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From dependence to independence: The rise of The Independent Creator.
Delving into the largest creator survey EVER undertaken.
The curious and creative people at NonFiction Research, Mighty Networks and myself just undertook the largest independent, open market study of creators ever done. Our goal was to better understand what motivated creators, their current challenges and what a more sustainable and successful future would look like for them and the followers who love them.
What we found surprised us.
While many creators are hitting a glass ceiling when it comes to growing their businesses, we also discovered a new vanguard of the Creator Economy emerging – the Independent Creator.
These new Independent Creators are forging a very different path. They cultivate direct models and communities that are both more passionate and more profitable – ushering in a new era of opportunity, experimentation and reasons to be optimistic for the future.
We’ll get to all of that in a bit. First, let’s set the scene.
The Intoxicating Promise of a New Creator Class
For those paying attention, a new creator class has gone from embryonic concept to inescapable reality as a powerful combination of cultural, societal, economic and technological shifts have overlapped to create the perfect conditions for a new form of entrepreneurship.
Got a phone or a laptop and something to say? Great, you’re in. Just start recording, grow an audience and make a living online from home or, better yet, traveling the world.
From experienced educators to beauty buffs, gregarious gamers, skillful stylists and deft dancers, the promise of sharing your unique talents and passions with the world to find instant fame, fortune and fans has become the new American Dream. Today, 75% of U.S. children ages 6 to 17 want to become YouTubers when they grow up.
The promise of soaring success where we could rewrite the rules of work and follow our passions to guaranteed profits captured people’s imaginations.
There was only one problem.
To make money sharing your talents in this new world, you had to hit the social media lottery – building an audience in the millions to make enough money from sponsorships or the slim revenue share offered by YouTube, Twitch or occasionally, Instagram and Facebook.
Into this gap came the first wave of “creator tools” that promised direct payments from fans, followers or subscribers in exchange for your entertainment, education and expertise. From Patreon to OnlyFans, Udemy, Teachers Pay Teachers and more, a new cultural and economic moment struck and made the creator opportunity impossible to ignore.
The Creator Economy Gold Rush
As excitement around direct revenue grew, so did COVID-19. Demand from creators and their audiences for new tools, programs and platforms exploded as we sheltered in place.
Patreon and OnlyFans quickly became the darlings of the scene, hoisted atop the creator pedestal as the effortless solution for those looking to cash-in on their social media followings via bolted-on tiered subscription access and fan rewards.
Then TikTok blew up, minting new multiple million-follower starlets daily, resulting in a billion people trying to crack the FYP page.
Now in addition to a flurry of new creator monetization tools promising creators faster, easier ways of going direct to fans, TikTok woke the giants.
Instagram rolled out a slew of new features: Creator shops, tipping, badges, native affiliate links and a marketplace to help foster paid content relationships with brands.
Facebook offered paid online events, fan subscriptions, badges and even a virtual currency for creators. Facebook also touted a zero “take rate” for gaming livestreamers until 2023, a move to compete with Amazon-owned Twitch, which itself saw exponential growth during 2020/21 as it managed to tick the dual boxes of providing a new form of entertainment and entrepreneurship.
Meanwhile, Snapchat waded into the fray with “Spotlight,” a TikTok FYP competitor, which promised creators a share of $1 million a day, depending on how their content performed. They also expanded virtual gifting to all “Snap Stars” globally, wherein creators could accept digital tokens from fans.
And YouTube, well, they kind of carried on doing what they’ve always been doing, but with the addition of a few new bells and whistles to their Paid Digital Goods. On top of existing options such as “Super Badges,” channel subscriptions, a product “shelf” to highlight branded merchandise and “Live Alerts for Merch,” they also launched “Super Thanks” to allow fans to show their appreciation by donating in-stream.
Yet, All is Not What It Seems
Even as Big Social and new upstarts continue to fall over themselves to cater to creators, the rosy picture of people following their passions to newfound profit and prestige has begun to look more and more like a mirage.
When you look under the hood at a creator’s business, the foundation is shaky AF.
Headlines abound about creator burnout and the need for mental health programs to help those trying to stay upright on a content treadmill designed to please the algorithm Gods.
The New Yorker recently described the current state of the Creator Economy as “the gig economy, but for digital content.” (Not a compliment.)
For those aspiring creators who have yet to make it big, the cost-benefit analysis of entering the game is coming up short as they realize it may never be possible to make ends meet.
Despite audiences of hundreds of thousands and revenue-generating creator tools galore, the math, confoundingly, doesn’t seem to add up.
The Game, While Fun, is Rigged
Creators believe they are building a real asset on social media platforms – an audience that can be monetized by sponsorships, revenue splits and direct payments on Patreon or OnlyFans.
But that audience they’re building? They don’t own it.
What the algorithm giveth, it can also taketh away.
Despite following the right hashtags and posting the recommended 5-7 times a day, the algorithms are designed to benefit our platform overlords, not the creator – with very real consequences.
Should the algorithm turn away from a creator, they have no recourse.
Should a creator’s brand of content fall out of favor with advertisers, they have no recourse.
Should platforms move on to the next shiny object (👋 metaverse), they have no recourse.
Even the take rates and demands from fans on direct payment platforms like Patreon and OnlyFans require a content conveyor belt that puts sustainability and scalability out of the reach of the vast majority of creators.
And Building On These Platforms Is Precarious
A few months ago, OnlyFans threatened to cut off sex workers, its biggest creator base, deciding that it would no longer support their brand of content. They backtracked on the decision (too lucrative not to), but the damage was done. More creators woke up to the total lack of choice or power over their own destiny when building on rented land.
More recently, Facebook accidentally locked themselves out of their own house. Instagram, Facebook and WhatsApp were inaccessible for 6 hours, and another outage happened 4 days later. Once again, creators were shaken as their livelihoods were directly impacted by factors entirely outside of their control.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
The horror stories we heard from creators — accounts being shut down arbitrarily before big events without warning, shifts in the algorithm favoring one kind of content or another, swift enforcement of entirely new content rules and other blocks that offered no rhyme or reason — were worse than we imagined.
The central premise of the Creator Economy is one of freedom and independence.
But it’s an illusion.
As status quos go, this is a pretty shitty one.
What’s the Solution?
If we want the Creator Economy to have a future we’re going to need better options.
And who better to ask about these options than creators themselves?
ENTER THE LARGEST SURVEY OF CREATORS EVER DONE…
To read the results of the study and our conclusions on what’s coming next, visit newcreatormanifesto.com and download the full white paper (which is awesome, in my incredibly biased opinion 😉 )