Initially, I had been looking to avoid any posts on this subject after reading endless posts regarding the news in the wake of Bandai’s shuttering of new acquisitions of physical media, and now its backing out of several other regions, including France. But the ensuing talk and blogging that has come since has more or less left me feeling the need to make sure Diet readers gain an important insight regarding where the industry has been over the last several years. Most noise-making by far has been a writeup at Kotaku, where he not only professed his ignorance of the nature of the industry, but echoed sentiments often more recently heard by many within the continuously dwindling US anime infrastructure. While much of what was important about the post dealt with the media reality we all currently share, I also found it to be fraught with questionable statements, and not to mention lacking in any grounded fact. While it may be true that piracy has been a long-standing issue in anime fandom, it has also in fact been one of denying the inevitable.
A large portion of what makes Charlie Maib’s article so misguided, is that like so many contacts, associates, friends, and peers within the LA-based anime world, many seem to only be focusing strictly on ONE major point of concern, the piracy issue. Now while I consider myself to be a firm supporter of artist rights, concepts of ownership, I also find it deeply important to look at changes that affect this. If there’s a piece of media (not just anime) that I truly enjoy, I will shell out the money and pay for it. And one can also see me constantly directing interested parties to ideas and works I like in hopes of helping them survive in such a volatile climate. But the writing has been on the wall regarding even larger problems for such an absurdly long time- That physical media as a means to support an industry was fatally flawed from the start, and was never meant to last.
And this isn’t merely about anime we are dealing with here, we are talking all media, down to movies, television shows, etc. The very foundation of what was once a collector’s only club was likely only meant as such during the early days of home video. Many may not remember a time when a single VHS cassette of a film like Raiders Of The Lost Ark would go for roughly $80.00 . It was a number of years before the dreaded $24.95 price tag was even considered by the major studios. And a major reason for the change of heart was the advent of cable tv, a growing new market that was sapping away ticket sales for films released in theaters. The world had changed, and the movie industry had to grudgingly adjust to the new reality by taking a large hit. And this is far from the first time this has happened. Since technology has gathered steam, profits for such an industry has had to rush to keep up by retaining losses in often risk-taking new ventures. This has been a constant struggle, and we see it prevalent in so many ways we collect media.
Top this off with the reality that even in the days of magnetic media, people could make copies of their own. Anyone remember your local Sam Goody? A large part of the music chain’s intake came from the sales of blank cassettes, be they audio OR video, and often sold at the counter as if to know full well what customers were doing with them. And this was in the era of stereo consoles, often packaged with dual-cassette decks. In other words, the recording industries were looking for something resembling a happy medium between consumers and the industries they support. To assume the left didn’t know what the right was doing is nothing short of selective blindness.
Which is something of an important affliction to consider, particularly when discussing the anime industry, and how it has essentially cratered due to virtual ignorance of larger changes in the world. Everywhere we turn, closures of physical media outlets have become chiming reminders that a paradigm has reached its final point of shift. And yet only an enterprising few have allowed themselves a means to survive by ways of adjusting to new realities. Even if the profit margins have been at times drastically lowered, there is at least some growth, especially in the realms of streaming video services like Netflix, Hulu, and Crunchyroll. With coding becoming more and more sophisticated, alongside great advances in how content is shared online, there has been a great deal of potential found here. But leave it to hindsight as the piracy target sees itself coated with another bright shade of red, when the obvious continues to dog the discussion…
While Maib’s ideas make the point that piracy helped lead toward this violent shift, anime as a sales-centric industry certainly did little to counter it. It wasn’t as if noone saw this coming. In fact, one can also say that once digisubs became a thing, the once laborious daisy-chaining of VHS recorders had been liberated to the high bitrate sphere of the internet, with little means of slowing down once bandwidth rates went up. Even in the days of dial-up, this was happening on a much larger scale than ever could have been dreamt of in the days of analog. Even as the american anime boom was under way, granting any new label the ability to bring out a battery of shows, often offering financial shelter to dozens of people, not to mention english voice acting talent, the simple reality that the entire party was dancing on a limited tap. As evidenced by Carl Macek who once bemoaned the idea of subtitling, let alone bringing every title under the sun to growing legions of fans, there was a glaring warning sign hovering over the proceedings that call into question; just how much of this stuff is actually worth owning?
