Comics

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

The Gang Will Always Be Together: Archie's key role has always been to identify the good in our culture. For CEO Jon Goldwater, a new business model means securing this idea, and expanding its reach.

In the closing segment of PopMatters exclusive interview with Archie Comics CEO Jon Goldwater, the Iconographies considers not simply the cultural complexity of Goldwater's embrace of technology, but the bold moves he is making in redefining both the brand, and the business model.

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.

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Features

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton



9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton



8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge



7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge



6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Scholar Judith May Fathallah's work blurs lines between author and ethnographer, fan experiences and genre TV storytelling.

In Fanfiction and the Author: How Fanfic Changes Popular Culture Texts, author Judith May Fathallah investigates the progressive intersections between popular culture and fan studies, expanding scholarly discourse concerning how contemporary blurred lines between texts and audiences result in evolving mediated practices.

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Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

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