The Embarassment of Riches

For today's independent artists, integrity can be financially rewarding. Can punk rock and alternative comics make peace with entrepreneurial capitalism?


At the San Diego Comic Convention, an artist-rebel harangues a crowd of hundreds in a huge double hall in the convention center. His name is Todd McFarlane, and he is one of the most popular comic book artists of his generation. In 1992, he abandoned a safe berth with a giant entertainment corporation, Marvel Comics. McFarlane's art sold millions of Spider-Man comic books, and made him a wealthy man.

An insurrectionist and troublemaker, McFarlane enticed some of Marvel's other star attractions to quit with him, and set up a new umbrella company for their work: Image Comics. Image differs from big, traditional comic companies. The artists retain full ownership of their own characters and work. The business end of the company works for them, merely helping them with printing, promotion, and distribution. The creators are the bosses. In a field dominated for decades by two big companies–Marvel and DC (a subsidiary of Time Warner, the world's biggest entertainment conglomerate)–this was a truly revolutionary move: the independent creator at war with the big corporation.

Addressing the comics convention, McFarlane looks the part of the scruffy modern Bohemian, wearing a loose blue T-shirt, denim shorts, a dirty baseball cap, and a goatee. But as he swaggers and jokes, he seems to revel in demolishing some traditional preconceptions about the relationship between money and art.

Oh, money isn't important to him, this rich man assures the crowd, in the classic tradition of the artist rising above mundane concerns. Then the punchline: "The only good thing about money is, if you have enough of it, you can do whatever you want."

And he's doing it. Instead of licensing his popular superhero Spawn to some toy company, he started his own toy company. Sure, he's letting outsiders make movies and cartoons of Spawn, but he's keeping a close eye on them. He sounds like the traditional artist bashing corporations when he gleefully sneers that "the big corporations are bloated and fat. They can't catch a skinny little weasel like me." But then he makes a joke of the old cliché that to an artist, selling your creations for others to use and profit from is as bad as selling your children. "When I sell my kids," McFarlane jokes about his TV and movie deals, "I want visitation rights and some say in how they are raised."

Across the country, in another area of youth-oriented pop culture, Patrick Hughes tells another story of working outside the traditional corporate structure. Hughes runs an independent record store, carrying only small-label independent releases, in Gainesville, Florida.

"I got a call from these guys who had just put out a record by a local band," he recalls. "It was their first time doing this, so they had some questions about the business end of it all. They wanted to know things about distribution, standard prices, and such. I gave them some advice about how to price it in line with the usual market rate, which would allow them to make their money back plus some.

"That stopped them. `Oh, we don't want to make any money on it,' they told me. `You know, it just wouldn't be right, it would just feel weird.' I couldn't really pin them down to why they felt this way. I mean, what's the problem? Charge an extra 50 cents, sell a couple hundred, use it as seed money to make another record, to pay postage on mailing it to radio stations around the country so more people can hear it.

"They said, `I guess that might be cool and all, but we really don't wanna get into that sort of thing.' But what if you don't sell them all, I asked, don't you want a chance at making enough money off the ones you do sell to break even? `Oh, we don't want to make money,' they said. `We just wanna get this music out.'

"I tried to explain, you can get the music out more efficiently, make it go farther, have money to put out more music on a later date, by charging enough to make a sensible little profit. The whole notion that they could make a minimal amount of profit to plow back in was distasteful to them, like it would sully the purity of what they were doing."

The idea that commerce will necessarily "sully the purity" of art is a hoary one, common not only in the highbrow arts that rely on government and foundation grants but in the underground popular arts fed by fan enthusiasm. As one man who works in the distribution of independent records puts it, "Nobody [in the independently produced arts] actually talks about the money because it's considered to be a very insincere source of inspiration, a dirty facet of a dirty business." While its sources are understandable, this attitude hurts artists, depriving them of both audiences and profits, and it helps infect the general culture with the sense that markets by their nature subvert important values.

