Chapter 1: State of Play
Leenda Dong is nothing short of a phenomenon on TikTok. With 18 million followers and close to a billion likes, this Vancouver-based creator started out making YouTube videos about 10 years ago, encouraged by the success of Asian digital creators such as Ryan Higa, Kevin Wu (aka Kev Jumba), and Michelle Phan. “I started to see all of these Asian faces — and I was like, this is so cool, I want to do this too!” she says. “They were definitely pioneers for a lot of Asian people that create content right now.” 1 Building on her huge online presence, Dong has landed partnerships and deals with brands ranging from Pantene to Netflix, Spotify, and MAC Cosmetics. 2
Not long after the launch of YouTube, Ricky Berwick, who was born with Beals-Hecht syndrome, a connective tissue disorder that limits his physical movements, started posting short comedy videos online from his home in Kitchener, Ontario. He now has five million followers on the video sharing platform and over 2.2 billion views. On TikTok, Berwick describes himself as “Your not so normal video entertainer!” and has 14 million followers and over 260 million likes. His brand sponsorship deals include Reese’s and McDonald’s. 3
Both Dong and Berwick are in the upper echelons of digital creators globally. And chances are you haven’t heard of them. So what exactly is going on here? They’re among the estimated 10,000 to 20,000 4 Canadians making a living as digital creators. These digital creators are able to reach audiences directly through user-generated content (UGC) platforms with hundreds of millions to billions 5 of global users and in turn forge careers on their own terms. Your friends, colleagues, and almost certainly your kids reference digital creators you probably haven’t heard of but that mean everything to them. As one journalist recently put it in an article on online creators in The Guardian, they are “hugely famous to those who are interested, largely unknown to those who are not.” 6
While it may seem like this is the moment that digital creators move from the margins to the mainstream, the current landscape is, in reality, the result of years of work on the part of thousands of technology companies, millions of creators, and billions of viewers and views. The digital content economy is an ecosystem characterized by risk-taking, innovation, and active audiences, and its moment has definitely arrived.
The democratization of digital content creation is largely thanks to the phones in our pockets being so much more than phones. They are, in fact, sophisticated media machines for both creation and consumption. In 2023, it is estimated that there are about seven billion mobile phones being used around the world, with Canada’s rate of smartphone penetration now at over 91 per cent. 7 8 Along with the advanced capabilities of these everyday portable devices, this new ecosystem of digital creators operates in the absence of gatekeepers, or intermediaries such as broadcasters, newspapers and magazines, and music labels, that have traditionally stood between creators and their audiences.
EASIER THAN EVER TO CREATE, HARDER THAN EVER TO GET NOTICED
When one doesn’t need to be a media organization in order to make media, some of the biggest obstacles vanish while new ones appear. Capital-intensive, hierarchical production goes away, for example, but new obstacles emerge, such as the ability to get one’s content discovered in an environment of extreme content abundance.
At the industry level, digital participatory media — where the only equipment required is a phone and internet access — has brought with it a number of key shifts, including:
- low barrier to entry for creators
- access to global audiences
- 24/7 on-demand content
- no “prime time”
- fee-free distribution by UGC platforms
- additional distribution by users via shares and retweets
Other challenges exist. There are the evolving rules, norms, and algorithms of the UGC platforms on which digital creator content finds its home. Though there is no lock on the gate, platforms wield a great deal of power, and may be thought of as a new kind of gatekeeper.
Nevertheless, media moves from an environment characterized by scarcity to one defined by abundance, or more accurately overabundance. There is no denying that the volume and speed at which digital content is produced and consumed is so great that comparisons to the traditional broadcast ecosystem (including streaming) seem almost irrelevant.
The following snapshot of media production and consumption in 2022 illustrates how different — and hard to compare — the two systems really are.
|Scripted Series Produced per Year, U.S. market||Unscripted Series Produced per Year, U.S. market||YouTube Uploads per Day||YouTube Viewing Time per Day||TikTok Videos Watched
|Twitch Livestream Hours Watched Daily|
|599 9||2,000 10||740,000 hours 11||One billion hours 12||167 million 13||57 million 14|
The ability to make and share content online isn’t new; indeed, it has existed in various forms since the early 2000s. So why all the talk of the creator economy (i.e., the digital creators ecosystem) now? One answer is that a tipping point between traditional and digital media has recently been reached. As the chart below illustrates, when people can choose by clicking and swiping, they are now choosing things outside the options from broadcasters and streamers.
The numbers break down as follows:
- Between ages 13 and 25, more than half of media consumed weekly is made by digital creators.
- Between ages 25 and 35, digital creator content is 46 per cent of weekly media consumption.
- Between ages 35 and 44, digital creator content is 37 per cent of weekly media consumption.
