Sunday, August 6, 2023

Fears For Tiers At Redbubble

 “We stand for artists, we honour them, their work, and their passions”.

Redbubble co-founder Martin Hosking, 2020.

In April of this year, popular print-on-demand site Redbubble announced that it was about to make "a big change" to its offer for artists. After a more-than-usually difficult couple of years for the creative community, was there the possibility of a better deal ahead for the people whose work the business was built on? Perhaps an improvement in searchability & promotion, or an increase to our 20% profit default? Well, no. With less than two week's notice and no consultation, a tier system of artist-classification was being introduced, and helping struggling artists was absolutely not one of its goals.

The tiers consist of "Standard, Premium, and Pro", and have been assigned by Redbubble in an opaque process that sees those unfortunate enough to land in the Standard category obliged to give up a large extra cut of what's meant to be the artist's profit-portion. Adding insult to injury, the classifications punish lower sales - the smallest makers are specifically targeted. High-selling Premium and Pro accounts are not subject to any extra charge. In fact, the tier system actually offers extra perks to those already-profitable users - a dedicated account manager, increased support for IP issues and marketing, direct offers to create licensed fan-art, advance notice to prep for sales, and a mail-out of tips & insights. The fee-slugged "Standards" are excluded from these services. For the lowest-earning Redbubble artists, there really is no upside.

The site's notification of the change did say that a review of the classification could be requested, but its reference to the process being “data-driven” (and listing of potential resultant outcomes as “change, remain, or in rare cases, suspension due to breach of community or content guidelines”) didn't sound like they'd be doing a lot of favours. Assurances of transparency, and declarations of keen interest in user opinion were more than a little undermined both by the arrival of tiers out the blue, and by the official announcement having been posted with a preemptively-closed comments section. The company's “Artist Success Team” flatly refused an email request for a breakdown of the number of artists placed in each category, stating that “this information is not public, and we cannot provide it”.

Compounding that, the language of Redbubble's notification was thick with doublespeak - the tiers would, they said, "encourage positive engagement with the marketplace" and "provide...platform improvements to better serve the artist community". Their specific example for the Standards, however, was contradictory. To paraphrase: “If you previously made $75 off $300 in sales, our new fee will leave you with $47”.

For maximum complexity, the scheme is also not a single, set-percentage take. A chart lays out a bizarre 39-part bracketing of fee-on-earning calculations. ($1 increments up to $20, then $5 increments up to $50, $10 increments to $100, and $50 increments to $500.) Unlike the standard progressive bracket-structure for income tax, RB's method takes a fee based on the full amount earned in each bracket - not just the portion OVER that bracket. For example if you clear $50 - $59.99 in profit, the site will take 22 of the dollars that previously would have been yours, but if you tip once single cent over to $60, it takes away $25. That's a 4.3% fee jump due to 1c extra in sales. The percentages for each bracket slowly reduce as sales go up - so a $2 profit will be eaten by 50%, but a $200 profit will only lose 26%. And remember - if the site has decided you qualify as Pro, none of these fees will apply. None. Carry on as previous. For a small user making a handful of sales and sitting on the site's default 20% cut, some of these examples whittle that margin down to 10%.

There's been talk online of this exploitative turn being thanks to unrealistic investor expectations that the Covid lockdown-era online-shopping boom would be everlasting. Profits reportedly doubled in the pandemic's first year, and shares jumped 10% - it was obviously a bubble for the 'Bubble, but tell that to the marketeers. Inevitably, in the first half of the 2023 financial year Redbubble turned back down again, reporting an $18 million operating loss, with shares hitting a 2-year low. T-shirts were still popular, but sales of homewares, artwork, and masks had fallen. Beyond the lockdown-factor, the company's costs had risen, supply-chains had been interrupted, and inflation had reduced the public's discretionary spending. Behind the cheery facade, there's been a staff cut of 14% this year, and a change of boss.