As Hughes's and McFarlane's more balanced approaches suggest, however, something is changing. Increasingly, "indie" artists have the chance to marry commercial interests with artistic integrity–to get their art to more people without sacrificing their vision and, if they're lucky, to make even more money than they might by "selling out" to a big corporation. Entrepreneurship has become a real option for such artists, making trade not a vehicle for corruption but a way to communicate with fans.

Before the late 1970s, this was almost unheard of. Then, in the '80s, whole new ways of doing business arose in comics and rock, allowing artists to retain more control and ownership of their work. In both fields, new distribution networks and trade/commentary magazines developed to help sell and publicize these works, which appeal to a more limited audience than mass-market comics and rock. New technologies, such as desktop publishing and relatively inexpensive digital recording and manufacturing technologies, reduced the capital needed to enter the comics or record business. Today, starting a record company or publishing a comic book takes less capital than buying a five-year-old Honda Accord.

Some "indie" companies are just small, while others are actually run by the artists themselves. Either way, they're distinguished by their independence from big corporations. The large, traditional companies tend to take a more authoritarian hand in running artists' careers; retain ownership of all the characters and music; take a larger slice of any income; and are generally more bureaucratic. The deal they offer artists isn't all bad, of course. Big publishers and record companies also take care of key business details that can be as important to getting the work out as actually drawing the comics or playing the music.

Colleen Doran, creator of the formerly self-published comic book A Distant Soil, learned this lesson the hard way. Although she had publicly celebrated her independence from corporate paymasters, she relented last year, moving her comic book over to Image. Self-publishing, despite the freedom, has its downside, Doran explained to The Comics Journal: "You just don't have any clout when you're all by yourself….You can't negotiate, you can't get the best prices on printing…because you're just a single person. Your printer knows it, your distributor knows it….You just don't have any power."

Although Doran still owns her characters with Image, some of her fans did not approve of that compromise. In much of the indie world, self-publishing itself has become tied up in the "commerce sullies art" mentality. From the reaction of a vocal group of self-publishing acolytes, "You would have thought I'd raped someone's grandmother," she says. "The fans now perceive that self-publishing…is more important than our role as creators and the creation itself."

Self-publishing is "something of the '90s fad movement thing for hip creators to do," another former self-publisher, Matt Wagner, told The Comics Journal. To audiences used to consuming less-obscure portions of popular culture–television, movies, books–this whole issue might seem senseless. Who cares who sells or owns the cultural products you want? Besides, artistic self-production is almost unknown in other areas of pop culture, and is often considered disreputable.

In fact, when comic book artist Paul Pope began self-publishing in 1991, he created a phony persona to be his publisher. "My understanding was that self-publishing had this vanity stigma, and I wanted to avoid that," Pope says. "But when I started meeting other people in the comic business, I realized I was wrong. Literary self-publishing and comic self-publishing are perceived very differently." Not only is it not an embarrassment, there's an audience that considers it a definite plus. (Pope self-publishes his THB and also works for bigger companies, including the Japanese mega-publisher Kodansha.)

"Indieness" can be its own marketing tool. In the record field, many big labels create new subsidiaries to try to seem indie, emulating cheap-looking ad and promotion techniques that indies use out of financial necessity. (This same phenomenon can be seen now in the beer industry as well, where big breweries create new names to emulate hip microbrews.) And the small-press and self-published end of the comic market has been slowly gaining a larger market share–although that share is still small (about 5-10 percent)–of a rapidly collapsing market. (That share excludes Image, since its size and mostly superhero focus make it a slightly different animal, even though its characters are creator-owned. Even market leader Spawn has gone from a 1993 high of sales over a million copies to sales today of 160,000.)

Jeff Mason, who publishes Indy, a magazine dedicated to the world of self-published and small-press comics, explains the attraction: "It's very important to own your own thoughts. Selling your thoughts or signing away the rights to your thoughts is anathema. The idea that you can create something and it's not yours at all is bad. I want to give support to folks that are doing their own thing. If you don't own it yourself, you are at the whim of the person paying you. You aren't free to do what you want, you can't take risks, you can't create. Companies like Marvel and DC are like committees, and you can't create by committee. Committees don't tell stories, they just make demands." His magazine focuses not just on self-published comics but on any creator-owned comic.

