This past December was my 10th consecutive year doing Artist Alley at IKKiCON in Austin.
IKKiCON 5 was my first time tabling there. That was December 31st, 2010 through January 2nd, 2011. The convention has been over New Years since 2010, and depending on when the weekend falls, sometimes the dates are split between years, sometimes there’s no show a calendar year, or two shows a calendar year — so they’ve used numbers to denote the con, rather than year.
This past show was IKKiCON 14.
Ikkicon wasn’t my first Artist Alley (that was Anime Weekend Atlanta 2008), but it was my first convention ever back in 2007, and it’s the convention I’ve gone back to the most as an artist. I’ve seen a lot of different conventions change over the last decade, but it’s interesting to be able to have year-over-year data for one con specifically and consistently.
The Evolution of the Alley
Fan convention Artist Alleys started out as a place for hobbyists to show off their fanwork and maybe take a few commissions or make a few print sales. They were never intended to be serious places of business or a way for professional artists to make a significant portion of their income. But that’s what many of them are now.
It’s only with the rapid growth of the convention scene in general over the last fifteen years that doing 25-40 conventions a year as an independent artist became not only possible, but financially worthwhile. The accessibility of overseas manufacturing through sites like Alibaba has made making professional-quality goods and merchandise possible for even high school and college students. Availability of online streaming, simulcasts and simulpubs for anime and manga has shortened fandom lifespans, and artists in these communities have ramped up production cycles to a breakneck pace.
I don’t think any of the artists who are full-time convention artists today intended for it to happen.
I started doing cons in college, largely because it seemed like a fun way to make up the costs of going to a convention in the first place. Over time, the rest of the con became less of a draw, and the money and validation of Artist Alley became the focus and priority. It’s normal to book shows months in advance, and pretty soon, my schedule was planned a year out, and another year out, and another. I looked for other art-related work, but it was easier to adapt to something I was already doing than to pass the gatekeeper tests for industry jobs.
While the comics and animation industry has certainly changed in the last decade as well, cons remain a great way for artists to connect directly with an audience, and to fill a demand in a niche. It’s empowering to be able to just make stuff, to create end products that you know are in demand. It can also be a bit constraining and suffocating: market demands don’t always align with personal interests, and depending on IP grey zones for a living is never ideal, but that’s an essay for another day.
Things have slowed down though. For a while, there were dozens of new conventions every year, but the crest has peaked, especially following the high profile failures of various mismanaged shows (e.g. DashCon, Las Pegasus UniCon). Vendors and attendees alike are more wary. The market is saturated, and the bigger players are buying up the smaller ones. Meanwhile, competition for tables at the shows that remain increases every year as Artist Alley becomes the goal of more newcomers and the veteran space becomes ever-crowded. More conventions are moving to lottery systems for Artist Alley, or to jury systems that would-be lottery, because more artists will pass the jury than there is space for.
It’s a lot harder to plan a year out now.
10 Years by the Numbers
Apparently, I’ve done 150 conventions and events since 2009. It may not add up exactly if you count the archives I didn’t list some of the tiny pop-ups consistently, and annual show counts below are complicated when Ikkicon’s dates straddle the adjacent years, but 150 is a nice round number, so let’s go with that.
Following AWA in fall 2008, I did three conventions in 2009 and six in 2010. Most of these shows were in or near Georgia, and the furthest my friends and I drove for a convention was 8 hours to Alabama for Kami-Con. In 2011, I’d moved back to Texas and stayed in-state all year because there were plenty of shows to do within the borders.
I moved to Seattle in 2012 and had to figure out flying to shows for the first time. There was a small drop in the total number of shows I did while I figured out the Pacific Northwest scene, and half my shows in 2012 were still in Texas. Unfortunately, Washington state doesn’t have nearly as many events as populous and enormous Texas, and over time, I figured out that many of them weren’t for me (Rose City, Jet City, Aki-Con) while others shuttered up entirely (RIP, Rainfurrest).
I continued to do a lot of Texas shows, but also started checking out shows in other states while padding the in-state numbers with more pop-ups, craft markets, and non-convention events.
And then I burned out in 2016-2017. In May 2016, I did four conventions in a row. Three of them were out-of-state. One of them was a four-day con, so at one point, I flew back to Washington from California on a Monday, had two days at home, then flew to Texas on Thursday. I think I coasted on fumes for the rest of that year, and in 2017, artistic motivation and output plummeted to the floor. Con burn out wasn’t the only reason for it, but it contributed.