It's worth mentioning that Redbubble's executive are decidedly not drawn from the arts sector. Departing CEO Michael Ilczynski has a history with Seek, Tabcorp, McKinsey, and the Collingwood Football Club. The rest of the board is similarly big-corporate, with several others from Seek, as well as alumni from Amazon, ANZ, KPMG, UBS, Crown, and Afterpay. The multinational of 2023 is a long way from the plucky Melbourne startup of 2006. Even the return of founder Martin Hosking as CEO hasn't changed that - the announcement of staff cuts and the raid on lower-earning artist's profits came soon after his resumption of the role in March.

At last count, the number of artists on the platform had reached over 700,000. It's difficult to get figures on how many of those artists make an amount of money that will buy more than the occasional coffee. If online user-feedback is anything to go by, the majority have been qualified Standard - even accounts that make hundreds of dollars each month have been reportedly placed in that tier. Meanwhile, the company publicity asserts that independent "passionate creatives" will find the platform "a simple but meaningful way to show the world who they are and what they care about". Two years ago, CEO Illczynski said RB's ambition was to attract even more artists, while retaining its current base.

This new gouge makes their quest for fresh young players look pretty cynical - it's clear what the non-creatives in the company really care about.

So, will the current base stay, in these reduced circumstances? Some have said they'll keep their shops open in a sort of protest-mode - cranking prices to maximum and adapting their banners to let buyers know what's happening. And other options are out there - some artists recommend setting up on Etsy, linked to print-on-demands like Shopify for product-fulfilment. (An imperfect solution – Etsy has fees per-listing & transaction, while Shopify has a monthly fee.) Society 6, Zazzle, Cafe Press, Spring (aka TeeSpring), and Printful have been good for others. On the cautionary side, Threadless has let its quality go over the last decade, and Teepublic is owned by Redbubble. It's tempting to simply focus on placing goods in local retail outlets or work the various makers-markets, but the potential audience of the online world and promise of passive income remains undeniably tantalising.

I personally don't relish starting over elsewhere, and it's a shame to be contemplating it – RB's history as the local-kid-made-good, plus its large audience, wide range of products, and generally decent print-quality make it a wrench to leave. For many of us, RB was our first online shop - but nostalgia has its limits. Redbubble's statement of ethics talks about “core values of creativity and compassion... building trust through good intent”. That rhetoric now strains credulity. This new “offer” feels a lot like being robbed by someone pretending to be a friend.

(For Redbubble users wishing to let the company know their feelings on the tier-fee scheme, here's a survey/feedback link:, or if that dead-ends to a privacy warning, Qualtrics Survey | Qualtrics Experience Management)

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Scotty From Muppeting

 In 2018, Scott Morrison described his squabbling band of tired, gaffe-prone grifters as a "Muppet Show". On taking the Prime Ministership, he assured breakfast television that "the curtain's come down on that Muppet Show - and an absolute new curtain has lifted up!"

The unintentional implication that the nation was about to witness the launch of Scotty's All-New Muppet Show was reinforced by his next miscalculated response:

Presenter: "How do you unite a bunch of Muppets?"

Morrison: "Well, I'm doing exactly that in terms of my colleagues."

In the two and a half years since, the volume of corruption and ineptitude has become so great as to make the compilation of a complete list near impossible.

But just to refresh, here's some of the show's notable lowlights:

