Are Anime Conventions Dying? Part 2

This time we delve into more complex numbers and find a more complex story to match.

In 1983, about one hundred people paid $2 to attend a Star Blazers viewing party.  This is considered by our sources the first anime convention in America. Three decades, and nearly two thousand shows later, conventions seem to be at a crossroads. The number of conventions decreased this year, which some consider to be the beginning of the end for not just the con circuit but perhaps anime fandom in general.

Flyer for the first Yamato Con in 1983.

In our first installment, I ask the title question, but was unable to answer it just by looking at data bequeathed to us by animecons.com. As a quick reminder, the reason we ask is that the number of anime conventions in the US shrank from 2013 to 2014. The decrease in cons from last year to now is about the same as the increase from 2012 to 2013. One could say that it’s just the industry (or the universe, or whoever) hitting CTRL+Z and just leave it at that, but there’s likely more to it than that, and you don’t get two articles out of a one-liner.

For a change of pace, instead of looking for an answer, let’s look at the question. Are conventions really dying? If they can be “dead” does that mean they were “born” and then lived? There are various ways to track populations and it shouldn’t hurt to apply some of those ideas here.

Methodology

For sake of brevity, I’ll be using crude birth and death rates to track the overall health of the convention industry. This will give a more defined picture as to how conventions have tracked over the years. However, I can’t just go by my original methodology here, so I made several changes.

  • Whereas originally, I was just trying to track the number of events each year, this time I will be only tracking uniquely-named events.  That is, if an event happens twice a year, it only counts once.
  • If an event happened twice in one year and once in the other, no change is recorded.1
  • If an event that took place in one year and did not happen in the next, that convention “died”, even if it took place in future years.2
  • Renaming the convention did not change anything unless it was a drastic renaming, in which case the old con died and a new one was born.3
  • Finally, because we’re talking about businesses and not living things, use business jargon like “starts” and “attrition” rather than “birth” and “death.”4

After going through the same lists of conventions I did before (2007-present), and converting everything into percentages5 here’s what I found.

5This graph shows both the number of conventions started and ended as a percentage of total conventions for that year (both active or not). I also put in trend lines to try and give a clearer summary of what happened.

What did happen is kind of interesting. Aside of 2011, the attrition rate–percentage of conventions that did not run–stayed between 15-19%.  The average rate for those eight years was 16.69% with a standard deviation of 2.2, so 2011’s rate of 12.24% was very uncharacteristic. In a way, the year before was uncharacteristic, too, but for the start rate. Nearly 30% of all cons in 2010 (29.95%, to be exact) were either first-timers or back from hiatus, well above the average start rate of 22.6%.

There may be enough in those two numbers alone to form a hypothesis to “Are Conventions Dying,” but I wasn’t content to stop here. For sake of completion, I looked at the rates for all of animecons lists from 2001 onward, and made the same graph.

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Widening the data set amplifies the downward trend of the start rate and even changes the attrition rate from a modest decrease to a pronounced increase. The major culprit for this is 2003, when the number of anime conventions on record went from 40 to 63. Only 3 went away (which is not dissimilar to the 5 cons from 2001 that were not renewed in 2002), resulting in massive chart-upsetting spikes in both rates.

Because 2003 was so uncharacteristic, I decided to make one last graph, from 2004-present, to see if clearing out the noise did something.

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Overall, it’s safe to say the number of new conventions each year has trended downward, but conclusions on the attrition rate depend on where you pick your endpoints. However, it’s probably safe to say that turnover has been about the same, save for some very noticeable exceptions.

So what the heck is going on?

I would like to think that after looking through nearly 2,000 events spanning almost a decade and a half, I can begin to draw some conclusions. The first one is that anime conventions have always been dying, it’s just that new ones have always come to take the place of the ones that leave and then some. It’s only when that doesn’t happen that we start hand-wringing about the industry at large.

Second, let’s talk about individual events.  There are any number of reasons why 2003 was such a big year for conventions: well over than half of Americans used the internet; a ten-year-old who watched Robotech in 1985 would’ve been twenty-eight. the prime of a convention staffer; a fifth-grader who watched Pokemon (or Toonami, which had just started showing anime) in 1998 would be in 10th-grade, which nears the sweet-spot for convention attendee. While the groundwork was definitely in place beforehand, 2003 was likely the start of the convention boom.

Just as 2003 was likely the start, 2011, may have been the end. Sixty-two new conventions were added to the roster in 2010, and may of them stayed at least for a 2nd year; only twenty-nine shows overall went away the next year. Throw in an additional sixty-one new conventions in 2011, and you probably get a recipe for disaster.  Going back to population theory, there’s the concept of the “carrying capacity,” the upper limit in which a group can be sustained. Go beyond that, and the population crashes downward. It’s likely that what happened in 2011 was exactly that; a year of uncharacteristic growth followed by a year of unprecedented lack of turnover probably over-saturated the market’s demand for conventions and thus started the years-long trends we currently have in both rates.

However, it is important to point out that exceeding carrying capacity does not necessarily mean extinction, it could just result in the population resetting itself, either by falling back under the threshold for sustainability or by finding a new environment in which to thrive. In other words, the number of anime conventions may be contracting, but I doubt it’s a death sentence.  There is still demand for these shows, and people are paying good money to go to them. For all we know all the damage may have been done already and we can look to another period of growth. All we can do is look at the numbers and hope.

1-There were two exceptions Animeland, which has a number of events nationwide, had each convention site count as its own living (or dying) show. Sukoshikon, which does numberous small events in Alabama each year, had all of its events count the same regardless of location and the net change in number of shows was what affected each rate.
2-An exception was made for Anime South, which took place in December ’07, January ’09, and December ’09. It was credited for being “alive” in ’07 through ’09 continuously.
3-For example GurasuNoShicon becoming Glass City Con or Ushikon becoming Ushiko’s Anime Block Party was a simple name change because you could easily infer that they were the same convention; Tekko 1/2 becoming KuroKiiro Festival was a drastic enough change that unless you didn’t know beforehand, you would think they were two different shows.
4-Admittedly, it’s an unnecessary choice to move away from life-cycle terms, but remember that in the first set of charts, I was talking about conventions that were planned, but never came to be. I’d much rather call that a “stalled start” than anything else.
5-Traditionally, these rates are scaled per 1000, but that seems silly when conventions have currently peaked in the two hundreds.