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Thoughts on Changes in Con Culture

I had an interesting discussion with friends & colleagues about the recent online hullaballoo over Denise Dorman’s post about the troubles even big-name artists (like her husband, Dave Dorman) have making money exhibiting at comic conventions, and how it reflected on other types of cons. I’m lucky enough to have a career that jumps across the comics/hobby games/manga/sci-fi/media categories and so I go to a lot of different cons. (FWIW, I was also a guest at that convention with Dave Dorman last weekend . . . so my perspective was influenced by that, too.)

I think that the big take away from all this IS that convention culture has changed—is constantly changing—and has finally hit a tipping point where those who did well under the old model can no longer carry on with business as usual. In many ways, I think it parallels the “newspapers vs. webcomics” cultural shift that has been debated in cartoonist circles for the past decade-plus.

The point I found most compelling in my earlier discussions is that convention attendees have ALWAYS come to cons for experiences that they can’t have in their everyday fandom. In the past, this had mostly to do with shopping—getting the chance to see and buy comics, games, tchotchkes, etc. that they ONLY had access to at the con . . . things that before the advent of online shopping they couldn’t get because the local comic/game/book stores (if there were any) didn’t carry them … and things like autographs, sketches, and personalized inscriptions. Now all of these things are, for the most part, available to ANYONE through online sales. Sure, an autograph or an “artist edition” might cost a few extra bucks . . . but they’re AVAILABLE.

Conventions used to be where we came to DISCOVER new (or new to us) comics, games, creators, fringe TV shows, etc. And while there’s still SOME of that going on at today’s cons, it’s no longer a focus of what most attendees come for. The Internet makes it so easy to find virtual-reams of material even highly obscure series or creators, and there’s a constant stream of “what’s new” being recommended by friends, family, and news sites.

It also used to be that the mere act of gathering together and talking with fellow fans, not to mention favorite creators, was something that could ONLY be gotten at a convention . . . and so those experiences were highly prized when one finally got to a con. But these days there is no lack of social groups, websites, blogs, podcasts, and YouTube channels that allow fans to get together and socialize with likeminded fans and pros (so much so that our fandom can now be sub-divided into particular niche points of view). Now you don’t need to come to a convention to find a peer group . . . you use it as an excuse to get together in real-time with friends you already have.

Again, I’m not complaining about these things . . . just pointing them out. Because one thing HASN’T changed—attendees come to conventions to have experiences that are bigger, better, or just plain different than they can have in their daily fandom: Cosplay and, in particular, taking pictures of and with particularly skilled costumers and models, events like parties, dances, and themed activities, live-action events, championship game tournaments, etc.. While shopping is still part of the mix, it generally focuses rare or exclusive items (things that attendees BELIEVE will actually be unavailable after the show).

A creator who comes to a convention these days with nothing more than a tableful of merch that can be bought on his or her online store any day of the week is going to have a challenging time reaching sales totals that match those of conventions past. As many have said in online commentary of this topic, it’s time for convention exhibitors (particularly artists and other creatives) to adapt.

Then again, it’s time for the conventions to adapt, too . . . that is, if they want to keep getting big (or even medium) name creators to show up at the cons. They have to HELP to find a way to make it worth those people’s time. Just offering a free table, or even a free hotel room, may no longer be enough. They have to find ways to help PROMOTE the appearance of the guests . . . to make the presence of these guests FEEL important to the attendees, and to encourage the perspective that meeting Neil Adams or Dave Dorman IS an experience that can only be had at the show. Alternatively, to work with the creatives to produce some material that IS exclusive to the show (and benefits the creatives’ bottom lines).

In any case, it is certain that the times are changing (or have changed already) . . . and we ALL have to make sure that we change with them.


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