Joe Meno: The real difference between European and American builders – Boilerplate & Beyond Vol. 12 [Interview]

For interview number 12, Keith Goldman turns to an Editor-in-Chief of a major LEGO media outlet not named Andrew. Take it away, Keith!

If there is anyone in this hobby who has been there, done that, got the T-shirt, it is my next guest Joe Meno.

Joe hop-scotches the globe spreading the gospel of LEGO like some itinerate preacher from the American south.

If there was ever an AFOL worthy of the title Ambassador in Perpetuity, it is the mighty Joe Meno.

Joe Meno

Photo courtesy of GeekyTom.

I sat down with Joe in his BrickJournal offices above the Second Empire Restaurant and Tavern in beautiful Raleigh North Carolina. We talked about never forgiving Disneyland for removing the Adventure through Inner Space attraction, General Chow’s chicken vs. General Tso’s chicken, and why America is still not out of Iraq. We also talked about LEGO.

The Build

Keith Goldman: You are so busy hop-scotching around the globe, living the dream of mannkinder everywhere….do you still have time to build? What percentage of your LEGO life is devoted to actual building? What motivates you to make time to build?

Joe Meno: Do I still have time? Usually, I make time.

LEGO iPad by Joe MenoI live in a strange world where my job is showing what others build (among other things), which inspires me to explore more, but doesn’t allow me the time to focus on actual building. My building time has declined quite a bit (and because of that, I don’t buy many sets — I need to build them!!) in the past few years, so what I do now is devote time to one big project each year.

Last year was my Just Another Day at the Bay micro layout, and the year before was Wall-E. This year, I had two projects, but one was too small (my iPad) and the other failed miserably (the NXT shark — it sank upon it’s first test swim in the tub.)

I build when I can because it’s a way to keep in touch with my roots in the hobby. And it’s hard to take someone seriously about a subject when they have little or no experience in it…so I build to keep my credibility.

KG: As an international man of LEGO mystery, you are uniquely qualified to comment on building styles from around the world. Is there any difference between building styles here in the States and abroad? Is there any real difference between builders?

JM: Good question — it’s something I have to look at every so often. The building styles of a region are a reflection of their environment, for the most part.

The US style of building is simple with detail, which shows best in space building. The European style in train layouts is much more refined, but that’s because the architecture is much richer there, the train is much more common there, and the AFOL community there is about one generation beyond the US community. The Far East building that I have seen has been a completely different design direction driven by mecha design.

So the best train builders are in Europe, the best mecha is in Japan, and the best space stuff is in the US. Keep in mind this is a general observation — there are outstanding builders everywhere of every type.

And the real difference between builders? Europeans can hold their alcohol MUCH better! :-)

More of Keith’s interview with Joe after the jump:

KG: In your well documented travels where you have seen the offerings of LEGO nerds far and wide… which MOC has titillated you the most Joe Meno, and why?

JM: The single most outstanding model I have ever seen? The Harry S. Truman, the ridiculously large aircraft carrier built by Matthias Hawking. There is enough detail in the model to keep anyone exploring that for days….In that same vein, the Dutch Moonbase by Mike Van Leeuwen and Marco Bass is an incredible creation that would take just as long to look at completely. In the US, your Omicron Weekend comes to mind!

LEGO Harry S Truman

The Community

KG: You’ve been running BrickJournal since 2005, what has been the best thing about that experience and what has been the worst?

JM: Best thing? Simple — opening up the community to anyone curious enough to open an issue. The community is far bigger than it appears, and it’s an honor to be able to explore and document a small snapshot of our community, from building to Serious Play to FIRST LEGO League. The friendships that I have picked up along the way have been wonderful too.

The worst thing? Getting flak from various people for various reasons. Some people make the assumption that there is an agenda in the magazine and what I do. Honestly, there is — and it’s showing the best in the community to everyone else and inspiring others to join. But that’s it.

KG: When you went transitioned from free-online zine to print, you experience a backlash. Talk about the backlash…and why AFOLs seem to think that every bit of fan-related content should be free, and why do they get their collective ass-chapped when it isn’t?

JM: BrickJournal was a freezine for a year as a proof of concept. If anyone wanted a printed copy, they could order from and get a print on demand issue. Going to a true magazine created a backlash because suddenly, there was a price on everything — including what was initially free. That really upset some readers.

