The Bay Area Maker Faire is this weekend, and this might be the last one. This report comes from the San Francisco Chronicle, and covers the continuing problems of funding and organizing what has been called The Greatest Show and Tell on Earth. According to Maker Media CEO Dale Dougherty, “it is ‘quite possible’ that the event could be the Bay Area’s last Maker Faire.”
Maker Faire has been drawing artists, craftspeople, inventors, and engineers for more than a decade. In one weekend you can see risque needlepoint, art cars meant for the playa, custom racing drones, science experiments, homebrew computers, gigantic 3D printers, interactive LED art, and so much more. This is a festival built around a subculture defined by an act of creation; if you do something with your hands, if you build something, or if you make something, Maker Faire has something for you. However you define it, this is the Maker Movement and since 2006, there has been a Maker Faire, a festival to celebrate these creators.
It’s sad to learn the future of this event is in peril. Let’s take a look at how we got here and what the future might hold.
Where is Maker Faire Bay Area Having Trouble?
In The Chronicle’s interview with Dale Dougherty, financial issues are at the forefront of the uncertain future. We had to ask ourselves why. Attendance is still quite high, and shows that there is demand, but is the cost an issue? For a family of four, a single-day pass costs $130. A bottle of water is six dollars. In terms of entertainment, Maker Faire isn’t terribly expensive; a single-day pass for a family of four to the Exploratorium, a children’s museum that’s the closest thing to Maker Faire that’s in the Bay Area, costs $100. While the cost of attending the Bay Area Maker Faire is an issue, it’s not something that is outrageously expensive — aside from the food vendors, of course — but it is an issue.
Nonetheless, attendance has fallen in recent years. 2015 saw 145,000 makers attend the Bay Area Maker Faire, a slight increase over 2014 numbers. In 2016, Make reported attendance of 150,000, and in 2017 it was listed at 125,000. The number for 2018 was a mere 100,000. That’s still a lot of people, but in less than two years, attendance at the Bay Area Maker Faire dropped more than 30%.
Makers exhibit and attend Bay Area Maker Faire at no cost. Individual makers who are trying to make a business of their craft, and non-profits with small budgets, can exhibit for $525 to $1,500 per booth. It’s harder to get numbers for ‘maker’ companies who fall somewhere in between the individuals and the large corporations. But anecdotally I have heard that rising booth prices have caused some of these companies to pass on having a booth at the faire.
While the economics of Maker Faire might not make sense for some small businesses in the DIY market, Maker Faire is still supported by large companies that headline the event. Even here, support is waning. Huge sponsors like Intel have exited the ‘maker market’ entirely.
It’s easy to see that the crunch between waning attendance revenue and falling sponsorships endangers the future of the event.
Is It The Economy?
Decreased attendance and a shrinking number of sponsorships are merely a symptom. Any one of these reasons is not enough to account for the possible shuttering of Maker Faire. The faire, at its core, is a do-it-yourself festival and there is a historical precedent of the rise and fall of this market.
Bob Vila, of This Old House fame, attributes the success of his show to the terrible economy of the 1970s. This was an era where homeowners would remodel instead of upgrading, and This Old House was there to teach people how to spackle. DIY appears to be inversely correlated with the economy, and right now the economy is doing great. Last December, unemployment in the US was at 3.9%, a rate not seen since the eve of the dot com bubble.
Many ‘maker’ companies who have been around long enough to go through a few economic cycles will tell you it’s a great, nearly recession-proof business to be in, but still long “booms” in the economy as a whole can kill a company that was already on shaky footing. There is a reason TechShop saw a massive explosion of growth around 2008, only to shut most of its locations in 2017. There’s a reason RadioShack died in 2015.
Maker Media itself has seen a series of layoffs, with the most recent round in March. Years ago, at the height of the Maker movement, twenty percent of the staff was laid off. There is a lot of speculation as to why this is happening, and unfortunately very little data to give a clear picture of what is happening.
Maker Faire is Not the Maker Community
If this is the last Maker Faire Bay Area — and it’s not entirely certain that this is the last Maker Faire quite yet — this isn’t a time to mourn. The ‘maker community’ — whatever that is — may have been branded by Maker Media, but we weren’t created by them. DIY and amateur engineering has been around since the invention of the lathe and the soldering iron. Crafting has existed since time immemorial. Tinkering is a long-standing tradition.
Maker Media and Make Magazine have done great things to bolster the community over the years, and we’ll be sad to see the Maker Faires come to an end, but we have other outlets too.
While in some peoples’ minds Maker Faire, Make Magazine, and Make Media represent the community, it’s worth remembering that they’re just a for-profit company that can fail for any number of economic and financial reasons. If this is the last Maker Faire Bay Area, that doesn’t mean that the community is to blame.
I’ll be at the Faire this weekend and I hope you will too.