Todd Durrant’s Random Thoughts
Follow the efforts of a creative, crazed entrepreneur.

Considering Conventions

This coming weekend, Friday and Saturday, May 22nd and 23rd, I’ll be attending the CONduit Science Fiction and Fantasy convention in Salt Lake City.  This will be my second time there, but this time will be a little bit different from the last.  Once again I will be a vendor, and once again I’ll liven up the vending room with electronic pop tunes, selling CD’s from A Different Drum’s label.  But this time I will also have my own book, “TRIGGER” for sale at my table.   Hopefully the one-two punch of cool music and cool sci-fi will draw a little attention and I’ll sell enough stuff to pay for the hotel room and table fee.  Maybe some of you, my friendly readers, live nearby and will be able to come see me?  From what I’ve read on the CONduit homepage, entrance into the vending room is free (no convention pass needed).

I don’t attend many conventions these days, though I’ll probably have to boost my efforts now that I have a book to promote.   But I do have quite a bit of experience with conventions.   Let me kick things off with a little discussion of some successful conventions I’ve attended– principally, Anime conventions.

LOVE CARTOONS, AND PROUD OF IT!

Anime is basically a stylistic Japanese animation style and has a large following worldwide.  The Japanese studios that produce these movies and even some of the popular television shows have a style that is instantly recognized, from the old-school “Robotech” to the wild craze of “Pokemon”,  “Dragon Ball Z” and “Metabots”, to the Cartoon Network taking on “Avatar”, etc.  There are many other shows that are “much cooler” than the ones I’ve mentioned here, at least in the eyes of the wildly fanatic fans who pack hotels and conventions centers around the country by the thousands.

A Different Drum became involved with anime conventions in a somewhat odd way.  A few years ago I connected with a man that worked at a movie company that licensed and released a lot of anime for the USA, and they were looking at some music that might fit nicely into US editions of anime movies, or at least into the trailers, possibly making the product more appealing to the US audience.   Usually the soundtracks of these films were loaded with Japanese pop music (J-Pop) that was high-speed, and generally silly techno music.   Though some of A Different Drum’s music was considered, it looked like they were leaning toward keeping the Japanese music in the original films and trailers because it somehow hightened the exotic appeal.   However, during those times I connected with a woman named Rachael who regularly attended many anime conventions on the US east coast, and she was also a huge fan of A Different Drum’s synthpop music.   So, I hired her to attend the conventions and run a vending table to sell music.

It was obvious after only a couple of conventions that the anime audience was very open to electronic pop music and we gained a good number of new fans because of our presence at those conventions.  I attended a handful of anime conventions on the west coast, ranging from smaller events (by “small”, I mean about 500 people) to large (by” large”, I mean more than 10,000 people).   Some bands from A Different Drum’s label were even invited to play live shows during dances at these conventions, so it seemed a great match indeed.

Eventually, Rachael was planning a marriage and would no longer be able to attend all of the east coast conventions, so A Different Drum faded from those venues.  Likewise, the costs to attend were become more expensive as booth space, travel costs, hotel rooms, etc. started to pile up.

Why am I talking about anime conventions?  I don’t even consider myself to be an anime fan.  Sure, I really like the artistry and creativity in movies like “Spirited Away” or “Castle in the Sky”, but I admit that I felt out-of-place at many of those conventions as I witnessed the difference between my casual admiration and fan fanatacism.   Here is the reason I’m talking about these conventions:  they are the epitome of a well-run, successful convention for a niche market!

Synthpop, or alternative electronic pop like what I have spent my career selling, is also a very small, niche market, but it has not had a lot of success pulling together the kind of well-attended, booming, action-packed conventions that the anime scene pulls together.  I found myself asking time and time again, why can’t WE pull something like that off in our own music scene?   Maybe we couldn’t draw tens of thousands of attendees to dozens of conventions annually, but we should at least be able to pull of one or two, right?

SYNTHPOP CONVENTION ATTEMPTS:

There have been a few attempts to pull together synthpop conventions in the past.  The first SynthCon event in Hollywood, California was actually quite successful in some ways.  The attendence was not great, and the event didn’t make a profit for the promoters, but it was organized more like an actual “convention” than any other event I’ve seen in this scene.  Not only were there three nights of live shows, but also discussion panels ranging from fan get-togethers, to business conversations among bands and labels.  There was a vending room and several daytime events to check out.  People who came to that convention felt like they were getting more than just a show.   However, due to the lack of financial strength, the next SynthCon fell into different hands, and ended up in a mess as the event was kicked out of the hotel after one day (bills hadn’t been paid), saw the second day cancelled, and tried to salvage the third day by having some bands play in a very small Los Angeles night club.   That was the end of SynthCon.