Mason has a point–and provides insight into one reason why these audiences of pop culture cognoscenti fret over issues of ownership and corporate control. The world of small comics has delights to the discerning fan that one more fist fight between Spider-Man and Dr. Octopus just can't offer. The recent wave of deeply personal naturalistic autobiography in small comics–one of my favorite trends–isn't the sort of fare that adolescent-power-fantasy-oriented big companies provide. And Dave Sim's Cerebus, a self-publishing pioneer started in 1977, is doing something no big company has done: presenting a unified 300-issue-long narrative telling the entire life story of one character (a talking aardvark embroiled in the political and religious struggles of a mythical pre-industrial world), written and drawn by the same creator throughout.

But Sim is getting more out of self-publishing than creative freedom. Sometimes artists can have it all: integrity, freedom, and filthy lucre. Sim, for example, takes only $40,000 a year in salary from his company, but it owns a home for him to work out of, has no debt, and grosses half a million dollars a year. (Sim won't specify the net, but says it's "considerably" less.) His lack of debt, Sim says, "puts us well ahead of Time Warner, in my view." All this from selling his comic book to a monthly audience that has never topped 30,000 and now hovers around 12,000. The real money comes from repackaging his old comic books in large book collections. Sim is able to make sure that his entire life's work is always in print and always generating income for him. Even small niche markets can be lucrative when the creator controls all of the income stream (minus the distributors' and merchants' shares).

Sim, to his credit, has never played the traditional "artists should starve in a garret for their art" role. He is known in the industry for his extravagant spending on travel and entertainment. A Comics Journal editorial once referred to him as "a man…who stays at the Savoy in London and serves his guests Beluga caviar while making pronouncements on such subjects as the greed of publishers." He regularly runs photos of himself in exotic vacation spots on the back cover of Cerebus.

Through much of 1995, Sim devoted both cover space–unheard of in a commercial comic–and long text pages at the front of his comic to advertising for the "Spirits of Independence" tour, a series of local conventions promoting independent creators and heralding the advantages and growing popularity of self-publishing among comic artists. He emphasizes the importance of maintaining control over how much of your work stays in print and available for sale. Even the large cash advances big companies can provide, Sim suggests, can pale in relation to the constant and long-lasting income stream total ownership of your work can provide.

Sometime self-publisher, sometime corporate employee Paul Pope agrees. He does see an aesthetic distinction between the comics he self-publishes and the work he does for bigger companies. "I put the more meaningful stuff out myself, the stuff that's important to me on a philosophical level as well as financial–the stuff I'm willing to take a 100 percent risk on. And with any investment, you're going to want to be able to get returns over time. The saving grace of self-publishing is that the decision about how long something stays in print and earning money is mine."

This is a lesson learned, in the underground rock field, by Mark Robinson, formerly of the band Unrest. Robinson has run his own label, Teen Beat Records, out of Arlington, Virginia, for 12 years. His band Unrest achieved popularity beyond his label's capacities–Robinson thought it too difficult to get the money together up front to pay for the recording and manufacturing costs that Unrest demanded. So he and the band signed first with a subsidiary of Virgin Records in the late '80s and then with a subsidiary of Time Warner in the early '90s.

Robinson ended up dissatisfied with the level of creative control over packaging he got from the Time Warner subsidiary–less than he was promised–and thought that in some cases he could have sold as many copies on his own as the bigger companies did. Now he doesn't own the music and has no say over keeping it in print. If he still controlled all of Unrest's records, Robinson says, he could still be making money off of them and attracting more wholesaler attention to his small label by offering the desired Unrest albums. (The rights to the Virgin subsidiary's records revert to Robinson after 10 years, though the ones with the Time Warner subsidiary are gone forever, he says.)

