ArtworkTee issues and the heart of the furry economy

by Patch O'Furr

There was a lot of recent drama about Artworktee, an indie operation catering to furries. This video covers how it started, but there’s a lot more to say.

I had mixed feelings on watching it unfold on social media. “But Patch, isn’t reporting not supposed to have feelings?” I’m a fan like any other, and “objective fan” is an oxymoron.  I couldn’t pretend not to be one, or miss the point of having an independent subculture by fans, for fans that’s best written about from inside. For this story, I dug deeper into some of the issues involved:

  • Complaints about underpaid artists.
  • Questionable practices for the business of art.
  • The mission and allegiance involved in profiting from fandom.
  • The stakes of overlooking problems and calling it “just business”, vs. how formal business can solve problems too.

Let me try to bring understanding from several perspectives, including the travails of small-business, and the devotion of grassroots fans. This is a great case for that stuff, because it’s not every day that a business comes from this niche fandom that kind of resembles mainstream startup companies. Until now, the most successful commercial enterprise like that is probably Bad Dragon.

Pro-fans and profiteering

Say you’re a devoted furry, maybe even the kind with art prints on your wall, decals on your car and a paw print tattoo. You want to commission quality providers who make you feel good about your hobby and won’t underperform. You can pick one who does a 9-5 job, comes home tired and can’t put their entire soul into what they do.  Or maybe there’s a full-time “pro fan”… one of a special class that has risen up to making a living with direct support from individuals, who can buckle down and deliver without distraction.

There aren’t a lot of people like that, and few of them make big money (most deserve more.) Furry is full of young people, but it’s been going since the 1980’s and there are older ones with kids here. Keeping people at least comfortable matters. Making a living with decent pay isn’t a bad thing.

“The furry economy” is a place where consciously or not, there’s a lot of subsidizing.  Look at how artists work in the zone between hobbyist and freelancer, and fans come to expect low fandom pricing. Cons are run by volunteers and donors, and it’s generally a DIY effort by everyone with little if any outside corporate investment. They largely control the Means of Production. It’s more than business – it’s for love as much as money.

That’s why saying “sellout,” “hack”, “huckster” or “scammer” can strike a nerve, and motive deserves scrutiny. There’s a lot of trust in the love of it, but we all know why there’s a need for Artist Beware type efforts, (and one or two news sites, hopefully) and people resort to callouts. It’s an ad-hoc, organic substitute for formal ratings, mediation or consumer protection. Fans who do that are saying “hey, we built this platform… be accountable to us!”

There’s a concept for mainstream startup business called “growth hacking”. It involves cutting corners, overselling, or taking advantage to outcompete others in the market. A touch of cleverness is supposed to be grease for the wheels of commerce, but isn’t it Machiavellian, the more it’s taken for granted (or lets crime pay and predators win?) And is growth the point here? Fans certainly shouldn’t welcome attempts to squeeze maximum profit from a grassroots art community with minimal care for its noncommercial heart.

Or maybe it’s not always that simple.  America can make independent business operation a matter of blind luck, with brutal problems like lack of access to health care. Imagine having carpal tunnel and depending on furry commissions with no choice about persisting. Like that. Sometimes being caught in such a bind is inevitable. Then cutting corners is an escape tactic. Maybe money earmarked for some other purpose pays off a debt. Or someone resorts to tracing to dial up delivery with an overcommitted queue.

There are highly demanded fursuit makers whose commission queues stretch back 10 years. (Think of all that deposit money as a pile of personal debt, like other households owe to banks… but loaned interest-free by trusting fans). Their rate of accepting new commissions doesn’t show a rosy outlook on fixing that. I could name multiple makers like that I’ve been asked to do stories on (perhaps a list and their cases are needed.) People love their art anyways.

This is why businesses are accommodated to fail and go bankrupt and absolve debt, to encourage starting them. (If only people and families had a better safety net in the USA). Some people are good creators but bad with numbers. Others are full of excuses or malice. The by-fans-for-fans way isn’t necessarily pure. We don’t know every deeper story, so judge carefully case by case. Is the appearance of greed actually evil, or a byproduct of circumstance and risk taking?

Things really get sketchy if there’s a history of bad credibility and failures, intentional deceptive practices, or ducking accountability and rebranding to hide it. Fursonas make that easy. Those might be mitigated by something closer to a mainstream marketplace. That’s where it’s crucial to ask, can it keep the heart?

