Critical Review: Questionable Content’s Jeph Jacques on His Slice-of-indie-life Webcomic

Founded in 2003 as an outlet for artist Jeph Jacques’ esoteric indie-rock rantage, Questionable Content has since blossomed into one of the most popular webcomics ever written. Originally couched in insider references, the strip now prizes inclusiveness over obscurity, unfolding the quirky, soap opera-like lives of a group of twenty-somethings in Northampton, Mass. [For a in-depth discussion of past and future plot points, check out part two of our interview, here.]

While many comics have done well on the web, Jacques is arguably the pride of the pack, especially is in his approach to making money. Through a combination of T-shirt sales and banner advertisements, he’s discovered the holy grail in the post-print age: a creative-industry business model that actually works for the web. After the jump, resident audio adventurer The Beard chats with Jacques about the role of rock in his work, the strip’s evolution as a viable business, and the way in which his model could pretty literally save music.

[12:16] TheBeard4904: hey there. How’s it going?

[12:16] TheRealJephJacques1980: pretty good, drinkin’ coffee and catchin’ up on internet

[12:19] TheBeard4904: It’s good to finally catch up with you. So far this column has mostly been with record reviewers [like Chuck Klosterman] and music editors [like Pitchfork’s Mark Richardson]. The reason I wanted to talk to you is because I feel like the way your comic interacts with music is really interesting.

[12:24] TheBeard4904: first off, did you start off thinking of it as an indie-rock comic? I read that you took a lot of inspiration from Nothing Nice, and similar music-focused comics

[12:29] TheRealJephJacques1980: actually yeah, that was sort of my intention, starting out. Since it was such a huge part of my life I felt like I could probably do a reasonably decent comic about it, and yeah Nothing Nice was absolutely a huge influence in that respect. I still maintain it’s the best “comic about music” we’ve seen thus far.

[12:31] TheBeard4904: it seems like that’s changed through the years though. You’re doing a lot less one-off music jokes…

[12:32] TheRealJephJacques1980: yeah I made a semi-conscious decision to shift away from the music jokes. for one thing they were kind of dating older strips, like “oh this one where Marten is all yelling about the Arcade Fire was obviously from 2006” or whenever

[12:34] TheRealJephJacques1980: and my comic has such a glacial pace (woo obscure Seam reference) that it was getting kind of weird to have them mention, say, Funeral, and then two weeks later in comic time be talking about Neon Bible

[12:34] TheBeard4904: yeah, that makes sense

[12:35] TheRealJephJacques1980: and part of it was just a function of me being more interested in the character-driven aspects of the comic. I’ve been having more fun doing that than trying to think of witty bon mots about Animal Collective

[12:41] TheBeard4904: That makes sense, but clearly the comic still attracts people interested in indie/punk. It seems like the world, even when it isn’t about music, is couched in that ethos without overtly talking about it

[12:43] TheRealJephJacques1980: Yeah, I think because the characters are still these kids in their early to mid twenties who are into that stuff, it still seeps through and informs the comic.

[12:43] TheBeard4904: How much does being into that stuff inform you? I get the sense that you’re running a very DIY operation.

[12:45] TheRealJephJacques1980: I think the business side of QC is kind of an ideal extension of the DIY ethos

[12:46] TheRealJephJacques1980: We don’t do everything ourselves anymore, but our order fulfillment people are friends with an office literally one building over from ours. Our t-shirt printer is this small-town guy in Connecticut.

[12:47] TheBeard4904: So maybe “independent” would be the better word. I think it’s a really interesting model

[12:48] TheRealJephJacques1980: It’s the most workable model for comics on the internet we’ve seen thus far (I just wrote a REALLY long LJ post about this)

[12:48] TheBeard4904: I saw that, and it actually got me thinking a lot about the music industry. I think independent/online comics face many of the same problems as independent bands. Especially right now.

[12:48] TheRealJephJacques1980: if anything we have it easier than bands

[12:49] TheRealJephJacques1980: lower initial cost of entry, cheaper production methods, and a png file uses a lot less bandwidth than an MP3

[12:53] TheBeard4904: I see what you mean about it being easier because of some of that overhead, but I wonder it there isn’t a lot to be learned from your business model.

[12:54] TheRealJephJacques1980: It’s funny, when Radiohead did their big tip-jar stunt with In Rainbows, a lot of us in webcomics were like “Uh….yeah, we’ve been doing that for five or ten years now.”