Robinson's dilemma limns a mostly unspoken truth about the indie ethos: "Selling out" can sometimes be less lucrative than the integrity of independence. This is especially true for the two most quoted avatars of independence from the corporate machine in rock, Ian MacKaye of the punk band Fugazi and Washington, D.C.'s Dischord Records, and Ani DiFranco, modern folk/punk troubadour.

If the Sex Pistols showed would-be punk kids that anyone could be a rock musician, MacKaye holds a similar place of honor in punk history for showing them that they could also control the production and sales of their own records. Looking over Fugazi's press clips, one finds MacKaye talking about "people who are into doing this music for life, not making any money out of it, but doing it because they have to" and how his label's goal was "not to make money, but to help as many of our friends' bands as we could." Fugazi has been the loudest and most steadfast holdout–especially in the post-Nirvana indie-rock feeding frenzy among the major labels–for strict independence and low ticket and record prices. The Washington Post once wrote that Fugazi's "rigid adherence to these precepts gives the band that most valuable of intangibles: integrity."

Still, that integrity has a very tangible reward: money. Fugazi alone has sold over 1 million records. While MacKaye wouldn't discuss total income for his label or band, I run a small indie rock label myself and have some sense of the costs involved. Even given overhead that's much higher than mine (Dischord has a half dozen employees who receive a full panoply of health and other benefits), I can't figure that Fugazi is netting any less than $2.50 per CD, and probably more. (The issue is complicated because Dischord's bands are paid a pure profit split, and MacKaye is both part owner of the label and a band member.) From there, the math isn't hard. Having the integrity to collect all of the money off your work leaves you with something more than just integrity to take to the bank.

That doesn't mean that making the money was your main goal, which is the distinction important to MacKaye–and he is definitely sincere. "Rock 'n' roll is an insidious collision between art and business," he tells me. "I'm in this parallel but valid industry and I'm self-sufficient. I just feel much more comfortable doing it this way. It makes more sense, and I understand the air here."

MacKaye proudly describes how he grew up in D.C., a town the record industry ignored, and built a thriving company off his own band's efforts and savings. As a young man in his first band, the Teen Idles, he was "disgusted by the way the rock 'n' roll industry worked. It was all packaged and had no organic aspect. Then I came across punk rock, and I felt comfortable here. Profit isn't the final motive in punk rock. People's ambitions were much more creative. It's not to make money, it's to play with ideas. Making money is an addiction that is very tedious." Of course, making money can make "playing with ideas" easier, and spread those ideas farther, as Hughes, the Gainesville record store owner, tried to explain to the amateur record-label owners.

Despite his concerns over the addiction of money making, MacKaye is–as he should be–comfortable with his own money. "I'm confident that I'm responsible and am doing things that are useful and reinvesting in things I can believe in," MacKaye says. Fugazi's success allows him to support other local D.C. bands on Dischord that only sell 3,000 records.

Ms. magazine cover girl Ani DiFranco is the current sensation of the radically indie philosophy in music. She told The Washington Post that the music business is "dehumanizing and exploitative"–and "not much different from any other big business," so she sells her records through her own Buffalo-based label, Righteous Babe Records. Forbes, praising her business savvy, reports that she pulls in an average net of $4.25 per CD sold, with 260,000 sold in 1996. The Artist Formerly Known as Prince, who mused publicly about going totally indie after his acrimonious split with Warner Brothers, but instead now runs his own NPG Records through a manufacturing and distribution deal with EMI/Capitol, said it best to Forbes: "I love Ani DiFranco. She's making $4 a record and the superstars are making $2, so who's got the better deal?"

And the superstars are doing a lot better than smaller-sales artists like DiFranco could realistically hope to on major labels. Typical new artist royalties amount to around $1.30 per unit, says New Jersey musicians' manager Gary Waldman, who was vice president of MegaForce Records in the '80s. And those royalties only kick in after, on average, 300,000 units sold, because big labels charge all recording fees, advances, production costs, and most promotional and touring costs against artist royalties.

