Work Culture

Today’s creator economy was built on subscribers and patrons. What comes next?


Published on March 17, 2022

Ten years ago, leaving a high-powered job to sell baked goods, build a niche app, or help indie artists make music would’ve seemed like career suicide. Today? Not so much. There are 50 million independent “content creators” around the world, of which around two million earn a six-figure income. 

Many rode the wave of new technologies (blogging, vlogging, streaming) and business models (patrons, ad networks, sponsorships) to attract an audience and build a business. But success hasn’t been easy. And staying successful? That’s been even tougher.

“As the TikTok platform has gone mainstream, the app has seen an increased saturation of sponsored content, meaning that it’s become more difficult for creators to obtain authentic reach,” says Sasha Sloan, a social media influencer turned online clothing store founder. “Supply and demand principles have resulted in a more competitive algorithm.”

Unfortunately, increasing creator-side supply is just one of the challenges facing people like Sloan. Subscription fatigue is also dissolving paid subscriber bases. Unpredictable algorithmic changes put access to hard-earned audiences at the whim of platforms. And all the while, an overwhelming majority (90%) of creators are facing burnout.

With a glut of incoming talent, incumbent creatives are feeling the squeeze.

Despite the challenges, creators aren’t turning their backs on the creator economy, nor are they hoping recent trends turn out to be a temporary blip. They are adapting their business alongside industry changes.

Their approach is reminiscent of antifragility, a concept described by stock trader turned essayist Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his book of the same name. The resilient, wrote Taled, resist shocks but stay the same. Resilient creators may pump money into advertising to cut through the noise or add more ad spots to their creations. Meanwhile, the antifragile adapt, learn, and improve. For antifragile creators, crises and change are simply opportunities to get better.

And that’s a good thing, because if there’s anything the creator economy can offer right now, it’s lots of new opportunities and challenges to adapt to.

A reality check for creators

In recent years, the volume of creators has skyrocketed. In just 2020 and 2021, the number leapt by 48% and growth isn’t slowing down. With a glut of incoming talent, incumbent creatives are feeling the squeeze.

During Sloan’s time on TikTok, the social network’s user count has doubled, creating more noise and fierce competition. “In some ways, I’d argue that the ‘gold rush’ window for creators on TikTok is close to closing,” she says. Even when a creator’s work breaks through the noise, there’s a diminishing chance that their fans will interact.

Minnesota-based artist Tawnee Corning has been publishing her work for years, but recently she’s been struggling to get her art in front of her audience.

“Individuals are so overwhelmed with the amount of content everywhere, that they aren’t reacting to anything,” she says. “They’re just mindlessly scrolling, which messes with the algorithm and, in turn, people see less of your content.”

That silence hurts. Unlike regular businesses where ambivalent customers are data points on an NPS survey, negative (and even neutral) feedback can erode creators’ self-worth. Nisha Vora, corporate lawyer turned founder of vegan recipe blog Rainbow Plant Life, believes this is a serious threat to creators’ mental health and longevity.

[Creators] are trying to persuade fans that their patron price tag is worth the same as ten thousand movies or the entire world’s music collection.

“It can be incredibly easy to get worried over how a piece of content will perform,” she says. “When it underperforms, it can be natural to tie that poor performance to your worth as a creator, or even as a person.”

Increased competition doesn’t just limit engagement. With fewer eyeballs on their work, creators lose earning opportunities, too. In fact, falling engagement is eroding one of the creator economy pillars: patronship.

Patrons are as old as commerce and art. Throughout history, wealthy benefactors have financially supported creatives to explore art, music, design, architecture, and so on. But the rise of the internet drove a rapid evolution in a new kind of crowd-funded digital patronship. Easy, online payment systems meant anyone could pledge support, and supporting your favorite artists became a team sport.

“To be a successful creator you don’t need millions,” wrote then-WIRED editor Kevin Kelly back in 2008. “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.”

A thousand fans dropping a hundred bucks creates a very healthy business. But 14 years after Kelly published his thesis, “true fans” are becoming harder to come by. The massive boom in subscription businesses (both creator-led platforms like Patreon and Substack and enterprise companies like Netflix and Amazon) has ramped up the competition. Creators aren’t just competing with each other. They’re trying to persuade fans that their patron price tag is worth the same as ten thousand movies or the entire world’s music collection.

This trend is pushing creators away from an obsession with crude subscriber counts and towards audience engagement metrics.

For example, instead of pouring money into advertising or lead generation, artist Tawnee Corning invests her efforts into deepening connections with her existing audience.

“I have been doing more live-streaming videos of my process,” she says. “I’ve found that my followers like to see and learn my whole process, rather than just the finished product. I also work hard to connect with them through their comments and let them get to know me as a person.”

