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The Elephant in the Room

Right, I’ll try and keep this as brief as possible.

Last night, inspired by the latest ‘foreign pirates are killing anime’ outburst from the Japanese industry, I fell into one of my usual rants on Twitter:

“The anime industry avoiding the same elephant in the room as music industry did 10 yrs ago: consumers know worthless product when they see it.

And who wants to pay for worthless, disposable product when you can get it for free?

Napster was at end of a decade that was dominated by the Spice Girls and hip hop selling out so much even fucking Jay Z looked authentic.

Your record is in an ad. Your record is a ringtone. Your record is a fucking McDonalds jingle. And you expect us to pay for it AS WELL?

Your anime is full of product placement. Your anime has a fuck awful OP by a shit Sony girl band. And you expect us to pay for it AS WELL?

My point isn’t about ‘defending piracy’ – it’s about giving it a cultural context.”

Well, I thought what I was trying to say was fairly straightforward – that like the music biz the anime industry had devalued its own product so much that it is hard to act surprised that people don’t want to pay for it. But judging from the flood of responses I got, apparently a few things need clarifying. Lets have a look:

Wow, what show are you talking about?

I’m not talking about any specific shows, I’m talking about how anime in general is – rightly or wrongly – perceived.

Your theory makes no sense, because good shows sell just as badly or worse as bad shows.

Well, for a start, that’s not my theory at all.

My point is not ‘anime doesn’t sell because it’s low quality’, it’s ‘it is seen as acceptable to steal any anime because it’s all viewed as disposable’. My argument is that this is exactly what happened to the music industry: in a desperate attempt to exploit every revenue opportunity while also reducing costs and investment it devalued its own product to the point that consumers feel little unease with obtaining it illegally.

Nah, it’s not the industry’s fault – people pirate because they are evil and immoral.

Um, maybe. I like to be a little less nihilistic than that. Besides, there are examples of people (I’m thinking Cory Doctorow and Radiohead here) in other media making a success of asking people for money while giving away their work. Perhaps what is needed is some risk taking and imaginative thinking?

OK you clever bastard, so what did the music industry do to solve all this?

Well, the industry itself did nothing really to solve it. What it mainly did was gripe and whine and bitch and demand pointless, ineffectual legal action while still taking the same attitude to the product it was churning out. Sound familiar?

In the end it wasn’t the traditional industry that tried to fix things, but Apple and iTunes that stepped in to present a different model.

WHAT? BUT iTUNES AND APPLE ARE EVIL!!??!?!!?

Yeah, OK. I know what you’re saying – iTunes has many, many issues. Sadly this is not that debate. What is interesting about iTunes is that it showed that by finding sensible price points, breaking up albums into smaller products, supporting micro-transactions and making the whole process very quick and easy it is possible to convince some consumers (in fact, a very large number of consumers) that buying legitimately is less hassle than piracy.

But the anime industry isn’t Apple! It can’t afford to start up a version of iTunes, plus the model doesn’t fit anime at all?

Sheesh, stop taking me so literally. I’m not saying an ‘Itunes for anime’ is the answer. Not at all. To be honest I don’t have a firm answer. I’m just some mouthy Brit on teh internets, its not actually my job to provide any answers. I’d like to think there are people out there in the industry who are much cleverer than me and whose job actually should be to come up with answers, and I can just go back to drinking and babbling on in an amusing chimney sweep’s accent.

But you must have some suggestions?

Well, if we can get back to what started all this: my main suggestion is that the industry stops whining about piracy and using it to deflect blame away from how it has devalued its own product. Connected with that it could stop throwing hissy fits and pulling simulcasts or not allowing foreign distributors from putting out boxsets and blurays. That would all be a good start towards calming down and trying to find a way out of this mess. Or maybe it really is too late.

So this just sounds like your usual ranting – you’re blaming the death of the industry on moe and lolicon and some shows that YOU don’t like despite being quite popular with fans.

Okay. Please – just take a deep breath and read this whole post again. Please.

But commercialization and sponsorship has been part of anime since day one, this isn’t a new thing.

Exactly – and the same is true within music – pop music has been used to sell other products etc since the 1950s. That’s not a criticism of my argument – its further evidence for it! You’d hope that after half a century of doing exactly what I’m describing here that both industries would act less surprised that consumers view their products as low value and disposable. I mean, how stupid do they really think we are?

But what is wrong with a show being disposable? I quite like some shows that I admit are disposable.

There’s nothing wrong with a show itself being disposable! There is always going to be disposable product in every entertainment industry, plus ‘disposableness’ is in itself – like quality – a subjective term.