Robodebt theft, deaths & $1.2 billion settlement, $100 million Sports Rorts plus Gaetjen's whitewash, slashing funding to the scandal-exposing National Audit Office, Angus Taylor's document forgery, the IR Omnibus Bill setting up Worse Off Overall workplace deals, Murray-Darling maladministration, water theft & mass fish-kills, Barnaby Joyce's Drought Envoy text-message “report”, Christian Porter's proposed corruption-concealing “anti-corruption” body, $220 million Regional Job Investment rorts, “There Was No Slavery In Australia”, $150 million Female Facilities & Water Safety Stream pork-barrelling, Mathias Cormann's $4300 per-hour jet-propelled OECD sabotage, $500 million War Memorial expansion including all-new weapons-company promotions, the CovidSafe App fail, “The Best Protection Against The Virus Is To Live With The Virus And Open Up Your Economy”, dumping COAG so the new National Cabinet can operate under Fed Cab secrecy rules, excluding universities from Covid assistance & maliciously hiking arts degree fees, the fossil-stacked Covid Commission's climate-trashing gaslit recovery, Morrison's protocol-breaching appearance as a speaker at a Trump rally, the Trump-pleasing China trade-war losing barley, beef, cotton, & wine exports, NBN fibre backflip, the Indue “cashless welfare” card's padded-private-profit shonkery & social toll, $783 million of Cuts-Ain't-Cuts at the ABC, Joyce & Taylor's $80 million water buyback racket, Taylor's Caymen company, Taylor's “Grassgate” illegal land-clearing & attack on the EPBC, fake AEC-style election signage, the $30 million “bargain” for airport land worth $3 million, Peter Dutton's visas for mate's au pairs, the $432 million no-tender Manus contract for the Paladin beach-shack company, George “Member For Manila” Christensen, Matt "Black Coal Matters" Canavan, the party-connected Helloworld company donations & gifts for gov contracts, Gladys Liu's dodgy fundraising, Dutton's African gang fantasy, Craig Kelly's conspiracy-fest & climate denial, loosened political-donation rules, tax-cuts directing 58% of benefit to the rich & totalling $189 billion by 2031, ongoing asylum-seeker abuse breaching international law, Morrison's declared intent to ignore “stupid” legislation ensuring medical care for detainees, refusal of a Senate order to release detention camp costings, raids on journalists plus secret trials of whistle-blowers, JobActive network fraud, Morrison's attempt to have his mentor Hillsong-founder Brian Houston invited to the White House despite a Royal Commission having found Houston covered-up his father's child sex-abuse, Morrison's QAnon friend Tim Stewart's wife scoring an $85 000 job as companion to Jenny Morrison, the Media Bargaining Code designed to funnel max dollars to Murdoch & the Costello Nine company, Minister Fletcher's $10 million no-strings gift to Foxtel, prohibition of public servants liking social-media posts that disagree with gov policy, refusal to allow any environment reporters into the budget lock-up, 233 parliamentary divisions to gag speakers since July 2019, attempting privatisation of the ASIC database to make corporate structures & corruption harder to trace, Liberal Party Mormon & Catholic right-faction branch-stacking, paying TV handyman Scott Cam $347 000 to be “Trades Ambassador” delivering just 4 social-media posts & 3 videos, the bushfire fail including Hawaiian holiday, forced handshakes & “I Don't Hold A Hose” policy response, $190 000 “empathy consultant”, the aged care privatisation oversight disaster leading to neglect, abuse and Covid deaths, ongoing anti-union attacks on superannuation, independent bodies stacked with party mates leaving the AAT missing 92% of FOI deadlines, billions blown on dubious military contracts for submarines and aircraft, dumping the disliked findings of the Banking Royal Commission & pushing for unsafe lending, demonization of the unemployed paired with endorsement of JobKeeper rorts by big business, abolition of the family court... and parliamentary rape cover-up.

So it came to pass, as promised, that unity of purpose - among truly dedicated dirtbags - provided parliamentary muppeting on a scale previously undreamt of.

Scotty From Muppeting, take a long, low bow.

(Artwork available on mugs, magnets, stickers and tees, at Redbubble:

Wednesday, November 4, 2020

UNAUGURATION DAY: The Vengeance of Honest Abe

 Good luck, America. May the exhausting years of sludge be ended, and your electoral aim be true.

(Artwork available at Redbubble, on stickers, tees, mugs and magnets: 

