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Solutions for the Artist Boycott

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Biscuits, we sure are in a pickle aren’t we?

I’m here to talk about the art aspect of the MagicFest series as it relates to the artist boycott announced a few weeks ago. It’s the culmination of a changing Grand Prix atmosphere and experience that I first reported four years ago, right around this time of year.

A lot has happened since the boycott was announced, so let us recap events and responses concerning future MagicFest events (formerly Grand Prix events). Remember that these are the only large scale open Magic tournaments that occur around the world. Everything else is local or its own competitive circuit like a prerelease or a Star City Games Open event, amongst others.

While reporting on the situation initially, I took the position that artists should be guests, but have to be vendors. In the current iteration of Grand Prix with Channel Fireball (CFB), I still think that, and the dissonance for artists is what created conditions for the boycott.

As I said then in my 2017 Artists at Grand Prix: Their Future article:

...without Wizards of the Coast being able to accommodate artists, and with the ability to bring in artists resting solely on the shoulders of tournament organizers, our idealized version of Grand Prix as spectacles may be waning. I say “our” because there's a lot more casual Magic players than there are grinders.

This is a changing of the role of the artist, and no one has slowed down to examine the artist’s role in our largest tournaments. While artist incentives as guests diminish into what’s probably a zero-sum effort, will they still have places at Grand Prix events at all?

My second article in November of 2018, only a few weeks ago, reported on the boycott itself, taking my soapbox to both introduce their boycott and put it in context. Twenty artists signed the boycott before the article posting and an additional fifteen signed after. It’s been organic thus far. To summarize that article:

This is not a quickly created item, but rather a document years in the making to improve their conditions. These concerns are not new, but artists going public about conditions is new.

A few people framed the article for what this boycott truly was though: it is a discussion of return on investment, and for most artists, it is not worth their time.

And there was a definitive yes on the organizer’s part, that artists are seen as vendors:

That argument and discussion is over: CFB sees artists as a type of vendor and will have in effect “guest vendors” which still have some things that need to be worked out and thus boycott complaints are still valid and in need of solutions.

So this is the current state of the artists at the only open large scale community events sponsored by Wizards but run by a single selected Tournament Organizer (TO):

Grand Prix in the last two years have had a long list of artists at events, swelling into the 20s at some, as the value of “non-pro celebrity guests” for promotional effect was recognized. But based on this interaction between CFB and the artists, it will now revert back to the norm of at least one artist, potentially two or three and that’s about it.

Four years after my first article, artists still have a place at the rebranded MagicFest events, but who those artists are, or can be, is changing.

Wild Guess by Lucas Graciano

Oil, in a private collection

In the current system there is no direct method to quantify the market value of an artist at a Grand Prix (MagicFest) as either draw or return on investment (ROI).

Baseline Questions for artists and TOs to ponder:

  • What is the maximum number of artists after which no additional players are added to attendance? (There is a number, and organizers should know what it is.)
  • How many artists are needed for the main event to sell out? (Knowing full well that people on the edge to attend are tipped to go by artists.)
  • Can players who only attend to see artists be incentivized to play in the main event or multiple side events? (Again, if people show up and don’t play, they make the organizer zero money, and therefore their demands do not impact the ROI of the organizer.)

It is clear from pure marketing practice that at least one guest artist who a TO can advertise creates trackable positive public relations. But after that, it is hard to say how many more artists create players showing up to play Magic, and create profit for Channel Fireball Events and their direct booth sales.

I can safely assume that Channel Fireball bid on the worldwide Grand Prix events without knowing this change in branding was going to occur. If they had known, they’d be investing more in convention organizers, seeking out community connectors, known associates, and more.

And honestly there is some question involved in whether Wizards & CFB are changing the events to support non-tournament activity at all or just changing the name to reflect the participation in side event tourneys. But let’s assume best intent.

While we can see Brian, the Professor being brought to events as a celebrity guest, a media guest is only one aspect to a convention experience. It could be a start if they actually knew what a MagicFest was supposed to be. I think for CFB this was a Vader to Lando change, and that happens.

What I hear from this discourse is that for CFB, the real problem is not the vendor vs. artist question.

The only question we can ask after that, is what is a MagicFest supposed to be?

Let us the shift the conversation about the boycott itself, to potential solutions.

Tinker by Chris Rahn

In a private collection

When problem solving for any analysis, it’s common to use a needs statement- a needs statement can involve any of the stakeholders in the system and then solutions are applied to targets to address the issues or see patterns that can be shared. For the issues involved in the artists’ boycott there are three stakeholders - CFB, Artists who are NOT vendors, and community participants who attend the event.

