Photograph from the Anime Expo Facebook page

The struggle over artist alleys

or “Conventions CDS did not manage to attend”

Within these last two weeks, there were three conventions. Two in Singapore and one in USA. None of which CDS had a booth at. While that is quite a tragedy for us due to loss of sales, it does offer an interesting look at the position of artists for conventions.

Since Anime Expo is all the way in USA, none of us had the opportunity to visit. That said, there are significant CDS presence at the convention. Behold!

CDS is the anime studio from Singapore that drew the key marketing visual for Anime Expo, as far as I know, the largest anime convention in USA. While we did do the key marketing visual for AX, it’s somewhat smarts that we didn’t have a booth there ourselves. That said, it’s mostly because it is simply too expensive for us to travel there.

The amount of artist booths at AX is just staggering. Sure, it might not be at the level of Comiket but it is A LOT OF BOOTHS. Just look at the layout! Look at the crowd!

Image from AX Facebook
Image from AX Facebook

Over there, the artist alley is one of the greatest draw (pun not intended) of the convention. A quick survey on Twitter show that this is one convention that many artists want to attend AND many fans want to attend BECAUSE of the artists.

At the same time, a quick look at the Artist Alley Facebook group showed that there are a number of complaints regarding the management of the AX artist alley.

Us Singaporeans will whine but we might survive better. Since heat is no stranger to us.
This is quite an epic rant. There’s so much more negative comments below about expensive prices, long lines and such. Obviously they have never being to Singapore’s convention. 375 USD isn’t that bad a price, really.

I heard that the artist alley location is also not the best. Of course, looking at the sheer size of it, it might have moved just so that they can occupy a larger location.

Complaints will always happen. Even with the best events, there will be areas in which artists will privately complain to one another about. The management must always improve on the conditions and safety of the artist alley.

Kudos to the AX staffs for responding to the issues and improving matters. The issues could have been avoided if it had been considered in the first place. However, kudos for rectifying it when you knew about it. With this experience, next year will be a better one.

I am sure that AX will continue to enjoy strong support from the art community with both the booth take-up rate and the community demand for a dedicated space where fans can meet indie artists and buy art.

AX is a pertinent example of a very successful convention in which the artist alley plays a very strong draw for visitors. Of course, my opinion might be somewhat biased since they did commission us to do artworks for them.

We look forward to attending it for ourselves next year. To the AX staffs who might read this, please reserve a place or two in the Artist Alley for us!

Let us turn our attention inwards to Singapore. Unlike AX whose artist alley is burgeoning and is a convention attraction all by themselves, things seem to be going a different direction here. If anything, we are seeing a deliberate shrinking of artist booths here.

Both Cosfest and CharaExpo had a reduced artist alley presence for 2016. Cosfest had a miserable count of just 29 booths. CharaExpo went further to totally do away with the artist alley.

For Cosfest, their status with the doujin community has always been shaky. A number of us want to have booths there. Not because Cosfest is an amazing event but rather it’s almost habitual. Cosfest has been one of the longest running conventions in Singapore.

Sure, they have other not-as-popular Cosfests such as Cosfest Xmas that few groups care about. The organizers are also much more prone to drama compared to others. Layout and attraction wise, Cosfest could not hold against other major conventions such as AFA or STGCC.

All that said, for many doujin circle, Cosfest is most likely one of their first events they’ve gone to. To the older circles, there is the nostalgia factor. To the new circles, it’s an entry-level event. Compared to other conventions, Cosfest is also one of the cheapest for artists at 80 SGD for two days. Free entry for the convention attendees meant that you are assured of potential customers, unlike, for example, STGCC where ticket holders might already be broke by the time they reached the artist alley.

Hearsay is that over 200 applications for the booths were received. Out of those, only 29 lucky artists got their booths which resulted in quite a bit of grumbling and all. Cosfest has never been known for their ‘customer service’ to the booths. There used to be a whole ‘p.s. I ❤ Cosfest’ movement that was inspired within CDS too. Despite everything, artists still try to apply for a Cosfest booth since it is a tried and proven convention. Don’t expect massive profits but it’s good for something basic.