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Plastic Ocean

Time for another quick dip into the archives. An old piece came to mind this week when the Australian supermarket chain Coles found itself stumbling over the most straightforward of anti-pollution measures. After plenty of advance warning - and revising the commencement date a couple of times - Coles introduced a long-overdue ban on the free plastic-bagging of groceries at its checkouts. Then they were spooked by a blast of off-the-scale-bonkers Murdoch-press opposition and ensuing infantile social media feedback of the "Bringing My Own Bag Is Too Complicated My Head Hurts Don't You Tell Me What To Do You're Not My Mum Bloody Greenies It's My RIGHT To Choke Turtles" variety. (The whipped-up anger was bizarre - people shouted on the radio, staff were abused in stores, journalists received death threats.) In a panic, Coles reversed the ban. They then endured 24 hours of much more widespread public criticism for caving, and after concentrating a little bit harder, drew the conclusion that while this (actually very simple) act was "a big and difficult" change, by golly, this was a mountain they could still climb! So the Bag Ban was back. Next Big And Difficult issue will be convincing the two supermarket majors plus Aldi to dump the even-thicker plastic bags that can be purchased at checkouts as a substitute for the freebies. Is it really so hard to get with the cloth and paper?
When I lived in Townsville, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority got me to do a set of pictures for a children's educational display about pollution and ocean health. It outlined the consequences of mass-produced convenience and single-use plastics, gave stats on animal injury and death, looked at plastic's entry into the food chain, and urged a more thoughtful approach to consumption - basic Reduce, Reuse, Recycle stuff. At the time it really did seem like we were going to turn a corner - the problem was well known, and there was much talk of making amends. I remember being quite hopeful that the industrial-scale geyser of "disposable" plastic garbage was about to begin scaling down. The concepts were clear - the kids at GBRMPA's Reef Wonderland grasped them easily.
It's been 25 years since I did the reef picture job. On land, in the air, in rivers, and at sea, plastic pollution is now a gigantic, poisonous disaster. Massive action needs to be taken to tackle it, both here and internationally... yet here we are, still pretending that a small, easy step - BYO Bag - is "big and difficult". "Quite hopeful" is no longer how I would describe myself.
Here's one of the pictures from the kid's display all those years ago - a reminder of how little distance we've come.

Plastic ocean - airbrush and paintbrush, acrylic on foamcore.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Sketch Of The Day: The Unlucky Egyptologist

Just a quickie sketch to keep me from getting too rusty. And yes, that would be prolific English actor Bernard Archard. He was a staple of UK film and TV over five decades, appearing in a huge variety of fare, including Danger Man, The Avengers, Z Cars, Horror of Frankenstein, Paul Temple, Sky, Dad's Army, Upstairs Downstairs, Day of the Jackal, Rumpole, The Professionals, Krull, Bergerac, and memorably, 1975's classic Doctor Who serial, The Pyramids of Mars. This is Archard in character as Marcus Scarman - making a very unfortunate discovery in an ancient Egyptian tomb...

Marcus Scarman, having a really bad day at work.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Beer Is The Path To The Dark Side.

Is it really 5 years since I last blogged? Time certainly gets away. Last week makes 41 years since the first Star Wars film was released, and it definitely doesn't seem that long to me. When it was new I think we saw it at the cinema 9 times. In those days cinemas would buy a print of their biggest earners and run them for literally years on end. Crocodile Dundee screened for so long at our local independent, they had a gigantic painting of Hogan and Kozlowski applied to the side of their building. Rings a bell its season ran for 3 years. When Star Wars came out I was only 3 years old, so seeing it regularly with my sisters possibly counted as big-screen child-minding as much as it attested fandom. Now, of course, Star Wars is a Disney juggernaut, pumping out new films just about every year for better or worse. (For mine, most assuredly worse in the case of a fully CG, horrifyingly Uncanny Valley Peter Cushing - and I'd hoped Blood Beast Terror would be the greatest indignity to befall him.) But the nostalgia lives on - and I still have considerable affection for those first couple of films. (It started to fade a little when the Ewoks showed up.) For the last few years I've been making beer labels for an old friend who runs a bar called The Catfish, in Fitzroy. Special short-runs of beer have been produced to mark each of the fine establishment's birthdays, with illustrations for every brew helping to mark the occasion. The bewhiskered fish itself always makes an appearance in the artworks, thrown into whichever situation the particular style of beer demands. For the most recent anniversary, The Catfish worked with Cavalier Brewing to produce an Imperial Pilsner. And what self-respecting publican Star Wars fan could resist having a beer with a name like that do anything but go to The Dark Side? So it came to pass that a Catfish Emperor ruled over an effervescent amber galaxy - not so long ago, in a bar not far away.
Give in. Let it flow through you. USE THE SAUCE, LUKE!
This was a really fun picture to make.

