The pandemic disrupted the labor force, but in the process also seems to have accelerated a certain type of entrepreneurialism: the startup “creative.” This includes performers of various sorts on platforms such as YouTube and TikTok, and writers and visual artists using the likes of Substack and Medium.
Many of these individuals would have previously worked for media organizations or been shut out of what used to be a narrow funnel for live or video performance. Most of those trying this direct-to-consumer reach have little or no commercial success, but many reach audiences in the millions and gross hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. (A similar phenomenon may be seen in the crafts sector, based on the boom at a site like Etsy.)
For those with the most ability to convert “hits” into payment streams, this presents a welcome financial challenge: managing growth in their enterprises (which can quickly take on support staff) while ramping up income. The banking system was not well prepared to finance these newfangled businesses and has lagged in establishing proper values for the inventory of content they produce.
On the creator side, the odds of making much of a living are still daunting, with a 1% vs. 99% ratio is commonly applied. But according to Simon Owens, a Substacker himself who produces there one of the best newsletters tracking the field, this breakdown is too pessimistic. Among those who doggedly put out content rather than simply dabble occasionally, the chances of at least eking out entry-level media industry pay are decidedly better. And, in one of his recent posts, he argues that substantive journalism (in this case, a self-styled watchdog on the political right) can sell—it’s not just argumentative punditry.
In some sense, the cacophony of the modern internet has made this opportunity possible, although a sorting-out process, probably involving groupings of output—much like the old newspapers and magazines—will be needed to keep customers paying up for informational material. The danger there is that the preferred platforms will be under pressure to stifle outlying voices, undoing one of the arguable attributes of a disaggregated town square. As it is, YouTube faces accusations of such “censorship,” while Substack maintains that a “no cancel” openness was one of its basic reasons for existing.
The downfall of much traditional media has been a sore point for many of us from that old guard. And no one has convincingly shown how the new individualized model can effectively report on important elements of public life, such as state and local public affairs or business, large and small. But the dying model had its significant limits (including the frequent sway of sponsors and the often miserable pay for incoming or tiny-publication talent). Having an alternative blossom on the web is testimony to the “market” that exists for well-chosen words and sounds, and the trick is to satisfy it.