Reporting live from the Passion Economy

Overcoming fears about switching gears from free content to paid content

If you've been thinking to yourself, "Self, I'd like to dork out about evolving economic sectors, content management systems, the psychology of creativity, and trends in online media," then today is your lucky day.

Alternately, if you're into performance art that takes place on the floor, today is also your lucky day! Somehow, this essay will contain both.

WTF is the Passion Economy?

I've spent the last few weeks building an early stab at the website for Find Your Afterglow, the venture I'm launching this summer in conjunction with my book.

As I mentioned a few months back, this new venture will not involve blogging or other free content, so I'm not using Wordpress, the platform I built my current venture on back in 2006. Instead, I'm using a new-to-me platform called Kajabi that came highly recommended by both web friends and a branding consultant.

As part of the work on the new site, I realized that I need to figure out my strategy between this here Substack list, and the stuff I'll be doing on Kajabi. (Spoilers: still working on that, I'll let you know.) I did a quick search to see if there was anyone already using Substack with Kajabi, while I didn't find the answer I was looking for, I did find this article about the Passion Economy, by a Silicon Valley VC partner named Li Jin.

As with so many phrase concepts (examples: cisgender, amatonormativity, anxious attachment), once there's a word for a phenomenon, you can start seeing the adjacent concept patterns differently. Awareness is everything, and it's easier to be aware of something if you've got the language to describe it.

Once I understood the umbrella of this concept, I could see that the idea was the node that connected many of my recent entrepreneurial noodlings. The term Passion Economy is one way to understand it, but other phrases include new creative economy, creator stack, or enterprization of the consumer.

Whatever you want to call it, the Passion Economy is an emerging ecosystem of web business tools made for folks looking to capitalize on their creativity and monetize their passions — think Patreon, Substack, Kajabi, OnlyFans. The content shared on these platforms could be writing, porn, fitness, niche financial advice, podcasts, art, educational videos, spiritual guidance, or anything else. The content is just whatever you’re passionate about, but effectively monetized.

From that Li Jin article:

These new platforms share a few commonalities:

  1. They’re accessible to everyone, not only existing businesses and professionals

  2. They view individuality as a feature, not a bug

  3. They focus on digital products and virtual services

  4. They provide holistic tools to grow and operate a business

  5. They open doors to new forms of work 

It turns out I've been balls-deep in learning about the Passion Economy; I just didn't know it had a name! How big is this emerging economy? 17 million Americans earned nearly $7 billion in income from their independent creations in 2017.

We need to start understanding that something like OnlyFans isn't just for sex workers. If you're thinking about sustainable content, you need to be thinking about making your content financially sustainable.

You need to give up on giving it away to the algorithms.

Fears around switching gears

First, can we talk about how hard it is to rewire an old school blogging brain (or middle school social media brain?) to think about this new creative economy?

For 15 years, my revenue model has been "give it all away for free, in the hopes of attracting lots of eyeballs to sell to advertisers." Ask anyone who's made a living from pageviews and ad sales: after a few years, the psychology of the revenue model gets baked into your existence. It became how I thought about everything. "Give yourself away and chase attention" can be a way of life.

Because I'm Gen X, I mostly played the game via websites and blogs. For millennials, the game’s been played mostly on social media. While I never really got deep into the Instagram influencer business model, it's the same structure — just using followers counts and likes as eyeball metrics instead of pageviews.

(Also, sidebar for you social media millennials: be so glad you skipped the era of influencing where you had to navigate web hosts and installing content management systems on your server and hiring a web dev and all that bullshit. I am here to tell you that shit is fucking time-consuming. I just wanted to be a writer and publisher, and somehow I spent a chunk of my career as sysadmin!)

Whether you built a following via free blog content or an account on social media, the game has always been "give content away to attract consumer attention, and then sell their attention to businesses."

The idea of not giving things away is so foreign to me that it feels… blasphemous. It goes against my old school blogger content religion. I can't shake the feeling that my subscriber-only essays are somehow… wasted? My old-school blogger brain whispers at me: "What if one of those essays had the potential to go viral, but can't because it's behind a paywall?!" I know this line of thinking is the equivalent of a gambling addict justifying blackjacking off their pension, so I don't listen to it… but 2020 marks my 20th year of blogging (!), and those old habits die very, very hard.