It was surprising to me to see this happen — someone has to pay for a paper magazine, and the cost per issue were figured to match with most specialty magazines. There appears to be a context that any move to make money from the love of the brick, or more precisely, those who love the brick, is a betrayal of sorts. Many think I sold out for a quick buck. What really happened is that I chose to pursue a path that fit in my skill set and my love for the hobby. What I am doing is not that different from making custom parts or reselling sets in that respect. What makes me different is that the result is not a custom piece or set but something that to many builders doesn’t have the implied value of those things. I am selling information — and that information was at one time free. And that is what upsets those AFOLs — that BrickJournal appears to be a collection of material that can be found on Flickr, or websites, or blogs.

What is interesting about that argument is that BrickJournal isn’t dependent on information that is found online. We now have people writing about the brick who provide content is unique to the magazine. The interviews with the LEGO Group that we constantly get are exclusive, as are the event reports and articles. And that has value, enough to keep the magazine growing and improving.

KG: You’ve been knee deep in the business of running conventions for quite some time now, culminating in last months’ successful BrickMagic fan convention. Describe the road that brought you to running your own fest, and just like Brickjournal, can you give me one great thing and one not so great thing about running your own show?

JM: BrickMagic happened when my publisher said we should do a convention — he knew I had experience, so he pressed me about it. My excuse at the time was that there wasn’t a LEGO store around. Well, one opened up 10 minutes away from me, and that pretty much started the ball rolling. Six months later, the hotel was selected and six months later, BrickMagic happened.

Best thing? Seeing 95 of my best friends show off to a crowd of 8000 over a weekend. Worst thing? Not being able to spend time looking at everything and getting photos — unfortunately, I was busy doing presentations and taking care of things!

KG: Did you make a profit from Brickmagic, and how do you react to people who think fest-organizers shouldn’t make a buck, and call for transparency?

JM: Yes, BrickMagic made a profit. Don’t know how much, as the money has not been counted, but it really shouldn’t matter. The people who worry about transparency and where the money goes really haven’t got a stake in a given event. The true stakeholders are those who choose to participate — they provided the money for registration. To a lesser extent, the public is a stakeholder too, as they will pay into the event and expect entertainment. Stakeholders have the right to ask for transparency, but if you are not paying or not willing to pay…..

And fest-organizers should be able to earn a profit. If not, you’ll see events eventually declining, as the amount of work, resources and effort that goes into them is much higher than many assume, and doing events for community is not as much motivation as it would appear. The public is becoming a larger factor in this as their ticket sales provide the resources for bigger and better venues.

KG: Are you concerned that there are too many conventions in the states right now, and that it somehow hurts the community? Is there a point of saturation and where is it?

JM: I’m not concerned about that at all at this point. There’s a lot of regions that could host an event (Texas, Ohio, to name a couple of places — they are relatively open areas geographically).

Personally, I don’t see having too many conventions hurting the community — conventions are an opportunity for the community to show and grow, as public interest increases. Now it will hurt in my ability to go to all of them, but that hurts my community, not the community — and that is a distinction that has to be made.

The saturation question is a good one because it touches on one of the aspects of conventions — there is a spirit of competition between them, but also courtesy, so there are windows of time between events. As more events come online, this will no doubt be changed. What should be happening is networking for a common good, as the saturation point for events is far lower when they are competing as opposed to not. Creating this network would also make new opportunities — having a simucast over two conventions coast-to-coast, for example. New ways to meet can happen, if we let them.

It will take a long time before saturation happens, but I do expect a plateau in AFOL attendance to happen in the next few years. There’s a generation change happening in the community (TFOLs are coming into their own), which will inevitably affect events. One thing the current community should be paying attention to is who will be the event runners of the next generation.

KG: In all of your travels related to the LEGO fan community, what’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever seen?

JM: Wierdest thing? At an European event, there was a model of the US Capitol built by Dominic Gerlach that was 15 or so feet long and 4 feet high. It was minifig scale, and during display hours, it had a motorcade with agents and staff and a large crowd looking on, all done in minifigs. However, after hours on the first night, after a few drinks, some people changed the layout so that the minifigs were all making out or worse!! It was a Washington orgy, and was hysterical! And yes I have pics, but they are under lock and key:-)

The Future

KG: Answer critics who say that the print media is obsolete in the age of the micro-chip, how will Brick Journal survive in a world gone mad with the digital. What direction will you take your magazine, and do you think you can ever top the 1st print issue that featured The Omicron weekend?

JM: Print media is not obsolete. If that was true, books would already have been gone by now. What is happening now is that the media is undergoing a massive change that is being dictated by costs. The technology to display on a screen is now dropping to a form factor and price that is actually threatening paper. Does that mean paper is out? Maybe. BrickJournal is a magazine that is growing — and it has been growing.

