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Are Vloggers Growing Up and Facing the Creative Economy?

A lot of people in my online networks have been sharing a popular article on Fusion, ‘Get Rich or Die Vlogging‘ by Gaby Dunn – one half of Youtube comedy duo Just Between Us who have amassed more than 500,000 subscribers. It’s worth taking a look at the full article, but the summary is that it turns out you can have potentially millions of followers on Youtube, Instagram, Snapchat or any other social network, and still be struggling financially.

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This is apparently a shocking revelation – ‘Why would someone with 90,000 Instagram followers be serving brunch?’

Without being patronising, it’s a familiar tale to anyone familiar with creativity beyond the last handful of years. Ask the likes of Hugh McLeod, Austin Kleon, or Mason Curry.

Probably the most ignored fact about any creative or artistic endeavour is that even many of the famous names we’re familiar with either struggled financially or died penniless. The most famous composers were either poor, such as Elgar, or managed to live beyond their means and get into huge debts. Or take painters such as Rembrandt, Vermeer, Gaugin and Van Gogh. Penniless writers include the likes of Herman Melville and Oscar Wilde.

In some cases, it was due to talent being discovered only after the artist had passed away. But it was as often due to the instability of earning a living from creativity and terrible business acumen and decisions. Unfortunately Gaby dismisses the ‘starving artist vs sell-out’ paradigm as ‘thankfully, Van Gogh didn’t have to shill for Audible.com to pissed-off fans of his art‘. Luckily he only had poverty, mental illness, self-mutilation and suicide.

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Then came the broadcast media of the 20th Century. And yet creative people known around the globe could still be financially destitute. Actors and actresses, musicians, sports stars – they were all capable of fame without fortune.

And then came the internet. Many bloggers started with hopes of full-time self-employment at their laptop only to realise that actually it’s as tough to be successful as ever – increased accessibility not only means more competition, but more advertising inventory and lower payments.

 

Just because you can, doesn’t mean you will:

The open ability for anyone to publish articles, videos, music or art doesn’t mean that everyone is suddenly about to earn millions, or even a reasonable middle class income, by being internet famous. The power law curve and Pareto distribution written about a decade ago by Chris Anderson as ‘The Long Tail’ benefits the aggregators of digital content which can be supplied to niche audiences with miniscule costs. Amazon can hold an infinite stock of digital books that may sell one copy a year and make a big profit on the aggregate sales, while Youtube can offer videos on every subject and combine a big enough audience for advertisers.

It doesn’t mean that because you can publish to the internet that it’s any easier to make a creative living than it ever was.

You can plugin advertising services and affiliate links, but you need an ever-increasing scale for ad revenue, despite all the talk about how advertisers would target relevant niches. And you need scale or a very devoted following to make money from affiliates unless it’s an extremely high commission, in which case competition is fierce.

And whatever your medium or platform, you need to be in the top few percent to make it viable as a decent standalone income. There’s only room for a handful of videogame Youtubers, fashion vloggers or Instagram models to make it rich, and the next tier of a livable income is not that much bigger.

 

So what to do?

There’s no simple answer for how creative people can live a prosperous life. But some soul searching and looking at the motivation for being creative in the first place will help.

If you want to enjoy making things without any pressure at all, get a day job and treat your creative passion purely as a hobby you can enjoy regardless of whether anyone else is involved. Write, paint, draw, sculpt, weld, dance, or whatever takes your fancy and don’t put it on social media to build up followers or define your personal brand. Share it with friends and family if you like, and just enjoy yourself.

It’s possible that you may build your hobby into a side business that makes a little extra cash and that’s cool. Use the money to treat yourself or stick into a savings account for the future. Keep the day job, spend some spare time on your side business and remember to also go out and have fun. There are lots of ways to minimise the time running a side business can take, and registering as a sole trader is quick and painless. Budget for some basic accountancy software and an accountant to check your returns and life can be fairly simple.

But then there’s the desire to earn your full potential wages as a creative artist hunched over an easel, potters wheel or laptop in a loft apartment located in a bohemian part of a swinging city.

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There are lots of things you may have to think about should this become your career plan

  • You need to fully engage in the business side of things. How to sell products and services directly to customers or other businesses? How to find potential advertisers to deal with? How to meet other business owners (because that’s what you are now) and find out how they get the most profit, or what you should be charging?
  • Realise that you’re going to spend 50% per cent of your time not being able to sit and be creative because you’re doing admin and business work. And that’s if you’re lucky. And you’ll need to do that for a while before you can start looking at virtual assistants or help to get some of the time back.
  • Accept that you may need to focus on work besides your long awaited ‘Great American Novel’ or ‘Cinematic Epic for Millenials’. But you should also realise that everyone with a laptop now considers themselves a social media marketer, commercial copywriter, and logo designer (if they’ve bought Photoshop). So that side of your income can be as much of a struggle, and take as much of your time.
  • And finally you need to be open and honest with yourself and realise that it’s OK if you don’t make it rich. It’s possible that you may not find success in your lifetime, and that’s not the end of the world. As a business owner you can pivot and try different revenue streams, hone your product and tailor it to what people want. And that’s what most people try to do without losing their passion or vision.

 

WTF does he know?

I’m not a world famous blogger, Youtuber, musician or actor. I’m one of the majority of people who operate somewhere between obscurity and being on the cusp of a good living. And I’ve maintained that for several years since I was last employed full-time.

I run a marketing business and consultancy which earns me most of my income. I run a handful of websites with some very talented people which are starting to deliver small financial returns after a lot of hard work. And I write articles like this which will probably earn me absolutely nothing, but hopefully help to build my business and reputation.

I may never see my company make millions, and I used to get depressed about the fact I hadn’t made a fortune by 25, 30, *ahem* 35. But given that I’ve lasted longer than the lifespan of most companies, I’ve been able to earn a reasonable living by largely doing things I enjoy, and I’ve made progress in building my own brands and websites which I can be proud of (And which give a platform to a whole load of talented new people), then I’m OK with that.

As I wrote earlier, I can identify with the problems Gaby is experiencing. I’m lucky enough to have great clients, but I still need to improve my financial situation for myself and to hopefully support more people in the future. Which means if I do miss out or turn down work, it can lead to worry and guilt for a bit.

And I appreciate the challenge of authenticity and maintaining an audience whilst posting branded content to pay the bills – I never felt comfortable blogging about how to make millions from writing a blog like many did during the boom time.

Just remember, fame does not equal money. And creativity and happiness doesn’t depend on either of them.

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