Riding on the back of popular games like Minecraft and trends like lip syncs, creators quickly amassed hundreds of thousands or even millions of subscribers. The problem was, early audiences proved fickle. Just as the underlying trend fizzled, so did their attention. One Minecraft YouTuber, who boasts more than 350,000 subscribers, attracted just 204 views on their most recent video.

It comes back to Kevin Kelly’s idea of 1,000 true fans. A monstrous audience is worthless if those fans don’t engage or contribute. 

“You don’t need millions of dollars or millions of customers, millions of clients or millions of fans."

Building complementary businesses

The creator economy empowers individuals to monetize their passions and talents. But there is nothing to say creators ought to limit themselves to just those pursuits. Increasingly, creatives are building peripheral businesses around their core passion—shortcutting retailers and selling directly to their audience.

For Sasha, it’s just about leveraging the audience she already has. She advertises her fantasy-themed clothing on her already thriving TikTok channel. Giving her audience a means to buy directly from her has been a runaway success, netting six figures within its first 100 days. 

Such ventures would have been impossible—or impractical—even a decade ago, but a wave of new technology has opened up new opportunities. No-code platforms have empowered non-technical creators to build apps and digital services. Direct-to-consumer eCommerce platforms allow individuals to reach a worldwide audience without a worldwide distribution network. Just as new technology gave birth to the original creator economy, so too are new advancements ushering in a new era.

This trend isn’t unique to traditionally creative disciplines, either. Cornelius Fichtner cut his teeth in software development during the 1980s and ‘90s, later transitioning to project management. After a few years leading teams, he launched The Project Management Podcast. Fledgling project managers devoured the episodes and flooded Fichtner’s inbox with requests for more direct training. The rookie podcaster knew better than to ignore such opportunities.

“I built several businesses around the podcast, two of which are now self-sustaining well beyond my career as a podcast creator,” he says. One business is a prep course for project management exams. The other is an examination simulator. “It means I don’t rely on my creator income to sustain me.”

This de-risking strategy isn’t solely for up-and-coming creators, either. American YouTuber Jimmy Donaldson, who publishes under the name MrBeast, boasts a combined audience of 189 million. His stunt videos have garnered more than 23.8 billion views, making him one of the highest-earning YouTube stars of 2020. And yet, even Donaldson is exploring peripheral opportunities, notably two food ventures: a virtual restaurant called MrBeast Burger and a chocolate brand called MrBeast Bars.

The road from YouTube videos to chocolate bars may seem strange, but it’s really the clearest sign of the times. Finding ways to share your art and yourself across different platforms and mediums isn’t just a rare exception for the most popular creators; it’s the rule.

More channels, more options

For as long as there have been creators, there have been calls for diversification. ‘Don’t put all your eggs in the YouTube basket,’ advised marketing experts. ‘The algorithm can take just as easily as it can give.’ ‘Don’t build your only audience on Facebook,’ they said. ‘Organic reach is falling.’ That advice is still valuable, but the contemporary creator economy landscape requires a more nuanced approach than just identical distribution.

Nisha Vora’s long-term plan is to diversify her income streams to reduce her reliance on any one platform. But she knows she can’t copy and paste written recipes to Instagram or YouTube. Instead, she’s tailoring her approach to each platform: long-form videos for YouTube, shorts for Instagram, and charming prose for her cookbook.

For many creators, this is an interesting tradeoff: They can’t simply exist in one place, but they get to enjoy the benefits and community unique to each platform. This also creates an opportunity for businesses and services that want to support the creator economy as a whole. For instance, new platform features like Dropbox Shop allow creators to easily sell content—from e-books and recipes to prints and workout videos—directly to their customers. With every new strand in the web of a modern creator’s network of platforms, storefronts, and social media accounts, there are ways to make their lives simpler and easier. 

Feeling heard, being seen

There’s no going back to the creator economy gold rush of the early 2010s. Once-fledgling platforms are now titans of their industry, and an entire generation grew up seeing streamers and creators as the new rock stars. But more importantly, more and more people looked online and saw themselves.

The end of the one-size-fits-all era of social media platforms means that being any sort of creator is a balancing act. But it also allows so many more voices to break free from the noise and find their own dedicated fans. You can open Etsy and find antique quilts, ceramic dog bowls, or movie-quality Star Wars costumes—and rave reviews from devoted fans of them all. On Twitch, you’re just as likely to see high-octane shooter games on display as you are to watch a middle-aged couple play Farming Simulator while they chat with fans. In a way that was never true for the early internet and or mainstream entertainment industry, the era of the creator economy is one where passion can find an audience, no matter how niche.

With creators drawing their own maps to the next chapter of this space, the businesses and tech that support them should evolve accordingly. Whatever form those iterations take, there’s a ripe market to meet the ever-evolving needs of the creator economy and help creatives focus on what matters most: creating.