A few years ago, Isaac Hayes III spotted a viral video on its way to 22 million views. In it, a teen dressed in a Spider-Man costume—dubbed “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 isn’t a manager, though he does technically manage the estate of his late father, the legendary singer Isaac Hayes, who helped solidify Stax Records as one of soul’s greatest labels. In 1976, during a period of financial hardship, Stax defaulted on the elder Hayes’s royalty payments, forcing him to declare bankruptcy. That, in turn, cost him the rights and royalties to music he made at the height of his career, including his Academy Award–winning Shaft soundtrack.
Because of his father’s experience, Hayes empathizes with Black artists struggling to own their creative content and benefit from their cultural influence—a struggle still taking place decades later, though now on a radically different plane: social media. Creators on platforms like Instagram and YouTube create dances that go viral, speak slang into being, and make memes that become inside jokes to millions of viewers. But while the platforms give users ways to track their reach, most haven’t allowed users to profit off it.
Unless creators manage to copyright the dances they invent (not likely), trademark the catchphrases they popularize (even less likely), or otherwise parlay sudden virality into a merch line or endorsement deal, only social media apps truly profit off cultural clout, using content to attract more users and more users to attract more ad dollars. Meanwhile, creators get “exposure”—if they receive credit for their work at all.
Hayes didn’t have answers for Ghetto Spider-Man that day. “I left that conversation thinking, This kid got 300,000 followers out of nowhere,” he said. “He has no idea how to monetize this new audience.” Hayes has since come up with an idea—though he’s not the only one trying.
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The creator and personal brand economies are today what the gig economy was 10 years ago—and then some. More than 50 million people now describe themselves as content creators. As stay-at-home orders fell into place and TikTok became the world’s most downloaded app, self-starting entertainers, niche experts, and everyday folks decided striking out as a social media personality was worth a shot. Tabitha Brown became “The World’s Favorite Mom,” and cafe owner Nick Cho became “Your Korean Dad.” Viral videos brought us the Covid-19 “quaranclean” and catapulted Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” to Billboard’s Hot 100 for the first time in 40 years.
But if influencers are still figuring out how to make money off their efforts, that’s especially a problem for Black creators—who are still, like Black artists in previous generations, typically paid less than their white counterparts. In 2019, for instance, 14-year-old Fayetteville creator Jalaiah Harmon choreographed a dance called the Renegade, which became TikTok’s defining dance craze after millions of people, including Lizzo and A-Rod, tried it for themselves. But another creator, Charli D’Amelio (who is white), inspired fans to dub her the dance’s “CEO” for popularizing it—at first, without crediting Harmon. Though Harmon has since starred in (and choreographed) a Sufjan Stevens music video and scored endorsement deals with LG and Samsung, her fame still pales in comparison to D’Amelio’s, with a Super Bowl commercial, a Dunkin Donuts drink, and a Hulu docuseries to her name. D’Amelio is now TikTok’s second-highest-paid influencer, on a Forbes list where all but two creators are white.
The challenge of making money has compelled some young Black creators to band together to try to leverage their collective power. Collab Crib, for instance—a house in Fayetteville—serves as the headquarters for a roster of young Black internet stars who have a combined social media reach of 10 million. In the year since Collab Crib’s founding, Keith Dorsey, who scouted and manages the collective under Young Guns Entertainment, has seen that combined influence pay off, in appearances at Atlanta Hawks games, documentaries by Hulu and the New York Times, and an Amazon Prime sponsorship deal.
Despite Collab Crib’s success, Dorsey says creators associated with the house—which prides itself on being the first majority Black “collab house”—are still underpaid anywhere “from 50 to 75 percent” compared to collectives in LA, even adjusting for factors like cost of living. He knows because creators swap notes: From June 2020 to March 2021, the Influencer Pay Gap Instagram account documented how companies pay white creators to endorse their products and expect Black creators with comparable followings to do the same for less—sometimes, for free.
Dorsey says a white creator once told him they were paid $80,000 for the same kind of post that one of the Collab Crib members was paid $10,000 for. “I could see why if the numbers were different and the content sucked,” he said. “But no, it’s the same.”
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Dorsey is one of several people who advised Hayes on an app he’s introduced to combat the problem: Fanbase, which has raised more than $3.5 million in crowdfunding, allows users to monetize the social media interactions that we take for granted. It’s a bit like Instagram—users upload pictures and videos—only, instead of Instagram exclusively profiting from that content, creators get a cut. Users can “like” a post for free or they can buy 100 “loves” for $1. Loving 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 is not only looking out 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’s comments on local elections and 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 watched as the app’s cultural clout rose.
“Creators are literally building these apps with Black culture,” Hayes says, without ever seeing credit (as he would have liked) or dividends (even better). “People are realizing that, if you don’t own [the] infrastructure, then we’re always going to be used. We’re not going to see the most benefit or visibility from the culture and content we break from these platforms.”
One by one, TikTok, Snapchat, YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook have begun announcing monetization efforts to, according to the latter, “reward creators for great content.” But these efforts weren’t enough to quiet growing discontent. Last summer, a few 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’s headquarters near Howell Mill Road, where he announced—to cheers and applause from dancers in the room—that the app will eventually help users copyright their moves. (The U.S. Copyright Office receives fewer than 20 applications a year for choreography, though creators like the Lawrenceville-based Backpack Kid and Atlanta-raised “Single Ladies” choreographer JaQuel Knight are increasingly seeking out this option.)
Between “loves” and a 50 percent cut of subscriber revenue, Hayes assures content creators that, at last, they’ll be compensated for their cultural influence; he says even users who don’t consider themselves influencers can make hundreds of dollars a month. “That’s crazy because that’s a bill,” he says. “That’s a car note.”
In a perfect world, a future Ghetto Spider-Man won’t have to scramble to figure out how to profit off virality as it’s already fleeting, Hayes says. Perhaps more importantly, he hopes that Fanbase helps users understand that everything they do on social media has worth and value.
“We’re all content creators,” Hayes says. “Whether you post one photo or a thousand photos, you’re still creating content.”
Read More: This article is part of our January 2022 cover story, Entrepreneurship is changing. So are Atlanta’s entrepreneurs.
This article appears in our January 2021 issue.