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It’s no secret that the landscape of digital media has changed dramatically over the last decade. In China, minutes watched in live streaming now exceed minutes watched in all forms of TV put together. Similarly, in America, people under 25 are spending more time watching Twitch and YouTube Live than all forms of TV.
This shift in attention has created a new form of celebrity: the content creator. Content creators publish the digital material that comprises the online world. They’re grabbing the attention previously allocated to traditional media, and as a consequence, changing video, consumer habits, and – perhaps most significantly – consumer spending. These changes are giving rise to an entirely new economy: the creator economy.
All of this is happening so quickly that it’s important to take a moment to ask the questions: Where is this all going? What is the future of the creator economy?
Before we can answer these questions, we need to understand creators, their viewers, and the differences between their counterparts on traditional media.
Rather than ten TV shows consumed by billions of people, we now have hundreds of millions of shows that cater to billions of people. You could be only one of ten people in the world interested in a niche topic, but chances are you’ll find content for it. Additionally, the people who are creating content for that topic are truly and authentically passionate about it.
The interactive nature of live streaming is a huge part of what makes it special. Being able to ask an artist what they were thinking when they wrote a song, or a pro gamer why they made a surprising strategic decision offers us an unparalleled level of access you just don’t get from traditional media. Real-time audience participation allows viewers to influence the show; they get reactions from creators and they’re part of the conversation on stream.
Creators start small movements that are incredibly authentic for not being scripted or rehearsed. People want to participate in those movements, and they’ll pay for the privilege. How a creator can build a business from viewers’ attention is the essence of the creator economy. Today, live streaming is largely fan-supported through tipping, the sale of virtual items, merchandising, and buying products or services directly from the creators.
Sponsorship is an important piece of the economic pie, but today it’s concentrated at the top of the long tail for the streamers with the largest audiences.
Dream jobs are hard work
As this industry continues to grow, the forecast is for compounding annual growth rates in all forms of creator content, especially video and live. The increased bandwidth made available by broadband internet, fiber, and 5G networks will have a proportional impact on how much content we consume – especially on our phones. This content is all free, so it becomes the first thing that people discover the moment they have extra bandwidth. Streamers like KingGeorge are experiencing this firsthand: “Everybody’s view counts and sub counts from even a year ago — it’s like night and day how much the platform has grown.”
But as the live streaming industry continues to grow, it’s not clear how well it’s performing for new content creators who are on the front lines. “Starting out streaming right now is a lot harder than it was five years ago, and five years ago it was pretty hard,” says Nicki. Most streamers dream of going full time; the allure of doing something you love for a living and being your own boss is a huge motivator, but making a living streaming is incredibly challenging. It requires a huge amount of hard work, dedication, and a healthy dose of luck.
The dream is real, but Nicki and streamers like her encourage newcomers to temper their expectations: “It isn’t the way that it used to be before; even if you’re amazing at the game, you still might get five viewers at the most. Unless you’re lucky, it’s going to take you years of grinding to get to the point where you’re going to live off it.”
Everyone acknowledges that streaming platforms are growing, but all that growth seems to be concentrated at the top. Browse any game on Twitch and you’ll see 90 percent of the viewing audience for that game concentrated in the first ten displayed streams. You can continue scrolling until your hand gets tired to see all the other streamers battling over the scraps; most are fighting to hold 1–20 viewers. The effect of this competition is clear: becoming a full-time streamer today is no easy task.
For many streamers, the solution is hard work and long hours. Zizaran became known for his legendary work ethic after he broke the world record for hours streamed in a month (504 hours, since bested by EdisonParkLive). His commitment has undoubtedly had a huge factor in his success. He has similar guidance for new streamers:
“There’s not enough realistic advice out there for streamers. I don’t like sugar coating things. You gotta push so insanely hard. Streaming is the same as setting up your own company, you’re pouring your life into it until it works so well that you have no fear of it going away. I see so much advice from streamers where they’re like ‘don’t be afraid to take one or even two days off a week’ and when I saw somebody saying that, my mouth was open; ‘What do you mean one or two days off a week, that’s insanity!’ There are larger streamers that do that but if you’re trying to make it you don’t have a chance in hell if you’re taking days off each week.”
There’s no question that streamers benefit from streaming as much as humanly possible, and can be punished for time away. This effect is well established in the industry, says Zizaran “I’m basically always online. My first year was 4,400 hours. If viewers have to go somewhere else for entertainment, chances are they’re going to stay there.” While streamers humbly acknowledge that they’re taking time off from playing video games (something most of us consider to be recreation), the truth is that they’re also entertainers, performers, and celebrities — all of which are undeniably demanding roles to play.
Copyright, demonetization, and technology
Adding to the financial stress that seems near ubiquitous among full-time streamers is the prevalence of copyright take-downs resulting in demonetization for videos. Many streamers supplement their live income of tips, bits, and subscriptions by editing their videos and publishing them on YouTube. Unfortunately, archaic copyright laws haven’t yet caught up to modern day use-cases. The response of platforms is to mute first and ask questions later. MrLlamaSC explains “Copyright is a giant issue; I get copyright trolled all the time. I’ll play music that’s copyright free or public domain; they’ll take that music and upload it into some trash video, and then claim it as their own and it’ll come over and flag all of my videos. All of a sudden I’m not getting paid on my videos.”
If the financial well-being of streamers can be described as tenuous at-best, demonetization through copyright trolling further adds to a shaky fiscal reality. Media companies like Pretzel and record labels like Monstercat have both released libraries of stream-safe music available as Spotify-style media players directly inside streamers’ broadcasting software like Streamlabs OBS. Pretzel pro-actively claims their tracks in YouTube so that copyright trolls never have an opportunity to.
The CEO of Streamlabs, Ali Moiz, believes that technology can play a central role in helping streamers make a steady living:
“Streamlabs’ mission is to help content creators turn their passions into a business. Our extensive suite of free technology has made us the top provider of tools for creators and live streamers today. Streamlabs is to live streaming what Adobe is to graphics; what Shopify is to ecommerce, what Unity is to game developers. We are a set of tools that allow creators to succeed through monetizing, broadcasting, and engaging. We have a central role in that ecosystem, and as it continues to grow and prosper, Streamlabs will play an increasingly important role in this industry.”
The creator economy might be going through some growing pains, but the dream of getting paid to play games and make content will ensure that an abundance of media is available for consumption indefinitely with no end in sight. For the viewers, the authentic experiences and audience participation offered by live streaming will always be in demand. As for the challenges that content creators face, an ever-increasing arsenal of technology tools are being invented to help streamers monetize from their channels.
While the creator economy will likely never fully replace TV and movies, it has already become a massive piece of the media industry. As the industry and its technology continues to mature, the problems that live streamers face will be tackled one-by-one. And before long, who knows, streamers might even be able to take a day off every now and then.
Eric Freytag is Senior Product Manager at Streamlabs.
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