Can Patreon and Twitch Drive the New Gig Economy? - OZY | A Modern Media Company

WHY YOU SHOULD CARE

The pandemic is giving rise to a freelance model driven by platforms geared toward remote working and for a generation that’s digital first.

By Andrew Hirschfeld

  • Amid the unemployment crisis, platforms that enable self-employed workers to charge subscriptions for their content are having a surge in sign-ups.
  • From journalists to bookkeepers, IT engineers to porn actors, these platforms could be the future of the gig economy.

In an episode of the Netflix original series Love, Bertie Bauer, played by Claudia O’Doherty signs up for Tinder after a rocky breakup. She asks her roommate Mickey Dobbs (Gillian Jacobs): “What does it mean when someone says they’re a project manager?” Mickey responds: “They’re unemployed.”

While pop culture has often equated self-employment with unemployment, freelance work is a reality for a growing number of Americans. A 2017 survey by Edelman Intelligence concluded that a majority of Americans — especially those living in urban areas — would be freelancers by 2027. Now the coronavirus pandemic is giving rise to a freelance model driven by a set of platforms geared for remote working and for a generation that’s digital first.

Patreon is a subscription-based platform popular among creators, from musicians to printmakers, who want to sell and distribute their work. In just the first three weeks of the pandemic, as job losses battered America’s workforce, it added 30,000 sign-ups.

Substack, a platform that allows writers to build and distribute customized subscription-based newsletters, saw a 49 percent increase in sign-ups in March, as newsrooms across the country laid off journalists. Well-known writers, including former The New Republic climate science writer Emily Atkin, ThinkProgress founder Judd Legum and Matt Taibbi, a former Rolling Stone contributor, have turned to the platform. Some writers on Substack make six figures — the average salary for a staff reporter in the U.S. is $46,270, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

If the pandemic continues there is a high probability that more and more people will use these platforms in full-time capacities.

Chris Stanton, Harvard Business School

Upwork, which connects employers with gig workers for tasks ranging from a six-month UX design project to a weeklong bookkeeping stint, boasted a 19 percent growth in revenue in the second quarter and 21 percent in the first quarter. 

“Freelancing takes a lot of hustle. There is a freedom that comes with it as well,” says Carol Wolper, author of Adapt or Wait Tables: A Freelancer’s Guide. “People must adapt to this moment.… In the freelance world, to be successful you’ve always had to bring something to the table that no one else can.”

The reality of course is far from idyllic, especially for the millions of workers who don’t have a choice but to seek freelance work. In the past six months, companies ranging from Uber to NBCUniversal to Boeing have laid off employees, as industry after industry has been decimated. The United States is in the middle of its largest economic downturn since the Great Depression.

Week-over-week, unemployment numbers continue to rise as furloughs turn into layoffs and then the cycle repeats itself. “The idea that there will be a V-shaped recovery is looking less and less plausible,” says Chris Stanton, an associate professor of business administration at Harvard Business School. Until now, the platforms seeing monumental growth in sign-ups for self-employed gigs have often been used for supplemental income, he explains. The current crisis could change that. “If the pandemic continues there is a high probability that more and more people will use these platforms in full-time capacities,” Stanton says. 

That’s why platforms like Twitch are also on the rise. The world’s largest livestreaming platform has historically been home to gamers. That has expanded across several industries, with everything from yoga classes to cooking shows filmed at temporarily shuttered restaurants. Sponsored content on Twitch grew 89 percent in the first two months of the pandemic.

Twitch has partnered with Bandsintown, a platform that connects musicians, fans and brands, to help elevate emerging artists at a time when performances in bars and clubs are not an option. OnlyFans, a London-based content subscription platform used principally for pornographic content, has seen a 75 percent month-over-month increase in users since the start of the pandemic, offering a lifeline to an industry brought to a halt because of social distancing norms.

In some ways, this explosion of growth is in keeping with a shift toward freelancing that’s been evident for a few years, says Trevor Blake, author of Secrets to a Successful Startup: A Recession-Proof Guide to Starting, Surviving & Thriving in Your Own Venture. “But the pandemic [has] clearly accelerated the process.” He expects to see more independent contractors performing roles ranging from HR to IT for businesses. How all of this shapes the future of the American workforce remains an open question. But as the economy shifts toward freelance work driven by these 21st-century platforms, the stigmatization of self-employed workers could soon be a thing of the past.

Sign up for the weekly newsletter!

Related Stories