Need: Trackable Participation in non-tourney events.

  • Requirement: Participants should be able to have a worthwhile experience value in exchange for being tracked
  • Requirement: Tracking should not be dependent on comparison to being enrolled in tournaments
  • Problem Statement: The largest ability to track people within a MagicFest is largely the main event. After that, organizers have a near impossible task to ascertain numbers of individual people who walked in the door.

Solutions

$5 Entry Fee

I saw the “Let’s do a $5 entry fee,” and it seems like a good idea. It definitely would help defray myriad overhead costs even if it won’t directly help the artists, it will help them indirectly. There are a ton of costs to having a ticketed event, namely security and ticket takers, as Mashi stated. The exact amount isn’t important, I want to be clear, despite people being stuck at $5 and cheap. If we ARE going to have Magic Fest, provide better experiences for non-tourney events. It's a starting point and does create a baseline that hasn’t been captured at GPs before which is: total attendees vs tournament players.

By having every single person required to pay to enter the hall, whether by showing their main event badge, or by buying their way in, means every single person who attends is supporting the event. This is new, people are willing to pay to enter. That is a big deal and something the boycott has pushed to the forefront.

It doesn’t actually tell you anything specific about the issues of the boycott though - are artists pushing attendance? Should they be invested in?

$15 Experience/Signature Vouchers

Artists are traditionally separated into an artists’ alley. It would be relatively simple to have a voucher/badge check at entry points to the alley:

  1. By having a voucher/marked badge system, where people looking for only signatures will be required to pay $15, that $15 can be used as a gift certificate for a side event or some other method of creating expected value (EV), but it’s primary purpose would be to track folk coming in primarily for signatures.
  2. The $15 voucher means every single person will be supporting the effort. By doing so, the 50 people who simply go there for artists alone will 100% support the tournament organizer. This seems like small potatoes, but 50 people at $15 each covers one artist’s travel domestically if an organizer covered the hotel.

There are some specifics that would need to be worked out. For the current concerns of the artists in the current system, the voucher/badge access could be at separate rooms for signing events with the artists doing hour shifts gathering them together in one place on a schedule. Details of course would need to be designed collaboratively. They would still be able to run their tables as they do currently - but maybe we could add a “clicker” system at artists tables for people who approach them to track that against the total entry. These are tactical issues that Channel Fireball Events could easily focus group with a few artists over a Skype call.

Point of Purchase Survey

At every registration purchase, general entry or tourney, a two question survey could be asked. “What do you plan on doing today? What do you plan on playing?” Entrants who answer it can be entered into a daily raffle each day to win a couple packs and you know players will fill it out. The cost is minimal and the data is super valuable.

Wizards and Channel Fireball Events itself may push back on the idea of a entry fee, which if so, allows the organizers to address the next need:

Need: Cost for artists who are not vendors needs to be covered by someone, it’s going to be the artist, the tournament organizer or the sponsor but it’s still going to cost money

Assumption: Artists who ARE vendors currently have either adapted to the environment as it currently stands or, because they add the qualitative experience value of also “being a guest” they should still benefit from their guest status (otherwise there should be a specific aspect of vending for “art vendor” that is separate from “guest.”)

  • Requirement - artists incurring costs that will be subsidized by the TO or the sponsor will also have events that are part of “being a guest” in the same manner as celebrity guests or honored guests at other media and conventions in comparable fandom environments.
  • Requirement - artists as guests should not be scheduled to be at TO arranged events without full sign off by the artist and should not exceed 4 hours of formally scheduled time per event day.
  • Requirement - Artists can choose to be vendors instead of guests and go through the merchant vendor systems if they would like to control their time.
  • Problem Statement: Having artists at MagicFest events is not an attraction for people playing in the main event. They are a value add. The audience that is primarily there to visit an artist is lower on the engagement decision tree than a grinder looking to qualify for anything. Thus they are less studied. To a Wizards marketer, the casual fan needs that hook to stay with the brand and should be incentivized differently. The problem is, those people don’t make the organizer money, so while Wizards does not interfere, their secondary consumers could be incentivized for ultimately a minimal cost. Currently, artist participation is a marketing overhead cost, but ALSO a revenue source when artists are charged for additional resources.

Solutions for defraying artists costs

Everyone agrees that having artists at the events benefits all the stakeholders - the disconnect is how to do it to create desirable fan experiences where the artists can actually participate regardless of their individual status as a group considered “Magic Artists.”

Here are the possibilities.

