Each year, I post an econ themed dispatch from the Bengaluru Comic Con, arguably India’s biggest pop culture convention. The issues we have addressed in the past have mostly been about the fans who visit and consume the wares on offer – from comic books to art to merchandise to hot dogs. But this time let’s return to something I talked about in the very first dispatch from the very first con – the independent artist and her travails – but hadn’t paid a lot of attention to since.
Ars Gratia Artis?
The economics of art is usually complex, and frequently brutal. Superstar artists tend to earn disproportionately well, while many aspiring ones are eventually left in the dust. Such a phenomenon, seen often in creative industries (literature, movies, television etc.) and even sports (we have done a detailed post on tennis here), is called a ‘Winner Take All’ market in economics. The nature of such markets make competition skewed and unfair and what I discovered at the Comic Con this year was that rather than serving as a platform that could provide a level playing field, it only accentuated and amplified the problems that are a bane for the independent artist in the first place.
Independent artists are kind of like Batman. How? They are both independent contractors. Independent creators have to do it all themselves – from production of their merch to the logistics of transportation to other related administrative tasks. Then, to reach an audience and a market they need the equivalent of a bat signal. Gotham gladly pours tax dollars to set one up for the caped crusader. The artists usually have to pay an access fee. That fee allows them a small space in the market that is the convention where they will sell their wares.
And we have not even mentioned the opportunity cost of the amount of time and effort the individual artist has to spend to create the art she is selling. Practically, all of this cost needs to borne before even a single sale is guaranteed. In short, setting up as an independent artist at the Con has a huge fixed cost – the cost you bear regardless of your level of output. This creates a unique problem. Any other producer has significant avoidable costs they can wriggle out of in case they find the market doesn’t have demand for their product – they can run smaller production batches, for example. The artist has no such flexibility in such a scenario.
I have met some brilliantly talented artists over the last six years where I have been to all the six cons organized here, and many of them are just starting out, fresh out of art school, or probably still enrolled there. Think of them as being similar to aspiring tennis pros playing in Challenger tournaments spending their own money. (Incidentally, about half of those who can call themselves professional tennis players make losses – they spend way more than they earn in match fees and prize money.) Artists, similarly, don’t all make bags of money. That’s why those fixed costs, which can easily run up to Rs. 50,000 ($700), tend to be almost prohibitively cost for a lot of them. Nonetheless, driven by a passion for their work, the chance to interact with a community and cultivate a network of fans and patrons, many take the leap, sometimes pooling together their costs (sharing stall space for example).
The problem is, at the convention, sales don’t just happen on talent alone. Any pop culture market has a huge degree of bandwagon demand involved and that in turn depends on visibility and at least some rudimentary publicity. The convention seems to failing in its objective to provide those.
I watched it first hand this year at two stalls that friends of mine had rented. Rather than being an organized or a predictable market with transparent information, the setting became chaotic to a level that would make The Joker blush and make the actions Mad Max: Fury Road sane by comparison. One of them, Varsha, penned a post down in measured and thorough detail the issues that plagued the set up for independent artists at the convention.
To point out just two – a tiny allocation of space (2mX2m is the standard) whose price has increased way more than inflation, and infrastructural snafus (from lack of basics such as drinking water to potentially lost sales because of poor connectivity to do online transactions). Competitive markets aren’t supposed to have frictions like these. Discovery is an independent artist’s lifeblood (think music and Spotify) but with mislabelled or misallocated stall numbers and very little information on official pamphlets and communication at the venue, the search costs were unreasonably high for anyone actually even looking for a specific artist.
Imagine independent filmmakers going to a festival and the event editing out half their film, or providing them terrible projection facilities. Or tennis players being asked to compete on broken down courts or with no access to water during a match. I should mention that I have watched some of these artists first hand at not just this year’s event but over the last 4-5 years, and looking back it is clear that the issue is a systemic problem and not a one off. So, why does this happen?
Because of the oldest problem in economics – mismatched incentives. The convention provides access to two crucial resources for an artist – a captive audience and precious real estate amidst that audience. It is organized by a for profit concern and naturally they tend to design its economics to suit their objective. After all, to quote the most recognizable economist of all time, Adam Smith, “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher…that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.” The convention organizers lock their revenue in early by taking fixed payment for stall spaces, and with their revenue not tied to the fortune of the stall’s sales, have no incentive to provide any facilitation that would improve the revenues for these artists. They aren’t necessarily doing this out of malicious intent, but probably are guilty of avarice. They have no skin in the game.
Which brings us to the last and existential point. Should the organizers be bothered about this? The answer might seem a resounding ‘no’ from a business perspective, but art is not business as usual. Artists add unique value to society, something that doesn’t always get captured in terms of monetary measures. And across the world, they are usually given subsidies or subsidised platforms. Like Thomas Wayne says to little Bruce in Batman Begins;
“Gotham’s been good to our family. But the city’s been suffering. People less fortunate than us have been enduring very hard times. So we built a new, cheap, public transportation system to unite the city.”
The Wayne family stepped up to use their position of privilege for good.
This is a chance for the convention to step up for the cause of the little guy and restore that uniqueness they bring to the event. Or, at the very least, change the incentive structure by, for example, getting into some kind of a partial revenue sharing arrangement. Sports stadiums and food sellers inside them are slowly beginning to learn the benefits of that – better food and lower prices for fans.
Every independent artist I have seen over the years has been nothing short of heroic in terms of their talent, and the difficulties they have to endure. But they can’t remove every obstacle themselves. Even superheroes need to be bankrolled. Just ask Bruce Wayne and Tony Stark.