In recent years, the “Creator Economy” has become a tech buzzword — something to describe the online platforms and tools that help individual creators make money online. The Creator Economy movement, and its tools, have generally been regarded as a good thing: Bandcamp allows musicians to create a storefront for releases and merch; Patreon allows creators to create subscription membership programs; Substack allows writers to earn money through paid newsletters.
The Creator Economy has transformed the way artists capture direct community support, monetize an audience, and gain independence from traditional intermediaries. Yet, as this movement has matured, a few downsides have emerged. As creators and artists have swapped traditional industry intermediaries for these platforms, a new suite of anxieties and risks has appeared. Today’s Creator Economy has turned creators into lonely sole proprietors, competing with each other and creating content geared towards pleasing the all-powerful algorithms. Platforms have become the new intermediaries themselves.
I believe we are now at the beginning of the end of the Creator Economy and can design new ways to structure our online creative economy. What comes next will likely be informed by new tools and a culture of co-ownership, interdependence, solidarity, and public infrastructure.
The Creator Economy has existed in some form since the inception of user-generated content platforms. It’s not just for musicians or podcasters — everyone is a creator. Even if we aren’t building an audience, we might be Tweeting, posting photos to Instagram, or status updates on Facebook.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, as our lives (and the general economy) moved even further online, the Creator Economy has only grown bigger, to an estimated $1bn in size, while our growing reliance on these platforms produces new risks and challenges. The state of the Creator Economy today is bleak. Bandcamp was purchased by Epic Games, while Patreon, which has raised over $400 million from 11 rounds of venture capital investment, is on a path to an investor exit. Broadly, Creator Economy platforms are on an accelerated trajectory towards trends we expect from legacy tech: consolidated ownership, financialization and value extraction, with less room for artist and creator control.
A wholesale replacement of the Creator Economy is difficult to imagine. We’re in a moment of platform and streaming fatalism, where it's hard to conceive alternatives without inherently accepting the premise of streaming business models or investor ownership. Something new has to be just that: It will require new systems and power structures, rather than incremental reforms or better rented tools. Most importantly, it will require us to expand our thinking towards new and radical collective models. There are already several ideas floating around, including creator-owned platforms, public and free permanent protocols, creator guilds and collectives, scenes becoming their own micro-economies, or even revisiting new versions of one of the industry's most traditional formats: a label.
In the Creator Economy, platforms are mostly owned by investors who have very different interests and priorities than the creators who actively use and rely on them. Creators generate tremendous value for platforms that is rarely given back in kind. As an example, Patreon has a valuation of over $4 billion, yet all that creator-generated value accrues to their investor owners (including Joshua Kushner’s Thrive Capital) instead of the artists who make the content the platform depends on. Creators who build value in a network should be able to not only capture it but have a codified voice in the governance of that network.
One solution to this problem is platforms that function as cooperatives collectively owned by creators and workers. Some examples of cooperative platforms that already exist include Stocksy, Resonate, Drivers Cooperative, Comradery, and Ampled. [Ed note: Ampled is Robey’s project.] All of these platforms are structured so that they are owned by the people who build them and rely on them, rather than speculative investors. Another solution for enabling collective ownership of platforms is DAOs (decentralized autonomous organizations), which are internet-native organizations coordinated through token-based ownership.
Both cooperative and DAO forms (or a blending of both models) can create a network of community-owned platforms that explicitly serve the interests of creative communities rather than capital.
If one solution to the Creator Economy is for artists to collectively own platforms, another solution is for there to be no platform at all. Below the platform layer are protocols that help enable public standards and infrastructure to build on. Most Web2 platforms exist on private infrastructure owned by tech giants like Amazon Web Services, Stripe Connect, PayPal, Shopify, Google Cloud, and more. Although still nascent, there is an encouraging development of Web3 open source protocols that may become a foundation for a new, more equitable and transparent creative economy.
Jacob Horne, founder of the Zora protocol, has outlined the concept of a “hyperstructure”, a crypto protocol that can run for free and forever, without maintenance, interruption or intermediaries. New, creator-focused hyperstructures could provide the underlying infrastructure to enable any group of creators to create and own their own marketplaces, memberships, patronage, or crowdfunding, free from any platform intermediaries.
Right now, the Creator Economy is creativity in single-player mode. Each creator sets up their own isolated page on a platform. These platforms offer no creative career support, meaningful marketing, or context. You’re on your own island, and your job is to invite people to visit.
A new Creator Economy should be in multiplayer mode, enabled by a proliferation of new forms of guilds, collectives, squads, and cooperatives. By working together, creators can use new collectively-owned tools to form their own micro-economies of mutual support. When scenes can start their own smaller-scale organizations built on free and public hyperstructures, they can create spaces that explicitly serve their community interests. The next iteration of the Creator Economy will almost certainly be built on a spirit of solidarity, working together. and community-based economic coordination.
Additionally, we may want to take a closer look at an older model: the label. Labels have a justifiably bad reputation as exploitative intermediaries, though independent labels have also historically made early and risky investments in artistic and cultural output. New label forms that rethink ownership and IP rights may become models for moving away from reliance on Creator Economy platforms.
Metalabels — indie labels for any form of cultural output — could become a container for groups or communities looking to join together to release work. If solutions to the Creator Economy will require solidarity and teaming up with other creators, the metalabel format could be useful as a framing for collective cultural collaboration. We may see more groups explicitly identify as metalabels, as groups of people working under a common identity for a common purpose with a focus on releases — public works that reinforce that group's own cultural outlook.
As the Creator Economy begins to enter a new phase, there is an opportunity for us to design what comes next. There won’t be one catch-all solution. Instead, there will be a suite of many constructive ideas, unified by a culture of co-ownership, solidarity, and collective responsibility. Designing new systems that will succeed the current ones won’t be easy. It will require experimentation and support for new models. And, importantly, it will require expanding our imagination so that more radical Creator Economy solutions are believed to be possible.