Ask Wizards for a Subsidy

As I said before, when someone is on the fence for attending a Grand Prix event previously, often having more artists or an artist who aligns to that format will push attendance considerably over the top. Think of someone who has a few Legacy cards or someone with a ton of fetchlands to sign and those will be more than a standard deviation. When main event registration occurs, I’d add a question there too. “Thanks again! What was the reason that pushed you to sign up to play in the main event today?” This is Donor Stewardship 101, and I work as a fundraiser in my day job. You have to find out why people made the decision.

Wizards would likely ignore the request right away, until explained how cheap it actually is for organized play because...

Have only ONE artist guest of honor (GOH) flown to a location

Having twenty-four locations of MagicFest events in the USA, the cost to fly one artist to each is only $24,000. A $1000 stipend is plenty to get there via a flight if even given enough lead time and be very mindful of who attends what events. That could cover two artists, and the organizer is required to cover their hotel room or two.

Other artists could be given “guest vendor” benefits by the TO but Wizards will subsidize one actual GOH at each event. Expectations of who is responsible for costs and obligations for scheduled events would be clear at each tier (Wizards GOH/Guest Artists/Artist Vendors). It may decrease numbers of artists at events, but it also means artists will be paid for their work and all artists would be able to participate in ways where the community could have some access to them despite their personal income levels.

This next solution is more complex. I’ve been working on it as a solution prior to the announcement of the new esports competitive model but I would like to suggest that MagicFest Las Vegas and the Mythic Championships need a larger artist presence, but that’s ok because extra funding can be found with...

Untraditional Sponsors

Since there are twenty-four American MagicFest events, what kind of company could offer $25,000 to cover all of them and have coverage at all of them?

The often repeated answer is an energy drink company, or a headphones company, or even UltraPro. But, the most obvious answer happens to be who needs at least a thousand humans, largely men, over a weekend?

That scale of companies looking for visibility, for partnering and sponsorships is where to look. A state fair is far too large a gathering, but get to a small county fair and then you can imagine who needs to be there. And who would do this requires a specific skill set. It’s obviously a huge need, because even Wizards is hiring for it:

Here are a few sponsorship options I have thought of and I’m just one person. Clearly there are countless others but think beyond brands and think of the audience that is there, and who wants to be in front of them.

What about a national insurance company, especially one that works the affordable care act? While teenagers and college students have no need, 23-35 year olds absolutely could benefit from having a person or two at every event to explain everything and even get folks signed up. As healthcare continues to change, this could be an evergreen thing over time.

I will be writing a more detailed article about this option in the near future but think about the idea of localized untraditional sponsorships. The Magic Community already has had some practical experience with this:

Red Cross partnered with Cascade Games a few years ago. They gave a free sealed draft for each blood donor. On a national level, this is easy coordination and would be able to be promoted beyond just the Magic community!

I know the Red Cross has problematic areas. They disqualify people for reasons that need to be reexamined and fixed, but they have already modeled a charity/action driven partnership with us and the opportunity to do so with other types of service charities can be applied to other orgs. To find a solution for Magic and help people, it’s still a lot better than an energy drink company.

Even if none of these managed to occur, there are still logistical solutions like...

Make a map of the world and mark where artists live, then have the TOs invite the ones who will incur the least cost as individuals.

This is Evan Erwin’s suggestion and it’s a pretty good one. You take a map or globe, and you mark each MagicFest event. For 2019, it looks like this:

There’s a ton of information on this map. There are only a few gaps in space for 2019, that being the Carolina states.

I see artists being able to be invited, right now, to each of the MagicFest events. Adam Rex in Arizona would be personally invited right? Clearly Cyril Van der Haegen in Rhode Island, who is absolutely still fighting the good fight with cancer would be an obvious choice even for a few hours to draw people to Providence next to Ryan Pancoast and Lars Grant-West, right? Arnie Swekel who lives near Madison has already gotten a personal phone call, I assume. NéNé Thomas lives in the same city where Corbin has Buffalo Wild Wings on speed dial.

These are low hanging fruit where you ask them to spend a whole weekend for free, you give them a booth, you give them free lunches and let them work a 11-5pm largely for signatures and be cool if they only want to work one day.

Then you don’t need $500 per artist to get there and a free hotel room. You just need two good tables, someone to watch their stuff when they take a break around lunch in a side room, a place to keep valuables overnight, an art show area volunteer or part-time staffer to hang around their area for bathroom breaks, and to hand out water. This is the crowding out I mentioned back in 2014. This is the easiest next step for Channel Fireball Events and Channel Fireball itself.

