An excellent (and damning) piece by Kyle Chayka over at the New Yorker posited that the “creator economy” - the idea that creators can now directly monetize their audience - is veering violently toward the world of gig work. Chayka makes several very good points, remarking about how the terminology of “creator” is mostly used to entice creative people onto them, and that, simmered down, "…this emerging field…resembles a gig economy for digital content.”
The creator economy is something that isn’t new so much as it’s a new term. In another damning piece from the New Yorker, Jia Tolentino connected Fiverr - an almost self-aware name for a company that dilutes people’s work to $5 - with exploiting the “…American obsession with self-reliance,” making it “acceptable to applaud an individual for working himself to death.” What I will add to this is that Fiverr also exploits the general desperation for globally worldwide - and has been a company that directly eroded the value of creative labor for many years before Patreon or other platforms launched.
I think where the creator economy diverges from Fiverr’s origins is in the form of companies like Patreon and OnlyFans, where the value proposition was less about bespoke content creation and more around monetizing an audience. Theoretically, this is a good thing - it allows the creator to make money from their creation and interact with their fans, as well as centralize an audience that they can easily distribute to. However, the moment that payment enters the picture, things become hairier - the moment that another company handles the money, they control your income, and can control how often you get paid and by whom. OnlyFans famously changed their terms and conditions after Bella Thorne joined the service, limiting both how much a creator could make and making it take longer to pay them.
All of this while still paying an 8-12% (Patreon) or 20% (OnlyFans) cut of what you make, all for providing what amounts to a content distribution system and payment rails. These platforms may pretend that they’re pro-creator, but they are really trying to become similar to Amazon - they want to be the storefront through which creators interact with their audience, where the audience is owned by the platform, where the creations are served on the platform, and - crucially - content that is not served on these platforms is considered less trustworthy and valid.
In the same way that people are more likely to buy something from Amazon because they have prime shipping and customer service, someone is more likely to subscribe to a creator on Patreon than they are on another platform. Why? Because they know the user experience, they know that there’s customer support, and it’s generally easier rather than better. There is little product differentiation in serving up other people’s content, but the early land-grab by Patreon and OnlyFans means that they are able to basically bend people to their will - just like Amazon - so that they can continue to have an audience through their platform.
This is why these platforms are able to wield such power - at some point, leaving a platform becomes a net negative, even with the unfair amount of money they’re taking, because it would require you to convince your users to move over to another platform. Once a user has set something to automatically renew, they’re likely to be stuck there - and moving off of a “trusted” platform may make them less likely to pay. It’s also (intentionally) difficult to move your subscribers to a new platform - after all, why would Patreon or OnlyFans make taking away their cut possible, let alone easy?
Even Spore, a platform that is “free to start with” takes a 10% cut off the top, and Substack takes 10% of subscription revenue plus another 2.9% cut from Stripe, but in both cases allow you to actually own your audience (and export it) and get paid directly.
I am not against any cut being taken (things do cost money, after all), but what a remarkable amount of these companies do is provide very little in the way of early promotion to get your creative enterprise going, but profit off of every moment of your success. It may seem very new, but it’s the extremely old guard, somewhere between the old guard publishing industry, that takes its cut while doing very little to promote or grow the revenue from the book that they’re going to make money off of anyway. And they’re doing it in the same way that publishers (and Amazon) have - by controlling the predominant means of production and distribution, and making their platforms, the trusted means of receiving your content. They guarantee nothing other than their ability to take money from someone that’s willing to give it to you, and leave you with whatever is left on the terms and at the speed they decide.
It is the Amazon playbook - becoming the trusted eCommerce platform for whatever it is a user wants to do, without the messy business of actually having to do anything. There is very little that differentiates these platforms other than a large amount of people on them, which is the moat that they’ve built with VC capital claiming that they’re pro-creator. If they were simply providing the means for someone to start a business online, they’d charge a monthly fee (like Shopify), but it’s much easier to convince someone early on to take a small percentage cut with the vague promise that “we are all in this together,” a shared success that becomes more burdensome and hard to justify the larger your audience gets, but also more difficult to disconnect from in the process.
It’s all wrapped up in the disingenuous hustle logic that creativity is not labor. Patreon says that it is a “way to get paid for creating the things you’re already creating,” as if your Patrons, once they’ve started paying you, don’t see what you’re doing as a service. This is the justification that the creator economy uses to justify swindling creators - that this is all vocational work that you, on some level, should be grateful you can make a single cent from, and glorious, generous creator economy companies are there to “help.” This is the intentional framing of the creator economy that these companies want - that they’re “enabling people to make money doing what they love,” as if that isn’t work, as if it’s something that’s inferior to work because you may enjoy it, and thus they can justify taking on billions of dollars in funding as a means to drain creators of the money from that labor.