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Sunday, October 24, 2021

How ‘nerd’ culture powered through the pandemic


When graphic design graduate, Rachel Smythe, 35, tried to get a foot in the door of New Zealand’s creative industry in 2008, she was rejected at every turn.

She sent her portfolio off to multiple agencies, submitted artwork for numerous book proposals and tried to sell her art prints at conventions but nothing worked.

Eventually her dream became a hobby and instead she went into marketing.

Her story will be familiar to many jobseekers from the millennial generation (people born from around 1980 to 1995).

Their working lives have been dogged by economic uncertainty and a changing workplace, that has seen a decline in traditional career paths and an expansion of the gig economy in many nations.

Artist Rachel Smythe struggled for years to get a job in the graphic design industry before her comic went viral

However, new technology has created new opportunities. We learned more about the careers of three individuals and creative groups by asking them how the pandemic increased their fan bases and, ultimately, their incomes.

Ms Smythe discovered a mobile app called WebToon in 2016 that featured weekly comics that people could read on their phones – a digital version of the popular manga and manhwa comics in Japan and Korea.

In April 2017, she decided to create her own comic, Lore Olympus, an English romance comic deconstructing Greek mythology.

After only one month, she had 1,000 subscribers, and by late 2017, WebToon had asked her to become a paid creator for the app.

When the company first approached her, she says it seemed too good to be true. “I was like, ‘Do you want to pay me for a web comic?'”

Lore Olympus now has 5.2 million subscribers. A Penguin Random House book will be released in November, and an animated series is in the works.

Ms Smythe now works 70-hour weeks to meet her deadlines, but she still struggles to explain her profession and career path to others.

“When I resigned from my job in 2018… I said I was going to make a comic for a Korean app, and people were like, ‘Rachel, are you sure you want to do this?’ This sounds like a bad idea.’ “she claims.

“Even now, when I see people from my previous job, they ask, ‘Oh Rachel, how are you doing?’ It’s quite amusing.”

WebToon was founded when comic fan Jun Koo Kim submitted the idea to Korean tech giant Naver in 2004

WebToon, which is owned by South Korean tech behemoth Naver, has 72 million monthly users. WebToon’s revenue in 2020 was 820 billion Korean won (£508 million, $702 million).

Several of the app’s comics have been adapted into hit TV shows and movies in South Korea, and the artists have become celebrities.

The app has become so popular that traditional comic book companies are interested in collaborating with it; in August, Marvel and DC Comics signed a deal.

The app’s top creator earned a whopping £7.6 million last year, but according to WebToon, creator earnings vary greatly. In 2020, the average revenue of all paid creators was around £172,315 per year.

It has even contributed to a cultural shift in Korea, where it is now considered much more acceptable for young people to pursue full-time careers as comic artists.

Alan Morrison, Rowan Bettjeman and Adam King of online comedy trio Viva La Dirt League

Graphic design isn’t the only creative field where millennials have had a difficult time breaking in. The early years of Viva La Dirt League were also difficult for the founders.

Alan Morrison, 33, Adam King, 32, and actor Rowan Bettjeman, 37, met while working in New Zealand’s film and television industry.

For the past ten years, they’ve been making YouTube videos mocking the video game industry.

However, the trio claims that the first six years were difficult. They depleted their savings of $20,000 (£14,500) before breaking even in 2018.

Mr. Morrison and Mr. King both worked full-time until 2017. In the beginning, all earnings were used to pay Mr Bettjeman’s rent, allowing him to edit their videos full-time.

“We’d put $500 down for a shoot day and make five skits,” Mr Morrison says. The actors and cameraman generously worked for free.

However, there were numerous scares. Sometimes they’d wake up to find that a YouTube algorithm had changed and their videos were no longer being monetized.

“We were terrified of leaving our jobs,” Mr Morrison admits.

However, their perseverance paid off, and they now have 3.5 million subscribers. Between August 2020 and September 2021, subscriber numbers increased by 59%, while total video views increased by 95%.

Epic NPC Man, one of VLDL’s top series, comprises 195 videos to date that have been viewed 48.3 million times on YouTube

Viva La Dirt League now employs 50 people, including 40 contractors. Shoots can cost up to $50,000 per day, and they frequently collaborate with major video game publishers.

Finally, diversifying income streams across multiple platforms was critical so that they always had “eggs in many baskets,” with Facebook and Patreon providing more consistent income.

They have turned down at least six overseas TV and film deals in order to maintain complete artistic control over their work.

“We’ve battled with this a lot… from how the rest of the film industry sees us, to our own family and friends not believing we could make a proper living,” Mr King says.

“I had no idea this hobby would end up giving me more success than I could have ever hoped for – it made the traditional acting career path seem utterly redundant,” Mr Bettjeman adds.

More Technology of Business

Online gaming has provided entertainment, connection and even solace for many people throughout the Covid pandemic, so, it’s perhaps no wonder there has been huge growth in the sector, meaning more people can now make a full-time living from gaming.

In particular, there has been a surge in people playing more traditional games – such as the 47-year-old tabletop roleplaying game called Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) – online together.

D&D creator, Wizards of the Coast, tells the BBC that social content has been transformative – introducing new fans to the genre. The firm says D&D revenues have continued to rise, with 33% global growth year-on-year in 2020.

This surge in interest has resulted in an increase in work for Critical Role, a Los Angeles-based group of eight professional voice actors who routinely stream themselves playing the D&D game live and sometimes dress up in character.

The Critical Role collaboration, according to Liam O’Brien, 45, was a “happy accident” – a group of “nerdy” friends and colleagues happily playing a private D&D game.

However, in 2015, they experimented with live-streaming the game and discovered an enthusiastic audience.

“People think we’re friends. [They] spend four hours with us and really get to know who we are “Laura Bailey, 40, a member of the Critical Role cast, says

In the beginning, their weekly show aired on the YouTube channel Geek and Sundry, but it has since grown into a significant media company with its own production company, studios, and website.

Critical Role broke Kickstarter’s record for the most-funded film project in 2019, raising $11.4 million for a 12-episode animated series. Amazon has purchased the streaming rights for the first two seasons.

Critical Role says people have taken comfort watching their show through coronavirus lockdowns

The characters and their exploits have also snagged a multi-book deal with Penguin Random House, as well as a toy licencing deal.

Taliesin Jaffe, 44, says that because voice acting is such a difficult industry to break into, relying on regular work has been interesting.

“This has given me a sense of stability – I give a performance once a week,” he adds.

Mr. O’Brien, echoing the sentiments of other creatives who have found huge success with online fanbases, believes that the real magic comes from the newfound freedom that streaming has given actors.

“We’re just so liberated,” he says. “We’re making it up as we go along, and we’re doing it with people we have implicit trust in.”

Financial rewards

There’s also a lot of money to be made. Both Viva La Dirt League and Critical Role, according to Mae Karwowski, founder of influencer marketing agency Obviously, have created “a whole new genre of entertainment.”

She and Joe Gagliese, CEO of Viral Nation Group, the world’s largest influencer talent marketing firm, believe they are now earning at least seven figures per year and that their business models are sustainable.

“Mainstream personalities tend to become bigger [stars], but what’s interesting is that the more niche creators [like CR] make the most money,” Mr Gagliese continues.

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