Charlie Puth was discovered after posting his music to YouTube. “Girlboss” Sophia Amoruso launched her fashion and business empire with an eBay account. Amanda Hocking’s self-published paranormal thrillers have sold millions of copies on Amazon.
These are just a handful of notable and highly successful American creators who got their start using the internet. For every massive success story, there are millions of podcasters, mommy bloggers, Etsy shop owners and Instagram influencers benefiting from the internet.
They are bringing their creativity directly to global audiences and generating billions in revenues. Traditionally, any of these creators would have needed to get past the gatekeepers of the recording, film, publishing and investment world; but today those gates have been unlocked, if not demolished entirely.
Our new research finds that, at a minimum, nearly 15 million Americans used the internet to earn money from their creations in 2016. All together, independent American creators earned a baseline of almost $6 billion from posting their music, videos, crafts, opinions, art, photography and more online.
The new creative economy is not limited to traditional tech hubs in Silicon Valley or New York or entertainment hubs like Los Angeles and Nashville. New independent creators live and work in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.
They operate whenever and wherever they want in states across the country, including more than 150,000 creators in Louisiana and more than 200,000 creators in Missouri. YouTube cover artist Peter Hollens operates out of his Oregon garage, for instance.
Some new creators are full-time and earn their primary income from their creative work online. Others blog on WordPress, sell products on eBay and Etsy or author books on Amazon Self-Publishing as a side hustle to bring in extra income.
Due to the limits of public data, these numbers account for only the tip of the iceberg of the new creative economy’s entirety. Only a selection of platforms with accessible data could be included, excluding major music platforms such as Spotify, Pandora and musical.ly.
The internet offers countless ways for creators to earn money — advertising, direct sales, royalties, subscription fees, influencer sponsorships and more, many of which build off of each other. The new estimates are highly conservative, accounting for only one revenue model per platform, though in reality, many creators are using multiple models.
Furthermore, these estimates only include independent creators. They don’t account for the traditional creators who take advantage of the internet and platforms such as Instagram, Facebook and YouTube.
Clothing labels, food brands and travel companies pay billions in sponsorships and endorsements for celebrities to post on their personal Instagram and other social media channels. Revenue-sharing sites like YouTube pay artists for every listen and view on their channels.
Meanwhile, the recording industry, Hollywood, publishing houses and other traditional content industries rely on the internet to drive news, photos, videos and opinions about their works to online audiences across the country and around the world.
You don’t have to see the trailer in a movie theater to get excited about an upcoming film. You don’t have to go to the newstand to hear about a new book.
Music streaming on sites such as Spotify and Pandora is driving billions of dollars in new music revenues. They also open up the music industry to new and independent voices.
The Weeknd started out as a new, independent creator putting his music on YouTube before generating attention online and, ultimately, leveraging billions of streams into a $75 million touring advance. He’s become one of the top music artists in the world — all without being backed by a traditional recording label.
The gatekeepers want people to think they represent all “creators,” but in fact, they continue to ignore the interests of millions of new creators who rely on online platforms. Gatekeeper-backed lobbyists are always looking to roll back balanced copyright provisions like fair use and safe harbors, which big and small platforms rely on to operate.
From fighting the advent of the Betamax, VCR and MTV to 2012’s SOPA/PIPA legislation, the content industry has a long history of attacking technological advancements that have ceded the gatekeepers’ control over what we watch, read, buy and listen to.
The new creative economy liberates today’s generation of creators from the endless auditioning and pleasing the “powers that be” in the hopes of “making it.” The internet enables new creators to bring their art and ideas straight to the people and, if people like it, to monetize their creativity.
In turn, it empowers us — the users and consumers — to decide what we want to watch, read, buy and listen to. We no longer depend on the gatekeepers to decide popularity and success.
Today, creativity can be shared around the world with only a wifi signal and the click of a button. A new golden era of creativity is underway and will continue to flourish as long as we prevent the old guard from inhibiting it.
Joshua Lamel is the executive director of the Re:Create Coalition, an organization that includes the Center for Democracy and Technology, the American Library Association, Public Knowledge, and Freedom Works and advocates for balanced copyright.