- Between ages 45 and 54, digital creator content is 30 per cent of weekly media consumption.
- Between ages 55 and 64, digital creator content is 22 per cent of weekly media consumption.
CONSUMERS AGED 13-34 SPEND HALF THEIR WEEKLY MEDIA HOURS ON USER-GENERATED CONTENT WITH TEENS SETTING THE PACE
SHARE OF WEEKLY MEDIA HOURS
Even Netflix, with its estimated US$17 billion spend on content this year, 15 now has difficulty keeping up with the platforms dominated by user-generated content.
Research conducted in fall 2023 shows that, for the first time, teens in the United States reported spending more daily viewing time on YouTube than Netflix. 16
WATCH WHAT YOU WANT, WHEN YOU WANT
Whether it’s swipeable short videos on TikTok, the Reels and Stories of Instagram, or the variety of media formats available on YouTube, media consumption is now an activity that can be controlled and customized by the individual. People can watch what they want, when they want, and the hold of UGC platforms on Canadian audiences is substantial. In early 2023, TikTok reported reaching 10.75 million Canadian users, Instagram had 15.9 million, and YouTube bested them all with 33.1 million Canadian users, or about 85 per cent of the country’s population at the time of reporting. 17 Furthermore, about half of Canadian YouTube users do their viewing on a TV, which is consistent with YouTube consumption habits in other parts of the world. 18 19
Data from Nielsen provides additional evidence of the shift from linear to digital streaming content. The Nielsen Gauge report for summer 2023 shows the largest segment of total viewing now going to streaming, at 38.7 per cent of total viewing. Within the streaming segment, YouTube is the largest, claiming about 24 per cent of all streaming. After streaming, cable is the next largest single segment, with just under 30 per cent of total viewing, and 20 per cent goes to broadcast. To put these figures in context, in the past two years broadcast and cable’s combined share of viewing has dropped by 12 per cent. 20
NIELSEN’S THE GAUGE™: TOTAL U.S. TV AND STREAMING SNAPSHOT
JULY 2023 – TOTAL DAY – PERSONS 2+
Similar patterns can be seen in Canadian viewership. The CMF’s Audience Research team analyzed viewing metrics in Quebec and Ontario for linear broadcasters, streamers, and other UGC platforms. Across the 2-11, 12-17, and 18-34 age groups, in both provinces, YouTube and TikTok take up a large portion of viewership, with TikTok being more popular among 12-17 teenagers than with 18-34 adults.
The data makes it clear: Viewing is shifting away from broadcast and cable and toward streaming. But a lot of streaming content isn’t all that different from what you find on broadcast and cable. It’s the professionally produced fare you find on the likes of Netflix, Crave, and the Roku Channel. The key difference is that it’s available on demand, with algorithms personalizing recommendations based on your viewing habits. By contrast, most digital creator content has little in common with the programming on broadcast, cable, or streamers. The content could be seconds long, such as a TikTok video, or hours long, such as a live Twitch stream. Many of the genres produced by digital creators are new too, from reaction videos to video game commentary to shopping hauls, but they can also include formats we’re familiar with from other media such as interviews, mini documentaries, and product reviews.
The chart below offers an analysis of Canadian digital creators on one platform, YouTube, and the Top 100 most viewed YouTube channels in Canada by genre. 21 At the top of the new genres mentioned above, we see crossover between categories such as animation and education, science and education, and entertainment and children’s programming.
|Entertainment||Music||Gaming||Education||Comedy||Science & Technology||Film & Animation||Sports||News & Politics||People & Blogs||Autos & Vehicles||How To & Style||Unclassified / All Other|
|Number of Channels in Top 100 in Canada||22||20||15||12||7||6||4||2||2||2||1||1||8|
|Sample Canadian Channels in Canadian YouTube Top 100||Luke Davidson
(9.5 billion views)Heidi and Zidane
(4.2 billion views)
(1.8 billion views)Bryan Adams
(4 billion views)
(15.7 billion views)Azzyland
(6.5 billion views)
(46 billion views)NotWhatYouThink
(2.6 billion views)
(9.2 billion views)JeenieWeenie
(6.6 billion views)
(2 billion views)AsapSCIENCE
(1.9 billion views)
(3.2 billion+ views)
(1.5 billion views)TheSportsEntertainer
(2.2 billion+ views)CBC News
(1.8 billion+ views)
|FamousTubeFamily (4.3 billion views)
|RC Sparks Studio
(1.9 billion views)
(1.8 billion views)
(3.3 billion views)The Dusty Lumber Co.
