As some of you have heard, many Magic: The Gathering artists are joining together to boycott MagicFests by Channel Fireball. I actually didn’t know about the boycott until a few days ago after they had sent the letter to Channel Fireball. I have since had my name added to the list, even though I haven’t been a part of the convention scene for the past couple of years.
It just so happens that the reason I haven’t been attending shows lately is because of the very same concerns that were sent to Channel Fireball. The reason for this post is to explain why so many Magic artists have decided to confront these issues. It isn’t because we want to be treated like celebrities, which has come up from some critics, in most cases it is about being treated as a person.
I have been attending Magic: The Gathering events since 2007. My first event was Magic Weekend in Baltimore, Maryland. Back then I only had four Magic cards out, now I have more than 200.
To say I was a noob is an understatement. I had never been to a show or convention before (as a guest artist), so I really had no idea what to expect. Of course I showed up with nothing. Literally nothing. I didn’t bring prints or proofs. No playmats or tokens. I didn’t even bring pens because I assumed they would have some pens there for me to use to sign cards. I didn’t even realize people would want me to draw on their cards and playmats. Luckily Dan Scott let me use some of his.
I went there with the expectation of doing it all for free. I thought I was just going to sit and sign cards. When people asked me for a drawing, I did them for free. It didn’t even cross my mind that I was supposed to charge people. Dan ended up mentoring me in the ways of what to do and what not to do.
At the time I was living in Virginia, so after day one I drove back home and made some prints for Sunday. It’s funny looking back and seeing how green I really was. I remember apologizing to fans because my drawings weren’t very good.
That’s also where my boring “DAARKEN” signature came from. I didn’t have a signature yet, so I just signed it how I signed my paintings. The reason I signed my paintings like that was so that people could still read it at a smaller size. I never really considered that I should have a cool looking signature for when I signed cards at events.
Back then things were a lot different, it was the “golden age” of Magic events. Only two artists attended each show (sometimes only one for international events) and we had our hotel and flight covered. The TO (tournament organizer), or one of their staff members, would pick us up from the airport. You got to know the TO. You thought of the TO as a friend.
There used to be this thing called “the artists dinner.” It was one night when the TO would take the artists out for dinner. It wasn’t about getting a free dinner. It was about having a chance to actually sit down and talk to the TO and the other artists. The events are so hectic that you can never talk to the other artists. Half of the time you don’t even get to say hi or bye. The dinner was a way to meet and get to know other people.
Freelance artists work from home and live all over the world. We usually don’t have very many opportunities to meet in real life, but this dinner was a way to meet them.
We also didn’t have any trouble getting a staff member to give us a lunch or bathroom break. Usually they would come to us and ask if we needed a break. Overnight they had a locked room where we could keep our product so that we wouldn’t have to lug it back to the hotel.
To recap, guest artists had their hotel and travel covered, an artists dinner, transportation from the airport to the hotel, staffed bathroom and lunch breaks, and a secure location to store our product.
In 2014 things started to change. Certain TOs started to remove hotel/travel reimbursement. I even received some emails from other Magic artists asking if I had experienced anything like that and that we needed to nip the problem in the bud before it became an industry standard.
I believe a big part of it had to do with artists telling TOs they would attend for free. If an artist says they will attend for free, why would they cover the expenses for someone else? I was invited to one GP, to which I agreed. About a week before the GP, I noticed that my name wasn’t on the artist list on the event site, but instead another artist had been added. I contacted the TO to ask if he could put my name on the site so that people would know I would be there. I then learned that I was no longer invited to come because another artist offered to attend for free.
If you travel alone, travel reimbursement might not be as much of an issue. Due to medical, and other reasons, I have to travel with my family to these events. That means I have to buy four plane tickets. To make it clear, TOs would only reimburse me for my ticket, not for anyone else in my family. I’m not expecting them to pay for all of us.
Some TOs decided to split their guest artists into two categories. You were either a “guest artist” or an “artist guest of honor.” Only the guest of honor was reimbursed, the other artists were not. If you weren’t as cool as another artist, you wouldn’t be reimbursed.
Gradually TOs shifted to say only a few artists would be reimbursed based on their budget, but it was first come first serve.
Artist dinners became a thing of the past. At first I thought that maybe it was just a one-time thing. Then I realized that it just wasn’t a thing anymore. I was a few feet away from one TO when he was asked about the artists dinner, and his reply was “why should I have to take them out for dinner?”
Before I knew it, I didn’t even know who the TO was at each event. I would never see or hear from them. I was just a number.
Then secure storage and even bathroom/lunch breaks started to dwindle away. Most artists work 9+ hours straight at these events. Not getting a bathroom break for that amount of time is a little ridiculous.
Some people think we are expecting too much and whining about not getting everything (hotel and travel) for free. They argue that vendors have to pay for tables, so why shouldn’t we? There is a difference between a vendor and a guest. We were personally invited by the TO to attend their event. It isn’t the same as a random vendor paying for space to sell their product.