Television series come and go, that’s the nature of the beast. And not every show is worth keeping, let alone watching more than once. Thus comes the fatal flaw in the anime as a hard media commodity scheme. The very idea that we are consumers are asked to pony up roughly 4-6 dollars per episode for a show that may not be worth a second viewing comes at odds with the movie collector’s mentality. The people ultimately know what they want, and will pay for it. The problem comes when we are inundated with the latest, and are essentially given no choice in between. When this happens, and our homes are buried with bricks of material that we cannot even give away- it presents a serious problem. So by the time bandwidth went hi-speed cable, the very idea of mindlessly selling was rendered instantly obsolete. Couple this with the Japanese studios ignoring potentially profitable crossover titles, and opting to merely cater to the otaku market, it is not unlike cutting one’s nose off to spite their face. Anime had gone global, and the first reaction was to pretend that outside markets behaved exactly the same as theirs.
Couple this with an increasingly sophisticated new culture of fans, read and willing to watch anime without need for localization. I know twelve-year-olds watching subtitled anime, who have no predilection to having their favorite shows in english. In another of the all-encompassing ways the internet has altered the world culture, the concept of localization was marginalized into something that no longer made any clear-cut sense. Dubs were practically created as a manner of course rather than a means to highlight the very best the medium had to offer. Entitlement had suddenly become something not only beholden to the fans, but to those relying on anime to pay the bills. (gross miscalculation)
And yes, while I agree that to a degree, fansubbing helped create something of a culture of entitlement, one has to remember that with any technological advent, progress is imperative for survival. What someone forgot to do was make this a major point of discussion while the floodgates opened around 2000. Especially when the medium had shifted toward discs containing DIGITAL material. With home systems utilizing the same language, this was the elephant in the room that noone seemed ready to confront. And this was a crucial first mistake. And yet the years after saw entire sets of shows reach prices of nearly 200+ dollars. As long as they sold, supposedly all would be fine. This almost collective state of denial continued as sales began to plummet around 2004-2005, which was around the time that anime productions began to shift more toward strictly otaku-bait material. The warning signs were emerging, and yet again, noone took action on the leak in the hull. As long as the guests topside were distracted by glitter and flash, all was okay. And the longer this took place, another culture was brewing, one with even less willingness to buy anything.
Either one molds the culture, or the culture molds you. By this point, convention numbers had reached impressive levels, but sales continued to decline. The variety of shows suddenly began to wane. Even as more shows seemed to appear, their diversity began to falter as more began to feed off each other in tropes and stories. There was little for this rabid fanbase to go in regards to anything that could possibly sustain itself in a financial sense. So naturally, with hi-speed internet being what it was, and little to no streaming service ready to take on the new era, piracy reached epidemic proportions. And merely telling them to stop was in no way a tennable strategy. Much like opening a shop in a town without the best neighborhood, one cannot do so without a good, manageable storefront and security system. Without it is not unlike an invitation…There. Said it. Piracy may be a terrible thing, but it is also an inevitable thing. This is not cynicism, this is pure unadulterated reality in most senses, and not merely business. And on the flip-side, fansubs have not provided any real value outside of filling the pirate void for over a decade now. If anything, the piracy and fan entitlement issue is merely a byproduct of inaction on the part of higher-ups unwilling to face the issue directly while the technology was evolving. The Ostrich Method has never been and will never be a sound business strategy.
As long as there is a culture of not merely need, but also want, piracy will always be. And backpedalling such a slow realization is in no way a realistic reaction. Look at how it worked for Woodstock.
So when we look at all that has happened, it becomes more important to question how we got here, and where the real problem has festered, and what it has infected along the way. In a very real sense, it hurt everyone, and everyone is almost equally to blame for believing in the permanence of a medium that was built on an impermanent foundation. When one takes into account the reality that television was not designed specifically for shows, but for selling ads, the fallacy so many had been laboring under comes into view. We were all hit by it. Noone got off clean. The fans, the pirates, AND the industry are now in this difficult spot due to a continued assumption that physical media had a continued place in the sphere. It was a grand scale change that happened over several years, and one particular group of entities continued to pretend that it wasn’t happening. Many even backing out when they could have stayed and weathered the storm. For so many, the panic button seemed far too reasonable an option. All the while others continued to see hope in a place where we could actually meet the companies halfway by sampling the product before making an informed choice. It makes me so sad that many Japanese companies up and ran without taking a bold series of baby steps that could have helped lead the charge for a new, more promising entertainment landscape.
Like the wilderness, the internet is The Great Equalizer..It’s a terrible shame that so many industries seem so unwilling to step up to the challenge.