On a major label, an artist can easily sell as many records as DiFranco and still not see a penny past the initial advance. The Buffalo News writes that DiFranco is about "talent, art and integrity winning out over the usual record business pitfalls of hype, money and conformity." DiFranco is a nonconformist. But, says Waldman, "Ani DiFranco is making a much better living than she would through a major label." The truly cash-minded, greedy musician would do well to nonconform along with Ani. And with her leading the way, it is increasingly possible that some superstar on the Prince level will take the financial risks of going indie to reap the possibly greater rewards. (The risks include both the upfront money the artists would have to pay for recording and manufacturing, and the less-than-perfect distribution and promotion system for indies–though the more superstars go that route, the better the distribution would become.)

I ask Dischord's MacKaye whether, given the realities of major label financing, he thinks Fugazi could conceivably do better financially with a major–whether his business decisions not only fit with his independent sensibilities but make good financial sense as well. "That's too hypothetical a question," he responds sharply. "I don't give a fuck. I don't spend my time trying to compare relative incomes of various possibilities." He then goes on to explain how Dischord began from his pure motive to do what he wanted to do. Granted. But as much as I respect MacKaye for sticking to his principles, it seems strange that he is so reluctant even to discuss the financial benefits that follow his principles. Those benefits are an integral part of small-business capitalism, even if MacKaye's punk rock background doesn't encourage defending that dirty word.

The tension between entrepreneurial reality and anti-capitalist ideology is becoming increasingly apparent in indie art. Since the early '80s, the 'zine Maximum Rock 'n' Roll has been the Bible for young punks–the main ideological enforcer of the anti-money, anti-corporate line in amateur punk rock and the place where younger fans learn what it means to be properly punk. The Berkeley-based 'zine used to run a column by Lawrence Livermore, former operator of the indie punk label Lookout! Records. When Lookout! artists Green Day hit it big, and the company began making millions (though Green Day left them for Warner Brothers), the MRR crowd turned on Lookout! with such ferocity that a weary Livermore sold his interest in the label and left punk rock behind, announcing his defection in a column in Punk Planet, a rival 'zine founded in 1994. By contrast, Punk Planet sees Lookout!'s success as a triumph.

"They made money by putting out good records. I don't think they should be faulted, they should be heralded," Punk Planet's editor, Daniel Sinker, insists. "Now their employees have health insurance and the bands are getting paid well. The difference between them and the majors is that the majors don't exist to put out good music–they are just arms of major corporations to make money for it. They wouldn't care if it's records or microwave ovens."

Sinker believes in companies that care about music over money. (He refuses ads from major labels.) But he recognizes that the business of selling music, however small-scale and independent, is, well, a business. Punk Planet ran a long March/April cover story analyzing what Sinker calls the "lie of punk"–the notion that punk rock exists in a Platonic realm of purity, in opposition to the dirt and greed of capitalism. "You have to bludgeon people over the head with the idea that making and selling records is capitalist, and that's what punks do," Sinker says. Punk Planet, with its more realistic attitude toward commerce, has risen in sales from 800 copies of its first issue to 7,000 now. (MRR sells 13,000.)

Often in indie pop culture, people try to disguise business realities. But acknowledging it can encourage institutions that protect artistic control without eschewing commerce and, in turn, expand the opportunities to create art. Peter Bagge draws the popular alternative comic Hate for the small publisher Fantagraphics. While he doesn't self-publish–he doesn't want to cope with all the necessary business details–artists who work for Fantagraphics do retain ownership of their characters and art. (This is true of many newer, smaller comic book publishers.) Fantagraphics pays its artists purely royalties based on sales and retains a small percentage interest in merchandising, though the artist has approval over merchandising deals.

For a long time Fantagraphics didn't run outside advertisements in its comics, assuming that its sensitive artists would object to this invasion of commerce into their realm. That wasn't always true. "When I found out I could get more pages in my comic and keep the price steady by running ads, I said, absolutely!" says Bagge. "If I knew I stood to gain, I would have done it from issue one." Now Bagge's comic book features more pages, but with the same cover price. He uses those extra ad-driven pages to run backup features by other artists, thus exposing them to his larger audience. Many of his fellow Fantagraphics artists have followed suit on the ad question, although some are still holding out.

