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The Business of Creativity: Why the Creator Economy is Thriving

In one word – technology. Another word – neoliberalism

The “creator” economy is the term used to describe the burgeoning class of workers using internet platforms – YouTube, TikTok, Instagram, or Substack, Medium, Ghost, or other internet platforms. The nascent “creator class” is seen to have emerged around the 2010s, when Web 2.0 metastasized; companies like Alphabet (Google’s parent company) and Meta consolidated their hold over the digital infrastructure. A whole host of smaller web companies followed suit in the business practice.

The Business of Creativity: Why the Creator Economy is Thriving

The business practice: Ad-sense, targeted personalized ads, and subscription-based fees (which platforms typically take a cut from).

The other practice? Selling users' data.

This ecosystem allowed for the creator economy to be a viable, and profitable one. Alongside, there was also the rise of paid subscription systems in platforms like video platforms like YouTube, or writing platforms like Medium. Web 2.0 content creation space straddles these two models of revenue generation.

The space is inherently dynamic and innovative. Apart from tech platforms allowing for the monetization of content, we have auxiliary online platforms like Patreon (founded in 2013) and Buy Me a Coffee (founded in 2018) that allow creators to have a more direct relationship with their audience. Monetary relationship; by-passing the platforms as intermediaries.

Technological change has allowed the proliferation of this new economic lane.

The creator economy is booming due to rapid technological and economic developments. In this picture you a typical quipment used by today's content creators; a laptop, camera, a midi-keyboard, and of course a coffee mug. While the industry has been proliferating, working conditions for the average "content creator" remains tenuous at best.

As discussed briefly in my previous article – Being an Influencer is Not a Real Career. Or is it? – technology has a track record of bringing forth new industries. Publishing, music, movies, photography, and the list goes on. From my telescopic eyes, it seems like the creator economy is the natural culmination of the wheels set in motion since the time of the Renaissance. Each bit of technological progress since then has democratized (to an extent) the process of creating culture.

Very cynically we could put artists, musicians, filmmakers, photographers and writers in the bracket of (content) creators. Cynical but you can kind of see the logic. For every YouTuber catatonically talking at the camera there are ones exploring unique filmmaking and editing styles. Blog writing is writing. KSI, having come up as a YouTuber, now has a rap career too, Addison Rae who blew up through TikTok has both a music and a movie career – going to show the leverage content creation gives to crossover, if you can.

The controversy over AI-generated art aside, now people who master prompting these AI-art generators will be legitimately creating their "own" art. Something we have already seen with DJs, Hip-Hop and electronic music when the art of sampling music was birthed. You don’t need to know how to hold a paintbrush, nor do you need to know how to play the piano.

Good or bad. The reality remains that technology has always been pushing the concept of creation. Also easing the process in the way, so more and more people partake in the process. Given that creative expression is too natural an impulse. And as more and more people partake in it, it gets commercialized. Monetized.

It brings us to the second reason for the creator economy boom. A mixed bag, more on the side of bad than good. Neoliberalism. Say what you will, neoliberalism forces people to innovate. Or maybe it vampirically feeds off people’s innovation. The second one of these. I think.

In my previous article on influencers, I mentioned Emily Hund’s The Influencer Industry: The Quest for Authenticity on Social Media (2023) as a work deep diving into the creation of the “influencer industry”, one that married to the (content) creation industry. At times almost interchangeable.

Her work examines the fallout of the 2008 Great Recession, spiralling layoffs and the pressure on workers of all sorts (from designers to corporate bankers) to self-promote themselves on social media. LinkedIn influencer is a thing. The impetus for social media and Web 2.0 to become a behemoth content creation machine was closely tied to the instability of working conditions that neoliberalism has been pushing since the 1980s – stagnant real wages for workers, declining workers/trade union membership, and ever-shrinking employment safety and security benefits.

This in turn led to the rise of “freelance” and the “gig” economy that many felt compelled to be part of. And the pressure to appear glamourous and influential in your lane of work. Hund’s work explores the normalization of such narratives in the modern-day economy. The creator economy is submerged in this narrative and mode of operation.

As per a 2022 Forbes estimate: the creator economy was estimated to be worth more than $100 billion, and had more than 50 million people within it worldwide. On the other hand, the venture capital firm Kalaari Capital stated that India itself has 80 million content creators.

It must be difficult to get exact numbers. Precise numbers aside, the general scale of numbers being spoken is definitely high. But what these numbers indicate is that the creator economy is blowing up, maybe almost to the point of saturation. If not now, then in the next decade.

Success stories aside, the creator economy – much like its sister the influencer economy – is a brutal postmodern quagmire. Scores of people trying to sell themselves, their labour, and their creative output. And for most, it is not the glamour of the Paul Brothers, or Addison Rae. It more likely means juggling a main job and multiple “side hustles”, or neurotically focusing on their subscriber count, and their Ad Sense earning.

A study of the creative class in Britain – defined as the musicians, artists, writers and actors – found out that while 16.4% of creative workers came from a working-class background in the 1970s, in the current day the proportion has fallen to 7.9%. Maybe such developments invisibly lead to the build-up of “nepo-baby” discourses.

The modern-day “creative” economy, now encompassing, all kinds of internet creative endeavours is similar in its inaccessibility for people from working-class and more underprivileged backgrounds. The YouTuber, Alice Capelle’s catalogue of video essays have deftly examined the socio-economic implications of this new world order.

Off the top: The failed utopia of the creative class, Power to the creator?, The passion economy is pure nonsense, and In defense of nepo babies – some video essays of hers, giving some invaluable insights about the nature of the creator economy. A common underlying point is that the creator economy is a brutal place for individual creators to succeed; the barrier of entry being particularly high for people from underprivileged backgrounds; and working conditions being heavily skewed in favour of the tech platforms and advertisers who bankroll the industry, rather than individual creators.

The creative economy is thriving because of technology and the fact that it can be monetized and made profitable. It goes to show that there is inherent value in it. The powers-to-be (the tech platforms, and the financiers) are indifferent to changing the conditions to become more equitable, as long as there is an audience consuming content on their platforms, and a revenue stream for their picking. However, as things are now, for the majority of people who want to join the creator economy, it is a precarious endeavour. To make it more equitable initiative will probably have to come from the bottoms-up.