The creator economy is a growing field of people who make money by leveraging their creative talents, typically using digital platforms to connect with their audiences.
About 50 million people, including artists, gaming streamers, video creators, podcasters, musicians, and social-media influencers, now consider themselves part of the creator economy, according to venture capital firm SignalFire, which calls this space “the fastest-growing type of small business.”
The size of the creator economy is hotly debated, along with who “counts” as part of this ecosystem. But there’s no debate that it’s big, and growing quickly: Some peg the worth of the creator economy at $104.2 billion as of mid-2022, according to Insider Intelligence. The National Endowment for the Arts and the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis says it’s even bigger—estimating that arts and creative-culture jobs contribute more than $763.6 billion to the U.S. economy, more than agriculture or transportation.
Given that size and influence, companies are increasingly choosing to partner with creators to get their messaging and products directly in front of loyal audiences and communities.
What exactly is a creator?
If you’re making original content—and, typically, distributing it online—you’re a creator. While some see their content as a hobby, many others aim to monetize content and get paid through ad revenue, brand partnerships, and other revenue streams. A few of the most well-known creator categories are:
Video creators and streamers
People who create video content can make money by serving ads alongside their videos or integrated within their videos as product placements and endorsements. Those with a big following can rack up cash for those impressions. YouTube said in mid-2022 that it had paid creators, artists, and media companies more than $50 billion over the previous three years.
These creators may also partner with brands that pay them to talk about a product or service or solicit ongoing sponsorships from companies, with federal law requiring disclosure of the arrangement. Some also collect fan donations: Streamers on interactive livestreaming service Twitch, for example, may invite fans to support their content like gaming, sports, and more.
Social media influencers
Similar to video creators, influencers on platforms like TikTok and Instagram may be paid by brands to promote products to their followers, creating photos, videos, stories, reels, or other content (with, as always, a disclosure).
Podcast producers can monetize their shows by playing recorded ads throughout the content or having their hosts discuss a brand’s product or service directly while disclosing the partnership. Popular pods can also generate revenue by selling merchandise to fans.
Some podcasters also monetize the actual content of the show, putting some or all episodes behind a paywall of sorts. They can offer podcast memberships through platforms such as Memberful, offering supporters some additional premium content or making the entire show available only to members. Top pods may also sell their entire catalog to platforms like Spotify, which buys content to entice new members and retain existing subscribers.
Visual, musical, and other artists
Comic-book writers, illustrators, musicians, and other artists have found success building communities through platforms like Patreon and Bandcamp to sell directly to fans. Some visual artists have also sold their work as NFTs (non-fungible tokens), which are typically purchased using cryptocurrency.
Why is the creator economy growing so fast?
Several technology, economy, and generational trends have contributed to the rise of the creator economy.
The Internet is democratizing creative industries once gatekept by a select few. Music labels, book publishers, production studios, and other media titans once exerted significant control over not only which creators broke through, but how much they were paid. Now technologies like creator marketplaces, social media, content-creation tools, payment processors, and more have allowed creators to connect directly with their communities on their own terms—financial and otherwise. The biggest hassle for many creators is getting paid on time for their work, creating an opportunity for companies that provide instant payouts to stand out in this creator economy.
Economic crises like 2008’s Great Recession and the COVID slowdown have led to mass layoffs and a fundamental change in the workforce. Some people who faced layoffs became part of the gig economy, taking on project-based or short-term work as independent contractors until they found a new full-time job; others continued with gigs as their main source of income.
Whether they were forced into it or chose it, these independent workers have changed the concept of what a job can be—and how much control a worker can have over their own day-to-day and their own income. In fact, some experts predict freelancers will comprise half the workforce by 2030. And creators are a huge part of that trend.
What’s more, recent mass layoffs in media, tech, and other creative industries have narrowed the opportunities for traditional employment in those sectors, which may make self-employment more attractive.
Millennials, Generation Z, and the up-and-coming Gen Alpha have embraced the shift toward self-employment and entrepreneurship. In 2022, 43% of Gen-Z professionals and 46% of Millennial workers performed at least some freelance work, according to Upwork.
Some see the creator economy as a way to build not only personal income but entire businesses around their work. They’re also digital natives who possess a high degree of comfort with the tools and platforms that fuel the creator economy.