What killed many magazines is that they were based on advertising. If the advertising dried up, the mags folded. BrickJournal never had that luxury. The magazine’s main support is from subscribers and then sales at the LEGO Brand Retail stores. So the Journal is stable in terms of printing costs, and now it’s a matter of growing to support staff.

That’s not to say that I want to continue exclusively in print — thanks to the resources available, the mag is positioned to go into the digital realm. A digital iPad version of the mag is definitely something I am looking at, where a reader can read an article and then see a full gallery and video supporting it. Also, having 3D models of the MOCs in the mag is something I am considering. And the only way I could top the Omicron Weekend in the first issue is a 3D tour of it rendered digitally so you can fly though the entire layout, with commentary from you, Ryan Rubino, and Mike Rutherford! Nothing else would compare. Really.

KG: What is the future of fan conventions? Can the market be saturated and how close is it to that mark? What advice would you give someone who wanted to start their own?

JM: Fan conventions are in an interesting position. We are (and have been) at a crossroads for a couple of years concerning events — just what do we want to do as a community? Do we want to spread the hobby? Do we want to have fan-exclusive events? Or do we want to do something different? Those questions will determine the direction of fan events — the move toward public days was done to allow financing and also promote the hobby, which has gotten the LEGO Group’s attention.

My initial planning of BrickMagic was the expectation that there might be saturation in the area, since BrickFair is only one state away and a few months down the road. However, that proved not to be the case. Saturation is something to keep an eye out for, especially on the East Coast. Other areas, though, like the South and West Coast, are still pretty open areas. Bricks by the Bay proved California’s viability.

Advice for would-be organizers? Research. Use the local resources on hand to help out — local LEGO clubs, convention bureaus, etc. Don’t be afraid of looking for help outside the community, as much of BrickMagic’s financial success came from volunteers who were not AFOLs and were able to come up with different approaches to find sponsors. If anyone is interested in advice, drop me a line!

KG: You have your own magazine, you have your own convention…what’s next for the Space Paparazzi? Is there a holy grail in this LEGO hobby for the mighty Joe meno?

JM: My own magazine, my own convention — geez, I sound so greedy! A holy grail for me? I really haven’t a clue. I’ve been making this up as I go along!

5 Boilerplate questions

KG: If you had to pick only one of your models to go in the great FOL time-capsule, which would it be?

JM: WALL-E. That was the most challenging model I have made because I had to follow a design completely.

LEGO Wall-E by Joe Meno

KG: If you could design an official set, what would it be?

JM: Monorail Mark II. Nuff said.

KG: If time, money and proximity were not an issue, give me 2 builders besides me that you’d like to collaborate with on a project?

JM: Well, you. I have had the privilege of building with Mark Stafford, so one person is down. But in his place I would want to build with Cale Leiphart of PENNLUG — he’s the only person that could sway me to building train stuff (his steam trains are things of beauty) and after that…Masao Hidaka. He has a broad base of things I would love to look at and build.

KG: Name a famous person living or dead who would have made great LEGO nerd.

JM: Walt Disney. Think about it.

KG: And finally, good sir, who controls the action?

JM: You do, of course!!

+ I’d also like to note that another great interview with Joe was recently posted over at BricksABillion, so for further studies in Meno, head over there.

10 comments on “Joe Meno: The real difference between European and American builders – Boilerplate & Beyond Vol. 12 [Interview]

  1. SavaTheAggie

    I take exception to the idea that “The people who worry about transparency and where the money goes really haven’t got a stake in a given event.” This is the same as making the argument “If you don’t like the United States, move to another country.” As someone who has been very vocal on transparency in LEGO events in the past, I don’t think any LEGO event organizer should make a profit. That isn’t to say I think they should take a loss, either.

    I believe LEGO events should be cost neutral. The event organizers have my every blessing to have their gas costs reimbursed, their hotel costs covered, I’d even be willing to cede reimbursement of “lost wages” (though I believe any event organizer worth their salt should be able to easily work a balance between work and extracurricular activities – multitasking is a must for event organization).

    But I work very hard for the money I make, and the money I spend to attend events, and the money I spend to stay at an event. To attend Brickworld this year, the cheapest to attend and closest event to me, would have cost me over $700 after all is said and done, not including any purchases of discount LEGO. Maybe that’s a drop in the bucket for some, but for us that’s fourteen times the amount of money we have left over in our very meager budget each month. The last thing I want to see is for me (and everyone around me) to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars to attend an event only to have the event organizer to pocket the hard earned money of those around me. This is especially true of events that would then turn around and ask those who have paid to attend to turn around and volunteer their time away from events to help the event organizers.

