When I excluded events from my analysis in “Who Killed Steampunk?“, critics said I was overlooking the most thriving part of the steampunk movement. Book sales may be down; blogs and magazines may have closed; Hollywood may have lost interest in the genre, but conventions, some said, are booming.
I’m not much of a convention-goer, so I wouldn’t know. But if conventions and other events are where steampunk lives now, I ought to look into it.
So I did.
A brief recap
My argument is that woke activism has driven people from steampunk who wanted an escape from the modern world. If I’m right, we would expect steampunk events to have been canceled and attendance to be down at the ones that survive.
I’m limiting this analysis to the United States, because that is where steampunk has become political. Most Europeans prefer to keep their hobby free of politics. Britain seems to be somewhere in the middle, which may be due to language or because both English-speaking countries have endured political upsets in recent years that make it hard for the people there to treat anything apolitically.
Several conventions and festivals, some long-running, have been canceled in the last year:
- Aethertopia, Florida: Canceled after one year.
- Fairhaven Steampunk Festival, Washington state: Canceled after seven years.
- Steamposium, Washington state: Canceled after five years.
- Steampunk World’s Fair, New Jersey: Canceled after seven years. (I am aware of the circumstances involved. I’m including this for completeness’ sake.)
- Time Travelers Bazaar, California: Canceled after five years. (Although they’re hoping to revive it next year.)
- Wild West Steam Fest, California: Canceled after five years.
- Wild West Victorian Fest, Texas: Canceled after two (?) years.
It’s hard to find people who did not go to events and ask them why. But I can ask the organizers what they think happened. So I did. I contacted all the American steampunk events listed by SteampunkCons for the last twelve months, including the seven canceled events listed above, and asked them three questions:
- How many people attended your most recent event?
- Was attendance up or down from the year before?
- Why do you think that was?
Nine replied. Eight answered my questions.
- Two said attendance was up.
- Five said attendance was down.
- At one event, attendance was stable.
Only two events reported attendance of more than 1,000.
What organizers said
Of the events that saw attendance fall, organizers gave bad weather and competition from other events as explanations.
Todd Bastin, a librarian who organizes the annual Steampunk Festival in Ohio, told me he has also noticed blogs, magazines and websites disappearing. But he pointed out that new things are happening on Etsy and YouTube and argued that steampunk can still be “a wonderful umbrella and platform to support and embrace a multifaceted event that gets everyone running on all pistons.”
Lauren Grover of Brass Ring Steampunk Academy and Cabaret, Connecticut, said there has definitively been a drop-off in attendance at some events, but she believes that’s due to new dates, new locations and new organizers. “I’m sure that numbers will improve as things settle down and the word get out better.”
Melissa Honig of Watch City Steampunk Festival, Massachusetts, suggested the way in which people engage with steampunk may be changing. “These young whippersnappers aren’t doing steampunk the way we did steampunk harrumph harrumph!” But she still sees a lot of interest.
Anastasia Hunter, formerly of Gaslight Gathering, now of Gaslight Steampunk Expo, California, argued that, “Like all niche fandoms, steampunk has a dedicated fan base and while there are always new people who discover it, there are others who move away.”
Which goes to my fear that steampunk has become less attractive to people who wanted it as a hobby, not a cause.
Hardcore steampunks will remain, but are there enough hardcore steampunks in the world to support a thriving movement?
Perhaps I’m pessimistic. Perhaps the eight events that replied, and the seven events that were canceled, aren’t representative of the whole scene. It is hard to gauge how many people are leaving. Perhaps there have been too many events competing for too few people.
But, if nothing else, my survey suggests the American steampunk movement isn’t gaining any adherents.
I deliberately overstated my case in the original headline. Nobody murdered steampunk. But steampunk, at least in the United States, isn’t doing fine either. It’s worth asking why.
Thanks to the organizers of the Oxnard Steampunk Fest, California; Cogs and Corsets, Illinois; Michigan Steam Expo and Fairhaven Steampunk Festival, Washington state, who also replied to my query. Photo by Martin SoulStealer.
4 CommentsAdd Yours
Wow, where to start. I suppose I’m in the hobbyist camp. I’m not trying to reform the world through punk; I do vote and I think there are other, more productive ways of enabling change in the world besides cosplay.
