The Hobby Industrial Complex Is What All This Talk About Aftermarket Products is Really About

Two of my regular online modeling stops, Plastic Model Mojo and Model Airplane Maker, recently got me thinking about the Hobby Industrial Complex and how we modelers are guided and influenced by it.

Plastic Model Mojo Episode #46, Aftermarket: It’s Not All an Upgrade’s special segment was followed up by a ModelAirplaneMaker blog post, Aftermarket is not always Au Gratin Potato Chips, which piled on to the question of whether aftermarket model products are worth the grief.

I’ll take that salty snack foods metaphor and run with it: my own thinking about the modeling worth of aftermarket products takes inspiration from the fancy, premium snack food brand called “Food Should Taste Good” (not promoting or financially interested in FSTG, just citing it here because it fits).

Thinking of salty snack metaphors and aftermarket…

Food Should indeed Taste Good, and similarly, aftermarket should fit good, look good, and/or build good. The rest is expensive trash, if it’s not doing good for a model.

What’s in the kit boxes of the past few years has noticeably blunted the mania for aftermarket products that seems to share the stage with other markers of serious modeling (more on that coming up). Kit acccuracy overall has improved and thus the need to ‘correct’ with aftermarket has correspondingly decreased. Also, many kits now include photoetch frets, and increasingly, select resin parts, and other aids like painting masks or stencils—further preempting demand for aftermarket products.

Mike and Dave at Mojo focused on the sometimes dubious value of aftermarket products. However, Chris at ModelAirplaneMaker reflected on his own journey wrestling with how modeling fashion, vogue, and/or trends guided his early use of aftermarket products in his builds. In particular, Chris describes how he formerly used aftermarket products because they were considered the marks of a serious build.

It doesn’t take Chris long (first paragraph, actually) to raise the specter of an “Aftermarket – Model Media Complex”, possibly creating questionable buzz to promote use of aftermarket products.

Chris is certainly on to something: there is indeed a more encompassing ‘Hobby Industrial Complex’ and there is an overlapping ‘Model Railroad Industrial Complex’. The Hobby Industrial complex starts with the kits and aftermarket that are tooled and offered, along with finishing supplies and tools, and is supported and guided by thought leaders, gatekeepers, and influencers—the tastemaking elite—in traditional hobby print media, online and social media venues, and model clubs and shows.

Those tastemaking elites—editors, elite modelers, etc.—contributed to Chris’ impression or belief that aftermarket is what makes a modeler serious—or, fashionable, voguish, and trendy, if you will. This tastemaking elite certainly exerts its influence in the scale modeling scene, as certainly as analagous elites do for needle crafts, meat smoking, real estate flipping, cosmetic surgery, astrophysics (go read Avi Loeb’s book Extraterrestrial to see how that is working out) and all of the rest of human activity.

It’s obvious—and undeniable—that the relationship we modelers have with our hobby is shaped by commercial forces and supporting media players, AKA the Hobby Industrial Complex:

  • We build kits primarily made and sold to us by a small, select group of mainstream manufacturers comprising the vast majority of our hobby’s global sales volume
  • A few of us (likely a very few of us) supplement our mainstream-manufactured kits with an occasional aftermarket product, typically made and sold to us by a small-volume, cottage industry that comprises a very small fraction of our hobby’s global sales volume
  • We slather them in chemical products made and sold to us by a hobby supply industry that is largely an adjunct to the paint and fine arts supply industries
  • And then we read about them and show them to each other via print and online venues that are produced by a tastemaking elite of editors, moderators, and content creators

Like it or not, our hobby is about drinking what the man is selling.

None of us can claim to be free from the Hobby Industrial Complex—maybe the very few modelers who scratchbuild their models, and the fewer still who do so from materials like soap or matchsticks not expressly manufactured and/or marketed as modeling supplies.

But the rest of us, who learn about our kits at the very least from box art and almost certainly other advertising and media coverage, are under the sway of a tastemaking elite and the Hobby Industrial Complex.

That doesn’t mean we’re all mindless sheep or gullible or our modeling fates are all predestined. We still have nearly infinite choices for what we do with our models and how we choose to develop and apply skills and techniques.

It’s what we do with what is offered to us: that’s the fun, the joy of scale modeling.

And while we’re all inescapably connected to the Hobby Industrial Complex that sells us kits, paint, glue, and tools, we can—and should—be aware of and acknowledge our relationships with the taste making elite. Doing so can improve our modeling experiences.

For example. the modelers who participated in the Plastic Posse Podcast’s Rye Fields Models T-34 group build appeared to have gotten a lot out of the experience—not just new or refined skills, but also new friendships and social experiences. What an excellent example of leadership and inspiration by — wait for it — taste-making elites adding value to increase plastic model making joy.