    I also feel that if an event is designed to be for-profit, the idea that an event is designed to be fun and enjoyable can be quickly lost. For example, as Brickfest became much more a business rather than an event, I felt it suffered. I had much more enjoyable a time at Brickfest 2003 than 2005. That isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy myself, but it felt much more forced and focused on the “wow” factor rather than the community factor.

    And don’t bother flaming me for saying these things. I’ve met all of the event organizers of the events I’ve attended. They all seem to be good, hard working people. I’ve hosted Joe at my house, he’s a great guy and I have nothing negative to say about him. But I also imagine that the folks behind Brickfair have a good idea of what happens when an event turns into a business, and the fallout that can create.

  2. Brad

    @ SavatheAggie:

    Where do you get the $700 figure for Brickworld? According to its web page, registration is $50. That doesn’t seem too extreme to me. Unless there are some steep hidden fees to attending, I assume you are including the cost of travel and a place to stay. While that definitely adds to the burden that attendees have to shoulder, that’s not cash pocketed by event organizers.

    I suppose I just don’t see Joe’s response as being that unreasonable. Why can’t the organization turn a profit? Profit can be used to employ someone to run the event (who would presumably have more time than a volunteer), defray costs, create programs, etc.. If the event goes downhill, I don’t think that necessarily correlates to for-profit or not-for-profit status.

  3. worker201

    Tony, your argument seems to hinge on your distance from the event and your current financial situation. Is that really fair to the stakeholders and FOLs who live nearer the event? I think your argument would be much better spent if you were an organizer or participant in a local Texas event.

  4. dshaddix

    If there was no money to be made by doing it, there wouldn’t be any conventions. I don’t understand why people can’t make a buck off the brick, LEGO does! The convention centers do! …everyone else does. Shall we live in a world where the only place to buy brick is through LEGO?

    Oh, and great interview Keith!

  5. SavaTheAggie

    Let’s be honest. The majority – the vast majority – of any attendance of a LEGO convention is from out of town. Thus – travel, food, and lodging expenses must be included when discussing the cost of attending an event. Let’s take a cheap flight – $100 one way. Let’s take an average hotel room, divided by two (roommates) – $50 a night. Let’s take food, average of $5 a meal. And for the sake of easy math let’s go with a $50 registration. Over the course of a three day event the cost for the average attendee to the average fest would be $445.

    When Brickfest first started it had no public hours, it was a private event. But they lost money, the AFOL entrance fees were not enough, so they charged the public to come. Then Brickfest started making a profit. Did they charge less for AFOL tickets? No. Did they cut back public hours? No. All of a sudden the public hours were a permanent thing with no benefit to the average AFOL.

    Then there are the volunteers. I’ve been told at some shows theme coordinators get their registration fees reduced – this is good. But at Brickfest 2005 my wife was asked to volunteer help wrangle the public. Did she get compensation for her time and effort? No, but Brickfest still made a profit.

    Would the public come to a LEGO event if no AFOL showed up? No. So each AFOL, paying an average of $445 to attend an event is the draw for the public. Does a circus charge the performers to be there? No. Does an art gallery charge the artist to hang his painting?

    Why should an event organizer profit – at all – when the source of his income are from the performers paying to perform AND the public paying to be entertained? Sounds like a pretty good racket to me.

    “But but but the AFOLs pay more for the extra day, and the presentations, and the round table discussions!” The difference between full registration and public day registration is usually quite significant – usually a factor of 5 or more. Are the presentations and round table discussions put on by the event coordinator? No. By volunteers. Some fests compensate these volunteers, others do not. None certainly compensate them to make the argument of “AFOLs pay more to attend presentations” valid.

    @worker201 I AM an organizer and attendee of local Texas events. TexLUG is planning a fest of its own. Perhaps you should know your opponent before you decide to say something. Will I be taking any profit from it? No. Would I even accept compensation for travel? Probably not. Will I complain if my fellow TexLUGers decide to profit from it? Yes, and it may cause serious problems within TexLUG. But it’s something in which I believe strongly and I don’t sell out my convictions.

    In the end this is a hobby, and the different events are all about love of the brick. I dare anyone to remember back to their favorite memory from a LEGO convention they have attended. I guarantee that memory has nothing to do with a presentation, or a round table discussion. I would bet hard earned money that memory is about a bunch of AFOLs just sitting around goofing off, building, or sharing a meal. It’s about community, and event coordinators should be a part of it, not profiting from it.