I attended a wonderful festival event that I’d consider the biggest and best synthpop festival in North America, and that was the Synthpop Goes the World event in Toronto.   There was an entire boatload of popular bands, most of whom had their expenses covered to the last dime, and a cool concert hall packed with about 1000 crazed fans who were loving every second, despite the somewhat stifling heat in the venue.  I was there as one of several music vendors.   But this was actually a festival, with no daytime events or convention-like activities.  It was mostly just a huge, multi-day concert, and once again it lost tens of thousands of dollars because of the expenses involved.   Those kinds of festivals had been done, even a couple of times by myself and some friends, at shows like SynthStock ’96, and the 2000 Synthpop Tour, etc.

After activities such as those mentioned above had dwindled, I decided to try to build up some kind of event once again, using a hotel with a nice ballroom, like with other conventions, but without the extra convention activities.  So, it was technically another music festival, but with a convention feel because of the hotel venue.   I pulled it off for three years at the Red Lion Hotel in Salt Lake City, but couldn’t ever break even on the costs, since hotel ballrooms and large sounds systems tend to add up, and the attendence wasn’t growing from year to year.  So, I gave up and haven’t done the festival for a couple of years.   There have been other concert events with multiple bands recently that I’ve attended as a vendor, and have met some excited, dedicated fans at those events, but again, they weren’t conventions in the real sense of the term.

So, why can’t an underground music genre like synthpop put together a successful convention?  Is the fault with the organizers or promoters who have little money to risk on such an event?   Is it the fault of the fans for not slapping hundreds of dollars on the table for airfare, a weekend of hotels rooms, and a convention pass?   Is it the fault of the bands?  OK, first of all, I’ll wipe the bands clean of any fault because they really WANT to participate in well organized conventions and festival events.   Most of them have travelled at their own expense just to have the opportunity to play at many the events I’ve mentioned.   Show me a well-organized convention, and I’ll show you a huge line of bands willing to do whatever it takes to participate.   BUT, show me another poorly executed, confusing, unpromoted festival and I’ll show you a very long line of disappointed bands who were bummed to travel across the country or across the sea to play for 50 people.

WHEN EVERYBODY BECOMES THE MAIN ATTRACTION

To answer my question of why we haven’t seen a successful, sustained synthpop convention, I’m going to look to the anime example, where hotels are overloaded with attendees, where vendors pay hundreds of dollars for the priveledge of participation, and where everybody goes home having had one of the best weekends of the year.

Here is why I think anime conventions are a huge hit, regardless of the level of fanaticism you have about the anime movie style itself.  Basically, everybody there is the star!  Everybody is the main attraction!   You can pull together fans from all levels of geekdom (a term within I proudly include myself), throw them into a hotel together for three days, and they are all the superstars!  They can all live an alternate life for a few days, dressing up in costume, admiring one another, stopping every 2 minutes to snap photos are pose for photos, joining together in little groups of super-friends, though they only met one another a couple hours ago, and party like the happy ninja warriors, dark elves, pixie faries, and kung-fu cheerleaders that they wish they were!   I’m not saying this to make fun of people, but indeed I believe it is the very reason these people go to the conventions over and over again, and are willing to spend their annual savings to do it.

Imagine that you are a somewhat normal guy who works a boring desk job, or even managing a local fast food restaurant.  Your life is pretty normal, or even dull, and it is tough to get much attention.  You like Japanese cartoons, and you have a few friends online that do as well.   So, every few months you get together with those friends who travel hundreds or thousands of miles to meet up, and you dress in a costume, and you admire one another, and you feel like you are now the main event.   You are not a burger-flipping computer junkie, but instead an oversized-sword-baring knight from the underworld!  Or whatever!  You are it! Everybody else there has your one interest in common, so you already belong, and nobody has a problem with your peculiar tastes!

