Among some in the anime community, there’s an aversion to any commercialism in anime. To them, there’s a line between anime that’s meant to be artistic, and anime that’s just meant to make money, and naturally, the “artistic” anime is better than the anime that’s meant to make money.
Some people get mad when someone brings up sales numbers.
“If sales mean quality, then that would make Justin Bieber the best musician in the world!”
The problem is, the argument is almost never about sales equating to quality. We all have a few shows that we love, but that didn’t do very well sales-wise. It doesn’t make those shows any less good in our eyes. The point to the above argument, however, is to discredit the significance of sales numbers, and that’s a fool’s errand.
Quantifiable metrics are important to businesses. The anime industry is a collection of businesses. While sales numbers don’t necessarily reflect quality, they do reflect many things that are valuable to anime production companies. “Artistic merit” simply isn’t quantifiable. It’s a nice thing to have in a work, but it can’t be scaled. Hard numbers are important because they give decision-makers insight into areas such as what the hot trends are in the anime fandom, who’s buying what, and what’s successful versus what failed.
Numbers are hard to argue with. No matter how experimental, nuanced, or artistic a series is, low sales numbers usually mean “Nobody wanted it.” Art is nice, but in the anime industry, if nobody wants it, it’s a waste of funds.
But just what is “artistic merit?” People like to draw a hard line between “art” and anime that’s just designed to sell, but what is “art?” Often, I see “art” used as a value-judgment. The “good” stuff is art, but the “bad” stuff isn’t. The Flowers of Evil is “artistic,” but Kodomo no Jikan is “creepy pedo trash. It’s a false dichotomy, propagated in part because of the belief that some works of anime are “artistic,” and others aren’t.
The great thing about art is that it’s all-or-nothing. Either everything in a medium is art, or nothing is. This is the same word used to describe both “The Scream” and Andy Worhol’s “Campbells Soup Cans.” Anything goes, and how much “merit” any given work has can only be measured decades after the fact. Until then, it’s entirely subjective, and at no point can it be quantified. One could claim that one work has had more impact on the medium than other, and they might even be correct, but it’s difficult to prove and express in concrete terms.
Sales numbers tell us something concrete: Buying habits, trends, consumer demand, and other metrics that are important for creators of a product meant to be brought to market and sold. Educated decisions can’t properly be made off of unquantifiable qualities, and things like sales numbers provide quantifiable data from which business decisions can be made. Those might not be the details some fans are looking for, but they’re important nonetheless.
This isn’t to say that the anime medium isn’t better off with the existence of works like Redline and The Flowers of Evil (After all, “the answer is always more art”), but trying to dismiss the use of sales numbers in a discussion is naïve at best. It’s really easy to say that sales numbers don’t equal quality, but nobody is saying they do. What people are saying, and what detractors are ignoring, is that sales numbers do equal something, and that figuring out what that “something” is for a given series is an important discussion that we aren’t having because so many people demonize sales figures.