  6. Felix

    Good ole Soap-Box-Tony. I’d take issue, too, if I thought these event coordinators were living high on the hog from the conventions. I was an event coordinator for House of Bricks and Brickfest and I’ll say with all certainty that no amount of money we may have brought in could possibly have compensated the man hours we were all putting in behind the scenes. (I was always in the red, for what its worth).

    You’re absolutely correct that my best memories of events have to do with the AFOLs– you included. I just don’t understand why you’re taking so much issue. I’ve felt the registration costs were very fair for all of the events I’ve hosted and attended. I’ve been on both sides as coordinator & attendee volunteer and have always felt that events were put on by people because they loved the community and the product. I have yet to meet the convention fat cats everyone so despises.

  7. Josh

    I don’t think Tony’s “soap box” is out of line. He also didn’t say that anyone was living high on the hog or was a fatcat. But I have to admit that I have many of the same issues that Tony does. Not all of the conventions are run for profit nor do they have to be. I don’t mind if someone is making a profit, but I’m not going to volunteer, donate, or sponsor the for-profit events when I attend them. I’ll bring some MOCs, but I figure if part of my money is going directly to pay someone then I don’t need to be working.

    I am involved in a small way with BrickCon. Namely I’m one of the theme coordinators. I wouldn’t be doing that if BrickCon was run for profit. I know that all the “profits” are being rolled back in to make the next year better. Therefore, I have no problem putting time and effort into it. I would not be happy volunteering if my time was making a monetary profit for someone else. I realize that not every feels this way, but I do.

    That said, I have no problem with people who make a profit off the community. Bricklink sellers, Ebay sellers, BrickArms, Brickforge are all examples of profit making ventures that I agree with. But Cons are built on the back of the MOCs that are brought. I feel the same way about blogs, like TBB. We merely highlight the work that other people do and it should be a labor of love. That is why the money that TBB generates, above operating costs and such, goes back to the community and doesn’t end up in the pockets of the editors or contributors.

  8. MikeRayhawk

    This whole argument seems very strange to me. I’d maybe feel strange about somebody demanding money to build a display or work a table for a couple of hours, but the further away you are from the floor of a convention in swing, the less you’re indulging a hobby and the more you’re doing long, grueling, unfun WORK. And as nice as it is when everyone enjoys the con you poured blood, sweat, and tears into, almost none of them are really ever going to recognize or appreciate the amount of work that you had to do behind the scenes to make it happen.

    Maybe it comes from being a freelancer for so long, but I definitely don’t mind paying somebody to put in thankless hours to produce an end product that I appreciate. And if they compared the “profit” afterwards to the number of hours they put in, and it turned out to be more than minimum wage, I wouldn’t be offended so much as amazed.

  9. xadrian

    I want to thank you guys for being so heated about this conversation. I have yet to go to a Lego con (I’m hoping the TexLUG guys get one going soon) so I can’t speak to this issue.

    Having attended both San Diego Comic Con and the Chicago Wizard World I know that a lot can get lost in between the desire to be community oriented and the desire to pull down a profit. Let’s be clear, even a profit on the event to roll into next year’s event is still a profit. If it was for the love of the art or brick or leather or jewelry or guns it would be done selflessly, with possibly charitable donations and sponsorship. I understand the model, but profit is profit. I don’t think organizers of brick cons are, if in it for profit, in it for profit to extend an alternate brand of something not related to Lego.

    Going to the comic cons, I became increasingly aware that as an artist, I was not important to Wizard. They had the artist alley but the artists there were not the draw. The only people that visited those artists were other artists. I get the feeling that’s different at Lego cons where the big draws ARE the artists. Am I wrong on that? At a comic convention there are tons of booths with different art studios, but there are also book vendors, video game companies, celebrity panels and signings, etc. There are more than just comics.

    If I were of the same mindset going into a Lego con as I was going to a comic con, if I were the sole reason the public was coming to this convention, I think I’d be upset as well if I knew the money I paid to be the main attraction was doing anything but funding next year’s convention.

    Unless I misread all of this.

  10. MikeRayhawk

    Well I think I’m looking at it a different way than everyone else here. If con organizers hired administrative assistants to handle all the phone calls, emails, promotions, scheduling, bookings, insurance, ticket sales, and so on and so forth – well, that would cost an amount of money. If you were so inclined, you could calculate the minimum dollar value of the amount of work con organizers have to put in to make a con happen.

    If the “profit” is less than that amount, then it’s not a profit at all. The con organizers have donated time and work beyond any form of compensation (usually far beyond), and they don’t get anywhere near enough appreciation for it. In fact, as can be seen in this thread, they end up reviled for not being selfless *enough*. Without any hyperbole, I’m literally baffled by some of the sentiments that have been expressed here.

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