[12:54] TheBeard4904: Yeah, I was just about to say something about Radiohead. The biggest criticism I saw when that happened was, “yeah, but they already have an audience.” This idea that the model doesn’t work for everyone.

[12:55] TheRealJephJacques1980: Well that’s kind of the one factor you have to take into account anywhere.

[12:55] TheRealJephJacques1980: If nobody’s reading or listening to your stuff, nobody’s gonna give you money for it.

[12:56] TheRealJephJacques1980: Most of us webcomics guys who make a living off of it have at least 10 or twenty thousand people hitting our sites every day, in a few cases (mine, penny arcade, XKCD, etc.) twenty or thirty times that.

[12:59] TheRealJephJacques1980: That’s the beauty of the internet, with a good product and enough luck it CAN work for anyone

[12:59] TheRealJephJacques1980: but the thing is, the minute you start discussing the viability of a given business model, you have to ASSUME that there is a substantial audience already in place, or it falls apart.

[13:00] TheRealJephJacques1980: so to criticize Radiohead by saying “yeah well they were already rock stars” isn’t quite fair. Sure, it was an incredibly savvy move on their part, and they probably made more money off In Rainbows than any of their other records off the bat: but the whole point of the tip-jar approach is “I think I have enough people who are into my stuff that a significant portion of them will give me a dollar” or thereabouts.

[13:01] TheBeard4904: That’s a distinction I guess between that model and yours. You make most of your money off merchandising?

[13:01] TheRealJephJacques1980: Well, you need a decent audience to make money off of merch, too. Yeah we get probably 90% of our income from merchandise (t-shirts, prints, posters, totebags, etc) and 10% off ads.

[13:03] TheRealJephJacques1980: The main difference is you are appealing to them as consumers instead of as altruists.

[13:03] TheBeard4904: I see it as a sort of mingling of DIY and very traditional branding. In your case, you’ve created this sort of thing larger than just the main product. Part of it is the message board, the blog, and part of it is the merch.

[13:05] TheRealJephJacques1980: That seems to be sort of the natural progression.

[13:05] TheRealJephJacques1980: If you put out a product that gets any sort of popularity, a lot of other stuff tends to congeal around it

[13:07] TheRealJephJacques1980: and people know they’re not helping me buy a new yacht. I live a pretty modest lifestyle (except for all the guitars). Like a lot of people were saying in the comments for that LJ entry, they buy shirts because they know it is supporting this thing they like.

[13:09] TheBeard4904: Yeah, and I think that mind-set could just as well apply to bands. the idea that a website or a MySpace or whatever is the hub of real business operations.

[13:10] TheRealJephJacques1980: What I would absolutely love is if a smaller but still popular indie band tried the tip-jar/merch approach to distributing their music. I mean, look at someone like the Fleet Foxes. With all the positive press they’ve been getting lately, if they put out their next album for free and sold other merch on their website, I can’t BELIEVE they wouldn’t make a shit-ton of money.

[13:11] TheBeard4904: Of course they would. And if they were selling it all direct like you do, they’d probably make a higher profit.

[13:11] TheRealJephJacques1980: And I know they’re on a major now, but god, imagine a freely-distributed Decemberists album, or EP.

[13:12] TheBeard4904: Yeah, I keep thinking about how music in this day an age is really about bands as entities. The same way QC is one…

[13:12] TheRealJephJacques1980: I guess it depends on what you mean by an entity.

[13:13] TheBeard4904: Well, I just mean something capable of being self-contained in more than just an artistic sense.

[13:13] TheRealJephJacques1980: The big thing with the rise of the internet is that the barrier between content producer and consumer can be completely removed.

[13:13] TheRealJephJacques1980: Webcomics and blogs are the obvious examples of this but it can certainly be extended to bands as well.

[13:14] TheBeard4904: Of course, the question is, how do you navigate that terrain? Especially if you come from an indie ethos.

[13:17] TheRealJephJacques1980: I’m certainly no fan of Wal-Marts and strip malls, but at the same time, I totally enjoy buying things that I like to own. As far as “artistic purity” goes, there’s an Isaac Brock quote that encapsulates it all for me: “If it’s a choice between [selling a song for a Ford commercial] or not being able to pay my electric bill, that ain’t no choice at all.”