These generations tend to prefer connections with personalities rather than general publisher brands. The current social and cultural landscape reflects their desire for and valuing of diverse, unique, and personalized content.
What are the benefits of the creator economy?
Rather than sign restrictive contracts with a record label or punch the proverbial clock at a 9-to-5, creators have more control over how and when they produce their work, as well as how they distribute and monetize it.
Creator platforms are often designed for connecting directly with fans, allowing creators to solicit feedback, foster a relationship with followers, retain control over their brands, and generally build a community the way they choose to do it.
Multiple revenue streams
Depending on the type of content a creator produces and how popular they become, creators may have the opportunity to make money through brand partnerships, ads, merchandise, subscriptions, and fan donations. Their earning potential is theoretically limitless.
Ability to reach specific audiences through a trusted voice
Businesses may choose to partner with influencers and creators who have built an audience in the demographic they’re trying to reach. Creators’ loyal fans and followers trust them and often want to support them, which can be a boon for brands. While some creators command high prices for sponsored content, the bill may still be significantly smaller than that of a national magazine or TV campaign—and the effort may more directly target the potential customers they seek.
What are the downsides of the creator economy?
Getting paid on time
One of the biggest frustrations for creators, especially freelancers, is getting paid. Most money in the U.S. –– about $62 trillion a year in 2020 alone –– is moved via the Automated Clearing House (ACH) Network. Invoice payments and payroll are common use cases for sending funds via ACH, which can take three to five days to arrive in a bank account. Waiting for the money to show up is a major problem for creatives and freelancers, many of whom live paycheck to paycheck.
A creator’s income can be unpredictable: One quarter may bring multiple social-media sponsorships or art sales, but the cash flow may dry up the quarter after that.
No benefits and fewer worker protections
Another trade-off for creators who opt out of traditional employment is the lack of access to benefits like health coverage and other types of insurance, paid time off, and retirement accounts. Independent contractors also aren’t covered under some protections for full-time employees, such as laws mandating a minimum wage.
Independent contractors, creators or otherwise, pay a self-employment tax of 15.3%. That’s the share of Medicare and Social Security that employers pay for traditional employees, so self-employed workers have to pay it themselves. They also often must pay quarterly estimated taxes throughout the year if they want to avoid penalties, as traditional employees have a portion withheld from their paychecks.
Dependence on third parties
Many creators rely on third-party platforms and tools to create, distribute, and monetize their content. If a social platform changes its algorithm for users’ feeds, a creator may find themselves with reduced reach. Other risks include changes in content policies, or even the chance that a platform disappears altogether (hello, Vine).
Additionally, many creator categories tend to be dominated by a handful of platforms. Coupled with a growing number of creators entering the space, this can lead to heavy competition for audiences and sponsorships.
Nascent regulatory considerations
The newness and constant evolution of the creator economy means the space is unregulated in some ways. While trade laws require disclosure of sponsored content, other issues can be more challenging for creators and brands alike.
Sometimes users share creators’ work in ways they didn’t intend and without their permission. Unethical companies may even use part of a creator’s video for a fraudulent ad—for example, they might take an influencer’s hair tool tutorial and use it to promote their altogether different product, leading to loss of income and potential reputational risk for the creator.
Beyond intellectual property theft, uninitiated creators may end up signing unfair contracts that exploit them. Brands, too, can find themselves burned if the creators they aligned with does something outside of their company values or alienates their audience.
The future of the creator economy
The creator economy is growing rapidly and experts expect the trend to continue. Creators like artists, gaming streamers, video producers, visual artists, musicians, podcasters, and more contribute to this space. They may make money through ads, sponsorships, memberships, merchandise, fan donations, and other revenue streams.
Several trends have converged to fuel the growth of the creator economy, including technology advances, a difficult labor market, the rise of the gig economy, and younger generations’ desire for both work-life flexibility and unique content.
Like any style of work, the creator economy offers both pros and cons. Advantages include the ability for creators can make money through multiple revenue streams and build their communities on their own terms, while brands can gain access to specific or niche audiences by partnering with influencers for promotions.
Conversely, creators’ income can be unpredictable compared to a traditional biweekly paycheck, and they’re generally not eligible for benefits or worker protections; both creators and brands also must watch closely as both creative platforms and the regulatory environment around them continues to evolve.
Despite some drawbacks and debates, the creator economy has already changed the nature of how some people work and how creative content is made, distributed and monetized.