In my last piece, I proposed that the media companies of tomorrow should look like the record labels of today. In the music industry, talent is the driving force behind its business. Talent is the source of the reputation and the end of the line when it comes to driving financial returns. Without world-class talent creating great products, it doesn’t matter how well you promote or polish it — the results will be the same.
The “monetize the individual” disruption in media serves as an opportunity for business reinvention of companies who choose to recognize and react to this newly acknowledged trend forming. It’s not just about enabling and liberating talent, but more importantly about maintaining, supporting and growing that individual’s business better than they’re able to do on their own or elsewhere. The future media business will extend to newfound territory that fortunately for them, is right in its wheelhouse: Talent Management (Artists and Repertoire A&R).
Now if media companies are record labels then journalists are rock stars. And while media companies spend time working to restructure and focus their business on talent and become “the label”, we’ll see a lot of individuals exit the major “labels” and go independent. These creators will then structure themselves as independent media companies and develop micro labels themselves.
As these media companies and platforms start to become venues for creator operations and development, the individual’s brand becomes a business of its own. The journey someone takes to build their business is completely uncharted and adapts natively to their specific needs. That’s because this new world is one won by Janes of all trade. It encourages experiential nuance & a ‘build the plane while you’re flying it’ approach to entrepreneurship. What’s most often discussed are individuals who leave a media company to go and build a brand of their own. Their background is usually as a writer, designer, editor and they carry their individual reputation from a known publication or Twitter to their new independent business.
But the opposite is also happening; entrepreneurial minds who have built businesses at established companies or on their own are also choosing a path to become creators themselves. So unlike those who have built a career in media or journalism and now decide to become entrepreneurs, there are those who have built a career in business or tech and now decide to become journalists.
This is what I’m calling the age of the Renaissance Creator — the hybridization of the individual as both a creator and an entrepreneur. This development and definition of ‘creativity’ is one of the more interesting things happening today because it is contrary to the supposed logic for a creator to go independent. We like to say independence (see: passion economy) is valuable because it lets a creator focus on what they do best; create. But actually it’s the opposite. By going independent, the creator is aspiring to not only create, but willingly assume the management and business of their entire self. This acceptance of responsibility as a formula for success will dictate a creator’s desire to go independent and develop a micro-label or decide to limit duties and create within a larger media organization.
I want to be a creator. I want to be a business. I want to be a brand.
Platforms have made it more achievable than ever to gain experience vertically within specific categories and port that individual’s reputation horizontally from one network to another. Because of this, all aspiring creators now compete on the same playing field. Each platform is a building block for the individual’s brand and affords them clout and entry into another platform. We’re seeing this happen in real-time across media, with journalists leaving large umbrella media companies to go independent, finding a home to build their core business & then extend the reputation of that business to further monetize their own brand, and create their own label.
Newsletters are mixtapes.
The independent writer business is not new. It’s an evolution from blogging that has now found a home through newsletter platforms like Substack that enable anyone, from any background, the ability to build their own label. If you can write, build an audience & manage distribution, you are now a media company. And that transition from creating to becoming an entrepreneur (building an audience, managing distribution) is a phenomenon that’s insanely exciting but also really hard. Platforms like Twitter make this audience building and portability easier, but that’s more attainable on the journalist to entrepreneur track vs. the entrepreneur to journalist track. It’s also evolved the idea of journalism and has invited many unconventional backgrounds of writers into the journalism business.
There is a rally cry from traditional news organizations and media outlets who say “these aren’t journalists!” or “these aren’t media companies!”. Much like a major label wouldn’t consider an indie label competition until it takes their business, the same situation is unraveling in the new creator economy: journalists and writers are leaving institutions to try and build the next evolution of the media business on their own. As larger media companies become labels, their value to the creator needs to supplement the value the creator can attain on their own. In the era of the Renaissance Creator, all definitions are reconsidered. All businesses are reinvented.
If independent writers are like independent artists, newsletters are an entry into the media business like mixtapes are an entry into the music business. That’s because newsletters offer a medium of creation that has no barrier to entry and no production costs other than the willingness for the person to enter the ring and write. The business, the audience, the words, the design, the distribution…EVERYTHING is on the individual to learn, adapt and build on their own. This ownership of responsibility driving the hybridization of the individual is why we’re seeing such a unique mix of creators and journalists taking different paths to becoming stars. But now instead of grabbing a rapper’s CD from the spin rack at an Exxon/Mobil, you’re putting your email in a sign up box and it’s being delivered directly to you.
And like mixtapes, the newsletter relationship is creating a cult-like following for the creator, turning readers into fans. The fan comes along for the ride as the writer moves from amateur status to stardom and it introduces a relationship with the creator that’s personal. This opens up a ton of opportunities for emerging businesses and, visibly, a possible transition for creator’s as they exit the passion economy and move towards the ownership economy. When fans are invested in a creator’s success, the economics change for both the creator and the consumer.
A new value on content
There’s a bizarre connection between what newsletters did for content and what streaming did for music that is worth paying attention to. In today’s media business, content’s value is, well, often valueless. The fuel of the information ecosystem is “breaking news” which is usually released by a larger publication and then runs through the creator lifecycle of syndication, curation, aggregation and then resuscitation. That information is most valuable when it “breaks”, then when there’s commentary on the curation and then it’s worth is dictated by programmatic level CPMs until it fizzles. This has encouraged consumers to believe that content should be free, or at least at some time, available for consumption at no cost.
