It’s Hard Out Here for Small Business People

Drug Church’s Patrick Kindlon on the decline of comics and guitar music.

I got involved in music in high school. Everybody could play an instrument except for me, so they just made me the singer. That has been how it’s gone for me. I have obviously no training, and very, very little ability; I don’t know if I would consider myself outgoing, but I’m comfortable on stage. So I got jobs as a singer, even though I’m not qualified or capable.

I’m a lifetime reader of comics. Then maybe eight years ago Matthew Rosenberg—who is now an exclusive at Marvel—was running Red Leader Records with his partner Claire. We talked about comics a lot, and one day he called me up and he said, “Look, I know that this is your ambition too. Why don’t we take a run at this together?”

You’re told it’s gonna be 10 years before you can make a dollar. Matt and I were both starting that career a little bit later than most guys. A lot of creators start in their mid-20s, and we were probably approaching 30 or something. So we wanted to cut some time off of that 10-year trajectory. The idea was that if we work together, share credits, our work would get out there twice as much. Because when you’re starting in comics, it’s also a very expensive endeavor.

I’ve been doing it as a focus for eight years, but have really only been able to pay rent off it in the last year. When I say pay rent off it, I mean literally pay rent off it—it’s not as though my current career allows me to squirrel away a lot of money or anything like that. It’s still very much a struggle. I’m just well-suited for that because I’ve been involved in music for so long.

The thing that I want to do is very difficult: the thing where you are just one thing. That’s my dream, and that’s what makes it a long-term goal or an ambition. I really want to be a musician and a guy that writes comics. I would love to do just the two things that really appeal to me.

If that sounds sort of pie in the sky, or maybe entitled even, I think that people should consider I don’t mind waiting the majority of my life. I’m just like anybody else. If somebody has a goal of opening a soup restaurant, we’re not different. We just have different aims. It’s hard out here for small-business people, and ultimately that’s what I am.

Guitar music and comics’ decline, in my view, have a lot of outside forces, a lot of competition. But the primary reason is the way that both industries respond to competition and respond to those outside forces. It’s not with confidence—it’s with cowardice.

Guitar musicians are having no fun, because guitar musicians are operating like old people. They’re scared of their own shadows. They’re scared that any misstep, like if they say the wrong thing onstage, they get murdered online. They feel like it’s a social death. They feel like they’re never coming back from this. They feel like their careers are over.

Meanwhile, rappers will do that three times a night, and if they feel bad about it, they’ll just get on Instagram live and say, “My bad.” The kids understand that, and that resonates with them. Nobody wants to be uptight. Nobody wants to be in a situation where they feel like their musicians aren’t fully expressing themselves out of fear. So they’re gravitating toward the people that are really fucking unafraid—and the people who are really fucking unafraid are rappers.

Every kid I meet wants to be a rapper. Nobody wants to be a guitar musician, and it’s because guitar musicians are just fucking uptight, no-fun losers. Implicitly, people watching a thing get that. So guitar music needs to be provocative. It needs to be controversial. It needs to have an edge to it, which it currently has none. I don’t blame a young person looking at guitar music right now and going, “This is for dads, and it’s stupid. So fuck it.” I’m not like some fucking Mötley Crüe fan—I’m not looking for some asshole grinding his cheetah-print spandex and calling that fucking provocative. I’m not talking about that shit. I’m talking about whatever it is that challenges the moment. If there’s nothing provocative or controversial about you as a person, why would anybody pay attention to you?

Comics? Similar, but because comics have the most outmoded form of distribution and sales imaginable. It’s a legal monopoly on distribution: There’s only one distributor for comics, and it’s a very broken system. So that’s the problem. But the bigger problem is that comics are shy and afraid of themselves the same way rock music is.

Comics used to get by on large visual spectacle that couldn’t be offered in any other medium. I would say up until 15 years ago, comics were the superior visual choice. There’s nothing that could compare to comics because anything that an artist can conceive, a talented one can do with his hands. Whereas film could not offer that experience. It had special effects, obviously, but it just wasn’t up to par. Now if you look at the Doctor Strange movie from a couple of years ago, it’s every bit the sort of visual feast that people were getting out of comic books. So comic books have been usurped visually by film and by video games, which have matched their kind of spectacle palette.

Big companies are scared of their creators. They’re scared they’re going to leave, so they have spent the last 10 years trying to get desperately back to the model where the characters matter, not the creators. This is a detriment to not just the creators moving forward, but also for the medium. Because the problem is that we have a broken distribution system that relies on two companies, Marvel and DC. Without those, the whole thing falls apart.

Marvel and DC are slitting their own throats by undervaluing the creators and trying to make things like they were in the 1970s, where things are not about the creative teams, they’re about the characters. That’s simply not going to work when, at this time, children—potential future readers—can get a better experience from the Marvel movies than they can from the comics.

The decline impacts me in that it’s hard out here to make money and survive as a guitar musician. It’s just hard. Doing anything of quality is always challenging. People want Imagine Dragons; they don’t want the Jesus Lizard.

There’s always gonna be some type of punk music. It’ll be unrecognizable to me, a punk for fucking however long, but it will be similar in the respect that it shakes up the status quo. Same thing for comic books—they can’t go any longer on the current model, so something’s gonna change.

As told to Kyle Ryan.

(Photo Credit: Kat Nijmeddin)

Patrick Kindlon is a prolific musician and comics writer. His work includes fronting punk rock agitators Self Defense Family and Drug Church (the latter of which recently released its latest full-length, Cheer, on Pure Noise Records), writing comics for Black Mask Studios, and weekly pot-stirring as co-host of the Axe To Grind Podcast.