The New Model Media Star Is Famous Only to You

Back in March, I was trying to persuade my dad to stop taking the subway to work in Manhattan and join me upstate. So I paid $75 to Leonard Marshall, a retired New York Giants defensive lineman we both loved in the 1980s, to send the message.

“I put a few guys in the hospital, Bob,” he told my father solemnly. “I need you to play defense in these crazy times.”

It worked, and my father hasn’t been to Times Square since.

I had reached Mr. Marshall through Cameo, a service that allows you to buy short videos from minor celebrities. I also used Cameo to purchase a pep talk from an Olympic triathlete for my daughter ($15), an ingratiating monologue for my new boss from a former Boston Red Sox manager ($100) and a failed Twitter joke delivered by the action star Chuck Norris ($229.99).

Cameo is blowing up in this strange season because “every celebrity is really a gig economy worker,” says Steven Galanis, the company’s chief executive. They’re stuck at home, bored and sometimes hard up 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 Mr. Galanis said he anticipated bringing in more than $100 million in bookings this year, of which the company keeps 25 percent. The company expects to sell its millionth video this week.

Cameo is, on its face, a service that allows housebound idiots to blow money on silly shout-outs. Seen another way, however, it’s a new model media company, sitting at the intersection of a set of powerful trends that are accelerating in the present crisis. There’s the rise of simple, digital direct payments, which are replacing advertising as the major source of media revenue. There’s the growing power of talent, trickling down from superstars to half-forgotten former athletes and even working journalists. And there’s the old promise of the earlier internet that you could make a living if you just had “1,000 true fans” — a promise that advertising-based businesses from blogs to YouTube channels failed to deliver.

In fact, in this new economy, some people may be able to make a living off just 100 true fans, as Li Jin, a former partner at the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, argued recently. Ms. Jin calls this new landscape the “passion economy.” She argues that apps like Uber and DoorDash are built to erase the differences between individual drivers or food delivery people. But similar tools, she says, can be used to “monetize individuality.”

Many of these trends are well developed in China, but here in the United States the passion economy covers everyone from the small merchants using Shopify to the drawing instructors of the education platform Udemy.

In the mainstream heart of the media business, both artists and writers are moving quickly to find new business models as huge swaths of the media business have been wounded or shut down by the coronavirus pandemic. At Patreon, the first and broadest of the big services connecting writers and performers to audiences, the co-founder Jack Conte said he was delighted recently to see one of his favorite bands, Of Montreal, release music on the platform.

“Traditional music coming to Patreon is a watershed moment,” he said.

In the news business, journalists are carving out new paths on Substack, a newsletter service. Its most successful individual voices — like the China expert Bill Bishop and the liberal political writer Judd Legum — are earning well into six figures annually for sending regular newsletters to subscribers, though no individual has crossed the million-dollar mark, the company said.

For some writers, Substack is a way to get their work out of the shadow of an institution. Emily Atkin felt that need intensely when a climate forum she organized last year for presidential candidates, while she was a writer for The New Republic, collapsed amid a scandal over an unrelated column about Mayor Pete Buttigieg that appeared in that publication.

Now, said Ms. Atkin, who writes a confrontational climate newsletter called Heated, she’s “shockingly hopeful.”

“I don’t have any layoffs happening at my newsletter, so I’m doing better than most of the news industry,” she said.

Ms. Atkin, who is 11th on Substack’s ranking of paid newsletters and was more willing than Mr. Bishop or Mr. Legum to talk in detail about the business, said she was on track to gross $175,000 this year from more than 2,500 subscribers. Out of that, she’ll pay for health care, a research assistant and a 10 percent fee to Substack, among other costs.

For others, Substack is a way to carry on with work they’re passionate about when a job goes away, as Lindsay Gibbs found when the liberal news site ThinkProgress shut down last year and took her beat on sexism in sports with it.

Now, she has more than 1,000 subscribers to Power Plays, paying as much as $72 a year.

Both of them started with $20,000 advances from the platform.

“The audience connecting directly with you and paying directly is a revolutionary change to the business model,” Substack’s chief executive, Chris Best, told me.

It’s hard to imagine even the most successful writers, like Mr. Bishop and Ms. Atkin, posing a major threat to the titans of media anytime soon, especially as a few big institutions — whether in news or streaming video — dominate each market. But the two writers’ path to success points to the reality that the biggest threat to those institutions may come from their talented employees.

Substack represents a radically different alternative, in which the “media company” is a service and the journalists are in charge. It’s what one of the pioneers of the modern newsletter business, the tech 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 dynamic 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 merely on call.

The new passion-economy media companies are converging in some ways. The ones like Patreon and Substack, which operate primarily in the background, are now looking at careful ways to bundle their offerings, their executives said. Medium, which allows you to subscribe to its full bundle of writers, is looking for ways to foster more intimate connections between individuals and their followers, its founder, Ev Williams, said. Cameo, which has a front page in its app and website but is mostly selling one-off shout-outs, is shifting toward a model that is more like subscribing to a celebrity: For a price, you’ll be able to send direct messages that appear in a priority inbox.

“We think messages back and forth is where the puck is going with Cameo,” Mr. Galanis said.

Is this good news? The rise of these new companies could further shake our faltering institutions, splinter our fragmented media and cement celebrity culture. Or they could pay for a new wave of powerful independent voices and offer steady work for people doing valuable work — like journalists covering narrow, important bits of the world — who don’t have another source of income. Like the whole collision of the internet and media, it will doubtless be some of both.

In Silicon Valley, where the East Coast institutions of journalism are often seen as another set of hostile gatekeepers to be disrupted, leading figures are cheering a possible challenger. Mr. Best, the Substack chief, told me that the venture capitalist Marc Andreessen, whose firm has invested in the company, said he hoped it would “do to big media companies what venture capital did to big tech companies” — that is, peel off their biggest stars with the promise of money and freedom and create new kinds of news companies.

One of the things I find most heartening in these unequal times, though, is the creation of some new space for a middle class of journalists and entertainers — the idea that you can make a living, if not a killing, by working hard for a limited audience. Even people who play a modest role in a cultural phenomenon can get some of the take, which was what happened with the Netflix documentary “Tiger King.”

When the documentary hit big in March, Cameo signed up 10 of its ragtag cast of, mostly, amateur zookeepers. That came just in time for Kelci Saffery, best known on the show for returning to work soon after losing a hand to a tiger. Mr. Saffery now lives in California, and lost his job at a furniture warehouse when the pandemic hit. To his shock, he has earned about $17,000, as well as a measure of recognition, even as the requests are slowing down.

“Every day I’m at least getting one, and for me that still means that one person every day is thinking, ‘Hey, this would be cool,’ and to me that’s significant,” he said. As for the money, “that could send one of my children to college.”

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