Few years ago, Isaac Hayes III spotted a viral video en route to 22 million views. In it, a teenager dressed in a Spider-Man costume – nicknamed “Ghetto Spider-Man” – hijacks a GameStop to dance to A-ha’s “Take on Me”. Hayes messaged the anonymous dancer to say congratulations. “Are you a manager? Ghetto Spider-Man replied. He needed to learn how to capitalize on his 15 minutes of fame, fast. “I’ll come to Atlanta,” he continued. “Can you call me?”
Hayes is not a manager, although he technically manages the estate of his late father, legendary singer Isaac Hayes, who helped make Stax Records one of the biggest soul labels. In 1976, during a time of financial difficulty, Stax defaulted on the elder Hayes’ royalty payments, forcing him to file for bankruptcy. That, in turn, cost him the rights and royalties to the music he made at the height of his career, including his Oscar-winning Tree soundtrack.
Due to his father’s background, Hayes sympathizes with black artists who struggle to own their creative content and benefit from their cultural influence – a struggle that is still unfolding decades later, but now on a radically different plane. : social media. Creators on platforms like Instagram and YouTube create dances that go viral, talk slang, and create memes that become jokes for millions of viewers. But while platforms give users ways to track their reach, most have failed to allow users to take advantage of it.
Unless the creators manage to copyright the dances they invent (unlikely), trademark the catchphrases they popularize (even less likely), or turn sudden virality into a line of products or an endorsement deal, only social media apps really take advantage of cultural clout, using content to attract more users and more users to attract more advertising dollars. Meanwhile, creators get “exposure” – if they receive credit for their work.
Hayes didn’t have any answers for Ghetto Spider-Man that day. “I left this conversation thinking, This kid got 300,000 subscribers out of nowhere,” he said. “He has no idea how to monetize this new audience.” Hayes has since had an idea, although he’s not the only one trying.
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The savings of the creator and personal brand are today what the gig economy was 10 years ago, and more. Over 50 million people now describe themselves as content creators. As stay-at-home orders took hold and TikTok became the most downloaded app in the world, self-employed artists, niche experts and everyday people decided to stand out because a social media personality was worth it. Tabitha Brown has become “the world’s favorite mom” and cafe owner Nick Cho has become “your Korean dad”. Viral videos have brought us the ‘quaranclean’ of Covid-19 and catapulted Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Dreams’ to Billboard‘s Hot 100 for the first time in 40 years.
But if influencers are still looking to make money from their efforts, that’s especially a problem for black creators — who are still, like black artists of previous generations, typically paid less than their white counterparts. In 2019, for example, 14-year-old Fayetteville creator Jalaiah Harmon choreographed a dance called the Renegade, which became TikTok’s defining dance craze after millions including Lizzo and A -Rod, have tried it for themselves. But another designer, Charli D’Amelio (who is white), inspired fans to dub her the “CEO” of dance for popularizing it — at first, without crediting Harmon. Although Harmon has since starred in (and choreographed) a Sufjan Stevens music video and signed endorsement deals with LG and Samsung, his fame still pales in comparison to D’Amelio’s, with a commercial for the Super Bowl, a Dunkin Donuts drink and a Hulu docuseries. to his name. D’Amelio is now the second highest paid influencer on TikTok, on a Forbes list where all but two creators are white.
The challenge of making money has forced some young black designers to band together to try and harness their collective power. Collab Crib, for example — a home in Fayetteville — serves as the home of a roster of young black internet stars who have a combined social media reach of 10 million. In the year since founding Collab Crib, Keith Dorsey, who scouted and managed the collective under Young Guns Entertainment, saw that combined influence pay off, in appearances at Atlanta Hawks games, documentaries from Hulu and the New York Times, and an Amazon Prime referral deal.
Despite the success of Collab Crib, Dorsey says the creators associated with the house – which prides itself on being the first majority black “collaborative house” – are still “50 to 75%” underpaid compared to collectives. of Los Angeles, even adjusting for factors like cost of living. He knows because creators trade notes: From June 2020 to March 2021, the Instagram account Influencer Pay Gap documented how companies pay white creators to endorse their products and expect black creators with comparable followings are doing the same for less, sometimes for free.
Dorsey says a white creator once told him they had been paid $80,000 for the same type of post that one of the Collab Crib members had been paid $10,000 for. “I could see why if the numbers were different and the content sucked,” he said. “No, it’s the same.”
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Dorsey is one of many people who advised Hayes on an app he introduced to combat the problem: Fanbase, which has raised over $3.5 million in crowdfunding, enables users to monetize the social media interactions we hold for acquired. It’s a bit like Instagram – users upload photos and videos – only instead of Instagram profiting exclusively from that content, the creators get a cut. Users can ‘like’ a post for free or they can purchase 100 ‘likes’ for $1. Liking a post sends half a penny to its creator. Users can also pay a $4 subscription fee to creators who choose to post behind a paywall.
Hayes isn’t just looking for other creators, like Collab Crib members. He’s also an influencer himself: As a member of Atlanta’s music and entertainment industry with instant name recognition, Hayes’ comments about local elections and the media carry weight. In September 2020, he was featured in a #VaxUpATL panel hosted by Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms. He was also one of the first people allowed to join the new invite-only voice chat app Clubhouse. Once a member, he invited other black influencers and saw the app’s cultural influence grow.
“Creators are literally building these apps with black culture,” Hayes says, never seeing credit (as he would have liked) or dividends (even better). “People realize that if you don’t have [the] infrastructure, we will always be used. We are not going to get the most out of or the visibility of the culture and content that we break with these platforms. »
One by one, TikTok, Snapchat, YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook have started announcing monetization efforts to, the latter says, “reward creators for great content.” But these efforts were not enough to calm the growing discontent. Last summer, months after TikTok announced its Creator Fund, Black TikTok users went on virtual strike, refusing to choreograph dances. They didn’t want to repeat history, as seen with Harmon’s “Renegade.”
A month later, Hayes invited three dozen content creators, including several Collab Crib members, to Fanbase headquarters near Howell Mill Road, where he announced – to cheers and applause from the dancers in the room – that the app would eventually help users protect their movements. (The U.S. Copyright Office receives fewer than 20 applications a year for choreography, though creators like Lawrenceville-based Backpack Kid and Atlanta-based “Single Ladies” choreographer JaQuel Knight are increasingly seeking no longer this option.)
Between “loves” and a 50% reduction in subscriber revenue, Hayes assures content creators that they will finally be compensated for their cultural influence; he says even users who don’t consider themselves influencers can earn hundreds of dollars a month. “It’s crazy because it’s a bill,” he said. “It’s a car note.”
In a perfect world, a future Ghetto Spider-Man won’t have to scramble to figure out how to take advantage of virality because it’s already fleeting, Hayes says. Perhaps more importantly, he hopes Fanbase will help users understand that everything they do on social media has worth and value.
“We’re all content creators,” says Hayes. “Whether you post one photo or a thousand photos, you are always creating content.”
This article originally appeared in our January 2021 issue.