On Jan. 31, creator commerce platform Kajabi released a new study examining over 2,000 high-earning creators across the world who make over $100,000 per year. The study covered some of the various “strategies, behaviors, mindsets, and demographics” that set six-figure-earning creators apart from the rest of the crowd. It was estimated by Goldman Sachs in 2023 that only 4% of all content creators are able to reach this income bracket.
There are a lot of interesting stats to explore from the full report (which I highly recommend reading here). But one stat in particular stood out to me: 46% of the creators surveyed said they would join a union in the future. On top of that, an additional 37% of creators surveyed said they would “consider” joining a union.
It’s remarkable that even the top class of creators, who seemingly have all the privileges in the world, would consider union support to be beneficial.
“Many creators have built, or are building, their businesses on social media platforms, where they are vulnerable to a lot of variables and risks they do not control: changes in algorithms, getting de-platformed, shadowbanning, and other shifts that can really impact their business for the worse,” Kajabi CEO Ahad Khan told Passionfruit. “By banding together through an avenue like a union, it creates a stronger, collective voice that can get a seat at the table to advocate for their life’s work and businesses.”
While six-figure earnings might sound like a dream come true for most creators, even $100,000+ might not be enough to ensure a sustainable living. Jim Louderback, who helmed VidCon for over seven years and is now the creator behind the “Inside the Creator Economy” newsletter, was included in Kajabi’s report. He told Passionfruit that when you’re self-employed as a creator, things like healthcare, self-employment taxes, retirement planning, commission rates from agents and managers, equipment, and other expenses can quickly pile up.
“When you look at how creators get taken advantage of by brands, by platforms, and by unscrupulous agents and managers, and couple that with the lack of healthcare, banking and credit, retirement plans, career planning, and other safety nets, the life of most creators can be brutish. For many, it’s also short. Just like professional athletes, most creators only have a 3-7 year life-cycle to make substantial income,” Louderback said.
According to Kajabi’s report, the majority of high-earning creators surveyed are experiencing widespread worries about how platforms, in particular, will impact the long-term outlook of their careers. Nearly 50% of creators reported that they didn’t trust social media platforms. 34% said they were worried about “platform volatility” — whether it be due to algorithmic changes, inexplicable account bans, or shifting government regulations.
In addition, there’s been growing uncertainty related to a rapid slashing of creator support teams at major social media companies like YouTube and Meta this year. Louderback pointed to the “decimation” of these resources as a primary fear for creators, alongside constantly changing and unpredictable revenue-sharing programs (for example, the recent payout policy changes at Twitch or TikTok).
“It’s become increasingly clear that creators are on their own. That’s a scary thing even for a group as independent and iconoclast as creators,” Louderback said.
Professor Brooke Erin Duffy of Cornell University, who studies creative labor organization in the social media landscape, told Passionfruit that it makes sense that even the richest creators would be interested in a creator union.
“Even top-tier creators understand the precariousness of a platform-dependent career — algorithmic shifts, new features, or updated community guidelines can wreak havoc on their careers. Unionization represents an important way that they can exert control amid a wildly unpredictable work culture,” Dr. Duffy noted.
According to Kajabi’s survey, only 1% of top-earning creators surveyed are current union members. In 2016, the Internet Creators Guild was founded by YouTuber Hank Green. Three years later, another creator union, the YouTubers Union, was also founded by Berlin-based YouTuber Jörg Spraver. But the two organizations have unfortunately largely fizzled out, mostly due to low membership and a lack of interest.
In June 2022, SAG-AFTRA (a union representing over 160,000 actors, performers, and other media professionals in the entertainment industry) started to allow a select group of influencers who work with brands into its ranks, but it’s unclear how many content creators are actually a part of the organization.
All of which raises the question, if creators could benefit from a creator union or guild, why are so few of them a part of one?
“While creators have sought to organize in the past (take the YouTubers Union, for instance), both leaders and participants confronted significant barriers: the sheer scale of the industry, the cross-platform nature of content production and monetization, and a relative lack of power to take on Big Tech behemoths,” Dr. Duffy described.
Creators often work alone or in silos, both geographically and digitally. Working alone, they don’t typically have the same legally protected rights to organize as formal employees of companies, who are shielded under the law from certain union-busting techniques. Labor journalist Hamilton Nolan, whose upcoming book “The Hammer” explores the development of the labor movement in America, told Passionfruit that labor law in America makes it challenging for creators to organize in this way.
“Labor law in America makes it difficult (some would say impossible) for ‘independent contractors’ to unionize, and I assume most creators are independent contractors — essentially their own small businesses,” Nolan said. “But that doesn’t mean they can’t organize into a guild or other group to promote their common interests.”
These days, the creator landscape has evolved. Not only are some content creators now able to join SAG-AFTRA as of 2022, but those who don’t qualify for the union demonstrated remarkable interest in expressing solidarity with the SAG-AFTRA and Writers Guild of America strikes in the summer of 2023. The strikes ended with concrete wins for workers in the entertainment industry, including the biggest wage increase for writers seen in over a century, in part due to the widespread push on social media.
“I’d actually compare where these creators are today to the position of actors and screenwriters in the early days of Hollywood. The most powerful unions in Hollywood today, like the Writers Guild and SAG-AFTRA, got started in part with the help of some of the biggest stars of the day,” Nolan described. “That support of the top earners was crucial then, and it will be crucial for creators in their quest to organize as well.”
This year, there have been other smaller labor pushes in the creative landscape: Marvel VFX artists unionizing, League of Legends players striking, and Reddit users blacking out the site in protest. In addition, the Creators Guild of America, a new professional non-profit organization for creators, launched in August 2023. While the CGA is not a creator union, and it says on its website it will not act as a collective bargaining unit or authorize strikes, it still demonstrates a revamped interest in advocating for creators’ rights… even if it arguably has some red flags, which you can read about here.
To that end, according to Dr. Duffy, “Today’s creator landscape is dramatically different from that of the pre-pandemic era: not only has participation grown at an astonishing clip, but the field has become much more professionalized. Some of the top creators also wield significant power to direct attention to the challenges and inequities miring the creator economy.”
Forging a creator union or getting more high-earning creators involved in unions won’t be easy — especially since so many creators work across different platforms and therefore have very different needs. But the desire for a creator union is there.
“Herding the outdoor cats of the creator economy into something they can all agree to will likely be a Herculean and perhaps Sisyphean task,” Louderback added. “I’ve spent most of my career in management, so I’ve been on the other side of the union equation. But as I lean more into full-time creating, I absolutely see the benefits.”
“Ultimately, if enough of the most popular creators agree to act in solidarity, they can use their ability to strike or withhold their own labor to force employers to create basic standards that raise the floor for everyone in the industry,” Nolan argued. “They can do that now, even without a legally certified union. Solidarity is the path to power, no matter how new or novel the industry is.”