Am I the @$$hole?

So there are a lot of things artists gamble their money on, because as they say, it takes money to make money. But it is also said that during the gold-rush days it wasn’t gold miners, but merchants that ultimately cashed in on the dream.

So a bit under a year ago I was approached by an individual starting up a website promoting local art and artists to those interested in buying local during this time of Covid induced closures and cancellations of the traditional venues and events for art purchases.

The website offered Basic and Premium listings. Basic listing were free, with artists listings found under media categories. Each listing included a bio, an art image, a headshot and contact information. Premium listings (I don’t recall what the subscription cost then) were ‘featured’ by name with a headshot on the first page and had more than one artwork image.

Because I have never had a sale come through any sort of art hub website like that (and I have been listed on a few both big and small) I was not interested in the paid membership. Perhaps if I did not already have an established web presence, having a paid listing might make sense, but even so at that point in a new venture there is no guarantee that a paid membership would see any return on investment. While I figured there was no harm in a link to my site from one more source (as it wasn’t going to cost me anything) I joined with no illusions about the situation that would likely develop by having two levels of membership; those who paid would be more prominently displayed, thus reducing the chances that free listings would get much traffic from the website. Traffic to the website would have to be extraordinarily high to see see much overflow to the Basic listings.

So fast forward to now, and as expected I have seen no traffic, let alone income, coming my way from my Basic free membership. In fact, I had pretty much forgotten about the whole thing when I got a message in my inbox letting me know the site had been a marvellous success with media coverage and artists reporting sales and commissions.

In light of this success the organizer needed to raise membership rates to continue promoting and make the website sustainable. Basic (free) would still be Basic but at $120/yr (special promo $100 for existing members), and Premium would now be $250/yr ($100 for existing members), and there would now be a new Super Premium membership of $750/yr.

Now, I’m aware that these membership rates might seem low to some of you out there, however one of the reasons I have been able to keep making art through good times and bad is because I keep my expenses low, and my financial risks small. I am always looking at return on investment, while balancing that against any other less concrete benefits an ‘opportunity’ might offer.

So I considered the rate increase for about a week and came to the conclusion that to pay for the Basic membership, given the traffic that had come off it in the past year, would be a waste of money for me. I let the organizer know that in light of the rate changes, and lack of traffic from that quarter since joining, I was discontinuing my membership. The organizer responded by telling me that it was predominantly premium members who had seen traffic and sales, and so I might like to upgrade to a premium listing.

Good on the organizer for trying to turn a No into a Yes! But…

As I thought about upgrading from Basic to Premium it occurred to me that introducing a Super Premium membership ($750/y) to the mix would now bump down Premium listing to being as effective as the Basic (free) ones had been, and the Basic one to being equivalent to a donation. So really the choice was Super Premium or don’t bother.

For this amount I want to see some concrete numbers from the site, like, what have been the average sales numbers for the premium members, and how often and at what price points? How about some information courtesy Google Analytics about traffic, demographics, new and return visitors, conversions, all that? Of course that wouldn’t guarantee me the same results, but it would indicate what is achievable, or reasonable to expect from my investment assuming I am an average artist of average output and capabilities.

What numbers would I consider reasonable? It depends. I’ve been to many art fairs where artists tell me on the final day that they have “about broken even,” and I think to myself, “well then why even bother when you could have broken even staying home?” Now with a website vs. an art fair break even might be okay given the smaller outlay otherwise, but one would still want to see evidence of growth potential. All the same, I might consider trying a show with an uncertain track record and a low booth fee if the traffic were good in order to gauge interest in a new body of work, but the higher the booth fee the more certain I have to be of a reasonable chance of returns.

So back to the ‘opportunity’ at hand, I responded that I did consider the upgrade however I would need to see some sales figures to decide whether to do that or not, and if the organizer could provide those numbers in the future I would love to hear more. I thought that was a nice way of explaining my concerns but leaving an opening to be convinced. After all, I can only make a decision based on the information I have, so if the organizer has information that can help me make a better decision it would be profitable for them to share it. However I didn’t particularly expect to get a response since I think getting sales figures could be problematic as the organizer would have to rely on artists volunteering that information.

So I was surprised, and more than a bit dismayed, to get this response a day and a half later: “All I will give you as a free member is the information I already gave you. Premium members, paid members, get the benefits.”

So, wait a minute, does this mean you have information that would help me better make my decision but you will only provide it if I sign up for a paid membership? Quite the sales pitch! (and by the way, is this indicative of the treatment I will be paying for once my free membership becomes a paid one, as it is still their bottom tier, Basic, not Premium?)

I hope that is not what is being said here, because, aside from coming across as rude, it makes me suspect that I won’t like the numbers when they are provided, which is why the organizer wants me to sign up before providing them. If that is the case I am happy to be parting ways with this website.

But what do you think? Am I the @$$hole for asking for more information before putting my faith and my money into the relationship?