Guess where the largest cluster of people are located

Are art booths an integral part of Cosfest? Usually, you’ll find the art booths within the hall to be part of the most crowded area as visitors look through the fan products. This year, it was even more pronounced as more cosplayers crammed into the D’Marquee to escape the heat wave. It will actually make quite a bit of sense for Singapore Cosplay Club to increase the number of artist booths for the next Cosfest, given the demand. There are years in which Cosfest had anywhere up to fifty booths though I think the number of allocated booths probably fluctuates depending on how many commercial spaces Cosfest managed to sell for that year.

Relations between artists and Cosfest has never been the friendliest but we can be depended on for the extra cash for them through the art booth sales. Singapore Cosplay Club will want to keep that in mind. As long as they can continue to position themselves as the entry-level convention for artists, they should do fine with the art community. And the artists will be happy to be present to provide content for their convention to draw in additional visitors.

Our booth from Chara Expo 2015

Moving on to CharaExpo, a recent big convention in Singapore that has the backing of major Japanese firms. The first year of CharaExpo was a major success for both the convention and the artist alley there. They did try to enforce a ‘ban’ on certain doujin products and encourage participating booths to have at least one ‘book’ product. An attempt that probably didn’t go as well as they hoped.

While the event was smooth on the whole, there were some teething problems with the artist alley. Firstly, what doujins were out-of-bounds were undefined at first, resulting in certain doujin circles submitting an entire list of possible products to be rejected. That obviously created quite a bit of grumbling within the inner circle.

The organizers’ objection to certain products (such as anything based on Love Live) is understandable since they are the license holder from Japan themselves. That said, this is the first time any convention organizer is trying to limit what we can or cannot sell. So they should have expected some resistance.

Secondly, there was the insistence that there should be at least one new ‘book’ item for sale. This is actually something which CDS is quite keen to support, given our own poor track record in that area. However, it won’t be something that you often find at other booths. There were rumblings that certain doujin circles were threatened with expulsion as they did not meet the ‘book’ requirement for their products on that day itself. Nothing as drastic as that happened in the end but once again, this should have been something that the organizers expected. The local doujin community don’t produce THAT much books anyway (and unfortunately) due to market circumstances.

In all, it seemed like they were trying to push for a Comiket-like artist alley but with plenty of un-Comiket-like restrictions. Not that it is a really bad thing; Just that it felt forcefully imposed without considering how doujin is like within the local context. When that lead to resistance, I suspect that informed their decision this year to totally forgo having an artist alley.

Thus sets the stage for all of us to watch regarding how important the artist alley is for any conventions. You’ll be sure that other convention organizers will be watching the attendee figures at Charaexpo really closely as well. So too should us, from the local creative scene, be watching this closely for it will affect our bargaining power with convention organizers in the future.

And that need to bargain might come sooner than later.

Sonny Liew made a post recently regarding STGCC that gained traction amongst the comic community with comic industry members all the way from Indonesia and Malaysia pitching in.

The juicy parts are really in the comments section. So have a read if you get the chance to do so. The main gist is that the comic artists felt that STGCC isn’t doing enough to help promote the local industry. Instead, the locals are getting the shaft compared to the overseas participants. Fingers are pointed towards how overseas participants get cheaper booths compared to Singaporeans (which is true because they don’t have to be charged GST).

It didn’t help that compared to other conventions in Singapore, STGCC booths are on the expensive side. A two-days STGCC booth cost 749 SGD, inclusive of GST, compared to a three-days AFA booth that costs roughly 450 SGD, exclusive of GST. It is also much more costly for logistics and food at MBS compared to the more accessible Suntec.

These grouses are not new and the organizers of STGCC are definitely well aware of them. Given that the post is a public one AND Sonny is a decently well-known voice in the community, it’s a matter of time before Reeds say something about it. IF they are not already aware.

My stance is that there definitely need to be some form of conversation between the artists and convention organizers.

