Why AFA (and other large Niche Conventions) Will Ultimately Fail in Singapore

The AFA, which will be into its 2nd year this coming November, is a doomed existence. "Why," I hear you cry, "it’s doing great??" Partly because of the same reason why the F1 circuit here in Singapore, also in its 2nd year, is fucked up. But first, let’s take a look at some of the attributes Singapore inherently has that contributes to this failure.

Singapore recently reached its 5 million population milestone. That’s great in terms of crowd-drawing, because without a decent population density, or total number, it gets hard to organise big events profitably. Our neighbouring nations include Malaysia, Indonesia and the rest of SE Asia. Realistically, only Malaysians and crazy Indonesians would be willing to travel to Singapore just for an anime convention. The vast majority of anime fans here are youngsters who obtain their anime via the Internet, illegally. They are also very savvy in the latest anime, news and trends from Nippon. There is little to no anime production facilities or demand here. There is a great transport network that allows everyone across the island to see each other whenever they want to. We basically only have one area in Singapore where anime fans gather for merchandise, and another one area for general collectibles and toys. Singaporeans, culturally, are very dispassionate people who are generally apathetic in nature, due to the education system and a nanny state government.

So, combining all the factors above, it’s a recipe for failure, for any large event held annually that does not include scantily clad hot girls, cheap discounts on purchasables or is targeted at a niche market.

Conveniently, the F1 Singapore leg just ended last night. It was the second time, same as AFA, that it was held here, at huge cost. Last year, tickets were sold out, and people were talking nonstop about it. This year? Lots of tickets left, people stopped caring and were more concerned with the inconveniences due to having road closures. The F1 honestly, is a niche event that only car lovers would attend every year. Last year, lots of the crowd were people who were there for the sake of novelty, as it was the first time they would see and hear an F1 car zoom past. Once they’ve achieved that, and spread the word that "yeah it was nice but not worth the hundreds of dollars for the tickets", people just lost interest. And imagine, this is a hugely funded, government-driven, super-promoted world event. What of AFA?

AFA is even more problematic, but it has the huge advantage of it being free to enter. This is a very big plus when it comes to attracting crowds, as casual passersby would pad the numbers. * Edit: I was under the impression that it was free to enter! Apparently not and I hear lots of complaints about the tripling of ticket prices from last year. Interesting.* Let’s take a look at the problems first. There are only that many otaku in Singapore. As the recently concluded STCC (Singapore Toys and Comics Convention) showed, niche events catering to a web-savvy demographic have the problems of losing focus, and not being indepth enough, and thus displeasing visitors. Say 1/3 of the visitors to STCC were western comics fans, and 1/3 were toy fans, and 1/3 were anime fans. Each of them would find their area of interest lacking, since they wouldn’t be interested in the other exhibits that do not belong to their sphere of interest. AFA thus seeks to avoid this problem by sticking close to its anime roots and this is laudable of course. BUT we also know this further shrinks the target segment. It’s not a bad thing, even if official statistics point to Singapore having a population of 25% foreigners (most of which are cheap labour, would they like maid cafes?), 8.8% senior citizens above retirement age (would they like anime? The Japanese raped their moms in the war) I’ll say 30% (a generous over estimation) are people who are within the age groups that have a chance of liking anime and thus possibly attending. Out of this 30%, let’s be awesomely optimistic, I would say maybe 1% have watched anime, and most of this is actually streamed Naruto and Bleach. For other countries, 1 percent would be hugely unrealistic, but according to my observations, about 60% of school-going kids are watching some form of anime right now, and 99% of it is illegal of course. Now, i don’t think the size of the target segment is a problem. The real problem lies in sustainability.

AFA has been and will be held in late November or so, which is the school holiday period for primary school, secondary and junior college students. It’s however, the examination period for university students. That strikes off the bulk of the anime fans in university, as most are not hard core enough to skip their exams, or studying for them, to go for conventions. Sure, some are, but these are the exception. I’m not sure about polytechnic and ITE students, but a good guess is that they should be fine with it. Despite Singapore’s small size and only 3 (real) universities, there are about 150 000 undergraduates and graduate students in total, and it is a known fact that a sizeable chunk of these are into anime. Small problem though, it’s not a big enough issue to worry the organisers, since the hardcore otakus would still attend.

