The creator economy has two core tenets: anyone can be famous online, and all fame is monetizable. That reality has powered the rise of online influencers whose every word, tweet, or vlog fuels a multi-billion dollar marketing industry for companies’ products and services.
Yet most social media platforms lack robust features for creators to directly monetize their own content. YouTube and TikTok have revenue-sharing systems (the “Partner Program” and the “Creator Fund” respectively), Twitch has tiered subscription options, and Twitter recently added a tip jar and is building out a way for users to paywall their own tweets.
But many influencers monetize their social media fame on separate platforms made for building a paid subscription audience. If you have a podcast, you can charge for tiered access and perks on Patreon. If you’re an adult entertainer, you can start an OnlyFans and build an audience directly without much of a middleman. If you’re a scribe, you can write a newsletter on Substack earning upwards of a million dollars each year.
At the end of the day, the creator economy is a direct-to-consumer business. And the tech giants aren’t really interested in handing over much of consumers’ cash. But a growing number of firms are emerging to facilitate that transaction. Substack, OnlyFans, and Patreon offer subscriptions and tiered access to convert established audiences into paying customers.
In recent years, newsletter company Substack turned heads by luring away a number of journalists from traditional news organizations. Substack’s top-ranked creators, mostly Twitter-famous writers, have been able to convert free followers (and likely readers of their work) into paying subscribers. Substackers like Matthew Yglesias (500,000 Twitter followers), Casey Newton (130,000), and Anne Helen Petersen (120,000) all write directly for thousands of paying subscribers after having left Vox, The Verge, and BuzzFeed News respectively. (Some received large advances and health care benefits from Substack to sweeten the deal.)
The value of these creator platforms is booming. Substack is now a $650 million company with more than 500,000 paying subscribers, Patreon is a $4 billion company with 6 million monthly “patrons,” and OnlyFans, which has never taken outside investment, claims it registered $2 billion in sales alone last year from 100 million registered users. An upcoming fundraising round may value it above $1 billion.
All this is actually not very different from how traditional celebrity works. Hollywood and Madison Avenue have long depended on one another to provide talent and sell products. On Instagram, Kim Kardashian will post about your product for about half a million dollars. And the Federal Trade Commission is getting stricter about proper ad disclosures, warning Cardi B and Jordin Sparks last year who were caught peddling bogus detox teas on Instagram without so much as an #ad disclosing their role as paid spokespeople.
But the era of a celebrity spokesperson now feels passé. Many of today’s A-list celebrities are themselves entrepreneurs. Ryan Reynolds boosts his gin label. Rihanna had a fashion line. Dr. Dre built a headphone empire. And Gwyneth Paltrow sells whatever Goop sells. And celebrities don’t even need a corporate perch to build a brand. Like everyone else in the creator economy, they have a platform specifically designed for monetizing their personas: Cameo.
The four-year-old company lets A-listers, B-listers, and internet personalities somewhere on the spectrum of fame record short videos for paying fans’ birthdays, anniversaries, or other occasions. (For $40, “Chocolate Rain” singer Tay Zonday will give you a personalized shout-out.) During the pandemic, Cameo added 10,000 new personalities, raised $100 million, and became a $1 billion company. And on Tuesday, the company announced that basketball legend Magic Johnson is joining its board and will start making videos for fans. But, it’s not just Cameo. Cardi B, DJ Khaled, Rebecca Minkoff, Bella Thorne, and other celebs have built subscription followings on OnlyFans even without doing porn.
Cameo isn’t the newest way celebs have cashed in on their followers. Now there’s crypto. Patrick Mahomes, Lindsay Lohan, Grimes, and just about everyone who has accidentally created a meme, have all sold nonfungible tokens (NFTs), a digital representation of a collectible, post, or other item registered on a blockchain.
What connects Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, with Joe Exotic, the felonious star of Netflix’s Tiger King? They’re both selling NFTs. Berners-Lee is listing his original code creating the World Wide Web at Sotheby’s while the imprisoned Exotic is auctioning off “3-D renderings of cult collectibles” and tangible items from the show through the platform Mintable.
The creator economy is expanding the universe of people who can be famous and make money from their fame. Now traditional celebrities are bending to its rules as well. Ultimately, Cameo, OnlyFans, and NFTs are just additional way for celebrities to make more money and brand themselves directly. That’s only likely to get bigger.
We’re all stuck in the cycle of the creator economy: getting famous and selling stuff. You, me, Cardi B, and Tim Berners-Lee.