The Cavalier Catfish Imperial Pilsner strikes back.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Findings Of The Arsegravy Historical Society.

A couple of months ago I was in my hometown, two thousand or so miles north in Queensland. The humidity up there is the kiss of death on anything made of paper, leaching out all the acids & setting in with rot faster than a Poppy Z Brite story. There's also a legion of tropical creepy crawlies sprung straight out of Temple of Doom who are always hungry for a tasty fix of illustration board or acrylic paint. With that in mind I figured it was time to do some preservation work. So I cleared away the cobwebs, vacuumed up the inches of daddy long legs shit and had a rummage through my old art cupboard. After a while spent dusting and washing away the fungus, it was nice to see a few salvageable bits & pieces floating to the top. Some of them went right back to high school, in the late 80's - surprising given that voracious climate. Here's a bunch I thought were just about worth sharing.

This would've been Year 9 or 10 of high school. I remember regularly trying to shoehorn art into subjects that had no real requirement for it - in English it'd be making a book cover to go with a review, in history spending far too much time on a political cartoon, or in a variety of other classes designing the "title page" (marking the beginning of a new unit of study) would maybe get a little more of my concentration than it should've. I actually did enjoy Biology.. but perhaps not quite as much as drawing a guy with a cross sectioned head.

Growing up I was obsessed with the long-running English TV show "Doctor Who". I'm not sure why I fastened onto it so firmly.. although the combination of its instant-satisfaction gothic pulpiness and the ABC's decade-long policy of hypnotic non-stop reruns probably contributed. I suppose most people have obsessive interests of one kind or another - football, music, cars, shoes, Star Wars.. whatever. This was mine. And it provided an endless supply of exactly what I was always after - subjects to draw.

These little pictures were cassette tape covers, about 10 by 6 centimetres in size. Now I look at them and envy the undiminished eyesight that allowed such tiny work unassisted! This was unintentional good training for an illustrator - making them taught me about concentrating on portions & shapes rather than the image as a whole, as well as layout, colour blending and how interesting it can be to draw with the reference upside down for greater objectivity.. Oh, and the cassette format came as a result of two things - our family's lack of a VCR in the early 80's, and the ABC's simulcasting of television audio on the FM band in regional Queensland. I often tape-recorded TV shows and listened back to them like audiobooks. Friends did this too. As an odd dividend I can occasionally remember large chunks of old-TV dialogue! Certainly feels a long way from the everything-on-demand digital world we're all in now..

There was also a bit of figure sculpting that came as a result of the enthusiasm for Dr Who. I would've been 16 when making this Patrick Troughton.. He'd be about 10 or 12 cm tall. I remember slaving to keep detail while the Modeline synthetic baking clay kept either squashing or crumbling. He's a little chunky, but I think he holds up OK. And photographing him up close really made me want to get back to doing some sculpting..

Now here's a few from Uni days. I did a Bachelor of Visual Arts at James Cook University, with an Illustration major. Recently I learned that Visual Arts studies at JCU, while operating out of a lovely new building, no longer include painting or sculpture. Another victim of "rationalisation" and the market-driven reforms at Australian universities in the last 20 years. I'm doubtful that broad, high-quality education is the winner.

This Gregory Peck was one of a few first-year projects designed to test our ability to reproduce faithfully from a photographic source. This one was a bit too hurried, and I ran out of time to finesse the little details.. A good lesson.

My acrylic and coloured pencil stab at Flagg's stony-faced Uncle Sam. Part of a series of six, metamorphosing from the statue of liberty. Not the greatest, but it was a good chance to - tentatively - test out mixing pencils and airbrush, for the background.

It was 1991, I was 18, and Terminator 2 was everywhere. To the present day me, T2 looks like a loud marketing exercise with fun special effects and some remarkably poor dialogue. To the 1991 me, it was irresistible. This picture was still a lesson - not so much in the fun to be had making an image out of dotting with a Rotring pen (arrg!) - but in not improvising details on the fly. The original photo had been taken from a paused video on our convex-screened cathode tube, and the mechanical details were hazy. I didn't work out an approach to dealing with this in advance, and by improvising as I went, those areas just ended up looking fake. Planning helps.

