of his divine right to rule, right up until the second that his head dropped into the basket.

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  1. Cybernetic nomad

     /  August 7, 2010

    Interesting post.

    The endangerment of civil liberties in the name of copyright reminds me of how WWI reparations set the foundations of WWII. We (including the copyright holders who lobbied for those laws) may be getting way more than expected out of this. Unfortunately it will be a few decades and by then it may be too late to have an easy resolution. Compromise from the get go would be better, but the film and music industry don’t seem willing to have that.

  • Madeline Ashby…

    ...is a science fiction writer, strategic foresight consultant, anime fan, and immigrant. She is represented by Anne McDermid & Associates, and IAM Sports & Entertainment. She has been a guest on TVO's The Agenda multiple times. Her novels are published by Angry Robot Books. Her fiction has appeared in Nature, FLURB, Tesseracts, Imaginarium, and Escape Pod. Her essays and criticism have appeared at BoingBoing, io9, WorldChanging, Creators Project, Arcfinity, and Tor.com.
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