I decided I really wanted to travel less for shows and in 2018, did a whole bunch of small pop-up shows. I really wanted them to be good enough that I could cut big out-of-state shows somehow, but there’s just no comparing a one-day market, dependently largely on incidental foot traffic with a thousand people tops (more often just a few hundred), with a massive four-day show with celebrity guests, a terrifying marketing budget, and 50,000 people coming through the door each day. I did fewer travel shows anyway, though.
Because I’ve had freelance web dev work this whole time, I’ve never truly been “full-time” conventions, or art.
Still, it’s made up a huge chunk of my income the last few years, ironically topping out in 2017, my worst year artistically. I didn’t draw in 2017, but I still did a damn lot of cons. For better or worse, only a small part of the art business is actually making art.
In fact, even last year, it was only about a third:
2019 wasn’t an amazing year artistically for me either, but it was my first full year time-tracking hours with Toggl, which has allowed for some really valuable insights. I adjusted my time-tracking process a few times throughout the year, so this isn’t as accurate as it could be, but still — actual drawing time, including commission work, sketching, and illustrations, only made up 36.8% of time spent on the Business.
Administrative tasks include everything from emails to researching and applying to cons. Marketing is time spent posting to social media, the newsletter, etc. Grunt Work is boring stuff like counting and sorting inventory and packing for conventions. Blogging took up a surprising chunk of time considering I didn’t feel like I blogged very much last year, but as ever, I’m too verbose for no reason and that takes time. (ETA: Oh, I just realised I lumped in my work on HTBACA with “Blogging.” That explains it!) I was also surprised to see work related to the AA Survey take up such a large percentage given that I did barely any promotion for it last year, so most of that time was compiling the 2018 report.
Expenses have gone up over the years with more travel costs, more lodging costs, and higher table cost — another incentive to cut back on the travel shows, especially if they don’t net great returns.
In 2009, MomoCon’s Artist Alley tables were $100 (and I split that cost tabling with my then-roommate). Now they’re $285. Of course, MomoCon has also grown from a 2-day show on the GeorgiaTech campus over Spring Break to a 4-day Memorial Day Weekend juggernaut in the third biggest convention center in the US, but I also need to fly cross-country to MomoCon now, where in 2009 it was an easy drive.
The expenses above only count costs directly related to conventions, including travel, lodging, table fees, and registration, but there are a lot of other expenses involved:
“Food” only includes food while traveling for shows. “Supplies” are mostly art and shipping supplies, but also includes things like product photography props and tools. “Office” includes all PC equipment, paid software, organisational storage, stationary, and PO Box rental.
“Promotion” includes business cards, table banners, website maintenance costs, and paid advertising. The rest are hopefully self-explanatory. The unmarked, tiny yellow sliver at the top is “Legal,” which includes tax prep software, licensing fees, and liability insurance.
The extremely high competition for Artist Alley tables these days makes it harder than ever to make a full living from conventions alone, and many full-time convention artists who’ve not bothered with much of an online presence before have, in the last two or three years, begun to cultivate one in earnest. Artists who didn’t have an online store after ten years in business now have one. Artists who’ve played nice with all of Etsy’s and Storenvy’s changes over the years have finally moved onto their own domains.
Income diversification is critical when there are over 1,500 applicants to an Artist Alley with 87 tables, artist selection is by lottery (a 5.8% chance), and that show is your biggest (local!) show of the year. No convention is a sure thing, so you have to have other ways to make rent.
For my part, I’ve had an online store since 2011 or so, but I rarely promoted it and thus, rarely got sales through it. It was the usual catch-22. I neglected it because it wasn’t doing me much good, but it wasn’t doing me much good because I was neglecting it.
I’ve spent more time on and promoted the store more in the last year or two, but sometimes it’s hard not to feel like it’s too little, too late, especially when the pie chart still looks like above. The store is a long, long way from making up for revenue lost from doing fewer conventions.
I’ve had a print-on-demand (POD) shop at Redbubble since 2013, but didn’t get much more than pocket change from it until 2015, when my Birds With Words series took off. I also have POD shops at Society6 and INPRNT, but have never promoted them as much as Redbubble because the latter offers almost everything the other two offer while being way easier for me to upload work. It’s therefore unsurprising that most of my POD revenue is from RB.
