Crafter’s paradise: The US creativity market is a $44 billion industry

“The business of creativity doesn’t get the serious attention it should, perhaps because it’s a female-dominated pastime.”
“The business of creativity doesn’t get the serious attention it should, perhaps because it’s a female-dominated pastime.”
Image: Reuters/Fayaz Kabli
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The total size of the US creative industry is now $43.9 billion, according to new research from the Association For Creative Industries, until recently known as the Craft and Hobby Association. That’s an increase of 45% from the $30.1 billion measured last time the study was done in 2011, using different methodology.

That figure was calculated by Maritz CX, which surveyed American households’ monthly craft spending. To compare, the US sports industry was worth about $60 billion in 2014, but there’s no Super Bowl of craft. This business is built with 12-packs of glue sticks, googly eye assortments, and, increasingly, digital products and online classes. (It’s also built, at least this year, on protests relating to the presidency of Donald Trump.)

Despite its size, the business of creativity doesn’t get the serious attention it should, perhaps because it’s a female-dominated pastime that is in still many ways a cottage industry. When Etsy went public in 2015, reports from some business media treated the startup as if it were a whimsical blog, not a company that pulled in $2.4 billion in global gross sales that year. (Sales of finished handmade products on Etsy and elsewhere are not included in the AFCI estimate.)

This is a story about the business of creativity, an age-old industry adapting to new generations around the world, as the business of selling and distributing craft products is reinvented in the digital economy.

The rebranding of the AFCI reflects that larger change in the marketplace—the catch-all hobby shop is no longer found in most communities, and the wider maker movement is bigger than just “craft.” The association’s annual trade show was rebranded this year as Creativation, including for the first time an innovation pitch competition, an edible arts space, and an international pavilion, taking cues from megashows such as the Consumer Electronics Show and SXSW.

The crowd at Creativation in Phoenix was much more international than you might expect—Mennonites and Mormons shopped alongside buyers from Japan, Brazil, England, and the European continent. American crafter demographics are changing with the rise of the millennial generation. Some interesting finds in the AFCI were that crafters are younger than the average US population, and more likely to be Hispanic:

But creativity is truly wide reaching: The AFCI study found that 63% of US households participated in at least one creative activity in the past year, with the majority of those taking part in multiple kinds of activities, up from 56% of households in 2010. The study identified 10 specific categories of creative activities and asked respondents to share how much time they dedicate to their creative pursuits. Half reported spending five to 20 hours per week on creative projects, and another 40% spends more than 20 hours per week on crafting.

Faber Castell USA’s CEO, Jamie Gallagher, says Creativation is part of a larger resurgence of appreciation for creative thinking in education and business. He reports: “It’s a really good time to be in the creativity business.”

With the American creative industry in a Renaissance, the Creativation show is a perfect encapsulation of the creative industry’s ecosystem. Manufacturers and distributors want to connect with buyers from stores, from tiny mom-and-pop shops to big boxes, attracting them with well-known artists and crafters demonstrating new techniques with their products.

The recession was a wakeup call for stores where the product used to sell itself, says Shane Cullimore of Crafters Home, an organization for independent craft retailers that has about 50 members. The stores that are succeeding now are focusing more on classes for customers and education on marketing for themselves.

Walking the more than 110,000-square-foot floor was mesmerizing and overwhelming. Stone, glitter, crystals, ribbons, paints, and tapes adorned most surfaces, and many brands host craft celebrities and tastemakers. Some are well known to the wider public, like David Tutera of WEtv, who was promoting his line of home décor crafts, and others were craft-world famous, like Kathy Cano-Murillo, the Crafty Chica, who was one of the first modern crafters to go big-time from having a web presence.

Brands and manufacturers rely on crafters and bloggers with online followings to spread the word about their products, and they actively seek out new talent from the next generation. Stephanie Low got her start designing custom tattoos, selling the drawings on Etsy for $55 to $550. Scrapbooking company Spellbinders saw her work and reached out to her—now Low has two lines of stamps and dyes with the company.

The members of the old guard are also entering the modern age. The Bob Ross Company, which keeps the spirit of the painter of “happy little trees” alive, continues to train painters as certified Bob Ross instructors and sell DVDs of his show, but new audiences are discovering the artist through livestreaming chat platform, which ran a weeklong marathon of his shows last year to launch its creative channel. A total of 5.6 million people tuned in, many of whom had never heard of Bob Ross, says certified instructor Nic Hankins, and were also unaware that he died in 1995. Analysis of the 7.6 million chat messages sent during the marathon showed the comments were much more positive than the usual gamer gab. Bob Ross instructors are still painting on Twitch every Friday night.

One difficult thing about trying to measure the creative industry in the United States is how fractured it is. Many sales happen at traditional craft chains such as AC Moore, Joann Fabrics, Hobby Lobby, and Michaels (one of the few publicly-held companies in the creative retail space, which acquired a number of smaller competitors last year), but big box stores, mom-and-pop shops, and even supermarkets move a lot of craft supplies, too.

The study also included activities such as paint-and-sip studios, where customers pay to try a painting project while having a glass of wine. Phoenix is home to a new take on paint-and-sip studios, Pinspiration, where people can book sessions to make a Pinterest-worthy project, with materials supplied and instructions vetted by the owners.

They analyze projects on Pinterest to vet potential ideas and confirm it can be completed in an hour, says owner Brooke Roe, who opened a second location in Cumming, Georgia, this year. She’s also opened Pinspiration up for franchises, and she hopes to assign five in the next year, and 100 in the next five years. Pinspiration helped create a “splatter room” at Creativation with 3M and DecoArt, where potential Jackson Pollocks could doff Tyvek suits and whip paint at canvases. “We’re eliminating the craft fail,” Roe says.