The first-ever rigorous quantitative study of US artistic revenue from internet indies: 14.8M Americans earned $5.9B in 2016

The Re:Create coalition has just published Unlocking the Gates: America's New Creative Economy, a quantitative report that uses rigorous statistical methods to derive the total income, by state, earned by creators who use the internet to reach their audiences.

The total figure is $5.9 billion in 2016, split among 14.8 million Americans, through a combination of advertising, subscriptions, direct sales, and other revenue sources. The authors characterize both of these numbers as "extremely conservative."

Some important notes on the study: it does not attempt to give "average" revenue, because that revenue is incredibly unevenly distributed — just as it always has been for artists. At the first Future of Music Coalition conference, before the dominance of Napster, Alanis Morisette's lawyer revealed that the average artist signed to a major record label earned less than $600/year from their recordings. The internet has created a lot of superstars, but an even larger number of non-stars earning side-money from their artistic endeavors, and in that regard, it is very similar to the non-networked version of the creative industries.

But these numbers still reflect some important on-the-ground reality for creators, policymakers and audiences. The first is that the big entertainment businesses' claims to represent the legitimate interests of artists are highly dubious. The big internet platforms are putting sums of money into artists' pockets that easily compare with the sums that the big studios, labels and publishers are generating, so any time a policymaker wants to hear from an industry that "represents artists' interests," Big Tech has about the same claim to legitimacy as Big Content.

The corollary is also important: artists don't have the same interests as the gatekeepers that help them get paid. Google wants to keep as much of Youtube's revenue as is possible and give as little as possible to the creators who make the platform work; Disney also wants to keep as much money as is possible for its shareholders and give as little as possible to its artists. When Disney fights for a bigger share of Youtube's revenue, that only matters to artists to the extent that they have a means of making Disney turn those additional dollars over to them: otherwise we're just arguing about which institutional investors, hedge funds and billionaires should profit from our work.

Which means that the real fight is over monopolism and competition: Disney buying Fox is terrible news for artists because it gives us fewer places to shop our works around, tilting the markers away from sellers (artists) towards buyers (large corporations). By the same token, Verizon buying Yahoo buying Tumblr (or Facebook buying Instagram) is terrible news for creators, because that, too, creates buyers' markets for the talent and creativity we're selling.

The other important thing about this study is the variety of creators who have a stake in tech: the big entertainment companies have optimized for only publishing works that are "commercially successful" (that is, works that generate enough revenue to justify putting them through an expensive production process); tech platforms have adopted the "publish then select" model, which lets anyone put work out there (because it costs the platforms effectively nothing to host a new work) and then leaves it up to them (and their support systems) to find an audience for it. The vast, vast majority of works never find an audience to speak of, but the tiny fraction of works that do find an audience utterly dwarfs the even more minute number of works that find their way through the gateways of traditional entertainment businesses.

Whatever deficits the Big Tech mode of creativity has, it has diversity on its side: 14.8 million Americans have managed to earn some money from their art in a single year. This is a jaw-dropping number, one that gives credence to the idea that the internet is a democratizing force in creative expression. The purpose of cultural policy — including copyright — is to allow the widest diversity of artists to create the widest diversity of works that pleases the widest diversity of audiences. The internet is delivering on that goal in a way that makes a joke out of everything that came before it.

Re:Create is a lobbying DC organization (I admire their work and have appeared at some of their events). Cannily, they have broken out their creator numbers by state, in order to give lawmakers a sense of how pissed off their constituents will be if they break the internet.

These creators comprise a growing segment of Americans who operate as independent workers on a
part-time or full-time basis. Recently, the McKinsey Global Institute estimated that 20 to 30 percent of
working-age Americans earn some income from independent work, including at least 8 percent who use
internet platforms to do so.
Our analysis found that America's internet creators are even more numerous.
We could not rely on standardized data, since the country's statistical agencies do not collect such data on
these creators and neither do any credible private organizations. To estimate their numbers, therefore, we
identified nine major internet platforms used by independent creators, and we collected and analyzed the
most recent data provided by the platforms themselves and by financial and market analysts who follow
them. These nine platforms are Amazon Publishing for print, audio and digital self-published books; Etsy and
eBay for personal handmade items; Instagram for photographs; Shapeways for custom 3D printed objects;
Tumblr and WordPress for personal blogs; Twitch for video game streamers; and YouTube for videos.

Unlocking the Gates: America's New Creative Economy [Robert Shapiro with Siddhartha Aneja/Re:Create]

New Creative Economy By the Numbers [Re:Create]