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The fearless stars of The Uranus 2 experience made film history in 1999 by recording what is believed to have been the first sex scene in weightless conditions. But the film also marked something else: the twilight of a lucrative era for porn.
The production was big budget (for the genre), ambitious to the point of absurdity (weightlessness was simulated in a plane in parabolic flight), and funded by Private media group, an adult entertainment company mainstream enough to be publicly traded.
This model for blue films was not to last. Within a decade, porn – and much of the media industry – had succumbed to the weightlessness of the internet. The money from distributing music, movies, or news in physical form began to evaporate.
As some researchers have noted, adult entertainment offers an eye-opening view of this digital disruption.
Today, the company is shaken by another significant shift in the power of earning money, a sequel with broader relevance to industries reliant on creative talent. In exaggerated form, pornography is sort of a paradigm of how the creator economy shapes media.
The change is characterized by OnlyFans, the largest of several platforms connecting artists to a paying fan base. Musicians, fitness instructors and influencers use the service as well as porn stars. But its commercial potential is being tested to the fullest by adult entertainment.
These early days of digital disruption help explain why. The internet has brought porn an astonishingly large mass audience – the two biggest operators of free “tube” sites claim to have 330 million visitors a day – just as the producers realized they had no way real protect their copyright.
In 2014, Kate Darling of MIT described the industry as having to do “IP without IP” – Internet pornography without any intellectual property.
Porn has survived by developing secondary activities. In the age of physical media – VHS or DVD – a porn movie was the product. But once millions of videos were made available for free on tube sites like Pornhub or Xvideos, that changed. Videos have become more like an advertisement.
What was for sale were other services, easier to protect or harder to copy. Paid sites provided access to more niche material or higher resolution videos. Webcam sites, where models perform live, offered an interactive experience that generated lucrative income.
OnlyFans is another stop on this journey. The difference is that the platform has allowed performers to squeeze out the middlemen who have carved out the lion’s share of the revenue.
Adult performers can earn as little as $ 500 for a sex scene today, maybe a few thousand for more established names. In contrast, on OnlyFans some pornstars earn $ 50,000 and even $ 100,000 per month.
Most OnlyFans performers are obviously far from that; some estimates place the mean closer to a few hundred dollars per month. And even the potential for increased rewards comes at a price: a transfer of risk.
This reality became clear when OnlyFans (temporarily) announced a porn ban, claiming it was frozen by its risk-averse banks. The hiatus pointed out that independence can have drawbacks; Editors of the Substack newsletter who are concerned about the libel allegations will know the sentiment.
The shift to a more efficient market for pornography or other media also raises issues. Those who fail to attract large audiences may be drawn into service niches or extreme demands, where prices are higher.
But the main unresolved question – for porn conglomerates like MindGeek as well as news publishers or music labels – is how the balance of power will change between the old industry and the creators.
Porn income depends on a relatively small number of paying users. Unlike YouTube or Instagram, free porn sites cannot sell their audience to mainstream brand advertisers. Rather, these porn conglomerates take advertising money from other people promoting paid pornography or drive traffic to their own paid sites.
It is indeed a closed ecosystem. The crux will be whether OnlyFans increases overall porn spending or just helps performers take a bigger slice of the same pie.
All of the implications of all of this for music, news, and the celebrity economy are still playing out. Porn can provide answers sooner than most. Things can move quickly in the adult world; the director of The Uranus experience said the weightless sex scene was successfully completed in less than 30 seconds.