Bursting the Maker Bubble: Part 2

By Regina Connell.

Part 1 of Bursting the Maker Bubble certainly touched a nerve. It seems that more than a few people—of the serious “maker” tribe, in particular—have been seeing the same things, feeling the same way.

Image courtesy of goodfoodawards.org

Image courtesy of goodfoodawards.org

There were also some legitimate quibbles. A number of people wanted to address the term “maker,” and quite rightly pointed out that makers have been making for a long time, that they will always make, and that it wasn’t just since the last recession that they’ve been doing this.

Agreed. What I was really pointing to is the fetishization of “makers,” of people with low quality skills jumping onto the bandwagon, and of every entrepreneur wanting to call themselves a maker (and vice versa) from telegenic woodworkers and weekend garage brewers to software engineers.

And most importantly, I certainly wasn’t saying that makers—the real ones, the ones who are serious about what they do—had no future. The world is not just about mass production and mass marketing. Far from it.

This second part of the series covers what’s changed and what hasn’t. While the fall of the maker movement means, inevitably, that the world will be safe once again for “quality” craftspeople, it’s not all roses. Significant challenges remain for craftspeople and artisans who want to make a living out of selling their work, but it helps to understand the nature of the problem in order to be able to do something about it.

Caveat 1. If you want to make for the sake of making, don’t waste your time on this series.  But if you want to make a living from craft and artisanship and are wondering where the opportunities are this side of the maker fetish, read on.

Caveat 2. I wish there were great data out there… but unfortunately, there isn’t. This is based on a great deal of observation of the market; reading and thinking about higher-end markets; and decades of experience in strategy, consumer trends, and marketing.

The rise of the conscious consumer.  While the trendsetters who hankered after anything handmade at Renegade will start to lose interest, my gut tells me that the market for goods made by hand has changed significantly—and for the better. It really is different than it has been in the last few years. The past decade has created a market of conscious consumers looking for beautifully made alternatives to mass-produced, mass-marketed, mass-available product. Conscious Consumers and their upscale cousins, the AltLuxurists, are actively seeking quality and pleasure and satisfaction beyond the label.

Just saying NO

Just saying NO

They want terroir and technique. They want “specialness.”  They want values to be a part of what they buy. And they have the money to pay for it.

What’s critically important is that this sensibility has extended beyond the typical craft-fair-going lady of a certain age. The Conscious Consumer is younger, more affluent, and more stylish.

Team élu

Elu

Where are they hanging out and spending money? At lifestyle boutiques. At stores like Barney’s. At the handful of stores that focus on handcrafted work and art for the home and body but are design and style oriented enough to be beloved by interior and other designers. At some of the more eclectic galleries out there. They probably wouldn’t be caught dead at a typical “craft” fair.

Let’s be clear though: While this market is bigger than before this whole maker fetish started, this is still a small, selective market. It is not terribly democratic. It doesn’t feel as good as making artisanal products available to all.

The reality is that artisanal products are more expensive, and they should be. They’re not as expensive as luxury labels, which have all that advertising cost built into their prices, but artisanal products are pricier than their mass-made competition, and there’s no denying that.

A new focus on identity. If we can thank the latest iteration of the making movement for anything, it’s that artisans have started to have more of an identity than in the recent past: the kind of identity that artists have traditionally enjoyed, and that entrepreneurs have now.

Isobel Schofield, Founder of Bryr

Isobel Schofield, Founder of Bryr

Ironically, part of this is because of all that egregious self-promotion we love to hate. (OK, fine, a tip o’ the fedora to the bearded hipster with the videographer friend.) But it ties into the desire to know where your products are coming from, and as far as I’m concerned, it’s a trend we need to keep supporting

Scott McGlasson of WoodSport

Scott McGlasson of Woodsport

For some, being the unknown craftsman (thank you Mr. Yanagi) is fine: the work and the honor of being able to do is its own reward, and there is nothing wrong with that. But having a brand —an identity—is valuable. It helps you make a living, lets you experiment and grow as an artisan and as an individual. And the last few years of the “maker” movement have made that more acceptable, possible, and desirable. (Lovely to see articles like this one on the need to honor craftspeople.)

The rise of artisan brands/the creation of a third way. I pointed to this in my last piece and as I said, I take this as a good sign. This means that some artisans have done a great job at figuring out the balance between scale and handmade-ness. And even though some of us like to snicker at them (e.g. the merger of the Bay Area’s beloved artisan brands Tartine and Blue Bottle coming together to go global), they make terrific products that celebrate humanity and the work of the hand. They’re creating jobs. They’re sophisticated about marketing. The media writes about them, stoking demand, raising awareness, and putting a spotlight on companies that seem to promise business based on a more gentle set of values than have been traditional.

Tartine + Blue Bottle. Image via GrubStreet, underlying images by Tartine and Blue Bottle.

Tartine + Blue Bottle. Image via GrubStreet, underlying images by Tartine and Blue Bottle.

Not all individual artisans want to go in this direction, but the fact that these artisan brands are alive and thriving says that there is demand. And by creating a robust set of alternative products and outlets for those Conscious and Alt Luxury consumers, they are creating a third way, an alternative to the mass market and the luxury label market. These alternatives have a way of creating even more market demand, and that is a positive thing.

The failure of the market. The last few years did not make it easier for artisans to connect with their consumers. Craft-oriented internet platforms other than Etsy (and even they sold out) never thrived. Craft and decorative art galleries are going under every day. Stores are struggling. The fairs are doing well, but for some reason fail to attract the best work, and consumers are feeling fatigue. And despite the interest in craft and artisanal work, the traditional craft shows like ACC have failed to thrive or find new customers.

Good Food Merchants Guild

Good Food Merchants Guild

 

There are some bright spots, such as the Good Food Awards, and the Good Food Merchants Association, and the Good Food Mercantile, which we’ve written about before. This set of offerings helps put a stamp on quality and actively brings together buyers and sellers.

The problem with quality. The last few years have seen a great deal of crap coming onto the market, and that’s harmed the market for artisanal work. The last few years haven’t really seen that many new credible arbiters of what’s good or bad, of what makes for quality and what doesn’t. Education among consumers is left up to the media, and to retailers and gallerists. And all of those sectors are struggling.

So we have a situation of somewhat greater demand among consumers—nascent and probably fragile, but definitely there. But they’re still having a hard time finding what they want, and artisans are obviously bearing the brunt of that.

For artisans to be more successful, we need some new thinking. And that’s what’s coming up in the next part of the series.

 

 

 

 

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