Back in March, stay-at-home orders changed businesses overnight. Pubs, clubs and restaurants were condemned to gather dust for months, but other industries quickly transitioned by taking their business online. “It was the shortest board meeting ever,” recalls Bonnie Lister Parsons of the resultant office meeting.
Parsons is CEO of School of SOS, a company with a mission to “empower a whole generation of women” through dance. Her studio, Seen on Screen, had been delivering in-person classes for years, but Parsons was interested in reaching customers worldwide. Having trained instructors around the country during the winter, Parsons saw lockdown as the perfect opportunity to switch to an online membership model—one that was “by far the most profitable and by far the most scalable,” she tells Prospect.
In March, her team of instructors started teaching free classes on Instagram Live, garnering thousands of viewers within days. Soon after, the School of SOS launched a membership programme on Patreon, a crowdfunding platform that enables fans, or “patrons”, to pay and support artists for their work through a one-off donation or a monthly payment. For £11.99 per month, subscribers to the School of SOS get unlimited access to daily classes (videos disappear after 24 hours on Instagram; Patreon users can return to them indefinitely) plus exclusive access to on-demand routines, career confidence webinars, body image workshops and more.
Does everyone win?
School of SOS may be finding success on the platform. But most content creators receive no money at all, says Tobias Regner, a behavioural economist who studies the funding dynamics of Patreon. The website now counts over 180,000 creators across the world—50,000 signed up in March alone—but only a minority actually make a living from their page.
Tom Boruta, a software engineer who collects and visualises Patreon data told Prospect that among the two-thirds (65 per cent) of creators who publish their earnings, 3465 make over $1000 per month. The more popular the creator, the more likely they are to hide their total earnings. At the time of writing, the three top-earning creators are True Crime Obsessed, a podcast with 37,661 patrons paying anywhere between $5 to $20 per month; Yagami Yato, a Youtuber who voices anime characters and creates “vocal artistry” (35,293 patrons paying between $1 to $100 per month) and the podcast Chapo Trap House (35,217 patrons paying a total of $157,596 per month.)
But Patreon is not the only platform doing well. Email providers Substack and MailChimp, known for helping journalists distribute membership-based newsletters, have both seen a spectacular rise in users. OnlyFans, a content-based subscription service most recently associated with uncensored adult content, registered more than 3.5 million new accounts in the past six months.
The premise is always the same: that everyone can profit from monetizing their unique abilities and interests. In The Passion Economy, journalist Adam Davidson argues that “anyone can have a richer life” if they can marry passion and business thanks to “a handful of easy-to-learn rules, a shift of perspective, and a bit of hard work.” Critics, on the other hand, liken the rise of the hustle to the gig economy, noting that even though workers shape their own workload and schedules, they are still dependent on the platforms to succeed.
You still lack power
“There is still an intermediary, just a different one,” said Regner, adding that the platform’s specific goals might be an obstacle to everybody having the same chances. Imagine, for example, starting a Patreon to fund your YouTube channel. The costs of entry are minimal: you just need an email address and content. But whether consumers would actually find you would depend, to a great extent, on YouTube’s and Patreon’s search algorithms. These are made to maximise revenue—and they may well show potential viewers other creators instead.
Moreover, platforms workers can’t claim a minimum wage or paid leave, nor do they have much bargaining power. OnlyFans creators found in October that the site had suddenly introduced limits on how much users could earn.
In spite of this, these platforms have become a lifeline for many, especially sex workers who can use OnlyFans to have greater control of their earnings and avoid unsafe environments. Others have turned to producing adult content as a way to make ends meet in the midst of a deep recession. A woman who goes by @hillkage on OnlyFans started a page in April to supplement her income as a receptionist in an emergency room. “I’m not someone who is known for my sexuality or looks,” she said, “but more so my vibrant personality and so I utilized that as an attention grabber.”
So far, she has made around $200 a month, which she sets aside to pay gas and electricity bills. OnlyFans is “more of a side gig and hobby than a job” to her, especially because she struggles to market herself. “People with fame have the marketing part down easy,” she said, noting the success of celebrities and influencers on the platform. “They don’t even have to work for it!”
@LithaLuna, who started her account a month ago, shared similar thoughts. She said advertising was the only way to differentiate oneself from the “tons of people doing the exact same thing you are”: “doing photoshoots and posting to your OnlyFans is like 10 per cent of the work and the rest is all promotion and advertising to get people to even know you exist” she said. The OnlyFans advice forum on Reddit is full of tips and tricks on scheduling promotional posts across social media platforms.
It seems, then, that making money online is not as easy as companies make it to be. When work only provides a deceptive sense of freedom, and the lines between leisure and labour are blurred, the chance of exploitation rises. Failure is attributed to one’s one lack of initiative rather than the conditions in which the work was set up. Or worse, we attribute it to an enticing but nebulous idea: talent. “But it’s not just talent,” Regner says, “it’s random factors: being there at the right time, at the right place, these kinds of things that determine huge differences in popularity.”