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OnlyFans shows how the creator economy is shaping media

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The intrepid stars of The Uranus Experiment 2 made movie history in 1999 by recording what is purported to have been the first sex scene in zero-gravity conditions. But the film also marked something else: the twilight of a lucrative era for porn.

The production was big budget (for the genre), ambitious to the point of absurdity (zero-gravity was simulated in an aircraft on a parabolic flight), and bankrolled by Private Media Group, an adult entertainment company mainstream enough to be listed on the stock market.

That model for blue movies was not to last. Within a decade, porn — and much of the media industry — had succumbed to the weightlessness of the internet. Money from distributing music, movies or news in physical form began to evaporate.

As some scholars have noted, adult entertainment offers a telling view of that digital disruption.

Today the business is convulsed by another significant shift in moneymaking power, a sequel with wider relevance for industries reliant on creative talent. In exaggerated form, porn is a kind of paradigm for how the creator economy is shaping media.

The change is typified by OnlyFans, the most prominent of several platforms connecting performers with a paying fan base. Musicians, fitness instructors, and influencers use the service as well as pornstars. But its business potential is being tested to its fullest by adult entertainment.

Those early days of digital disruption help explain why. The internet brought porn a mass audience of astonishing scale — the two biggest operators of free “tube” sites claim to host 330m visitors a day — just as producers realised they had no real means to protect their copyright.

In 2014, Kate Darling of MIT described the industry as having to make “IP without IP” — internet pornography without any intellectual property.

Porn survived by developing side-hustles. In the era of physical media — VHSs or DVDs — a porn movie was the product. But once millions of videos were available for free on tube sites such as Pornhub or Xvideos, that changed. The videos became more like an advert.

What was for sale were other services, which were easier to protect or harder to copy. Paywalled sites provided access to more niche material, or higher resolution videos. Cam sites, where models perform live, offered an interactive experience that generated lucrative revenues.

OnlyFans is another stage in that journey. The difference is the platform has allowed performers to squeeze out middlemen who took the lion’s share of revenue.

Adult performers might earn as little as $500 for a sex scene today, perhaps a few thousand for more established names. By contrast, over on OnlyFans, some pornstars are making $50,000 and even $100,000 a month.

Most OnlyFans performers obviously make nowhere near that; some estimates put the average at closer to a few hundred dollars a month. And even the potential for increased rewards comes at a price: a transfer of risk.

This reality became clear when OnlyFans (temporarily) announced a porn ban, claiming it was being frozen out by its risk-averse banks. The hiatus highlighted that independence can have downsides; Substack newsletter writers worrying about libel claims will know the feeling.

The move to a more efficient market for porn, or other media, also raises issues. Those unable to attract large audiences can be drawn towards serving niches, or extreme demands, where prices are higher.

But the main unresolved question — for porn conglomerates such as MindGeek as well as news publishers or music labels — is how the balance of power will shift between the old industry and creators.

Porn revenues depend on a relatively small pool of paying users. Unlike YouTube or Instagram, free porn sites cannot sell their audience to mainstream brand advertisers. These porn conglomerates instead take ad money from others promoting paid porn, or drive traffic to their own pay sites.

It is effectively a closed ecosystem. The crucial point will be whether OnlyFans increases overall spending on porn, or just assists performers to take a bigger slice of the same pie.

The full implications of all this for music, news and the celebrity economy are still playing out. Porn may provide answers earlier than most. Things can move fast in the adult world; the director of The Uranus Experiment said the weightless sex-scene was concluded, successfully, in under 30 seconds.

alex.barker@ft.com

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