In order for a conversation to work, there needs to be an understanding between both the art community and the convention organizers. Each party has their own objectives. But the one simplest point has always gone down to pricing. Artists take up booths at conventions to showcase their work and at the very least, they are looking to covering their operational costs. That means they need to make money. We will want cheaper booths and at the same time, large amount of convention goers which translates to potential customers.

Given that STGCC is under Reeds Exhibitions, a private business entity, we can safely assume that the main objective of the management for STGCC is to make money. While we cannot discount the enthusiasm of the rank and files in making STGCC a successful, fun convention for all; to keep a convention running sustainably, the convention needs to make sales to both booth owners and attract ticket buying convention goers. We can also VERY safely assume that commercial booths are probably a lot more expensive than artist booths. That said, we got no idea how much profit margins are there for the booth.

With the objectives of both sides laid out, that’s where negotiations come in. What is next for us all? How much compromise should we be expecting between the art community and the convention organizers?

At the end of the day, the relations between the artist community and convention organizers is a two-way street. It is in our common interest for a sustainably, successful convention (such as AX or Cosfest or CharaExpo) to enjoy high human traffic, plenty of art content and sales.

Organizers should listen to what the artists are saying. We might not be the experts but some of our points are valid concerns that should be addressed. We have our opinions on how conventions can become better. There are clear benefits to helping cultivate a more prominent, stronger local creator community. (No need to pay for long distance flights & expensive hotels when inviting special guests, for one thing)

At the same time, artists cannot expect conventions, especially a mainstream targeted convention, to fully revolve around the concerns of the artists. Like it or not, the primary objective of the convention is to attract crowds and make money. For now, at least, that means foreign big-name artists with a proven track record of attracting fans. Booth costs should be kept affordable but never so low that it becomes unprofitable for the organizers.

Community conversation must take place between art creators and convention organizers to create an event that caters to both our common needs and grow the local market for all of us. If none happens and unilateral actions continue, then we’ll just be stuck in the conundrum of bitching privately to each other on social media with no progress at all.

Update:

It has been weeks since CharaExpo is over & I have been hesitating on doing the follow-up to this article. Having attended the convention myself, I thought that it was not as interesting as it could be. However, I come from a biased, salty POV since I am a potential booth owner denied a booth.

Even if I am to poll my twitter followers, do keep in mind that if they are following the CDS Twitter, they are probably going to be biased for doujin presence too!

There are two main replies. Here they are.

These might not be the most encouraging (to CharaExpo). However, doing a quick Twitter search on #charaexpo yielded a lot of positive responses towards the convention. Plenty of photos on convention loot that obviously doesn’t include doujin products. It will not be conclusive.

So we should be looking at data instead.

2015’s CharaExpo has a recorded visitorship of 16,800 according to data IOEA has. Compared to 2016, we saw an increase of 2,200 attendees.

It’s more than last year so obviously, the lack of doujin booths didn’t hurt the convention. Then again, let us look at the figures from an all-doujin convention, Doujima.

If you consider that Doujima has way less marketing budget and blockbuster star power backing it, CharaExpo’s figures doesn’t look as impressive as it was before.

By all convention means, CharaExpo probably achieved most of its targets. Happy booth owners. Happy convention goers. Most regular people, other than us salty doujin people, would be satisfied. Sure, there could have been way more attendees but was that even the main objective or KPIs for the organizers?

If there were any complaints, (and for sure, there are always complaints such as the overly loud sound systems), it did not involve the lack of doujin content directly. While I think that having doujin booths at CharaExpo would have greatly enhanced the convention, I cannot confidently say that the convention suffered because of a lack of doujin.

That said, the convention could have been so much more with the presence of doujin. We might be nothing like the Japanese content creators, but for a relatively small space, we easily provide so much more attractive content for any conventions. Especially since each artist present brings along their following and some of them have very SIGNIFICANT following. Consider how awesome a convention can get if they combine the strengths of Chara Expo’s and Doujima’s? (Something like AFA maybe)

So on our part, as artists or even as a collective of artists, it is imperative that we keep talking to convention organizers. It is to our benefit to kinda understand things from their POV. At the same time, by keeping the conversation going, we can get them to understand where we come from.

And hopefully, together, we can get a truly awesome convention that works for everyone.