I’ve attended the Steampunk World’s Fair a few times, but not the last two years that it was run. As an attendee I didn’t see a lot of what was happening behind the scenes, but the vibe was that it wasn’t well managed. Volunteers seemed to be tasked with things that they weren’t trained for, no one could make a decision unless someone called Jeff Mach. That wasn’t a good way to organize a con and it caused delays and other issues for attendees.
I did get put off by some of the cult of personality and politics, but I also had reasons for not going to the con that were just “life stuff”: it wasn’t an easy to get to weekend outing for me–it was a four-hour drive, and an expense that I had to plan for (hotel, travel, show tickets), and I usually took vacation time on the Friday and Monday for travel and catch-up.
Strasburg Railroad in Ronks, Pennsylvania, hosted a Steampunk Unlimited show for three years. We loved it: a bona fide steam train — what’s not to like? But rumor was that the organizer spent too much money on hiring talent for the event and so it didn’t run for a fourth year (they make more money off the kiddie stuff, I guess).
Other small shows in the Mid-Atlantic states have come and gone. I think some of that is natural: many people jumped on the Steampunk bandwagon because of its novelty and they’re on to other things now. But it takes a lot of planning and resources to run a convention and I think some organizers just didn’t have what it takes to pull off an event – any kind of event.
I think what we’re seeing is a settling process. Remember when blogging was new? Everyone was doing it, but how many people still update their blogs? I think it’s too early to dig a grave for Steampunk; we’re just offloading some things that didn’t work.
Hi Karen, thanks for your comment!
What you’re suggesting is a possible explanation, and probably it factors into it as well. That’s just a normal progression for a subculture.
Except — we’ve been at it for a decade already. If this was purely a matter of events making some mistakes and learning from them, we should be beyond that stage now, no? At least when we talk about the movement as a whole.
I think your second-to-last point is the more likely explanation: several years ago, steampunk gained popularity, people jumped on the bandwagon, and then they left again. The question I’m asking is, why?
Some probably just moved on to the next big thing. Others, I’ve heard — and I’ve felt the same way — were put off by the politics. Both the philosophical kind, of people trying to convert steampunk into a political cause, and the personal kind, of people using it to make a name for themselves.
I can only talk about the German scene but being an active event organiser here I can’t support your findings here.
Especially as we have new events established every year, without the old ones declining. (Check the Clockworker.de facebook site for most German Steampunk events. The blog itself is currently down due to copyright problems :/ )
There is a growing interest of non-steampunks wanting to visit steampunk events so we two kinds of events:
smaller steampunks-only meet-ups, like scene meets and big public events ranging up to some 5 digit visitor numbers.
It’s kind of like the ren-fairs or “Mittelaltermärkte” people enjoy here a lot without having a true fascination for history of the middle ages. They just want to enjoy a mead or two and a bit of bag pipe/folk music.
The down point of all of that is, that the events are merely a dress-up get-together. If you’re lucky you get a concert or two and maybe also some authors and readings as programm.
Event organisers (the ones paying) mostly want something new and fancy to get visitors to come and the creative organisers (that’s my part) try to get as many facets of steampunk in there as possible to show how diverse the scene still is/can be.
It helps that a lot of museums and libraries are interested in steampunk and that they can be convinced of including steampunk art, music and literature, altough those are the points costing rather then paying.
What I’m trying to say: The overall steampunk event scene in Germany is thriving but due to more publicity it’s getting more and more difficult to make quality events.
It’s a bit like steampunk in general: the idea of steampunk gets washed out and only some major aesthetics remain. We (the organisers) are still trying to put some content in there and until now it works fine and is still on the up and up.
We do have die advantage (at least in my part of Western Germany) that we have loads of beautiful old industrial scenery that has been reworkd in all kinds of cultural places (museums, theatres, public parks, you name it) that can easily be used for steampunk and makes a nice backdrop.
What bothers me personally is that having a nice photo backdrop for outfit photos often seems to be enough to make most steampunk attendees happy.
So events could be reduced to dress-up and parade/take photos without having a feeling of missing something on the side of attendees.
I’m not sure if that’s just my pessimistic view (and mind you I came into steampunk first because of the clothes and still enjoy dressing up and hobby modelling a lot). I still try to make events were steampunk artists of all kind can present themselves but most of the times it’s the muggles that are most interested in those programm points and not the steampunks themselves.
Thank you for sharing! It’s an interesting perspective. I suspect the fashion and dress-up aspect is sort of the gateway drug for non-steampunkers to enter the scene. Ideally, events then provide opportunities for people to explore other facets of steampunk, such as music, literature, gadgets.