But the tastemaking elite can also lead modelers down less rewarding, or even tortuous paths. Like it did for Chris, but then he figured out that aftermarket is not the be-all and end-all of serious model making. He questioned the taste making elite, and the Hobby Industrial Complex, and as a result he discarded some joy-killing excess from his model building experience.

Meanwhile, use of aftermarket is but one way the taste making elite might make modelers feel like they are not measuring up as serious. Another, perhaps more visible and impactful, yardstick of modeling seriousness is paint and increasingly complicated, time-consuming ways of putting it on models.

The rising social media-based taste making elite—think of YouTube channels and Facebook groups and Patreons—have helped to shift and change the fashion and vogue of plastic modeling away from promoting kits and aftermarket—how Chris once gauged his ‘serious modeling’—to sophisticated finishing.

Social media platforms themselves are partly a cause of this trend. Video and photographs—what social media excels at—are a natural platform for demonstrating finishing techniques. Seeing and even hearing airbrush technique in video is a revelation in comparison to reading about it or viewing how-to photos in print. Creating such finishing video content is not only insightful but also relatively easy, explaining why there is such buzz around online posts and videos about:

  • Fancy airbrushes and related accoutrements
  • Exotic and proliferating paint brands and paint advice
  • Un-ironic 78-step finishing and weathering techniques
  • Zealous advocacy of supposed verisimilitude as an absolute value in plastic modeling

Still, magical thinking persists—particularly in some well-trafficked social media venues—that the plastic modeling hobby is somehow free of commercial influence and a taste making elite. It’s as if people who know better think that model kits—luckily, the ones we want to build!—just spring up in our lawns like mushrooms, no purchase or manufacture involved, and good ideas about how to build and finish them magically incept in the minds of modelers with no authors, content creators, editors, or moderators involved.

In a recent hot-takey thread on social media, one self-described hobby industry insider claiming authoritative knowledge of the inner workings of the plastic model business sneeringly strawmanned the Hobby Industrial Complex idea as a ‘conspiracy theory’ that naively supposed a ‘cabal’ was secretly running the hobby industry. Not a conspiracy or a cabal, but like those millions of peaches in the Presidents of the United States song, put there in a can, by a man, in a factory downtown.

Other eminences in the scale modeling social media scene similarly scoff that elitism, tastemaking, and gatekeeping could even happen in the scale modeling hobby, as if model kit and supply manufacturers and their customers have magically overcome the realities of media consumption, market behavior, and nay, even human nature.

By this logic, unknown supernatural forces have caused Ian from the On The Bench podcast to go on a tear of building WW1 armored car kits after decades of modeling Mad Max cars and StuGs and Canberras.

However, there’s a fact-based, real-world explanation for Ian’s new modeling mini-obsession: Copper State (an element of the Hobby Industrial Complex) manufactured and marketed a series of well-engineered WW1 armored car kits, effectively creating demand for a previously nonexistent category of kits. Ian learned about Copper State’s kits directly or indirectly via information ultimately traceable to online or print modeling media (run by tastemaking elites), and then exchanged money (with elements of the Hobby Industrial Complex) to get Copper State’s WW1 armored car kits so he could build them.

In any event, Ian’s enthusiasm and modeling joy is not diminished or less legitimate because of the Hobby Industrial Complex, or because tastemaking elites played some role in bringing him his surprising and delightful Great War armored cars.

The lesson here is simple: we get the fundamental stuff of our model making from the Hobby Industrial Complex. And a taste-making elite gives us insights that can increase our model making joy and gratification.

Or not.

Modelers ought to figure out on their own what works for them and their individual hobby joy. The taste-making elite and the Hobby Industrial Complex don’t get the final say, unless we modelers let them have the final say.

5 comments

  1. It’s easy to get sucked in isn’t it.

    I’ve just started on a T-55 group build and I was keen to do something quite specific (Northern Alliance 2001) so I thought I’d go for a Mini Art kit as it would have all the details in the box. In the end, I was convinced that the Tamiya kit was far simpler and thus maybe more suitable for a speedier build (especially having just completed an epic AFV club kit that could have, and nearly did drive me to distraction!).

    What I then did was get the Tamiya kit and start to work out how to “improve” it and I ended up spending far more on resin, PE (only a small amount), a metal barrel and pre-assembled metal tracks from S35. I really do think that my nerdy enthusiasm got the better of me and I actually think I would have been better to buy the Mini Art kit in the first place and avoid all the nonsense but my route initially seemed less hassle. Groan!

    I will certainly try harder in future to avoid all the nonsense (mostly) and simply buy the most appropriate kit that builds the thing that I want. I really do feel like it taught me something and that’s what I aim for in every build, I just didn’t think that would be the lesson! And then you publish this so I’m completely convinced of it now!

    Onwards!

    Liked by 3 people

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