Solid State Society 3: Archie CEO Jon Goldwater and the New Economy

Part 3 in a Series

The recent decision by Archie Comics Publications’ Co-CEO Jon Goldwater to synchronize the company’s digital and print distribution this April has realigned the entertainment industry. But does Jon Goldwater have even more in store?

Jon is a veteran of the music business. An insider at the time of a significant flashpoint in that industry’s history–the rise of Napster and growth of the notion of digital music. It was a period that, once it finally worked itself out to completion, would see both the corporate and the cultural landscape changed almost irrevocably. Eventually it would be Apple, led by Steve Jobs, that positioned itself best to capitalize on the new state of affairs.

With the introduction of the iPod, music became mobile, part of your everyday life. But with the birth of the iTunes Store, music became affordable. A single track for no more than 99 cents. The iTunes Store reflected the cultural shift in attitudes towards music. Albums were no longer central to your experience of music. Record companies no longer controlled popular access to nothing but a few top-sellers. And with physical packing space no longer a problem, songs, individual tracks, had to compete among themselves on a curve of infinite shelf-life.

Jon’s words near the beginning of the PopMatters exclusive interview, given his direct involvement with the music business at probably its most crucial moment, prove haunting. “I know in my heart and soul that social media will be the rescue of comics to exactly the same degree that it was the downfall of the music industry”, Jon offered. Strong words, that also bear the weight of conviction. But is Jon Goldwater’s vision more far-reaching than it first seems? Does the introduction of social media in the distribution of Archie comics bode a radical shift in the company’s business model as well? A shift similar to the near-visionary kind of deal Apple’s Steve Jobs was able to make with record labels to ensure the existence of the iTunes Store.

In this final segment of the the Iconographies focusing on the PopMatters exclusive interview with Jon Goldwater, we consider the possibility of a second renaissance. One that, as with music nearly a decade earlier, would end with a corporate and cultural shift emerging from a technological one.

‘Solid State Society’, a story in three acts. This edition, Act Three, the finale.

Act Three: New Brand Moves: Closing Thoughts on the Future of Business

We know it gets better.

It’s a really simple idea. For a flat monthly fee users can subscribe to a service called Archie Digital. Archie Digital is for all practical purposes, an online archive of every Archie comicbook ever published by the company. But in commercial terms, this a canny and subtle move.

At glance first it seems to provide Archie Comics with a useful metric for calibrating it’s two markets. One, the older market, would subscribe to Archie Digital for the nostalgia of it all. These are readers who have Been There. They’ve read Archie in the ’70s, in the ’80s and ’90s, and are now intent on recapturing the past. Even reclaiming the past. These are after all, the comics of the specific time. Comics that connote specific turning points, specific highs and even lows. They are the comics of those moments, for those readers. A life filtered through a profoundly accessible fiction.

The second market is a younger market. One that is just coming into Archie, just as it’s just about to come into its own as a generation. They haven’t read Archie comics for all that long. But already the kinds of determinations they’re beginning to make for themselves are being filtered through Archie and the Gang’s adventures. In ten years, twenty, thirty, this generation will look back on these comics as we do on the Archies of the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s. This younger generation would subscribe to Archie Digital out of a sense of needing to know more about the past of the comics that they are beginning to find so influential.

And it is at this point where CEO Jon Goldwater’s leadership looks like exactly that–leadership. With a successive generation poised on the brink of learning about Archie’s past (Archie both the comics and the company), younger readers are able to imagine themselves into the role of older readers. And so see themselves becoming longterm fans. Fans who will still be around ten years, twenty, even thirty from now.

Jon’s words earlier in the interview, about social media being the rescue of the comics industry to exactly the same extent that it had been the destruction of the music business seem to ring unerringly true. Rather than Archie Comics themselves out of the transaction, Jon has made the company central to the exchange. There’s a nostalgia economy at work here, the same one that has played out in baseball cards, sports memorabilia and for a brief flash during the 1990s, comics.

But rather than focus on simply the readers that have found their way to Archie, Jon is intent on moving the Archie brand in an entirely new way. Accessing Archie’s past is one thing. But how do you make that initial leap? How do you ensure Archie’s visibility in a hyper-saturated media market? Jon’s vision for the brand is expansive, as well as expansionist.

He’s not only focused on growing the core of Archie and the rest of the gang from Riverdale (as shown with the recent introduction of Kevin Keller, a character that has already had an overwhelmingly positive response). Nor is Jon focused on the more recognizable deals made with games companies (a staple of the Archie Comics Publications business model that sees such properties as Sega’s Sonic the Hedgehog and CapCom’s MegaMan fully animated in a universe of their own). Instead, Jon is betting on growth in a big way. To give me a better idea of what he meant by the puzzling comment that within in the next 18 to 24 months Archie Comics would be everywhere, Jon simply wanted to know if I follow the TV show Entourage.

For those not familiar with the show, and maybe those who might need some refreshing, Entourage follows the career of the fictive Vincent Chase as he moves from the Hollywood C-list to fully-fledged A-list star. During the show’s most recent season, with Vince involved in a burgeoning romance, viewers were treated to a special guest appearance by comics legend, Stan Lee. Vince was in the running to play his second major superhero, this time a new Stan Lee character named Airwalker.

For viewers of Entourage who also find themselves immersed in the idea of superheroes, there would have been a pang. A sense of loss, a missed opportunity. What would Airwalker have looked like? Stan Lee’s new superheroes look even better than his earlier ones. What would Airwalker have looked like? No need to wonder, Archie comics will be releasing Airwalker this summer.

The idea of a company staffed not only by core employees dedicated to overseeing only essential activities is a new one. In this new model, corporations extend their reach into new markets through skillful partnering and the establishing of a network of commercial relationships. Such a companies, one that Jon Goldwater seems to be transforming Archie Comics into, have been dubbed protean corporations by noted business journalist Michael Malone.

In a highly personal moment, Jon speaks about his interactions with Stan Lee. “He’s created all these superheroes, he’s created all these great comics. The great thing about working with Stan is…”, Jon begins. Then there’s a pause. It’s clear this is a high-impact moment. “I spoke with Stan just morning”, Jon picks up again just as I begin to wonder at what he might be experiencing, “and I thanked him. I thanked him for saving his best work for Archie”.

It’s a poignant moment. One that reemphasizes that what’s at stake for Jon is something more personal than reshaping the cultural environment around comics and reading comics in the twenty-first century. There’s more at play for here than simply restructuring a business model. Although, both of these things are unique available to Archie Comics, a longstanding company that is far smaller and nimbler than its big-name competitors who have already been bought out by commercial giants like Time-Warner and Disney.

It’s also a rare moment. CEO’s are focused on the bottom line and shouldn’t be emotionally engaged by the products and services their companies offer. Except that they should. And when they are emotionally engaged, passionate and driven, as Apple’s Steve Jobs has demonstrated, they position themselves to reinvent the way we engage the world.