The reason why Cosfest and EOY, the previously dominant anime events, which specialised in amateur cosplay, had such longevity, was because they had really low operating costs and were run by otakus who were really free/passionate/egotrippin’. The vast bulk of their costs were in the booking of the venue. I can’t say the same for AFA obviously, since it’s on a scale far above the former two, and to recoup these costs, there are only a few apparent sources of income. The booth rentals, the premium concert tickets and possibly sponsorships in exchange for advertising. AFA also requires much publicity, which doesn’t come free. The staff also do not work for free unlike the fan-run events. The maids have pretty high salaries as well. Bringing the celebs in from Japan, paying for their airfares, hotel fees, entourage, and of course the actual money involved in hiriing them, I’m sure you can imagine all the costs involved. I spoke closely with Kurogane, who was involved in bringing Minorin to Daicon, and she just brought 4 other people, and the bare essentials and it already cost a five figure sum for just one performance. Considering AFA has a lot more than that, the costs are obviously higher by a factor of X.

With such high costs, they need to get money back right? Unless they’re in the hobby of losing money, which is a rather otaku thing. I frankly do not see how they can do so. Suntec can be made a concert venue, but this involves shutting out the rest of the exhibition goers. If they were to go down this route, the organisers would most likely be booking one hall for concerts and then using another hall for the booths and other exhibitions. This might be a problem since that removes part of the draw for casual visitors. They would also require high booth fees from their tenants. The catch is that the market in Singapore is so tiny that officially, there is only one distributor for the bulk of the anime figurines. Ditto for COSPA merchandise (KKnM). As a result, what happens is that these distributors are obliged to attend, pay the booth fees, and ultimately gain little benefit from the whole event, since they practically already have a monopoly in the market here.

But finances (BORING) aside, the main problem lies with the content. This year, they have 2 artistes returning from last year, May’n and he who is commonly known as Aniki. Besides them, there’s Shouko-tan and this one other guy artiste. There are also competitions for cosplayers, gunpla makers. A new thing is the maid cafe too (which I have an inside scoop of lol, soon to come). There’s also an appearance and talk by Danny Choo, who just got a free Lumix GF1 micro 4-3rds SLR, wtf. The content this year is fine and it appears that the organisers have considered the rapidly wilting interest levels of a typical Singaporean and thus upped the ante by bringing in 4 artistes and a bunch of new things. F1 didn’t have any new thing. Herein lies a key sustainability problem though – if one has to practically double the investment and scale, just to possibly bring in the same crowd or slightly more, and then repeat this exercise the next year, would this be a sustainable business model? The booths are static and will soon lose any semblance of appeal, since there’s an upper limit determined by the number of anime-interested people after all.

The biggest and most interesting problem however, is how Singaporeans obtain their anime. See, the Japanese are not aware in general, that we watch the same anime they do, at the same time. They think just  because something hasn’t been officially brought in, we foreigners wouldn’t know of it. This was very evident in the surprise that Minorin felt, when the WHOLE crowd has seen Ga-rei Zero and she was like, "Oh I have this new show that has yet to be brought in to Malaysia." LOL. Now, the AFA organisers know this, but they have their hands tied because they cannot overtly bypass Odex and other distributors, and be super up to date with the latest series. Sure they could premiere stuff, but they cannot totally be openly promoting unlicensed shows, even if these are what the crowd wants. As such, there is a disjunction between what the crowd wants and what AFA can provide.

Almost all of the successful long-running conventions have been goods-peddling ones, namely the 3 electronics fairs we have that are fucking crowded, to the extent you can body surf all the way through, and the travel fair, where people buy tour packages at big discounts. There’s also a notable newcomer, the Super Import Nights, which feature flashy cars and more importantly, uber skimpily clad busty women imported from the US, Taiwan, Thailand and other countries. This new event is crazy crowded with pervs and regular horny men. I don’t see a future for AFA, and it’s already pretty good compared to the STCC.

That said, I’m quite impressed with the way the AFA people have organised it, in spite of the limitations. They understand that neither the grassroots approach of Comikket, nor the official Tokyo Anime Fair-styled industry booths, will work here in Singapore so they have fashioned a rather unique convention. The US system of conventions totally does not apply here as well, as Americans have to travel far and wide to meet up, and they have a strong creator base as well. Singaporeans are really only interested in official goods, official artistes and cute girls (in costume or not) and as such, the whole AFA revolves around these. The non-official portions contribute the hot girls either in cosplay or maid cafe form, and the other events provide visitors with their fix of official souvenirs and sightings of real Japanese stars. I don’t think this year would be a failure, just that it will get more and more difficult to maintain success and beyond a threshold, such conventions would always fail.