Bagge has been on the receiving end of shouts of "sellout!" from purist fans for changing his comic to color from black-and-white, for running ads, for adding UPC codes to the cover. He expects more such carping if he seals the deal he's working on to sell a cartoon based on his characters to a cable network. "If I tell my next door neighbor, who doesn't care about the comic book world, he'll say, `Great!' He'll be disappointed if it doesn't happen," Bagge says. "But among the comic book people, I'll hear all sorts of nasty comments, and almost to a man people criticizing me will be doing it from resentment."

More than just resentment is at stake, though. Advocates of independence often believe in the propriety of what they do on an ideological level that goes beyond just business sense. For example, a leading small comic publisher, Caliber, and a leading indie record label, Simple Machines, both issue pamphlets explaining step-by-step how individuals can manufacture comics or records themselves. This is not usual corporate practice, to say the least–actively instructing your customers on how to compete with you or do without you.

Audiences for smaller-circulation music and comics often feel special because of the pop culture they choose, set apart from the thoughtless throng. This attitude can be self-indulgent, a way to prop oneself up at the expense of the herdlike masses. As a reader of indie comics and a producer and consumer of indie rock music, however, I know there are often-important aesthetic distinctions between small-company and self-produced pop culture and the larger mass pop culture. Without getting into extended aesthetic arguments, music outside the limited range of commercial sounds available on contemporary rock radio is just more interesting and exciting. When SST Records, a 1980s indie rock powerhouse and early home for such bands as Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr., Soundgarden, and the Meat Puppets, sold bumper stickers reading "Corporate Rock Sucks!," they meant it for both business and aesthetic reasons.

That punk rock attitude has spread throughout most underground youth culture arts; the audiences for underground music and comics largely overlap. As comic book artist Evan Dorkin once told The Comics Journal, "People who like stuff that's hard to find tend to like stuff that's hard to find in every medium. They just develop this attitude that, `I'm not going to find my stuff at Tower Records, at B. Dalton's bookstore.'"

Meanwhile, the community aspect of the independent arts adds a level of non-cash-oriented play to these small markets–an aspect that is often hidden in big corporate capitalism. The richer our world becomes through the workings of capitalism, the more considerations of play can work alongside the bloodless financial calculations that prompt cries of "sellout!" from indie purists.

After years of refining their tastes–and becoming jaded about the often crude pleasures of more mainstream rock and comics–certain cognoscenti are indeed going to find more pleasure in small-circulation products for aesthetic reasons that go beyond mere snobbery. But anti-mass-market snobbery is hard to get rid of. In Washington, D.C., various indie labels get together for an annual "Indie Rock Flea Market" in which bands play, food is served, and labels and bands set up tables and sell records. In 1994, the local "commercial alternative" station–anathema to the true-blue indie rock fan–set up a booth. Two indie fans were disgusted, The Washington Post reported: "The mass marketing of their beloved subculture has devalued its music."

Such snobbery ignores some of the real benefits of money for small pop cultures. Ian MacKaye's Fugazi money supports many other bands. The money made by one of the creators of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, of all mass-market excrescences (though it too began as a self-published parody of mutant comic books, not the kids' sensation it became), supports the Xeric Foundation, which gives grants to destitute young comic book artists to allow them to self-publish. The relationship between capitalism and lively underground culture can be complex.

The comments of one of the organizers of the Indie Rock Flea Market are revealing: "I just wanted to create a venue where the demographics were all the same, where everyone liked the same stuff."

"Everyone liking the same stuff" is the language of the fan seeking an isolated, small, simpatico community, one of the driving values behind small, alternative artistic subcultures. "Demographics" is the language of people trying to sell you something. They can mean the same thing. One does not rule out the other–and doesn't everyone, creator and audience, benefit from being able to buy the things we want?

As Gary Groth, owner of Bagge's publisher, Fantagraphics, and editor of The Comics Journal, puts it: "A lot of anti-corporate talk can basically be self-serving greed. It's just another new market: the anti-corporate market."