“You have to pay for tables at cons.” That is completely different. People go to cons with the intent to buy art/prints/proofs/whatever. Of course there are always exceptions, but most people don’t go to Magic events with the intent to buy art. They go there to compete and play Magic. That means we are already at a disadvantage when it comes to making sales. Channel Fireball actually does charge artists $500 for an extended table. The standard table is free. I wouldn’t be surprised if other TOs start to charge for tables.
The other thing you have to realize is that the playability of a card is directly related to the sale of the corresponding print/proof. If you have amazing art on a crappy card, most people won’t buy the print or proof. If you have crappy art on a card that everyone uses, you will be able to sell the print/proof. That means sales can vary drastically from artist to artist. If you are unlucky and don’t have any playable cards, your sales will reflect that.
Some art sells more than others. I hardly ever make print sales. I’ve attended some events where I didn’t sell a single print. My art usually isn’t something most people would hang in their home. People with landscapes and prettier art tend to make more print sales.
The number of artists attending each event has skyrocketed. Events used to only have one or two artists, now there can be anywhere from 6-30 artists. That means you have to compete with them for sales. You are already at an event that isn’t specifically meant for making art sales, and now you are going to have a further decline in sales because fans have to spread out their money.
Artists had to start providing more products and services in order to compete. Some artists, in a sense, became vendors due to the amount of products they offered. I didn’t want to do that.
Artist visibility became an afterthought. Sometimes we were placed outside of the event hall. No one knew who we were or that there were even artists at the event. Sometimes we would be placed behind a huge pillar in a corner.
Individually these issues may not seem like a big deal, but together they greatly strain the viability of attending these events. No travel/hotel reimbursement, greater competition, poor visibility, and less space…not a recipe for success.
These days we aren’t even personally asked to attend, we receive a shotgun email with event dates for the year and if we want to attend any of them, we have to either reply or fill out a request form online. You don’t even know if you get to go because you don’t know how many other people already requested to attend. One time I sent in a request but I was denied because they already had 20 artists. Instead of a TO personally asking you to attend, you now have to ask the TO if you can attend. We are no longer guests.
Many international events ask for you to create a live painting that they get to keep, for free. Not only do you have to take time away from trying to make sales, but you have to create a painting that someone else gets to keep for free. One event told me that if I didn’t agree to do the live painting, they would rescind their invitation.
I’ve had other events tell me that they would get to keep the all of the money I made off of longer sketches and half of the money I made off of signing and quick sketches. Other events asked me to create several full playmat illustrations as a “thank you” for allowing me to attend. Let me say that again. I was personally invited to attend, but they required me to create several pieces of art for them for free because they allowed me to attend.
Some events offered to sell passes for people to get in my line (which I would receive nothing) and on top of that they would take 50% of my profit. So they would make money selling tickets and keep half of my profit. No thank you.
Events kept coming up with ways to take profits from the artists when it is already hard to break even. I’ve been to some events where I only made $20.
In the end it just wasn’t viable for me anymore. The risk of paying for my own travel/hotel wasn’t worth it anymore, so I started declining more and more events. Some people are blaming WotC, but it isn’t WotC doing these things, it is the TOs. So please don’t think WotC is some evil corporation screwing over their own artists.
Thanks for staying with me for this long, it is almost over, I promise!
Charging for signatures has become a thing and it is largely due as a result from these issues. I was always resistant to charging for signatures. I never felt justified for charging for signatures. Other artists had started, but I still did them for free.
I attended one GP that required the artists to charge for signatures, which I thought was weird. After that I started charging for signatures, and I’ll tell you why. It wasn’t about making as much money as possible and it wasn’t because I was being an elitist jerk who thought people needed to pay for meeting me.
Charging for signatures greatly reduces the wait time of the line. For years I signed everything for free and, as a result, my line would often have a 2-3 hour wait time. People would have me sign a hundred cards at a time. A few times people gave me an 800 count box full of my cards. The more cards I had out meant more cards people wanted signed. It started to get out of control.
What I noticed after charging for signatures is that the general mood of the fans improved. Imagine only wanting one card signed, but you have to wait 2-3 hours because people in front of you are asking for signatures on 100+ cards. People would become frustrated and annoyed, and I don’t blame them.
Charging for signatures also means that I don’t completely kill my wrists. I have carpal tunnel syndrome in both of my wrists and signing/drawing for 9+ hours straight takes its toll. Doing an event is a lot more taxing than our normal day job.
Of course it is also a way to recoup our losses. It isn’t because Magic artists are being greedy, it is because it reduces the risk of losing money at the event. Some Magic artists don’t have a problem tuning a profit, and that is great, but that isn’t the case for everyone. Meeting fans is awesome, and it’s one of the reasons why I loved attending these events. The sad reality is that we have bills to pay just like everyone else. Losing money or breaking even just isn’t sustainable over the long run. Some artists relied on Magic events to put food on their table, and now they can’t since it’s much harder to turn a profit.
I don’t really have a solution to these problems. I didn’t realize that entrance fees have doubled over the past few years. I’m sure players and TOs have better solutions since they are more aware of the logistics and rising costs.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m incredibly grateful I had the opportunity to travel to the places I’ve been and meet all of the fans. Without them I would be nothing. There are a lot of great TOs out there and I consider some of them my friend. I hope this sheds some light on the reasons why Magic artists are boycotting MagicFests.