To avoid being labeled a bitter bastard, I’m offering a few possibly crappy solutions that might ameliorate the problems somewhat. The first is to inject money into the cosplay scene to improve its quality. Everyone loves a hot cosplayer, but real cosplayers are generally not hot. Some might have good costumes but I don’t see how a professional costumer can do worse than an amateur. Instead of only maid cares, we should hire more hot girls with great figures (or lolis, depending on tastes) and tailor-make costumes for them. You can think of it as a race-queen type attraction. Nobody’s interested in bad cosplayers, but we don’t want people to not have fun, so the bad cosplayers can show up and be ignored but still have fun among themselves, while the regular people ogle the hot hired ones.

Another variant of this solution is to hire some of the famous cosplayers in Japan over as guests. Considering the number of people going gaga over this year’s guest the Cloud cosplayer from Japan, I’m pretty sure this would work and it wouldn’t be that expensive, especially if you collect money for people to take photos with them like zoo animals.

See, my ideas revolve around attracting visitors with beautiful people, because I see that as the most cost-effective way for conventions to get visitors. My final suggestion is to subsidise or provide anime goods at discounts, but this would be a problem and undercut the retailers’ already tiny market. So the best would be to produce limited edition goods that are of decent quality, possibly figures or mecha kits, and sell them during the convention itself. I think this has been done already though, but it needs to be grander and more awesome for people to come just for that. I don’t think cheap figures are effective for this. A limited 100 figure quota super sized Ayanami Rei or whatever female in vogue would be good.

This has been a rambling post, I would’ve cut it down to more concise points to save time for me and you, but too bad it’s done. I think one of the best parts about AFA though, is that it is a great outlet for otakus to do real work, albeit as cheap labour, for the organisers. It’s a win-win situation, people like Sentinel011 and gang get to learn about the industry they love, travel to Japan for negotiations and girl group concerts, and work on stuff they like, possibly leading onto a real job in the industry, while the actual organisers get dedicated manpower who don’t have distractions like girlfriends to slowdown work. However, as much as I like the concept, I doubt AFA will succeed in the long run (or not so long run).

13 Responses to “Why AFA (and other large Niche Conventions) Will Ultimately Fail in Singapore”

  • Official, licensed merchandise at discount prices would be a sure draw..nt sure about the cost-effectiveness of that though..

  • Great writeup. A lot of this is directly relevant with how cons are in America too. Or rather, AFA can learn a lot from con organizers in the US in some of these areas.

    1. Showing fansubs. Many big-time Animercan anime cons show fansubs. They do it with the blessings of publishers. It requires a working relationship with people and being professional about it. I’m not clear on the details but this is something you can find out how.

    2. “five figure sum” is quite typical. Oversea guests are expensive. At any rate this is the least of your worries, if American cons can bring over similar acts with a smaller attendance.

    3. Growth and management. I don’t know if you ever worked in a sophisticated retail job, but the concept is organic growth. The purpose is to develop a base of attendees/fans/customers who would come back again, and bring their friends the next time. Your F1 example is a good one in showing that you have to provide a long-term strategy that gains traction, rather than provide something that is showy but ultimately not particularly valuable. In America, cons tend to be the same as once a sustainable model has been proven popular, people copy it. But that’s the model that works. I don’t know what that is for Singapore but that’s something you can find out only by trial and error of some sort. I will say that it is generally foolish to appeal to only one segment of fans, and it’s almost just as bad when you neglect any relevant segment of fans, no matter how small. It’s important to have good presence in the community for feedback purposes and to grow both attendees and staffers. Presumably the people running the con itself is an organization that require equal amounts of care as the convention they run.

    You said how the US model doesn’t apply, but I beg to differ–at least I see more similarities than differences. And it’s about “party” rather than “exhibition” which is what I think the key difference that you’re trying to express as the problem that faces niche conventions in Singapore.

    1. You are partly right that people all across America travel to go to cons, but vast majority of /any/ American con are made up of locals. I’d say 80% or more.

    2. Most of us only hear about big cons with Japanese guests, but there are probably over 100 cons in the US annually, most of them are just small fare with American guests and creators. You are right about that–there are more creator-types but this is why I think a convention culture can grow this sort of thing, and in turn support the con from a long term perspective.

    3. This includes stupid cosplaying naruto types. This is code word for developing your own “con culture.” If you examine how conventions were in the 70s and 80s in America that’s really the model of it all. Comiket is the comiket we know today because of its own organic growth and cultural development.

    4. Monetizing. American cons have trouble monetizing as well. The pay-to-enter model works because that’s how all conventions (geek or not) in the US work, for the most part. People are familiar with the business model and there are all kinds of support around it.