Scandal: Been there, done that, got the T-shirt.

Lets dig deeper into what you saw in the top video, where fans discovered past problems and took the news badly.

In 2015, MLP/Brony fandom site Horse News exposed bad practices by artist Drawponies. He was tracing TV show animation and selling it as custom commissions. The MLP fandom took him to task for being “he’s not sorry he did it, he’s sorry he got caught” and displacing honest hard working artists with aggressive growth methods.

“He’s one of the most successful and well-traveled vendors in the fandom, with plans for over 20 pony, comic, and anime conventions in 2015 alone, and makes enough money off his business, he makes a fulltime income off of it. Drawponies also has turned his artist name into a company of sorts; he needs an artist team to complete all his commissions and help him trace all his artwork.”

  • A 2015 public statement/apology from Drawponies was posted to an Artworktee account on Deviantart. In 2018, Artworktee retroactively explained it was one of their manager’s social media presences that got folded into a group company, while citing his efforts to be professional and not repeat mistakes.

That past was rediscovered in a new 2018 complaint about Artworktee underpaying artists. It seemed like Drawponies was part of rebranding for furries with Artworktee calling themselves a new company. Their new concept involved strategically approaching highly-followed popufurs to ride their tails for exposure with an “insert-name fan club” line of shirts. There were even reports of people feeling hassled by aggressive marketing to join. But it worked to sell many shirts of popufur designs by other artists, who may have been commissioned for a mere $50. The price was slammed by critics as vastly undervalued (while citing the 2015 story).

  • The 2018 apology from Artworktee offered much better pay to solve the problem – even retroactively. They explained that they previously accepted what artists set as their own rates. However, as professional as the response was, critics made their own conclusions about the history. Had underpaid artists been kept in the dark and was the apology just because of being caught? A number of partners parted ways. One of the biggest may be Majira Strawberry.  However, then he posted an update that was friendly about the separation. Many others posted support for their own good relationships with Artworktee, who said the shirt sales included paying highest commissions compared to other companies for selling their likeness that way.

My impression: Artworktee makes big effort to be responsive to their user base and the fandom that built it… with one Big Caveat we’ll get into below.

For comparison, the business of selling shirts can be a pit of exploitation against indie artists by overseas thieves out of legal reach. They rip off designs with no credit, and would let artists go homeless if they can make a single penny. It’s a small part of counterfeiting abetted by the biggest companies on the internet. A personal, responsive company is miles above others.

Looking for the heart

My nose for commercializing got started around 2012, when curiosity and love led me to the Furry News biz (and a hundredaire fortune that should get me a title like Magnate, Mogul, or Maven by now.) In 2013 I covered pay-dating services targeting furries with deceptive business practices. The bottom line of that story: “one case of scam worries may not be that prominent, but it seems to be slowly growing above the level of personal fan activity. Be vigilant for the future.”

Like I said above, fans can look much deeper than just for good service. What I saw here made me very curious: Artworktee isn’t a scam operation, and their marketing towards popufurs is methodical and smart. But is the PR just hollow outer packaging?

To follow up, I sent a list of questions to Artworktee with a compliment for their effort with relationships, and an open invite to hear them out. It included asking about how they relate to the community, how they support artists, and questions about a Big Caveat.

Their answer was very comprehensive, with details about their team, company and values.

But it dodged direct questions about how they make money from people that fandom platforms have stopped supporting for being malicious and toxic. Instead they gave a general non-answer answer. If furries have any reservations about commercializing fandom, consider this as a dividing line.

Question: “I heard that (fill in the blank) sells with you – do you support them?”

Answer: No. As is clearly stated in our terms of service: “ArtworkTee is a marketplace, not a consultancy or agent. ArtworkTee does not endorse any actions or statements by any artist or creator. Compensation, product samples, discounts, promotions, etc do not constitute endorsement.” In the same way that other platforms like Twitter and Facebook don’t endorse content creators, neither does ArtworkTee. Like other marketplace websites, including Etsy, Amazon, and Ebay, we do not judge our vendors based on their actions off of our platform, especially not messages sent in private. This would be an unfair breach of privacy, not to mention impossible to maintain for 400+ vendors. As long as a person complies with our terms of service, they are welcome to sell with us. The exceptions to this include criminal behavior, abusive behavior, or threats of violence against another person. Because our content is uploaded by and created by users, it’s our job to moderate the designs and make sure they don’t violate our terms of service, just like any other user-generated content website. We check every design as it is posted, and also rely on our users as a secondary check to let us know if a design that infringes our terms is posted. We are dedicated to making ArtworkTee the best marketplace for furries and other fandoms to sell shirts, regardless of their religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, heritage, disability, or any other factor.

