On Shaming the Fans

The American automotive industry is in a crisis. Sales for GM, Ford, and Chrysler vehicles have dropped more than a quarter so far this year, and all three stand near the brink of bankruptcy. The trucks and SUVs that made them so much money a mere half-decade ago now sit unsold in dealer lots, collecting dust and increasingly desperate discount stickers. The companies' (mis-)managements and press cheerleaders have, in the meantime, rounded up their suspects as to what caused all of this. One such suspect, tucked away in the corner but still visible enough to take some of the blame, is none other than - the consumer!

Yes, the consumer! The fall of these companies is not the result of any poverty on their side, but rather due to a moral weakness on the part of American car buyers. A failure to deliver relevant products is not to blame, only the self-interested, unethical, greedy nature of the family that springs for a Fit over a Tahoe. How dare they find their transportation elsewhere! How dare they renege on supporting these companies which were making money hand over fist a few years ago and innocently forgot to adapt their business model! Oh ye customers all, for shame!

In the car world, at least, these kinds of arguments are thankfully rare and rightfully ridiculed whenever they pop up in some editorial or another. People are frequently willing to accept pastures full of scapegoats from companies trying to sell bad products, but here (in this one case, at least) it fails to work. It's been trotted out too often and with too much bad faith - and it's easy enough to recognize once you've seen it a few times. Its rejection rests upon a proposition that is, I think, generally agreeable: no one should have to buy a second-rate product solely out of a sense of obligation to the company that offers it. After all, what's more reasonable than to keep market loyalty reserved for decent products?

When it comes to cars, then, the argument can be seen for what it is and quickly falls apart. So how can it still seem reasonable when it's applied to anime?

I grant that the situation is not exactly the same. The domestic anime distributors have no Toyotas or Kias to compete with - or rather, they do, but these Toyotas and Kias are not exactly legitimate businesses in their own right. That will be enough for some - "Since the competition is illegal and immoral, only criminals and evildoers will leave the legitimate sources" - but it completely misses the point. Many debates have been held, for example, about the issue of fan translations, and they have only succeeded in confusing the issue. This is not a moral or legal problem and no one gains a thing by attempts to shift it onto those grounds, least of all the industry. The survival of a company has nothing to do with whether it's in the right; if this is taken as the main problem, the industry will be muttering about the fans' obligations and international copyright laws all the way to its grave. The only important question is: are the products offered relevant to the situation? If not, failure can only be staved off for so long. Extra money made by guilt-tripping the customer will not delay the inevitable.

All of this in mind, it's worth asking a few questions. These questions won't necessarily spur any action - everyone reading this already has some idea of what's needed - but they might provide some clarification of what's at stake. What do we mean, more exactly, when we talk about "anime fandom," and how do we draw the line between it and the "industry"? What does the one owe to the other, if anything? And, more pointedly: exactly who relies on who for survival?

In a recent essay on TheO, Rokuchan wrote a statement worth discussing. I quote: "The Anime fandom in America was started by fans, for fans. And as fans, it’s our job to keep it running if we truly appreciate it for what it is and want it to thrive."

This battlecry, soulful as it may be, makes the hidden and unargued assumption that "anime fandom" is identical with, or at least dependent on, the distribution companies. This has never been the case. In fact, the reverse is probably closer to the truth: the good old days of "swapping awful video tapes" was a direct result of the failure of the companies at the time to give fans what they wanted. For the most part one could only buy anime that fit the usual Angel Cop mold, one had to wait years after the Japanese release, and one had to be willing to kick in an extra $5-10 to get a tape with the original language (if it was even available). As a result of these inadequacies, fans at the time had to roll up their sleeves and do everything themselves. The fallout from their work has produced the industry that we have today, an industry which (up until recently, anyways) has been enormously successful. And this is by no means the end of the story (nor does it end with a hijacking by self-interested pirates). Even today fans continue to pursue their own innovations, and they do so in a way well in continuity with the tape-swapping of the past.