Some of you may remember Stella Rose, the artist who I wrote about a few months back in my essay, Why online content producers need to learn from sex workers. I sent her that article last fall, and she wrote back last week :

Here is my long loooong overdue response to this piece you graciously took the time to share with, and include me in. IT CHANGED MY WHOLE THOUGHT PROCESS. This piece launched me into thinking of a whole new way to position my content: by creating a way for followers to to pay for it directly.

I guess my biggest fear is that people won't pay, or that they won't think my content is worth the money. But maybe that's the fear everyone has who enters this way of doing business, sex work or not. Is that the fear you had? What's silly is that by getting people to pay a monthly fee, I am gradually able to spend more of my time creating the content they're paying for!

To answer Stella's question: Yes, I have that fear, too. I think all creators who are used to giving ourselves away will wrestle with that fear.

I don't yet know how these new ways of the Passion Economy will work, but I know that the old ways make me feel triggered and anxious and disconnected from myself.

Maybe I could suffer through that experience, but to add insult to injury: the old way isn't even as profitable as it used to be! Even if I don't love the writer in me enough to protect her from creative injury, the publisher in me isn't stupid enough to ignore the bottom line.

When something feels like shit AND doesn't make you good money? It's time to bail.

Amid this attention war, many of us are being more thoughtful about how we spend our precious attention — and we're learning how much it's worth paying to avoid getting mind-jacked by algorithms and advertisers.

We all know how shitty THAT feels.

We know it’s time to try something new. It’s frightening, but it’s time.

Your CMS shapes your creation; your platform creates your product

These five months on Substack have been hugely educational for me. It’s such a shift, when my writing isn’t the lure that I dangle to readers, in the hopes of getting advertisers to pay me for their eyeballs. Instead, my writing is my product. My readers are my business. There are no advertisers. Amazing!

And then last month, as I started building the Find Your Afterglow site, I'm seeing how building on a different content management system (one designed for profit!) changes how I'm thinking about my creative work.

Years of building on Wordpress (where creators cobble together a bunch of plugins to try to make money) or social media (where creators game algorithms to try to make money) have warped my thinking… now that I'm using tools specifically built to make creators money? It turns out it's easier to imagine how to make money. Creative tools shift the creators’ mindsets.

Since the concept of financial sustainability is baked into the platforms from the start, the whole process feels less manipulative. With Passion Economy platforms like Substack or Kajabi, I'm not trying to trick you into anything — you are there with the expectation that you will be purchasing a product, which means you are not the product.

That's huge.

Let me say it a different way: Your eyeballs are no longer the product. Your attention is not being bought and sold by advertisers.

With these Passion Economy platforms, the platform profits when I sell a product to you. My readers are not the product — they pay for the product. No one's getting tricked. No advertisers are jerking off in a corner, trying to jack your attachment system to increase the engagement metrics that they buy and sell.

The product itself might be newsletters, courses, coaching, podcasts, porn, whatever — with the Passion Economy the platform only profits if the creator makes a profit.

If attention is being sold here, I want to clear consent. I want my readers to be able to make educated choices about where their attention is directed. I don’t want them jacked on dopamine and clickbait, tricked into clicking worthless garbage in their feed so that someone else can make a dime.

The death of Google Reader may have functionally killed RSS, but seven years later, many of us are willing to pay for curated content in feeds that we control. We want our brains out of the trenches of the 21st Century Attention War.

As a content consumer, social media has failed me. These days, I want to see what creators will produce when it's easy for me to support them financially. I don't want to pay a monthly cable bundle — I want my monthly creator bundle. I want to support the creatives who inspire and delight me, because the more I support them, the more inspiration and delight I can get!

For instance, if the creator wants to write an essay about tech/media industry trends and then also include a devotional dance video, she can. In the Passion Economy, if you want to create a subscriber-supported mixed-media publishing medium that blends super nerdy dense-brain processing with performance art?

You can.

Last week I went to go see Isabella Rossellini's "Link Link Circus" show, and was thoroughly delighted. Here's a 60-something performer who decided to go back to college and get a master's degree in animal behavior, and now she's created a performance that's a mix of lecture, puppetry, and her dog dressed in cute costumes doing tricks! It was a massively enjoyable, educational experience.

That said, not many of us have the resources to produce and tour a show about our graduate degrees.