I’ve done a lot fewer commissions in the last few years. Non-commercial, private commissions tend to have a poor time-to-money ratio for “low brow” artists, so it can be tough to justify taking a lot of them, even if I like doing them. That time could be spent doing work with a higher ROI, or personal work that’s more fulfilling. It can be nice as side or bonus income, but for me, at least, I don’t necessarily want commission work to make up a large slice of the pie either.
Consignment has been largely a mixed bag. Many small retail stores don’t have much in the way of an organised, formal process for consigning work. This puts the burden on me to draft the contracts and to remind stores regularly for inventory reports and payment, which, unfortunately, frequently feels like time poorly spent. It’s usually just forgetfulness and disorganisation on their part, but no one wants to spend weeks chasing down a store owner for what’s often $5 of sold product.
Push/Pull is the only store I consign with at the moment, but I’ve been admittedly slow to reach out to new storefronts because of time wasted in the past.
The Next Decade
To be honest, I don’t have a lot of personal interest in the direction Artist Alley seems to be going: towards more short-run, manufactured goods.
Acrylic charms were the first wave of “factory-made” commercial goods, though most of the early ones came from domestic suppliers or private individuals who had access to commercial-grade laser cutters at universities or maker spaces. Then came a variety of specialty apparel, like hats and skirts and patterned, collared shirts — items beyond the capabilities of homemade screenprint or old-school iron-ons. Then came the enamel pins. Then more elaborate enamel pins. Then second-wave acrylic charms with more specialty touches.
It’s exciting to see these types of products become accessible to independent artists, and it’s awesome to see so many high-quality goods in Artist Alley!
But I’ve never really wanted to make any of those things myself?
I have only ever made a few acrylic charms for my own amusement, not for sale. I have not made a single enamel pin. And I don’t usually buy these items for myself, either.
The funny thing is that many have embraced the more tangible, more usable, more wearable pieces of art because they don’t have room to hang any more prints, but I’d personally rather rotate out prints than find my favourite charm damaged or my favourite pin lost.
Some part of not participating in the trend is also because I feel like most of the things I’d want to make on these types of items, someone else already has covered. Given the constraints of a specific product, there are fewer ways for a certain idea to manifest on that product. There are enough charms and pins with flowers and skulls on them, probably.
It’s true, of course, that there are infinite variations on a theme, and everyone can have their own piece of that, but merchandising is a whole beast in and of itself, and a lot of effort. I’m just not interested enough to put forth the effort.
The other part of it is — I just don’t have the space. Minimum orders for apparel and plush are huge. Enamel pins weigh a lot and take up a surprising amount of space once packaged. I don’t want these things nearly enough to sacrifice what little space I have to store them.
Most of the work I like to do doesn’t particularly lend itself to merchandising anyway (redrawing this for an enamel pin would be hell, for example), but the pieces that are, I’ll leave to print-on-demand, for the most part. For the rest, I have prints. As I said, most of my table is prints these days, and I’m okay with that.
Demand for Artist Alley tables isn’t going to go down any time soon. More and more conventions are being forced to lottery and jury systems because no application system’s infrastructure can handle the crush of 2,000 desperate artists pounding on keyboards the second applications go live. (We’ve even crashed a Google server once or twice.)
Even mid-sized and small shows have become hyper-competitive. More artists are expanding into dealer’s rooms and general vendor halls, but competition there is high too. A rise in the number of artists, and interest in the arts in general, is great! But at conventions, at least, there isn’t room for everyone.
Artist-owned creative brands like OMOCAT and HYENA AGENDA will probably continue to get more prevalent and sophisticated from here, with more types of merchandise becoming available and across more avenues than just conventions. Dropship services make it easier to blur the artist-manufacturer line, and more factories are competing for artist investment dollars now than ever. Independent online storefronts will become more common, but a smaller percentage of them will be successful compared to Artist Alley tables.
So, where’s there to go, when there are too many artists and not enough tables, and you aren’t at the forefront of Artist Alley trends anyway?
I don’t have a clear vision for where I want my art, or this business, to go. I’m trying to figure it out.
I’ll keep doing the shows I can get into, and I’ll keep making prints because that’s what I like to make. I’ll keep pushing those other income streams, too, to see if they can make up a larger chunk of the pie. Even if conventions weren’t increasingly difficult to get into, I don’t have the endurance I did ten years ago, and I can’t keep doing 25 shows a year as a solo artist person who’s too stubborn and controlling to hire help.
So we’ll see what happens from here.