A year without conventions

Well, it’s been the epitome of a monkey’s paw year for every tired artist who wanted to do fewer conventions, amirite?

I wanted to travel less and spend more time at home. I wanted to have more time to ride my bike and to make actual art. I wanted less reliance on shows and to explore and better develop alternative revenue streams. But not like this.

What a year it’s been, y’all.

Income diversification and less focus on conventions has been a goal for a while, and I know many of my similar-age Artist Alley peers have begun to prioritise it in the last two or three years. But suddenly, everyone’s been thrown off the deep end, and this year has been and will be very sink or swim for artists who relied on conventions for a significant portion of their income.

While many March conventions had optimistically rescheduled for later summer and fall, many of those rescheduled events have since been canceled, along with most regular fall shows. The coming month will probably see cancellations for events through the end of the year and even early 2021. After all, even the rescheduled Olympics in 2021 aren’t a sure thing, and that’s still a year out now.

Lost Income

Artist Alley is a side hustle for most, but I think the number of artists who depended on conventions for more than half their income was on the rise. Attendance and revenue from large shows have increased; the number of mid-sized shows to pad slower months has increased; and accessibility to overseas manufacturing has bolstered margins, making the jump to full-time conventioneering more feasible.

For 2019, about 23% of surveyed artists made half or more their annual income from conventions.

So of course, conventions being canceled for basically the foreseeable future puts them in a really tough spot. Ability to collect unemployment while self-employed depends largely on state, but regardless, unemployment will run out long before large events are a thing again.

As the United States grapples with a new surge in cases in recent weeks, the multi-phase reopening processes in most states are being delayed or rolled back. “Large gatherings” of 250+ people are in the final phase of every reopening plan, and it’s hard to imagine that they’ll be considered any time soon.

Crowds at Sakura-Con 2016s Artist Alley
Crowds at Sakura-Con 2016’s Artist Alley.

Moving Online

As the cancellations pile on, many artists have been promoting their online stores in earnest.

Unfortunately, it has always been difficult for online sales to compare to in-person sales, and the present pandemic has made management and logistics more difficult. Many are limited to domestic sales due to worldwide shipping delays and restrictions, and many are having a difficult time restocking popular items produced overseas for similar reasons. Supply and delivery chains everywhere have been disrupted, and small businesses are most adversely affected.

Much more so than the convention floor, the online retail space is a difficult place to thrive, and it can be hard to adapt Artist Alley experience and expertise. While succeeding at a convention requires concentrated focus and effort over a small period of time, ecommerce requires sustained and consistent efforts in promotion, marketing, and presence. Introvert artists can “turn on” a sales persona for a few hours a day at a convention; it’s exhausting, but manageable for most. It’s a different game having to be “on” on an ongoing basis, from fielding customer emails to managing marketing efforts and other promotions.

Production timelines and volume can also be difficult to adjust for an online market. Many veteran artists have a good idea of how much they need to order to meet demand over a convention season. They’re able to order items in bulk because they know they have x number of shows and opportunities to sell them. But I’d guess that considerably fewer artists have a good idea of how much is needed to meet online demand, especially as that demand fluctuates wildly due to global crisis.

If online sales are just a fraction of convention sales, but you don’t know what that fraction is, how much product should you order? Con revenue funds the production of new items, but now that that revenue is gone, deciding where and how to invest limited funds is a lot more risky, too.

For those of whom for which Artist Alley was a hobby or side hustle, the extra effort necessary to successfully run an online business may not be worth it if they’ve been able to keep their day job.

But for those who’ve lost their day jobs and those who depended on Artist Alley for a living, the situation’s dire.

I’m still not super happy with the look of my store, but fiddling constantly with the layout is lots of time cost for minimal gains, ha.

Treading Water

Artists that have been shifting focus online pre-pandemic are at an advantage, but the difference between having decent online sales to pad out slower convention months and making enough in online sales for it to be a livable income is immense.

Ability to grow business online to make up that difference will be the biggest factor in determining whether merchandise-based artists will survive until conventions return, but that sort of growth takes time, and most artists don’t have enough in savings to buy that time.

NPR recently had a Planet Money episode about the music festival industry, which is basically the bigger, mainstream version of the fandom convention industry. A merchant interviewed said her online sales were just 10% of what she’d make at live events. Sales may increase over time as more consumers adjust to buying more online and as artists refine their marketing skills, but if 90% growth is needed to make up the revenue gap… that sort of growth just isn’t feasible over a short time frame.

With the way things are trending, I think it will be a year, at least, before conventions are back on the table in the United States. A lot of artists and business are going to fold in the meantime without considerable financial assistance and/or alternative employment.

Con badge from BLFC 2018
Con badge from BLFC 2018. Oh, the good times.

Artists with minimal online presences can thrive in a convention space if they have an attractive setup and a good product. The sheer volume of people with the specific intent to shop is huge, and even at large shows, there are a finite number of merchants, and many attendees make a point to walk through the whole Alley.

It’s a different story online. Artists must compete and stand out among every other artist and every other online retailer, big and small. Only artists with considerable followings or stellar marketing prowess will survive.

Without conventions, the number of artists able to sustain themselves solely on art merchandising and commissions will shrink, but the number of side hustle and hobbyist artists may increase — aside from those that had previously been active on the con scene, there will be new artists joining the throngs online, hoping to generate additional income as primary employment situations become unsteady or unstable and as temporary job losses slowly transition into permanent ones.

It’ll be interesting to see what sales trends emerge for online artist shops over time, especially compared to overall ecommerce data. It may be neat to run a survey similar to the con-specific annual surveys I did 2015-2019 focusing on online store data, but in the meantime, there’s this COVID-19 specific survey trying to get a better picture of how convention artists have been affected by the crisis.