In 2006 McDonalds were still clearing rainforest in the Amazon to plant soya. I have no idea if they're still up to it, but I don't imagine I'm going to warm to them anytime soon regardless. This was still 1991, and the brief was to make a poster addressing environmental concerns using no more than 3 words to convey it's message. It's a mixed media combo of coloured pencil, airbrushed acrylic and crayons. The Crayolas were used for the soil and plants. It seemed like a good idea at the time. Despite that choice, and some figure-ratio & layout problems (he's on a hill OK?), I'm fond of this one.. Maybe it's the killer clown angle. Or maybe it's just fun to throw poo at a really rubbish company.

On this one the brief was a dummy magazine cover. Silence of the Lambs was a big, disturbing hit at the time, and I jumped at the chance to paint Hopkins wonderfully rumpled face. For the retro-airbrushing fans out there I was using a Paasche VL. Still occasionally use it to this day - really versatile piece of kit, (double action, suction-feed for faster colour switching & capable of very fine lines) and a much simpler, easier to use design than the Badger I recently tried. This was my first attempt at using a lot of hand-held masking to make an airbrushed image, and it probably suffers a bit on close inspection. But I'm still happy with the overall effect - and if the writing looks ever-so-slightly wonky, it's because it was all hand-cut masking, just a scalpel and frisket film. Must've taken ages. I think I've blocked out the trauma.

The madwoman was a last-minute (overnight!) job for our graduation exhibition guide in 93. Solidly into the airbrush years by now, I was experimenting with a spatter-effect, achieved by scratching the inside of an old Paasche tip with a compass to make it spit paint instead of atomise. This did make it prone to accumulating large drops of paint every so often, but regular daps with a cloth meant illustration disaster could be avoided. Just like Trust Your Doctor, she's a combination of loose masking cut from acetate & placed on the surface, and hand-held masks, kept away from the surface to soften the lines. It's a very simple piece, but I still think it was reasonably effective.

Yep, it was the 90's. Clapton was enjoying his resurgent fame as a result of the Unplugged album. I did like it, and yes, I do apologise. In my defence, I could at least tell - even then - that Tears In Heaven was a truly horrible song. Let's pretend I did it as a dedication to his work with the Yardbirds, Bluesbreakers or Cream and move on.. This was a third year exercise - another test of observation & use of materials - requiring an illustration as similar as possible to it's photographic source. The original photo is by Albert Watson, and I loved it's dramatic light. The surface is a nice smooth Illustration Board and it was painted with a triple 0 brush using Winsor & Newton gouache. I wasn't a huge fan of gouache, but those were the rules for this project - and I wanted to skip the airbrush on this one, just to make sure I could still blend paint by hand! It probably took about 6 weeks on & off - looking at something that closely needed decent breaks for other work. A strange piece this one - I'm very pleased with it's technical side, but I've never felt the urge to hang it. The curse of this exercise is, if successful, you end with an exact copy of someone else's work.

To finish, one last bit of pop-pulp. I was really enjoying Anthony Hopkins face at this time. By 93 he'd been in Coppola's messy, operatic Dracula, doing his entertainingly hammy Van Helsing. He was almost enough to make you forget the travesty of Keanu & Winona. Almost. The frame was salvaged from a building site by my Dad - once the bottom right corner was restored with a bit of the same synthetic baking clay Patrick Troughton was made of, it was good to go. He was painted almost continuously over two and a half days, oil on canvas. I hadn't blended with oils before & couldn't get the effect I wanted quickly enough - the brushes were ditched and out of desperation I dipped cotton balls in the paint to get it the way I'd pictured. Used with the same kind of hand-held acetate masking I'd tried on the madwoman, it came up fine. Doesn't bear intense scrutiny - the stubble's a bit dodgy, as is the cravat/scarf thing - but for a two day quicky, I think he's fun.

That's all for the Arsegravy Ancient History Show N Tell. I do hope you've enjoyed checking out what was under the cobwebs and spider scat. I guess I should also do an update for the Wildlife Art years that came after today's selection - but that's a horror for another day.