Big Caveat: “Have-Your-Cake-And-Eat-It-Too” ethics.

This isn’t just about general policy. When we’re talking about malicious behavior, you might guess where this is going. Furry Raiders, Alt-furries, and Nazi Furs.

Artworktee has acted on this issue when it involved harming their business or brand. It started with managing PR when Furry Raider/Nazifur Foxler was called out by the “Insert Name Fan Club” shirt designer for stealing their design to troll people.

Artworktee said they don’t support or endorse Nazis, and racists aren’t welcome… in that one case where they might lose money.

What about working with 2 Gryphon, who is currently using Artworktee and making them money after falling into disgrace and being dropped by cons that used to give him stages? He’s now representing the Altfurry “PR Department”, and spreads hate in ways that harm the fandom itself.

In March, before the underpaid artist issue came up, we’d traded messages about 2 Gryphon selling on their site. It was brought up by furries noticing his later-severed relationship with Eurofurence.

Public criticism led Artworktee to label his merchandise with a nonsupport message. They were obviously aware that he was causing a problem.

My questions about alt-furry representatives using their site got non-answers. Read their terms again. If they don’t want to commit to a stand about it, that’s not considered “support” despite profiting from it.  Apparently, if bad things happen off their site then it’s just business as long as the stuff on the site is in compliance with the terms of the site.

The PR highlights what you might call a double standard in taking a stand or making excuses, depending on who makes them money. Keeping 2 Gryphon could involve a pre-existing contract. Except it gets even more slippery.

After using the nonsupport message to pacify a public problem, they apparently removed it. I can’t find it on his merchandise being sold on the site now.

How can you be a Switzerland-neutral marketplace, comparing it to Ebay or Amazon, but be by fans, for fans at the same time? How can you use fandom and it’s subsidizing and volunteer benefit, but not be accountable to the fans who built it? They can say they have a broader mission – but they’re leveraging furries. The majority don’t want Nazi Furs to use fandom to spread hate and troll their cons to death.  What’s better than a neutral market is being truly responsive.

A contact who runs a pretty high profile operation told me:

If it’s a truly automated upload system and they have a shitload of people creating accounts to upload designs then I don’t expect them to do a ton of research on every user. I’d say they should remain open to community feedback on their users, and also implement a “report this design” function if they don’t have one already.  For shitty people they are supporting, I’d like to see them have some kind of community manager that would look into concerns the community raises and not pull any punches when it comes to excluding problematic people.

Short-term profit at the cost of integrity

Even with the inertia of 2’s following staying in place, he has stopped getting shows at cons because he unambiguously, emphatically sides with hateful trolls.

Opportunistic merchandising might bring money from any kind of customer, but this also isn’t about one bad actor in fandom, it’s an invitation for trouble from more, like these altfurries. Compare it to an arms dealer who sells to both sides to double sales – except “both sides” here means the majority of fandom who wants to minimize trolling vs. a declining fringe of trolls.

And they’re yesterday’s news, not the future, just like Burned Furs before them.

Is it worth it to make a few bucks? Is it better to keep dealing with problems when people notice slippery dealing and a double standard, or really make an effort? When Fur Affinity finally banned alt-right trolls, there was brief uproar but it proved hugely popular.

It has something to do with the entire internet culture and how change isn’t likely to come from the top without active attention from the bottom. (See this thread and comments about stock prices, from Seth Rogen about chatting with the CEO of Twitter. This is beyond “politics” because nazis don’t deserve a seat at the table for any reason, and that hasn’t been controversial since 1945.)

I like what ArtworkTee has built. They were extra cool to put in so much effort for talking about it. I truly admire their hard work which is why I put so much effort into this article. I wish them well for considering if they have the right long term strategy for that one Big Caveat, and showing where their heart is.

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