But you know what? Here in the Passion Economy, we’re all gaining access to monetized creative tools that give us the opportunity to sustainably share our niche interests. If you're someone who, say, has your toes dipped into psychology, technology, biz dev, non-duality, writhing floorwork, media & culture analysis, with a bit sociology undergrad thrown in, you can be all those things! Because people are paying you to be them!

Imagine an economy where we valued each other being who we are? I don't know if that's late-stage capitalism at its most despicable or some utopian dream.

We are all made of stars, and charge by the minute!

But isn't that what we're already doing, except for it's the social media companies charging by the minute?

I've thought about this frequently with Instagram — if they allowed influencers the option to charge follower subscriptions, it could birth a whole new workforce! Influencers are already playing this game — they’re just not easily able to profit off of it. But imagine if influencers could easily charge their followers for access to their feed posts, with Facebook taking a 20% cut off the top.

It's certainly not technically hard, but it would mark a major departure from how Facebook has done business, so I guess I see why they’re not doing it. Their refusal to do so has meant that monetized Instagram knock-off tools like OnlyFans are making millions, while Instagram creators are reduced to hacking the "close friends" function to act as a premium content tool for subscribers who pay via Patreon or Substack.

(Take it from someone who does this "close friends" Insta hack for my paying subscribers: it's manual and messy and I'm always screwing it up! If you're a subscriber, you know.)

My point here isn't that Substack or Kajabi are perfect (they’re working well so far for me, but every creator's needs are different), but rather that consumer tools built from the ground up to make the user money create a whole different way of thinking about what you're creating.

Once you start playing and creating with Passion Economy tools, the game switches.

It's a game I'm only a few months into, but maybe we should check-in, yeah?

Five months into this subscriber-supported content experiment, how's it going?

I can bla bla bla about platforms and tools and strategies and fears, but the proof is in the pudding. Or rather, the proof is in the profits, so here are mine.

  • I launched my Substack list in September, five months ago

  • I'm currently up to about 1100 followers, 105 are paying subscribers

  • That means roughly 10% of my free followers convert to paying subscribers.
    For comparison: back in 2013, I asked offbeathome.com's hundreds of thousands of monthly readers to support the site. My "free reader to paying reader" conversion rate was 0.04%. How can I blame them, though? The Offbeat Empire's platform and business model weren't set up to support a paywall! Why would they pay for something they'd never paid for, and expected to get for free? It was just some lifestyle blog. The time wasn't right, nor was the tool.

  • Subscriber open rates are 85% and around 60% for free followers. Even 60% is astronomical compared to the Offbeat Empire's RSS newsletters, which never got more than 15% open rates.

If you’re doing the math here, The Afterglow is clearly not my day-job. (My day-job is still Offbeat Bride's ad-supported revenue model.)

After five months of writing, my Substack is still just a side-hustle — and that’s with my advantage of having an existing readership and several long-established platforms to market to! (Then again, I've also been busy working three jobs, running two websites while building a new one, promoting the first two books, finalizing the third book, writhing around on the floor, bla bla bla — a bitch likes to stay busy!)

I might be at the level of “side-hustle,” but some folks are making $500k/year from Substack. It's getting a lot of attention, including a $15 million dollar investment. Clearly, in the right hands, Passion Economy platforms can be massive. Dannii Hardwood is making $50k/mo from OnlyFans, and if you're tempted to write off the economic trend because sex workers figured it out first — that's your loss, bro.

As for me, I can see where this is going. Smart folks on all sides (creatives, start-ups, investors) are paying attention.

Mostly, I'm just happy I've found a phrase for an emerging concept that's got the potential to help me do my creative work more sustainably.

Yes, the publisher in me is fascinated by the Passion Economy as an economic platform, and I'm excited to see the unfoldings with how we consume media. But as a creator, I'm curious to see how my creations shift when I feel empowered by the tools I'm using, instead of drained.

Thanks to the Passion Economy, I'm able to produce the only publication I know of that will wrap up an industry analysis with a devotional dance video.

Why? Because I believe the best analysis should be experiential and physical. We all know the best ideas come to you when you're not thinking — when you're on a walk, when you're in the shower. For me, I do my best biz dev while I’m lost in stretchy movement floorwork. That's part of my process.

Also, I wish all biz dev essays came with multimedia accompaniment, so I'll be the change I wish to see. We're all humans here. Let's not forget about the bodies we carry around like strings dangling from our brain balloons. And so we’ll end this economic media trends analysis with its accompanying floorwork flow session.

ENDNOTES & UPSELLS