[13:19] TheRealJephJacques1980: I’d love to live in some magical dream world where I put a comic up on the internet and got paid for just that, but it just isn’t realistic.

[13:21] TheBeard4904: I agree with that. I think we’re entering an age where independent-minded people simply have to be more business savvy.

[13:21] TheRealJephJacques1980: The fugazi/Bill Watterson approach, where you do absolutely no merchandising and just survive on your art alone, is admirable but, especially in this economy, just not going to work for 99 out of 100 people

[13:21] TheRealJephJacques1980: It’s also — people say capitalism is bad. and yeah, RAMPANT capitalism IS bad. But you can be a capitalist and still be socially and fiscally responsible.

[13:22] TheRealJephJacques1980: I have no problem with providing products that people want to buy, and I think indie musicians, who are historically supposed to be “bad” at capitalism, shouldn’t be afraid to embrace the possibilities

[13:24] TheRealJephJacques1980: I mean shit, I’d buy a T-shirt that said “Marnie Stern will you come to my house and play guitar with me?”

[13:24] TheBeard4904: I guess perhaps the biggest revelation for artists and musicians is that you can survive on that.

[13:25] TheRealJephJacques1980: If you’ve got the audience, absolutely

[13:26] TheRealJephJacques1980: I feel like if you put up a blog post on your band’s website saying “hey guys, we’re about to finish this record and go on tour. you can have the music FOR FREE, all we ask is that you peruse our merchandise page, and possibly consider donating any amount of money you feel appropriate as this is the only way we make a living.”

[13:29] TheRealJephJacques1980: In a way, I’m really surprised more bands AREN’T giving their records away for free. i mean, they KNOW people are downloading them anyway, right?

[13:30] TheRealJephJacques1980: I only know one webcomic guy who went into it expecting to make a living and succeeded.

[13:32] TheRealJephJacques1980: Which is why a lot of people get burned out on webcomics and quit, if they don’t see the kind of immediate popularity they were expecting. I know early on in my comic, my ONLY GOAL was to make it suck less. That still IS my main goal, actually! All the business stuff is secondary.

[13:33] TheBeard4904: I suppose that’s the thing bands and comics both have to wrangle with, this idea that you can get big simply by doing something, but that you have to wait it out.

[13:34] TheBeard4904: In the old industry you needed syndicates, or labels. Now, you just do the thing, and, in some respects, if it works, it works. IN some ways, I’m actually really happy to see the marketing and publicity mechanisms being marginalized.

[13:35] TheRealJephJacques1980: They’re not being marginalized, they’re being internalized.

[13:35] TheRealJephJacques1980: You can just do it yourself. Why hire some douchebag to do it for you?

[13:37] TheBeard4904: Maybe that’s what I meant by entity before

[13:37] TheBeard4904: It used to be that you’d get hired to perform a service

[13:37] TheBeard4904: making music, drawing comics

[13:37] TheRealJephJacques1980: Now it’s more like you have a complex life form

[13:38] TheRealJephJacques1980: the product is at the core, and the audience is the shell, and your interaction/reputation/business with the audience are the internal organs.

[13:38] TheBeard4904: Well, there it is, we solved the industry’s crisis 🙂

[13:38] TheRealJephJacques1980: TWO GUYS ON THE INTERNET SOLVE WORLD’S PROBLEMS

[13:39] TheRealJephJacques1980: hahaha

[13:39] TheRealJephJacques1980: I always worry when I talk about this stuff that I am coming off like a douchebag, because here I am in an incredibly rare position myself.

[13:40] TheRealJephJacques1980: It’s not simple, and not everybody is cut out for it. and most people aren’t lucky enough!

[13:40] TheBeard4904: Yeah, I guess the savvy has to be there.

[13:40] TheBeard4904: Because it is a small business in every respect.

[13:40] TheRealJephJacques1980: A lot of print cartoonists are basically saying “but I don’t WANT to have to sell t-shirts to make a living online!”

[13:40] TheBeard4904: Bands are too.

[13:41] TheRealJephJacques1980: (“selling t-shirts” is my blanket term for the many different business models in use by webcomics)

[13:41] TheRealJephJacques1980: And the response is “Well, okay. you won’t be making a living online.”

Read our other interview with Jeph — which focuses more on the nitty gritty of Questionable Content — here.