    I think AFA will have to make its own decision as to what works best, but from what I hear they worked things out pretty well last year.

  • I staffed a convention this year that has seen slow and even growth, expanding little, and advertising minimally, has the usual reoccurring slate of low to average scale guests of honor, the team even waits until the last few weeks to put out most updates to intentionally keep attendance low, yet this convention still got somewhere between 1,000 to 1,500 attendees over what they anticipated.
    It too is a free expo, mid-size or smaller. They planned on expanding through their current venue for the next five to seven years or more, but if this year is any indication of the popularity of the convention, they’ll have to make some bigger changes sooner than later.
    And this comes just after at least one new con opened last year and another on its heels this year (two actually, opening the same weekend…) in roughly the same area, if not distanced by an hour or more drive each.

    This convention has been around for a long while, and has made many careful and cost effective decisions.
    But, I cannot explain the sudden jump in attendance myself.

    Many of the other area cons have seen the same year to year growth in attendance by growing themselves steadily. I fear for the newest con, because it planned to go big right off the bat too but ran into an incredible amount of issues this year planning and risks failing.

    Maybe one large convention is not the answer, but smaller, well-distributed conventions that can maintain themselves, all even under the AFA umbrella if interested, is a solution. This way there can be options as opposed to just hitting the big one, the mecca, etc. That way people like the rest of us that want to casually attend, have a good time, and linger in the forums afterward for a month until were bored can do just that. And people that crave the biggest shows, that need to oogle every hawt cosplay, practice Gurella warfare in the market, and snap bad photos of popular singers and upload them to their blog can do that too.

    Big expos of course have their advantages. There’s nothing quite like them and the energy they give with all those people bouncing around, mixing their funk.

    I wonder why the dynamic can be so different though given the equation? I figure a convention is a convention is a convention. People pile into them no matter if they are shit. People are social by nature and love to flock to their kind when events like these go down. I suppose its when you have anticipated growth that visions begin to change; even communities like Wikipedia have seen a halt in growth, and a leveling of their visitor base. Some speculate of the brand disappearing in around decade now! Such is the inevitable effect of the community population model when growth starts rapidly or, of course, grows in a non-sustainable way.

    I suppose the future is really in changing the convention experience. We’ve been going to the same shows for decades, but it takes good ideas like bringing the maid cafe experience to a place that would not otherwise have the opportunity to visit one and other similar creative ideas that can make shows like these flourish.

    The numbers aren’t in yet, so I’ll be glad to see how AFA and similar shows faire, especially through the eyes of attendees, and most especially the anime blogging crowd.

  • OH guys I made a big mistake. Apparently it isn’t free entry, and it does cost money to get in. Interesting, the ticket prices have apparently risen significantly this time and people are angry.

    Kip, there’s a big difference in the mindsets of the crowds. People in Singapore are not going there for multiple days if they aren’t going to see the concerts. We aren’t interested in meeting people because we already meet the same people all year round. Singaporeans just want the official (non doujin!) goods, star sightings and hot girls. They aren’t interested in panels and activities such as competitions, because of the Asian “lose face” mentality. Basically, they’re afraid of embarrassment.

    Omo: Thanks for your input, I’ve never been to an American con and always marvel at how tens of thousands of people line up to get in. I’m sure there are fundamental differences in what people expect though. What exactly do Americans do at cons? Because in Singapore, even in the older conventions, there are two main types of people – the participants aka cosplayers, and the gawkers which make up 90% of the crowd.

  • “AFA has been and will be held in late November or so, which is the school holiday period for primary school, secondary and junior college students. It’s however, the examination period for university students. ”

  • “The biggest and most interesting problem however, is how Singaporeans obtain their anime. See, the Japanese are not aware in general, that we watch the same anime they do, at the same time. They think just because something hasn’t been officially brought in, we foreigners wouldn’t know of it. This was very evident in the surprise that Minorin felt, when the WHOLE crowd has seen Ga-rei Zero and she was like, “Oh I have this new show that has yet to be brought in to Malaysia.” LOL. ”

    this made my day, thanks LOL

  • >> I’m sure there are fundamental differences in what people expect though. What exactly do Americans do at cons? Because in Singapore, even in the older conventions, there are two main types of people – the participants aka cosplayers, and the gawkers which make up 90% of the crowd.