More on this in a moment. First, let us be perfectly clear here: what the fans now deal with in the form of the anime industry is something completely different from fandom proper. These are businesses, and as such they have to worry about sales projections, risk/benefit analyses, marketing and distribution strategy, and above all the bottom line. By definition, they are there to make money: they owe us no special obligations, nor we them. And it makes no difference whether the people running the companies are fans, either. As appealing as it may sound initially, in the end it merits no special consideration - any employee, especially a manager, would be neglecting her job if she consistently put her personal activities ahead of the balance sheet. There can be no blind idealism here: the companies must care about fans first and foremost as customers, and certainly not in the spirit of otaku solidarity. There's nothing wrong with this: businesses are allowed to make money. But the logic of these companies is completely alien to that of the fans, who from the beginning have been willing to invest thousands of hours into the worlds and ideas that they love with no hope of ever getting a return. This is the critical difference. Cosplay, fan art, fan fiction, conventions, viewing marathons, fansubs, even posting on charmingly obnoxious image boards: all of these things and more require enormous investments of time and money, none of which will be regained and all of which would be quickly dispensed with in a company budget. This extraordinary fecundity on the part of the fans, their (if I may be a little too poetic) beautiful wastefulness, is the true living heart of anime fandom - not the quarterly income of some corporation or another.

The dependence runs one and only one way: the fandom can and will outlive the individual companies that it supports. Fans are the center and distributors at the periphery, not the other way around. The businesses, whatever their moral and legal arguments, completely depend for their existence upon the wasteful logic of the otaku: the willingness to clutter up one's apartment with DVD box sets stems from the same source as the willingness to translate eroges and to send one's favorite voice actor's new albums across the internet. The industry must provide for the fans, never the fans for the industry. Now, let it be granted that these companies now produce far better products than they did fifteen years ago, or even ten years ago. But we are still a very long way indeed from fans getting "exactly what they want" from these companies, today as much as ever. DVDs still arrive in the States months or years after our friends across the pond get the same series; online distribution, in many of its current forms, amazingly takes even longer. Fans can no longer simply accept what is given to them, if they ever could: more than ever they know exactly what is available and when, and they are not willing to sit on their hands for long. Left with no real solutions, they will create their own (as they've always done). The fandom will always be smarter, faster, and more willing to experiment, and the companies - if they wish to remain viable - must follow their lead. Those willing to accompany the fans in their journeys to new shows, to new genres, and (yes) to new distribution methods will do well; despite accusations to the contrary, otaku are not cheapskates. If the companies choose instead to remain behind and stamp their feet in frustration, the fandom will simply shrug and do all the work themselves. They've done it before, they do it today, and they're willing to keep it up in the future.

And this brings us to fansubs. Once praised as "testing grounds" for new shows, they now represent everything evil and selfish about those purportedly greedy, heartless anime fans. I shall not make the usual arguments: anyone who's read this far knows them all by rote at this point, and I've already indicated that keeping the debate on moral or legal grounds won't save the companies at hand from impending doom. So why are fansubs so popular, anyways? Blaming fans' greed for everything is a nonstarter - true, there may be some who are simply out to save a buck, but they're few and far between. The larger popularity of fansubs has never been about money. This point needs to be hammered home again and again: it's not because they're free. On the contrary, fansubs are popular because they give attention to comparatively obscure shows, because they're (relatively) convenient, and more importantly because they typically appear within a week or two of the Japanese broadcast. Fans don't care that it's free - they care that it's first.

Nevertheless, the subtitlers are at a disadvantage: they have a very small infrastructure, limited resources, and all the volatility of a volunteer staff. The nature of their organization means that much of their work still has to be done piecemeal. Larger distributors, in contrast, have none of these disadvantages; it follows that, if they were able to untangle all of the rights issues, such distributors could easily beat the fansubs at their own game. Let there be no doubting this: any American distribution company which sells a no-frills, high-quality sub a day or two after the same episode airs in Japan will cut the fansubbing problem off at the knees. It's that simple. Indeed, it's the one solution that will keep the companies viable: gimmicks like streaming episodes online for free cannot help the distributors if they continue to do so months after the fact. The industry and anyone who's been paying attention already know this, and things are slowly inching in such a direction - iTunes worked for music, Steam worked for games, and this will work for anime. It may not work forever, mind, as the fandom will always be a step ahead, but it'll allow the companies to keep themselves useful for a long time. Certainly it would do more to save the industry than any flag-waving or circling the wagons 'round consumer decency.

I have no stirring words for the conclusion of this essay, nor any requests of the readers. No cheers on behalf of otakudom, no slogans to yell at those who disagree, no cheap shots at the ostensibly degenerate. The fandom will continue to do what it's always done, regardless of the opinions of myself or anyone else - what guides the fans is something utterly different from all of that. As for the distributors, the smart ones already know what's necessary to survive and have been making the appropriate plans. It's only a question, so to speak, of whether their boat of an industry can turn fast enough to avoid the iceburgs. Ultimately I have no idea what the future holds for either side - all I can say with certainty is that whatever's the case, it won't be brought about by impassioned appeals to communal spirit, nor by long debates citing legal code, nor by slapping one's target market on the wrist.