Back in March, I tried to persuade my dad to stop taking the subway to work in Manhattan and join me on the state. So I paid $ 75 to Leonard Marshall, a retired New York Giants defensive lineman who we both loved in the 1980s to send the message.
“I’m putting some guys in the hospital, Bob,” he said told my father solemnly. “I need you to play defense during these crazy times.”
It worked, and my dad hasn’t been to Times Square since.
I had reached Mr. Marshall through Cameo, a service that lets you buy short films from smaller celebrities. I also used Cameo to buy a pep talk from an Olympic Triathlete for my daughter ($ 15), a gratifying monologue for my new boss from a former Boston Red Sox boss ($ 100) and a failed Twitter joke Comes by action star Chuck Norris ($ 229.99).
Cameo blows up during this strange season because “every celebrity is really a player in the game,” said Steven Galanis, the company’s CEO. They are stuck at home, bored and sometimes difficult for cash as performances, productions and sporting events dry up. The company’s weekly bookings have grown to 70,000 from about 9,000 in early January, it says, and Galanis said he expected to receive more than $ 100 million in bookings this year, of which the company retains 25 percent. The company expects to sell its millions of videos this week.
Cameo is on its face a service that allows homeless idiots to blow money on stupid screams. Seen in another way, however, it is a new model company that is at the intersection of a set of powerful trends that are accelerating in the current crisis. It is the rise of simple, digital direct payments, which replaces advertising as the main source of media revenue. There is the growing power of talent, buzzing from superstars to half-forgotten former athletes and even working journalists. And that’s the old one promise of the former internet that you could make money if you only had “1,000 true fans” – a promise that advertising-based companies from blogs to YouTube channels were unable to deliver.
In this new economy, maybe some people can make a living from just 100 real fans, because Li Jin, a former partner at venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, argued recently. Jin calls this new landscape the “passion economy”. She claims that apps like Uber and DoorDash are built to erase the differences between individual drivers or food suppliers. But similar tools, she says, can be used to “make money on individuality.”
Many of these trends are well developed in China, but here in the US, the passion economy covers everyone from the small merchants who use Shopify to the design instructors for the education platform Udemy.
In the media industry’s main heart, both artists and writers are moving quickly to find new business models because huge swathes of the media industry have been damaged or shut down by the coronavirus pandemic. At Patreon, the first and broadest of the major services that connect writers and artists to the audience, founder Jack Conte said he was recently pleased to see one of his favorite bands, Of Montreal, drop music on the platform.
“Traditional music that comes to Patreon is a watershed moment,” he said.
In the news industry, journalists are taking new paths to Substack, a newsletter service. Its most successful individual votes – such as Chinese expert Bill Bishop and liberal political writer Judd Legum – earn well in six figures annually to send regular newsletters to subscribers, though no person has gone over millions of dollars, the company says.
For some writers, Substack is a way to get their work out of an institution. Emily Atkin felt this need intensely when a climate forum she organized last year for presidential candidates, while a writer for The New Republic, collapsed amid a scandal over an unrelated column about Mayor Pete Buttigieg that appeared in that publication.
Now, says Miss Atkin, who writes a confrontation climate newsletter called Heated, she is “shockingly hopeful.”
“I have no redundancies happening on my newsletter, so I do better than most of the newsletter industry,” she said.
Atkin, who is 11th on Substack’s paid newsletter ranking and was more willing than Mr. Bishop or Mr. Legum to talk in detail about the business, said she was about to gross $ 175,000 this year from more than 2,500 subscribers. Of that, she will pay for medical care, a research assistant and a 10 percent fee to Substack, among other costs.
For others, Substack is a way to continue the work they are passionate about when a job disappears, as Lindsay Gibbs found when the liberal news site ThinkProgress closed last year and beat her in line with sexism in sports.
She now has more than 1,000 subscribers Power Plays, pays as much as $ 72 per year.
Both started with $ 20,000 advance from the platform.
“The audience that directly connects to you and pays directly is a revolutionary change to the business model,” said Substack’s CEO, Chris Best.
It’s hard to imagine even the most successful writers, such as Mr. Bishop and Ms. Atkin, who pose a huge threat to the titans in the media at any time, especially as a few large institutions – whether in news or streaming video – dominate every market. But the two authors’ path to success points to the reality that the greatest threat to these institutions may come from their talented employees.
That dynamic was shown in a confrontation between Barstool Sports and the hosts of their hit podcast, “Call Her Daddy,” as my colleague Taylor Lorenz reported last week. The media company’s stars, with huge following on social media and more and more ways to make money, are less and less willing to act as employees. (“Call her dad” girls would make more than half a million dollars a year with me, “said Galanis from Cameo.” High Pitch Erik from “The Howard Stern Show” makes low six figures. “)
Substack represents a radically different alternative, where the “media company” is a service and the journalists are responsible. That’s what one of the pioneers of the modern newsletter industry, technology analyst Ben Thompson, describes as a “faceless” publisher. And you can imagine it or its competitors offering more services, from insurance to marketing to editing, reversing the dynamics of the old top-down media company and producing something more like a talent agency, where the individual journalist is the star and the boss, and the editor is just on call.
The new media companies with passion economics converge in certain ways. Those like Patreon and Substack, who primarily work in the background, are now looking at accurate ways to bundle their offerings, their executives say. Medium, which lets you subscribe to its entire author package, is looking for ways to foster more intimate connections between individuals and their followers, said founder Ev Williams. Cameo, which has a front page in its app and website but which mostly sells occasional shout-outs, switches to a model that is more like subscribing to a celebrity: For a price you will be able to send instant messages that appear in a priority inbox.
“We think messages back and forth are where the puck goes with Cameo,” Galanis said.
Is that good news? The rise of these new companies can further shake our wandering institutions, shatter our fragmented media and cement celebrity culture. Or they can pay for a new wave of powerful independent voices and offer steady work to people who are doing valuable work – such as journalists covering narrow, important pieces of the world – who have no other source of income. Like the entire collision between the internet and the media, it will undoubtedly be part of both.
In Silicon Valley, where East Coast institutions of journalism are often seen as another set of hostile gatekeepers to be disturbed, senior executives cheer for a possible challenger. Mr. Best, the Substack chief, told me that venture capitalist Marc Andreessen, whose company has invested in the company, said he hoped it would “do with big media companies what venture capital did with big tech companies” – that is, the scale of their largest stars with the promise of money and freedom and create new kinds of news companies.
One of the things I find most gratifying in these uneven times is the creation of a new space for a middle class of journalists and entertainers – the idea that you can make money, if not a killing, by working hard for a limited audience. Even people who play a modest role in a cultural phenomenon can enjoy it, which is what happened to the Netflix documentary “Tiger King.”
When the documentary got big in March, Cameo reported 10 of his ragtag crew of, mostly, amateur zookeepers. It came just in time for Kelci Saffery, best known on the show to return to work shortly after dropping a hand to a tiger. Mr. Saffery now lives in California and lost his job at a furniture store when the pandemic hit. To his shock, he has earned about $ 17,000, as well as a measure of recognition, though the request declines.
“Every day I get at least one, and to me, it still means that every day a person thinks ‘Hey, this would be cool,’ and to me it’s significant,” he said. As for the money, “it can send one of my kids to college.”