    Well in America I’d say a good 50% of the people are there to hang out with friends, to goof around in crap cosplays, and to browse the dealer’s room. I understand some of the stuff you say about knowing people, and definitely it is much easier for Singaporeans to buy anime crap without resorting to mail order off the web than Americans. On the other hand there are a lot of preset programming like the masquerade and the AMV where people line up for at the con as something they enjoy doing. Especially in recent years, there are a lot of great fan panels that are a lot of fun to see.

    I wonder how many AFAers have been to an American anime con. It would be something definitely useful to compare. I think the whole 10/90 cosplay/gawker ratio is just an Asian thing. Americans (or westerners in general) are way less inhibited just by nature and culture.

  • I stayed only about 4 hours on each day of AFA last year. Chances are, it’ll be the same this year, so… let’s chill out somewhere!

  • Well, talking from a Malaysian context, we also face the same problem here with low attention span, seeing most of the same friends, the demand for free-entry, and the cal for better content in anime events. Thankfully, only the commercial events would go the way of free-entries and the like, with GACC in Malacca being the only exception. Monetising the event with the charge-per-entry model is something Comic Fiesta adopted for a while now as it does help with the financing of the venue and marketing.

    As for what Omo said, it is true that a con-culture will start to grow and stick on the event as it manages to sustain itself on the long term. Again, like Comic Fiesta for example. Small in comparison to AFA, it is however the type of event that manages to grow every year because the crowd has come to label Comic Fiesta as an event where you can buy a new library of doujin every year, debut the best costume at the event, and just hang out with friends the whole day. These three “cultures” are what characterises Comic Fiesta.

    Of course, the organisers also try to make Comic Fiesta as relevant as it possibly can be through the introduction of new events and the like. This includes screening unlicensed (outside Japan) fansubs, showing AMVs (with permission), adopting game models from US cons like Cosplay Chess, organising live art-demos, and so on. That’s how Comic Fiesta managed to last for so long.

  • everything you mentioned above assumes that the AFA is heavily dependent on the crowd for funds, however the way i see it… the fact that this event HAPPENED in the first place was because they managed to get heavy sponsorship. I think most probably many of their sponsors are not actually investing for the purpose of making profits IN this event, but rather see it as a good advertising channel to promote stuff.

    I think (most probably) whether AFA will continue to be held and whether it will succeed or not will depend mainly on whether these sponsors will continue to be interested in shelving out money every year.

    Its about gathering crowds rather than earning money or breaking even for an event like AFA.

  • Brandon, your argument would make sense if not for the fact that they increased their ticket prices immensely this year, so by that logic, if they were purely looking to boost crowds, they wouldn’t do that as it would drive crowds down.

  • Yes, i agree. Which is why the AFA organizers are either 1) dumber than us, or 2) lost their sense of direction or 3) never had one in the first place.

    Its obvious that Singapore doesnt have a big enough market to sustain an event of this scale (in the short term at least) so the only way something like AFA can survive is through sponsorship and advertising driven interest.

    When AFA first happened i thought the Singapore/Asian market had finally attracted enough attention for sponsors to be willing to organize an event of such a scale there. BUT the ticket prices this year are a huge contradiction. Which is actually kinda dumb. Even if they manage to attract the same crowd last year with this year’s ticket prices, i doubt that they can reaaaally make any kind of real profit considering the location, the lineup of guests and the programme of this event.

    And yes, there’s no way AFA would survive if they are dependent on the crowd for revenue. Heck, i think it wouldn’t even have HAPPENED in the first place if the organizers weren’t keen on advertising and promoting anime culture in Asia in general, even chances of profiting from it in the short term were slim and unrealistic.

    Maybe the sponsors are getting apprehensive about the whole thing now cos of the economy and monetary constraints, but I still believe AFA was never meant to be a profitable event and will never be (in the short term at least).

  • Hi TJ, first off… a round of applause for this article. Well-written and point to the bare truth, most if not all of it.

    What you’ve written was basically my own reaction to finding out about the ticket prices at AFA09. I had a really good laugh when i saw that ticket prices were almost SGD190 just to see 4 singers on two days. I just had to laugh when thinking of how people were going to be suckered and have their money taken away from them just to see an additional two singers and one very-overrated virtual idol who IMHO, sings with one tone.

    Sure, it’s a good deal seeing as tickets can reach as much as MYR500 just to see ONE singer like here in Malaysia but i would’ve expected a larger volume attending what more with FOUR singers and not just two. Doing the math, wouldn’t the number of those attending the said concerts increase thus precluding any significant increase in ticket prices? Obviously not!

    That said, I’ll be at the London MCM Expo come this weekend and I’m hoping it will be good. It’s the replacement for me here in the UK. Hahahahah!

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