Kuronekocon 2019. Haha, remember cons? Tables? Touching things on those tables? Being around people??

The Future of Conventions

There’s still a lot we don’t know about COVID-19.

More than four months into the pandemic, information about the virus is still ever-evolving. The danger and potential for long-term effects in people of all ages gives me pause. Chronic illness is no joke. And while I never had much faith that the government response in the US would be effective, the way things have turned out has been disappointing all the same. The utter lack of social safety net here has always been a problem, but the seriousness and severity has been thrown into the spotlight in the worse way.

It’s clear that the economy won’t be able to recover until the virus is under control, but vaccine production has been rife with challenges. Researchers still don’t know whether a vaccine will be able to grant long-term or short-term immunity, or how quickly it can be mass produced and distributed, or how much it will cost, or how many people will actually get it. With so many unanswered questions, it’s really impossible to know when it will be as safe as it used to be to venture out in groups.

But since containment is out of the question in the US, since long-term government aid is unlikely to happen to any meaningful degree, and since the economic devastation continues every day, it’s likely that large gatherings will be permitted before it’s truly safe to allow them…

ROOKiEZ is PUNK'D at San Japan 2016
ROOKiEZ is PUNK’D at San Japan 2016.

Even when conventions return, though, I think attendance and demand will be down for a long time. Reasonable people are now conditioned to a wariness of crowds and crowded indoor spaces. I really can’t imagine the wall-to-wall packed mess of bodies at Emerald City Comicon any time soon (or the sardine can of Sakura-Con’s Artist Alley basement dungeon).

That sort of environment was never truly pleasant, but now there will be fewer people who are willing to risk it, much less tolerate it, in the name of a good time. “Con crud” has long been a problem for many, and now the risk is more costly.

The travel and accommodations industries have suffered huge hits. Businesses will close and those remaining will need to increases prices. Convention and events centers facing huge shortfalls in revenue may also increase prices while laying off workers. Smaller conventions may fold in the interim, unable to afford new venue contracts. This limits options, and making the post-pandemic con scene even more competitive and brutal. There can be a long, long cascade of unfortunate effects.

Cons in the future will probably be smaller and more expensive. For artists, this means it will cost more to go, but they’ll make less money, because there will be fewer customers and those customers will have less money to spend. This recession will probably turn into a depression, at least for lower and middle-class workers who aren’t able to telecommute, and that will worsen the problem for all arts and entertainment industries, which are, of course, luxury goods.

I wish I had something optimistic to note here, but all of this really sucks. There’s no easy or quick solution, and we’re liable to be dealing with the effects of the pandemic for a long time.

Remember being on planes?? Traveling??

Where to Go From Here

For me, 2019 online store sales were just 3.3% of my total art-related revenue, while print-on-demand comprised 5%. Conventions, meanwhile, were 85.8%. Commissions, consignment, affiliates, and royalties made up the remainder. I made less from my online shop last year than I did at Chibi Chibi Con, a one-day convention.

Google Sheets has a long way to go with its charts compared to Excel…

In the first two quarters of 2020, online sales have certainly increased, but I’ve also attended zero conventions.

Store sales are now 60.7% of revenue and POD, 31.4%. Total gross revenue from art for six months of 2020 is less than gross revenue from art in January 2019, a two-con month (MAGFest and Further Confusion).

While monthly art revenue swings around wildly when it’s contingent on conventions (one month might have four cons while another month has none), the average month for 2020 so far is about 20% of the average month for 2019. Yikes.

The art business is still in the green for the year, but just barely. Taxes for 2019 have cut into most of the revenue for 2020, so while expenses (mostly from travel) are also way down, the gross revenue isn’t anywhere near a livable income.

I’m extremely fortunate to have other work. The sudden lack of con revenue does mean needing to devote more hours to that other gig, but cutting out travel, con prep, con stress, and most social activities also reclaims a lot of time. From a strictly personal standpoint, 2020 has been… okay. So far.

Bike anime made me bike. Being a nerd made me a jock.

I wanted to travel less and spend more time at home — I haven’t been on a plane since January and I’m pretty sure this is the longest gap in ten years.

I wanted to have more time to ride my bike — I’ve ridden more miles this year than the last four years combined, and in May, I did my first 100 mile solo ride.

I wanted more time to make actual art — this is still a work in progress, as focus and motivation have been challenging, but I think my output has been decent this year, all things considered.

I didn’t want these things at the cost of a global pandemic, but I’m trying to make the most of it.

I wanted less reliance on shows — well, there’s no choice there — and to explore and better develop alternative revenue streams. The plan is definitely still to have a more active and attractive online store and more streamlined backend process for it. I’ve improved a few things this year, but haven’t pushed it as much as I could, marketing-wise. I’m okay with that though.

Continuing to make art is probably the most important thing. Selling it is important too, but again, I’m fortunate that this isn’t critically urgent at the moment. I’ve held off making new prints and products of new work due to the aforementioned “not sure how much to stock” problem, but I hope to finally have some new things in time for fall.

To be honest, I’m doubtful that online sales for me will ever match what I was able to make at conventions, but even if I can get to half, that’d be pretty good. The overhead in maintaining things online is much less, so less gross revenue doesn’t necessarily mean less net revenue. It’s still a lofty goal, but we gotta have dreams, I guess.

Hope you’re all staying safe out there.

Aiko and Punpun from Sakura-Con 2014. Cons will be a thing again someday……………….

About the author

Kiri is a Seattle-based artist, writer, and (brush) pen enthusiast with over 12 years of convention vending experience and a lot of opinions.