Sure, the anime conventions pull together special guests to dress-up the convention’s profile.  There will be a handful of voice actors giving panel discussions, plus a bevy of artists willing to draw you as your favorite anime character, or whatever.  But it almost seems like the guests are really a secondary draw to the event, because these fans are coming for everything else.  They have DDR video game contests going all weekend.  They have little ad-hoc plays where groups of friends get together and act out their favorite scenes, or blend together characters and plots from different shows in a humorous way.   They have dances with live bands or DJ’s (not just a “show”, but a “dance” where everybody is going crazy on the dance floor).   They have late-night board gaming, cards, and role-play.  They have movie screenings all day and all night.  They completely overrun the hotel swimming pool and have swim suit contests (you haven’t experienced a true swim suit contest until the woman who wins comes complete with a cat tail and pointed ears).

Can you picture what I am saying here?   Can you see why these things are so much fun?   What do you get with our synthpop festivals?  Sure, you get to hang out with other fans of the music (which is one of my favorite elements), and do a little shopping, but really, it is all about the bands who are playing that night.  It’s just a concert, multiplied by 2 or 3,  so you can go to one location and see several undergound bands that rarely get to tour your hometown.  I’m not saying that isn’t a good thing.  I’m not saying that isn’t a nice attraction.  But it does lack a lot of what makes a successful convention.

I think that whoever (if it ever happens) pulls off a successful, ongoing convention for this music scene, it will have to be built around the same attitude and event planning that really involves the fans 100% in the overall experience.   Yes, there can be some live shows from cool bands, but in a party, dance environment.   Like with the movie screenings going on at the anime conventions, there could be new artists playing all day long in one of the rooms.  But there has to be other things, like games, contests, true audience participation panel discussions, music and artwork demo showcases, and even a spotlight on costuming and fashion.   People who attend need to feel like this is their chance to break out of their shell and become a part of something different and exciting.  They may not normally live a very glamorous life, and they may not even like all the bands who might be attending, but they WILL get to strut their stuff without shame and participate in a larger degree with the music that they love.    It’s all about fan participation.   It requires that organizers change their focus to the attendee experience, and it takes the would-be attendees to get excited and give it a chance to succeed.   If everybody who attends the event leaves feeling like they were a part of something special, then they will come back, and they’ll let their buddies know that this is something they too would want to experience the next year.

What is the risk involved with organizing something like this?  Again, it is all about the expenses.   To have the kind of convention I’ve talked about, you need to book a nice hotel with several rooms for the different daytime and nightime events.  You need to have a large staff of volunteers to keep things running on schedule, and to make sure that information is quickly and efficiently spread to all attendees so they know what is going on and what they want to do while they are there.   They need to get a bag full of goodies once they arrive and they need to have the kind of vending room that fills up a few more bags for them while they are there, so they walk away with a pile of stuff that will remind them every day of every week of the good time they had and how much they look forward to the next one. They can treasure those autographed CD’s, the photos they took with their favorite singer, the trophy they won for dressing up as their favorite 80’s new wave star, or whatever.

Will this ever happen?  I don’t know.  I do know people who wish it would, and who are certainly capable and motivated enough to put something together, but after being bitten even trying to put together smaller events, it becomes daunting to think of something bigger.  So, maybe it will remain a dream.   I’ll just have to remember those couple of times when it was bravely attempted.  I’ll look at my event passes from years gone by that are hanging on the side of my desk with affection, considering that there may not be another to hang there in the future.  But we can always hope!

-Todd

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6 Responses to “Considering Conventions”

  1. That is a well thought out post.

    I’ve been involved with throwing some raves in Denver, and from seeing it from both sides, attending and throwing, you can tell that a large part of the success of the show is everyone, coming all dressed up and posing for pictures and meeting everyone else all dressed up. Having a theme for a party instead of just a name helps boost attendance. For one of the parties I had a friend trying to find a theme in the name of party when we really didn’t even have on.

    And just the other day we had a thread going on facebook with the main organizer of Denver’s Dark Arts Fest about the state of it, and bouncing ideas around on how to make it profitable, etc etc.

    Throwing a big successful party/festival is definitely an art.

  2. There are so many kinds of conventions that draw huge crowds and you hit it, the reason they go is that they having immense fun. I have gone to board game conventions and it is solid non-stop eurogaming for several days (& nights) with likeminded folk.