The issue is this though: don’t whine about something being disposable if you made it that way. If you are a studio that makes shallow, disposable product then don’t act all surprised if people might enjoy watching it once, but don’t want to pay to own a handful of episodes of it on an overpriced DVD. You can’t blame them for that. Instead you need to find alternative ways of monetizing that one, single viewing. Or to price it far more realistically. Again this is how iTunes works, by charging mere pennies for products that its customers view as largely disposable. Not perfect for the artist and industry arguably, but its still a lot better than someone just stealing it.

Or, of course, you need to make a less disposable product in the first place….but lets stop there before we start going around in circles again, shall we?

7 thoughts on “The Elephant in the Room”

  1. I’m not sure that the issue is so much about content becoming “more disposable” as it is consumers having less interest in collecting and hoarding the products they consume.

    As is the case with pretty much every entertainment medium, the Internet and digital storage have combined to shift us away a world where people are interested in buying something to keep forever and ever in favour of just consuming what they want when they want it, and I can only imagine that shift (or slide, dependant upon your viewpoint) will continue as connection speeds get faster and access cheaper. Why buy a bunch of DVDs when you access the show you want to watch on YouTube/Crunchyroll etc?

    The answer to that question is still, at the moment, “region locking”, where I couldn’t agree with you more – content producers (and not just in the anime industry) need to realise that the Internet has knocked down any regional walls when it comes to delivering content, and it’s laughable to see, for example, a service like Steam unlocking a game on different days in different territories.

    In short, I agree that content distributors need to wake up and make the most of the global digital economy modern technology has opened up. At the same time though, I would posit that the days of entertainment media being anything *other* than “disposal” are numbered.

  2. @Hanners

    Yeah, I think you’re probably spot on there – apart from maybe I need to widen *my* definition of disposable. I’m not talking about a merely physical state, but also how a consumer views or values a piece of art or entertainment in the long run after having first consumed it.

    If its a show you only sort-of enjoyed, and will probably never return to, why pay to own or access it at all? That’s the mentality that is used to justify a lot of piracy. It’s the same mentality that developed in the music industry – “this song is ok, I might listen to it a few times this week. Its not that great though and always on the radio and MTV, so why should I bother paying for a whole album?”

  3. I think the problem is that everyone takes what the vocal minority of fans say as factual. Like if someone says “I won’t buy such-and-such show because you left out honorifics” and then they buy the show anyway.

    Plus there’s also people who would want to buy the DVDs but can’t because they don’t live in America (Something you should be able to relate to) or they’re dirt poor.

    Obviously SOMEONE has to be buying these shows, just look how well Hetalia has sold for Funimation. Do you really think that everyone who bought that watched it on Funi’s video portal first?

  4. The collapse of the music business and the collapse of the TV business and the collapse of the anime business are just symptoms of a much bigger and more profound shift in the world: Digitization.

    This is the real elephant in the room. If you’ve taken any classes on mass media and communication in recent years, you’ve read the introductory chapter. Digital media has changed the value of every kind of informational outlet that we have the ability to connect to the internet: TV, radio, music, movies, books, magazines, games, and even social networks. The balance has shifted. The forms each of these entertainment mediums took on before the internet has either changed dramatically or been wiped out by the speed and ease and inexpensiveness of wired and wireless communication. The anime industry is just a single victim in a crowd of dozens.

    This was never really a surprised. There’s no point in pretending to be shocked about it. We all know the trend is out there and it’s never going away. We just maybe don’t have the foresight to see how when and where and how dramatically it’s bound to impact each of us on such a personal level.

  5. Elaborating just a little on my comment from yesterday after a little more reflection: It’s not just media and entertainment businesses that the digital age is reinventing. At the same time, the internet is bringing down the postal system, libraries, malls, video stores, and all kinds of other institutions we continue to take for granted in modern society. Life has changed. The industrial age isn’t coming back. All of us, industries and consumers, have no choice but to adapt or die.

  6. Bleh. The entertainment industry needs to wake up. I only pirate things because I think it’s morally wrong the way companies like Sony or Universal try to make it look like people are all stingy buggers who want everything for free. We don’t, we just don’t want to fork out £15 for an album where two-thirds of the songs are half-baked, or a movie we’re not even sure we’ll like. They pump money into a handful of artists, getting them all the awards and stealing Christmas number one, but it’s difficult to get any enjoyment out of it because all you can see are the nameless faces pulling the strings. It’s such an old, decrepit business model, yet they’re still trying to defend it by bringing up their “lost profits of £[insert millions here]” now and then. I agree with Jon that they desperately need to adapt, and stop thinking that piracy is copyright theft and treat it more like advertisement. IMO free online streaming and on-demand channels with advertising revenue are the way forward.

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