Celebrities are no longer simply endorsing products or appearing in interviews in lifestyle magazines—they are making their own products, buying up media platforms, and controlling their own narratives when they collaborate. In a world where influence is arguably the greatest commodity and online tools make distribution and reach accessible to anyone, why would celebrities, some of our most powerful influencers, look for a cut of the deal when they can take the whole pie?
Not exactly. The trend we are referring to is more that celebrities are buying up properties that allow them to own their narratives on those platforms rather than negotiate interviews, photo shoots, album releases, etc. that are traditionally controlled by parent companies and brands. According to this article from Inc., it is mostly media startups scaled to the following of the celebrity:
More and more, the fastest-growing and buzziest media startups are springing not from traditional publishers and broadcasters but from the minds of celebrities with recognizable names but minimal industry experience. The past week has brought ample fresh evidence of the trend.
First, Time Inc. acquired Hello Giggles, a website co-founded by quirky actor Zooey Deschanel, for a reported $30 million. Then, on Tuesday, Lena Dunham, the writer/director/star of HBO's "Girls," made a deal to partner her nascent e-newsletter, Lenny, with Hearst Corporation. On the same morning, The Players Tribune, a sports-news website launched by retired New York Yankee Derek Jeter, announced that it had secured $15 million in new funding, with Kobe Bryant participating in the round.
Artists and major rights-holders are no longer waiting to claim control over their own narratives and public perception. They’re taking action on their own terms—and with their own wallets.
Consider how all of the following events happened over the last two months alone:
- June 6, 2018: PEOPLE, an artist-collective co-founded by members of The National (Aaron and Bryce Dessner) and Bon Iver (Justin Vernon), announce their own non-commercial digital distribution platform in an effort to combat corporate power over music consumption and fan engagement. The platform is set to launch out of beta this Saturday (August 18).
- July 20, 2018: Chance the Rapper buys local news site Chicagoist—an acquisition that the rapper announces in his new single “I Might Need Security.”
- July 30, 2018: News breaks that Beyoncé has taken unprecedented creative control over the September 2018 cover of Vogue and of her accompanying magazine profile, which is written in the first person.
- August 2, 2018: Warner Music Group acquires leading youth media brand UPROXX, expanding on its mission to “tell engaging and original stories that influence culture.”
Celebrities and media have interacted differently for generations, and they have always had a symbiotic relationship in which media brands needed celebrities for content and celebrities needed them for promotion. Surely celebrities don’t have time to do all of this and be celebrities. Our people had some thoughts on this:
Jesse Greenberg & Nicole Caposella say it’s about diversification and capitalizing on celebrities’ “celebrity” at the height of their influence.
Celebrities are feeling the pressure. They know they must be thoughtful about taking advantage of the moment and their influence. Can you really make enough money in your 20s to sustain you for the rest of your life if you never work again?
And with this pressure, [celebrities] are realizing they can't be single focused. Especially in industries such as sports where athletes’ fame has a shelf life. (Jesse)
Jesse makes a good point about these sports celebrities and how they have approached their career experiences on a broader scale. To truly be successful in today’s world, people see that they need to be versatile and have a variety of interests. Nothing is single focused anymore. (Nicole)
Ryan Winkler-Herr says it’s a play for authenticity in a largely hyper-produced space.
I think the most interesting element to all of this is that while there is kind of a pretense of questioning ‘bias,’ this seems to clearly be a play for authenticity. For the personal, ‘DIY,’ ‘everyman’ sort of feeling to super corporate, hyper-produced brands like Vogue and Beyoncé. Beyoncé is humanized by the first person on some articles, by recruiting ‘her’ photographer. She Tweets, she Snapchats, she has marital problems, she's JUST LIKE YOU. And she is Vogue this issue. Vogue is just like you, too.
Alexandra Bohannon, less cynically, says it is often tied into causes—celebrities using their influence to bring about positive change in the industry and society.
When I think of a celeb who has made it in terms of becoming not just a celebrity brand but a major player in the standard field of non-celeb aligned brands: Rhianna's makeup brand Fenty.