    But, lost in your writing is the fact that the Europeans have totally pulled this off with their big music festivals. Zillo, Mera Luna and others. I think what kills the synth music scene in the U.S. is too few fans scattered across a VERY big country. In Europe, everyone is only a few rail stops away from wherever the fest is occurring. I have no ideas on how to overcome this. I guess one would be to have a fest in like an Atlanta where flights & hotel space are plentiful. It would also have to be a cool venue with options for the slightly less interested spouses or children who may be attending.

    If I ever come across big cash, I would try to pull something off, even though i know I would lose money, I would just like to see our scene have a U.S. festival done right. Like Ozz-fest. Outdoors, big stage, big speakers, lots of lights and effects, vendors at the perimeter, you get the point.

    • Yes, you mention some of the huge music festivals in Europe that are well attended. That is, as you suggest, in large part due to the ease of travel and the compact nature of Europe. Indeed, it is a big challenge to get people from New York or Florida to travel to Los Angeles or Denver, etc. when the locations are so far and it involved expensive airfare. But there ARE people who travel to the anime and gaming conventions. Then again, those have become such a hit that you can find a couple happening at any point within a state or two from your hometown.

      I also want to point out that the events you mention in Europe are again music “festivals” with a bunch of shows. I don’t think they are “conventions” in the usual sense– hotel settings, panel discussions, and other events besides just the shows. But I’m sure a lot of that is going on anyway, even if it is the fans planning it, since those events have been going on so long that attendees can plan ahead what they want to do once they get together with their friends.

      -Todd

  3. Looking past the travel aspect, I think a successful convention of any kind starts and stops with the promoters. Any convention can have big names, frills and excitement, but if the people who put it on are not into it, then it is doomed to fail.

    Also I believe that there still is a “anti” synthpop edge in the music industry, with very few haves (Depeche Mode, Pet Shop Boys) getting air time here on US radio. If a convention or a tour is to be successful, I think you need a good combination of big names and the new bands carrying the torch (along with DJs who are knowledgable and passionate about Synthpop).

    One of the “what if” scenario’s I’ve thought of was a 3 day event, you have 3 big name bands head-lining (Depeche Mode, Pet Shop Boys, and New Order for example), supported by bands who are big, but maybe dont have as big a calling card (Camouflage, Information Society for example), then you fill in the rest with bands who are carrying the torch and have an almost underground following (And One, VnV Nation, Covenant, Beborn Beton).

    You have some of the biggest DJs added in along with some who are plying their way, and promoters who care about the scene and music.

    Sure its alot of money and logistics, but the rewards would be huge, make it a yearly event, and if it gets big, a bi-yearly event.

  4. I think the reason there are not so many rabid synthpop fans as there are anime fans, trekkies, etc., is that there is a lack of:

    1. Solid, popular, diverse content (I know people will disagree on this, but I do not meet a lot of people who could name any synthpop bands orther than maybe pet shop boys or erasure – even among people who are into electronic music!).

    2. A large, well-connected community.

    I mean, furries manage to sidestep problem number 1 by having a huge online community, and anime and fantasy fandoms have diverse content that ENABLES them to have things like costume contests, games, vendor booths at which to buy books, trinkets, etc. There’s something for everyone.

    Electronic music has… the music. The only things you have to sell are music and band-related paraphernalia. Since we’re talking about a genre where costumes are NOT that prevalent (as far as I know), dressing up for a synthpop convention would seem out of place. It’s usually the FANS who get dressed up for shows, anyway.

    While I think activities such as games, contests, and dances would certainly liven up a festival, it is still ultimately going to be about the music. Seeing favorite bands would STILL be your main draw.

    And yes, the distance to travel is a big thing. The ONLY location I could travel to from where I live would be Denver.

    But the bottom line is this: there is NOT a big synthpop fandom in the US. Not compared to a lot of things. It just isn’t a popular genre among the general population. Heck, the general population, I’m guessing, does not even have an inkling that such a genre exists. When you say “electronic music” they think of generic techno or something. When you say “synthpop” they’re like “whut?” and then you have no choice but to mention some 80s bands they might have heard of, and then they’re like, “oh. 80’s music”. >_>

    So I think if you want a successful convention, you first have to have an active and enthusiastic fanbase. Maybe you can get synthpop fans together with fans from other, related genres or something. There’s a bit of crossover with goth, industrial, dance, etc. styles anyway – why not capitalize on that?

  5. This is an awesome article, Ill be adding you to my list.


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