Seeing the Bigger Picture

The number of artists and art agents exhibiting at Licensing Expo continues to shrink, with the smallest contingent in recent memory represented at the 2019 edition earlier this month.

In part, this decline is due to the nature of the Expo. It faces competition from art-only events, such as Surtex and Blueprint, which attract more licensees specifically looking for art imagery. Art licensors tend to get lost, since it is difficult to stand out against the showy booths of the studios and big corporate licensing agents. And the drop-off in foot traffic is problematic for artists, who are less likely than other exhibitors to make appointments in advance.

But while these and other factors have helped lower the presence of artists at the Expo, the decline is also indicative of broader trends that are changing the nature of the art licensing business. According to conversations with artists and agents specializing in art licensing, some key challenges include:

• The proliferation of online resources for low-cost art images. Manufacturers have increasingly turned to these platforms to license or purchase low-cost copyrighted or public-domain images rather than going the art-licensing route. As one agent put it, “there are so many places for licensees to get ‘good enough’ art.”

• The growth of print-on-demand services, which have made it possible for artists to get product directly into the hands of their consumers without the need for a traditional licensing deal. While this is true of all licensors, it has become a core business model for some in the art licensing business.

• The increase in licensee expectations when it comes to working with artists. Manufacturers are demanding more and more images and more input on the design of the product itself, even as royalties and guarantees decline, leading to artist burnout.

• The particularly competitive landscape, with new artists entering the business every day to fight for shrinking shelf space. At the same time, with a few exceptions, there is relatively little differentiation from one artist to another, making it difficult for artists to stand out in the eyes of licensees and consumers and to develop a “brand name” that shoppers seek out.

• The ever-evolving world of digital media and distribution. Older artists, in particular, along with those who tend to be drawn to traditional art techniques, can be uncomfortable with the need to provide digital assets for product development and marketing purposes. This is not a problem for most younger artists, of course, for whom social media, digital art creation, and digital distribution are second nature. But it may be a barrier to success for some artists.

• Artists’ DIY approach toward licensing. This tendency is due in part to cost-consciousness. It is also driven by the availability of a variety of information sources specific to art licensing (albeit with various levels of accuracy and value), often shared by other artists. The prevalence of art licensors armed with this information but without real-world experience has soured certain manufacturers on the whole sector, according to some agents. After being bombarded by solicitations, these decision makers have closed the doors to even established agents and artists, preferring to rely instead on in-house designers or image banks.

All of this is not to say that there is no chance of success in art licensing. There are certainly artists who have achieved sales levels that rival properties of any other type. And many more are making a nice enough income from licensing to sustain them and their families. But there is no doubt that art licensors and their agents face some particularly steep challenges on the road to establishing and maintaining a viable licensing business.

To read more about the trends noted at Licensing Expo, see our recently published wrap-up here.

Also: Raugust Communications’ e-newsletter goes out tomorrow, Tuesday, June 18, 2019. The Licensing Trend of the Month examines new ways of capitalizing on anniversaries as a hook for licensing and marketing, while the Datapoint research spotlight takes a look at some stats about the licensing agency business. If you do not yet receive this free monthly publication in your in-box, you can subscribe here.

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