Bloomberg Opinion — The creator economy has undergone a serious evolution. Social media and the rise of sites to paywall or sell work has enabled anyone to become a creator. It’s difficult to truly understand how much the sector is worth, but some estimate it to be around $20 billion, and growing rapidly.
Yet given the amount of work it takes to build and monetize a community online, it’s worth asking: Is it possible to make a sustainable living in the creator economy?
Before we go further, it’s important to differentiate between the creator and the influencer. Of course, there’s overlap between the two — both post content on YouTube, TikTok, Instagram and other platforms. But creators are typically more aligned with artistic interests. They’re primarily making a good, a service or content for their audience. An influencer meanwhile aims to influence their audience through content, as they often earn money through brand partnerships or by referring followers to certain products.
In the last decade, it’s become far easier for creators — visual artists, writers, musicians, comedians, crafters — to connect directly with consumers who want to support their work. (Full disclosure, I’ve been a combination of influencer and online creator for nearly a decade. It started as a blog, which led to four book deals, speaking engagements, courses and a newsletter.)
The creation of Etsy feels like an early change in the tide where suddenly anyone crafty could sell a product directly to consumers. You weren’t confined to a geographic location or a flea market or gallery. You could set your own prices. Sure, Etsy took a cut, but it unleashed a feeling of being entrepreneurial in a scalable way.
Today, there are ample options for monetizing one’s skill set without needing the backing of a big company. Newsletters can go behind paywalls through platforms such as Substack, Ghost or even ConvertKit. Podcasters, musicians, comedians, YouTubers and anyone else can create a Patreon or Buy Me a Coffee account to encourage their community to financially support their work.
But actually eking out a living through these platforms is the conundrum for most creators.
Substack, for instance, states that it typically expects to see 5% to 10% of free subscribers convert into paid subscribers. Creators have control over pricing, but charging $5 to $7 a month for a regular newsletter seems to be the norm. Keep in mind that $5 from a paid subscriber dilutes to $4.05 after Substack’s cut of 10% and the payment processor’s 2.9% + $0.30.
On the surface, that sounds like it could be lucrative. You get 500 people to become paid subscribers and you could see $2,025 a month after fees but before taxes. Depending on how much output a creator is generating, that could be a tidy sum for a minimal amount of work.
Personally, though, that hasn’t been my experience. Despite average open rates above 50% for my free newsletter and a low unsubscribe rate, the conversion from free to paid subscriber is nowhere near 5%. Granted, it’s not even two months old, but so far I’m committing a lot of labor (two newsletters a week) for little monetary pay off. And I’m not the only one suspicious of the 10% conversion to paid subscribers claim. It’s also true that there are Substack superstars who can rake in thousands of dollars a month from paid subscribers.
Most creators know it’s going to take more than one stream of income to create a sustainable living. This could mean multiple streams of income within the creator economy or having a more stable day job to subsidize other projects.
Patreon released a 2022 “Creator Census” with responses from 13,000 of its creators. Respondents said on average they earned 41% of their income on Patreon. The remaining 59% was sliced and diced between teaching/coaching, touring, brand partnerships, book sales, merchandise, ad revenue, subscriptions from other platforms, digital downloads, commissions and “a job related to my creative pursuits.” My personal pie chart of income streams would include most of those slices.
Creators have to understand that an immense amount of labor on a creative project may not yield your entire income, let alone make you rich. Having a quality product, being consistent, being an early adopter and getting some luck seems to be what helps most in earning enough to climb to the top. All those hours of creating may result in other opportunities. But in today’s creator economy, one has to be prepared for what happens if they don’t.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Erin Lowry is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering personal finance. She is author of “Broke Millennial.”