Beyoncé shook up the economy of celebrity photography by cutting off intermediaries and going directly to her audience, thus creating a new model.
It had been a month since Beyoncé gave birth to Blue Ivy in January of 2012. There were no pictures yet, just the baby’s first cries recorded on Jay-Z’s latest track. What would the fruit of the good-girl-gone-badass-musical-queen and of the bad-boy-turned-music-mogul look like? Whom would she take after? What would she, heiress to fashion royalty, be wearing in her first pictures?
The baby celebrity pictures market had been heating up after Getty Images (where I worked at the time, although was not involved in those negotiations) helped Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt auction off the first images of their baby, Shiloh. The transaction reached a reported $4 million, to People magazine, in 2005. The first images of their twins, Vivienne and Knox, topped it in 2008, with a reported $14 million, all given to charities.
How much would Beyoncé get? Would Blue Ivy command a higher fee?
Who would get the exclusive? People? Vanity Fair? Vogue maybe?
None of the above.
This time there would be no expensive shoot involving baby props, intensive styling, multiple setups, or Annie Leibovitz. There would be no multimillion-dollar advances given to charities.
There it was. A simple hospital picture released for free, using Tumblr, a rising platform at the time.
The picture is sweet and unusually mundane. The quality of the composition is questionable yet endearing. Beyoncé looks radiant and happy but her face is out of focus. Blue Ivy is awake, most likely wiggling. She is suspended in an awkward pose with one arm raised. The background is busy with chairs and a pinky. It’s like a typical family snapshot—except the mom is having a really good hair day, appears well rested, and had time to apply makeup.
Pedestrian as it might appear, this very personal image marks a profound shift in the image licensing and overall media ecosystems. Suddenly, celebrities do not need People or Access Hollywood to promote themselves. They reach their audiences directly through social media where they share the most intimate details of their lives. In doing so, they help accelerate the disintermediation of the press in favor of platforms. Images and videos can now be legally embedded for free as opposed to being licensed.
This change also affects the aesthetics of celebrity imagery. It starts moving away from highly stylized, carefully composed and at times too heavily retouched portraits we’ve seen gracing the cover of magazines so uniformly for the last two decades. The most personal images of celebrities are now found on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. This is where they seemingly let down their hair. Look at the Instagram feed of otherwise very guarded celebrities such as Gwyneth Paltrow and Anne Hathaway. Sure, you’ll see contrived shots and the obligatory selfies enhanced by flattering filters, but you will also get a sense of their day-to-day lives and their families, and a glimpse at the behind-the-scenes.
Below Anne Hathaway reveals her nervous rash before walking on stage at the Ellen Degeneres show:
This does not mean that Instagram and Facebook have liberated Hollywood from tight image control. In some ways, it has had the opposite effect: establishing self-censorship as the norm. Any real friend will ask for your green light before posting a picture they took of you.
Beyoncé now has 100 million followers on Instagram, which appears to be her platform of choice, most likely because of its highly visual nature. (She has 14.9 million followers on Twitter and has posted only nine times.) In comparison, People magazine has 3 million Instagram followers with over 11,000 posts. Beyoncé’s direct audience engagement has been a key factor in the success of her last two albums’ releases, where surprise and coordination were important tactics.
According to D’Marie Analytics, Beyoncé is the most influential social media celebrity and her Instagram posts are worth over $1,000,000 each in advertising value. With 1,000 posts so far on Instagram, even if she charged endorsement fees for only a tenth of them, that would equate to $100 million in advertising value. In truth, we do not know how much Beyoncé charged for the 2013 Instagram Pepsi post below, which appeared on her feed a year after she released Blue Ivy’s image on Tumblr but we can speculate that the low range would be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. The value does not lie merely in a costly endorsement deal but is grounded in her direct reach to a wide and very engaged audience.
Recent estimates put the overall influencer economy market size (where people with large social media following get paid to tout products on their feeds) at over $50 billion. Others have established it to be closer $5 to $10 billion and rising. It’s a hard number to accurately estimate. Regardless, it’s a big opportunity, one that is predicted to keep growing as ad blocking becomes more prevalent. In comparison, the consumer magazine advertising market is estimated to be $16.8 billion in the United States and it is projected to remain flat through 2020.
Of course, not all of us mere mortals will be in a position to monetize our social media presence. But creatives and, in particular, professional photographers are well placed to be able to leverage such presence. For this, they need to understand that brands are not just looking to pay for their ability to deliver on a certain creative brief, voice, or vision but, just as or more important, for their ability to build and engage their own audience. Some are already far along the way.
David Guttenfelder has been one of the first photojournalists to amass one million followers on Instagram. His audience started building when, in 2013, he was the first photographer to post directly to Instagram from North Korea, where he was working for The Associated Press. His following grew even more from his extensive work at Yellowstone with National Geographic.
This large audience has given him new creative insights, enabling him to get immediate feedback on his work and giving his followers a stake in the stories he is covering.
It has also resulted into direct monetization opportunities such as the takeover of other social media feeds and a few sponsored posts paid by brands. In considering those, David explains that he rarely agrees to them—despite fees ranging in the tens of thousands of dollars—as he is very mindful of the editorial integrity of his images and overall feed.
His large audience yielded other indirect benefits. Commercial clients, in particular, are looking at the reach and type of audiences a photographer can bring in making their decision to give assignments, he says.
Reach has turned into a powerful career lever, but is also now a bar to entry for most creatives.