If they need ways to find out what artists live where and to manage this process...

Need: The coordination of non-tourney aspects of MagicFest requires new processes and relationships to implement solutions and address the needs of the areas of the event that are not specifically part of Organized Play/Tournaments.

Problem statement - most of these solutions require dedicated informed staffing, not ad-hoc responses to crisis. Models of other Magic events and past practices are not homogenous and creating a consistent, fair labor, fun, flavorful experience for GP/MagicFest participants requires someone who is thinking about that FOR the good of the organization stakeholders as well as the participants and artists/artist-vendors/celebrity guests. This is a different skill set and focus than generally handled by TO’s in the past

Problem Statement - the current situation has led to a boycott by artist groups and therefore moving forward without a clear line of contact for the organizational stakeholders is a distraction - new staffing will increase willingness to communicate and resolve issues through less public means so everyone can focus on all the new cool stuff happening. How can artists and the org both meet each other’s needs?

Solutions

Hire Vorthos Mike or someone similar

I would consider it, I bet others would too. I’ve already proven that I know artists. From writing years of art-related content to interviewing artists, to simply being able to get a response from an artist who is hard to reach, I could help there.

I have worked for Channel Fireball before, remember? I did the Grand Prix Las Vegas art show in 2017 with some known associates. I just finished doing the original art portion of the 25th Anniversary Exhibition at Shinjuku in Tokyo this past September. I’m doing a concept art of Ravnica show in a few weeks and planning an art show for late 2019 already. I organize and know the internal and external stakeholders who dabble, deal, work in and work for the art.

The part where artists feel miffed and all the aspects Evan Erwin mentioned on Magic Mics could be handled by a single person that is well known. That person could do other things as well, such as...

Teach Artists to be Vendors

As Channel Fireball Events have to include artists, and clearly RK Post and Steve Argyle can’t teach every other artist every waking minute, keep in mind how many artists there are in Magic’s history. Having someone on staff getting artists acclimated would be a very wise investment.

Currently, artists just ask each other when they break into Magic because it’s radically different from any other brand. The speculation and hype is unlike any other tabletop or TCG game. The card being literally half art has something to do with it. Just getting to Magic’s quality level is difficult. It’s a career milestone as an artist, but now artists are facing issues even business classes in art school can’t cover because of the unique artifacts created in the Magic Market:

“Now I need to figure out how to price artist proofs?”

“What’s an alteration?”

“What kind of markers should I use to sign cards?”

“What prints do people like?”

“How do I get playmats?”

That training could very well be in house ( part of the benefits for the “guest vendor tier?) and also the deployment of goods also could be in house. What if upon arrival at every MagicFest, a shipment of artist playmats and prints could arrive, coordinated by a Channel Fireball Events staff member, and then shipped away. The artist would lose a small percentage of profit, but they also wouldn’t have to carry all those extra suitcases.

There could even be a “shipped back home” station where that “art employee” would hang out on site with shipping tubes and a full process for people to ship oversized cards to uncut sheets, playmats, and art home. A small percentage of shipping could be made profitable because of that convenience! Have you ever carried playmats? Lead is lighter.

Because if all this isn’t examined and looked at now, then...

Nothing Changes

There is the option to do nothing from an organizer standpoint. There are hundreds of artists in Magic’s history and a few dozen won’t impact the many. But, one must have to consider that most artists have less than ten commissions. Of the in demand, wanted artists who have marquee cards in played decks, there are about a dozen. If you keep them happy, most players probably won’t mind.

That pipeline of artists won’t ever get cheaper, making it a shaky tower to build a future event series on without additional information. What happens if the desired, tier one artists organize. Don’t want to pay Terese’s day rate? What if she doubles it, and she calls everyone to do the same? Then what? Then it’s a boycott and the rate to pay the artists you super want is twice as much as what it was for maybe a 1.5 tier artist but they’ve signed the boycott. That sure would be a worse situation and frankly, it isn’t even farfetched. I know with good authority that while some people aren’t signing the boycott, they also just won’t respond in the future. That shoe hasn’t dropped yet, as it is a slower, quieter boycott.

Conclusion

I am unable to solve the problem directly, but I can offer some solutions as a starting point for discussions. The main goal is to get you, the reader, fan, and affected person to start talking on more solutions that are spurred after reading this.

What would you be willing to pay $15 for? $5? What would make you want to find out more about an artist you didn’t know until you were at an event? What is a fair exchange for MagicFest labor - not just for artists but for content creators and cosplayers? Because those types of artists will be “next.”

What do you think?

-Mike