From Rhianna as to why she made this brand on the makeup site's homepage:
Fenty Beauty was created for everyone: for women of all shades, personalities, attitudes, cultures, and races. I wanted everyone to feel included. That's the real reason I made this line.
Rhianna is harnessing the power of her own celebrity and harnessing the power of a hot social cause. And the social cause matters.
Ashley Hackler says this is a backlash born from years of abuses by media brands who took advantage of celebrities they represented.
Artists having creative control over their work, arguably the most important thing to them, has been something they have relinquished control of when signing with these major labels. Now that labels are seeing the leverage these artists have, perhaps they will be open to a more of a service-oriented partnership with the artist as opposed to having ownership of the artist. If the deal structure between artists and labels had historically been set up to be more of a fair deal for both parties, making it more of a unified partnership, it makes me wonder if said artist would be less inclined to branch out on their own. It’s difficult to hypothesize with so many changing variables in nearly every industry right now but it goes back to the importance of trusted partnerships, and one should not underestimate the influence that comes with such partnership.
What celebrities are trying to do here is more or less what we are telling brands to do: Be your own media company. But they are making the same possible mistakes that many brands do, and that is something we can learn from.
Tuck Oden lays out the problems from the brand perspective.
As an artist 20 or 30 years ago, you had to rely on a rolodex of different companies and outlets to handle your business: recording, equipment, touring, distribution, marketing, etc. Each player was the expert in their field—and the only real gateway to otherwise untouchable gear, supply chains and expertise. But using each of those players also diluted your work. Each had their own interests. Each deal was a compromise.
Today, virtually all of that is at our disposal. A 12-year-old with gumption can start her own makeup tutorial media company in her bedroom with a laptop and YouTube. Why should she rely on outside vendors? More to the point, why should Beyoncé or any artist with essentially unlimited means bow to the wishes of a media conglomerate when she can do it all herself—in a way that aligns with her singular vision?
But even with access to the greatest gear, software and distribution methods, if you don’t have expertise, creativity and hard-won experience, it’s just a bunch of expensive toys. What’s needed is a true partner. One thoroughly aligned with the artist’s vision. One house with all of the toys—and the people who know how best to use them.
And Tim Herr addresses the problems from the consumer perspective.
I hate that realization that the book or article you're reading is by a ghostwriter instead of the ostensible celebrity author, which is why projects like The Players' Tribune make me cringe. I wonder about the impact that this carefully managed, PR-friendly approach to celebrity has on the public perception of celebrity itself.
Additionally, as a consumer I don't care much in principle whether a media company is celebrity-owned. Where it does start to affect my life is when exclusivity comes into play, and then I have to start making choices I'd rather not have to make. Do I like Star Wars enough to pay for Disney's new streaming service, as long as it's cheaper than Netflix? Sure. Do I like Jay-Z enough to subscribe to Tidal so I can hear his new album before the rest of the world? Nope. But I do feel some resentment that now I have to make these kinds of decisions and, more importantly, keep tabs on whose content I can access on which platform.
When a brand, celebrity or otherwise moves to own their narrative, it makes sense to have greater control over platforms and storytelling, and celebrities are doing this right in many ways. However, things to keep in mind:
- Partnerships create uncontrolled vulnerability on both sides, and brands need to be sure that any other brand (celebrity or otherwise) they connect with is worthy and consistent with their values.
- Owning platforms is a way to further control narratives, but they must be accessible and not create more frustration for audiences who will not pay for multiple subscriptions unless the content is truly worth it.
- While brands should appear “human” and authentic as much as possible, they also need quality content and production that comes from expertise. There are truly DIY brands, but they are smaller campaigns, usually local artisans, who don’t rely as much on high production value. Larger brands must balance authenticity with quality, and that often means partnering with a media company. The right one won’t take over your narrative, it will just help you realize it.
And in terms of working with celebrity influencers in the direct sense, Jesse Greenberg explains:
Brands need to become more creative with how they partner with influencers and think longer-term (which is scary for many). They need to think how they are aligned with influencers and vice versa. Pay-for-post will become increasingly less attractive for influencers who have real engaged and loyal followings. They want equity and they know their value.