But this isn’t the same with newsletters. Newsletters have put tangible value on a creator’s work that has allowed them to build a business around both their individual brand and the content that they create. It is both a platform and a format. It’s enabled the creator to deliver thoughtful analysis with a consistent point of view. It’s allowed them to create a “micro label” business outside of the management of larger holding companies. It’s valuable.
Let’s compare: Readers assume content is free. Music became free. Napster wasn’t about making music free as much as it was about user experience and user control. Listeners demanded a better experience and Napster was the catalyst for that. Newsletters, and curation are similar. Out of Napster came streaming. With a new user experience and ability to give listeners control of what they wanted to listen to, they not only stopped stealing music but they started paying for it. The product valued music by the listeners on a level that was lost with the introduction of Napster and earned back again through experience.
Prior to this newsletter boom, readers have been doing anything possible to circumvent the payment experience. Again, this isn’t about paying for content but more so about needing control, needing a better experience and thus the casualty of that desire is media companies losing revenue (ad blockers and circumventing paywalls). But what’s incredible with newsletters is, people aren’t looking for ways to steal content. In fact, content is more portable than ever (I forward this email to you) but it’s not being done because the experience and control is finally made available to that particular reader. So much so, that they’re even starting to pay for it.
Curation is so similar to playlists — people steal content because they don’t want to pay for a bundle subscription in order to read a single article just like people were stealing music because they didn’t want to buy a CD to listen to a single song. New formats breed new models and people value choice. Before streaming, creating custom playlists were difficult and piracy allowed users to curate their own experience. Before newsletters, creating personalized content feeds were difficult but now you, the reader, are able to create your own bundles.
As you can see, not only has this format enabled any creator to enter the venue and launch a media company, but it’s also enabled a new way of thinking of putting value on the creator work which then breeds new business models tied to ownership, consumer relationship (ie. customers are fans) and beyond.
A new value on creator
Options create value, and what we’re seeing in the creator economy is a recalibration of not just the product that’s produced, but the producers themselves. Traditionally, creators who worked within media organizations were undervalued simply because the reputation is on the company itself. All individuals within the organization contribute to building the business and reputation of the larger holding company, which means individual reputation contribution is difficult to calculate and put value on. It took the Economist 176 years to finally add bylines to some of their content pages. The holy shit! moment of creator’s realizing that their value *could* be larger than it’s getting credit for started with platforms and the ability to accumulate and engage followers directly on platforms. But the emergence of platforms like Substack, OnlyFans, Cameo & Patreon have accelerated that and are creating a new market indicator for individuals similar to what free agency does to athletes.
Let’s use the NFL as an example. Not every quarterback in the NFL is valued the same because they’re a quarterback in the NFL. There is an open marketplace, free-agency, that leverages a community and auction process to assess the value of a player based on many factors. Before the enablement of creator’s to operate their own businesses in the passion economy, all creator value under the umbrella of a media organization was generalized or, oftentimes, devalued. It seems obvious that all creators are different, like QBs are, yet we value them the same because there has never been a marketplace or venue for the community/readers to openly bid, purchase and set the value of the creator’s work. In this new environment, creator’s take a step further than the QB in that they are now actually in a free-market. Anyone has a shot. Anyone can demand value.
What we’re seeing with the emergence of these platforms and adoption by creators is the venue for a market dictating ‘value per individual’ creator. Using Substack for example, each writer can set their own price, product & expand membership products and benefits any which way. It’s dictated by the creator and the consumer decides whether or not they think it’s valuable. If they agree, the value is set. Before Substack, if an individual writer wrote for a publication, they had no idea what their ‘value per individual’ was. They knew their traffic, or their following on platforms outside of that publication, but internally their value was diluted amongst others.
What platforms in the passion economy bring is a direct value attribution by the fans to creators that’s dictated by all market factors (competition, content, platform, budget). As I argued in my last piece, these are benefits that larger media companies need to adopt as the attraction of brand reputation is now second to their ability to be excellent distributors, developers and managers of talent and talent’s product.
These models result in more value for creators, a financial opportunity and business tied to independence and a true value reset on the contributors that make the creative economy run.
In the era of the Renaissance Creator, there are options. As media companies position themselves to put a bigger emphasis on the creator and transition their value proposition to include A&R and an opportunity for individuals to build their brand under the larger halo, individuals are entertaining the value of not only going solo but building micro labels themselves. This doesn’t just change the construct of how creators transact and engage with consumers but alters the actual structure of how the business itself is established. The business of the Renaissance Creator and its creation of micro labels may adopt the models of the major labels, iterate on existing business practices or create new ones entirely.
A great example of this is around the announcement of The Defector. The team behind Deadspin just announced Tuesday that they’re launching a new media business, The Defector. It’s a 20 person media operation built on top of Pico, Stripe and Mailchimp. It is truly one of the first structured media Co-Ops in that each journalist owns their IP and owns, literally, about ~5% of the company. This means that if one journalist decides to leave, she can, the structure remains intact. This is one of the first examples of creators moving from the passion to the ownership economy, especially if business models begin acknowledging and rewarding participation from their customers.
This business is accelerating. We’re seeing independent creators rebundle the unbundled newsroom and developing their own micro-labels anchored on platforms such as Substack. We’re seeing creators teaming up and organizing themselves to build collaboration groups to naturally support one another. We’ll start to see more products and companies focused on creator comfort (how can I be better at creating?) and confidence (how can I financially do this?) explode and surpass the value of the creative tools these individuals are building on.
And as business models drive product strategy, we’ll see continued momentum move away from programmatic based advertising models and umbrella subscription efforts and towards an entirely new opportunity for monetization on top of the individual.
The new media economy will be built on a foundation of the very things that drive its value: the creator and the creator’s product
Rock and roll.