Benefactors have always served as patrons of creative people, from the Medicis to Madison Avenue. During the Renaissance, wealthy patrons supported a flourishing creative arts scene. During the “Mad Man” days, advertising supported mass entertainment. We’re about to witness a new, more egalitarian, more engaging creative boom, and this time it will be fueled by the fascinating relationship that is evolving between creators and their fans. This next renaissance comes at a moment when there are a slew of new social-community-building tools, a large group of creators who’ve been in lockdown with plenty of time to hone their juices, and fans with time on their hands to seek out and support artists.
In 2008, Kevin Kelly, longtime Internet observer and commentator, wrote a prescient article on the role of social media and fandom. “To be a successful creator,” he said, “you don’t need millions. You don’t need millions of dollars or millions of customers, millions of clients or millions of fans. To make a living as a craftsperson, photographer, musician, designer, author, animator, app maker, entrepreneur, or inventor you need only thousands of true fans.”
Truer words. The 18-year old creator of Cobra Kai Kid, a YouTube show that delves into all things about the martial arts TV series Cobra Kai (now on Netflix), told me he amassed 127,000 followers in about a year. Along with them he got enough ad revenue to make a dent in his college tuition, as he hunkered down and built an episodic talk show. What began as an after-school hobby got him so much success and cred he now is able to get interviews with show biggies just like major magazines. WhenI asked him whether his year in lockdown helped spawn his efforts, he answered, “The pandemic is a terrible thing, but if it weren’t for not having school I could have never done it. It gave me the time I needed.”
Another pandemic epiphany came from tech journalist Casey Newton, who left his high profile reporting job at The Verge to jump over to Substack, where individual authors monetize their own brands in the form of newsletters that subscribers pay for. (Here’s a great interview about how the pandemic played its part in getting Casey to step up to the creator’s bat.)
Faisel Durrani co-founded Looped, a platform that offers live virtual venues to help artists grow their fanbase and grease their pockets. He sees his platform and others as giving creators new ways to engage with their audiences. If you think of social media and fandom in phases, he says, “Phase one allowed creators to amass audiences on platforms like YouTube and other social media. Phase two let creators monetize their work through ad revenues or affiliations, but honestly, they were getting just pennies on the dollar”. Phase three, he believes, will give creatives the opportunity to monetize themselves without the gatekeepers. Over at Vidcon, General Manager Jim Louderback gathers creative talent, their fans, and the services and brands that love them to raise the bar for emerging creators in a community devoted to them and their fans.
Tanay Jaipuria, another Substack author, takes a regular deep-dive into the world of creators, their audiences and revenue streams in his own newsletter. A great read. Did you know that YouTube paid $30 billion to creators for ads that ran with their videos over the last year? Or that TikTok has a Creator Marketplace whose sole purpose is to marry brands and influencers? Or that Twitch has an affiliate program where streamers earn 5% of game sales originated from their channel? These are all new ways for creators to get paid.
Roblox, the kid’s gaming platform, shares its profits with developers (often kids) who create games on its site. In 2020 it paid out $250 million. This week Clubhouse jumped on board. You can now tip your favorite moderators. Tiktok also has a gifting feature where people can send creators digital gifts (which can then be converted by creators into money). It’s estimated by Backlinko that Substack, the paid newsletter subscription service, now has over 500,000 paying subscribers and that its top 10 authors collectively make more than $15 million a year. Patreon allows fans to subscribe to their favorite creators, earning them income. It has paid out over $1 billion to creators. Uncensored (often explicit) and music-focused, OnlyFans has paid out its creators to the tune of more than $3 billion!
The emerging, headline-making boon for digital creators is based on NFTs (non-fungible tokens). Just now peeking its head into the mainstream through some high-profile art sales, these tokenized representations of digital assets are generating some serious wealth for the creative community. By giving a tokenized value to everything from pieces of digital art and music to digital real-estate and avatar makeup and clothing, the buyers of NFT assets become the digital artist’s patron.
UTA, the Hollywood talent agency, just created a digital asset arm for all things NFT. And, the Winklevoss twins (best known for their early and litigious relationship with Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and subsequently for their crypto exchange firm Gemini), recently bought the Nifty (coincidentally purchased from another pair of identical twins). Nifty is a high-end auction house where digital art is sold as NFTs. Since the acquisition, the NFT art market has exploded. Works from barely-known digital artists like Beeple are topping sales of art from top-tier mainstream artists like David Hockney. (For a fun read check out Forbes’ new cover story about the twins, Revenge of the Winklevii.)
It remains to be seen whether or not NFTs will go the way of Cabbage Patch Dolls and Beanie Babies–quirky collectibles that reached high prices but ended up having limited long term value. Just like it did with the Medicis and the Mad Men, art will always rely on a system of patronage. But new creative outlets are beginning to reward artists, musicians and other creator-trades with a larger piece of the pie. One word for aspiring artists… start teching up now, it’s complicated but worth it.