(1.9 billion views)
Also worth noting is that categories, such as Music, encompass music interview channels, but also include major recording artists such as Drake and Nickelback. Meanwhile, in News & Politics, traditional broadcasters (Global News and CBC News) are major players in the category as they cross-post their original content onto YouTube. Similarly, one of the two most successful channels in the Sports category is a traditional broadcaster also cross-posting to YouTube (SportsNet). These examples speak to some of the ambiguous boundaries in the digital creator ecosystem, a topic that will be explored in greater detail in the section below that provides an estimate on the size and value of the Canadian digital creator economy.
Chances are that many of the names in the chart are new to readers, which speaks to the parallel universe that is the digital creator landscape. But this parallel universe is impactful, with channels able to generate billions of views, and some channels, such as Super Simple Songs, seeing close to a billion views per month.
There are millions of hours of new content uploaded daily across such popular platforms as YouTube, Instagram, TikTok, and Twitch, and yet these Canadian digital creators, and approximately 10,000 to 20,000 others, 22 are able to make a full-time equivalent living doing what they love. They are earning their views one click (or swipe) at a time and have to earn those views again each day, in the face of billions of hours of competition across YouTube, TikTok, Instagram, Twitch, and more.
SIZING THE CREATOR ECONOMY
How many digital creators are there, both around the world and here in Canada? And what is the economic impact of this emerging industry sector? That depends on a number of things, including the definitions being used. Are we talking about the average amount of time spent making content? The amount of money earned? The ability to quit one’s day job? Or something else?
An oft-cited figure for the number of digital creators worldwide is 50 million, 23 while other reports are even more bullish, referencing 100 million or even 200 million. 24 On top of this wide discrepancy in numbers, survey research has shown that a significant number of digital creators consider themselves to be full-time creators despite despite reporting below-median earnings. 25 But regardless of the total number of participants in the creator economy, analysts assume that about four per cent can be considered full-time professionals and that the proportion is likely to remain stable over time, even as the number of entrants to the creator economy grows. 26
In early 2023, TikTok reported reaching 10.75 million Canadian users, Instagram had 15.9 million, and YouTube bested them all with 33.1 million Canadian users, or about 85 per cent of the country’s population at the time of reporting.
How, then, can we think about the creator economy as an economy, an economic engine, and a contributor to Canada’s gross domestic product (GDP)? These issues have not been studied as deeply as they could be, so it must be emphasized that a true economic impact assessment requires substantial quantitative and qualitative work as no single, methodologically sound study of this kind exists for the Canadian creator economy. As Stuart Cunningham and David Craig, the leading academics studying the creator economy, have noted, “Gaining authoritative, independent data on the scale and economic value that platforms and creators derive from social media entertainment is almost impossible at this stage of its evolution as an industry.… Attempts to track economic value across multiple platforms and allied funding sources are legion but almost always unverifiable [and] … usually come from vested advertising and marketing interests.” 27
With these limitations noted, several studies of U.S. and global creator economies have been analyzed. Note that the calculations presented here represent a thoughtful review of that work, not a methodology, and a range of numbers will be provided. To estimate the economic impact and contribution to GDP of Canadian digital creators, the question is approached from a few angles, with details of the methodology available in Appendix: Methodology for Estimating the Canadian Digital Creator Economy at the end of this chapter.
The estimate is 11,924 to 19,889 full-time equivalent (FTE) digital creators in Canada. 28 A multiplier is then used to estimate the number of workers in an industry’s supply chain that receive financial benefits from each worker in the sector being studied. In the context of the creator economy these adjacent industries include equipment production, software engineering, advertising, marketing, PR, travel, and other goods and services sectors relevant to creators’ work. The estimate for this broader ecosystem of companies and suppliers is 45,132 to 75,279 Canadian FTEs. The Canadian GDP contribution associated with this range of numbers is $2.579 billion to $4.302 billion. 29
A LOOK AHEAD
With this rough estimate for the GDP contribution of the broader Canadian digital creator ecosystem, we can now turn to the question of where the creator economy may go from here.
According to analysts from Goldman Sachs Research, “As the ecosystem grows, the total addressable market of the [global] creator economy could roughly double in size over the next five years to US$480 billion by 2027 from US$250 billion today…. [with] spending on influencer marketing and platform payouts fueled by the monetization of short-form video platforms via advertising to be the primary growth drivers of the creator economy.” 30
This estimate is based on a 10 to 20 per cent compounded annual growth rate over the next five years.
For additional comparisons, it’s worth looking at the growth rate of the broader advertising industry. This industry includes the shared digital ad revenue on platforms such as YouTube, which constitutes a small portion of most creators’ income sources at between five to 10 per cent, but also includes the source of the brand deals and sponsorships that are reported to represent about 70 per cent of revenues for digital creators. 31
Brian Wieser at Madison and Wall, a strategic media consultancy that provides forecasts and analyses for the U.S. advertising industry, recently announced these estimated growth rates: In the United States, the advertising industry is currently valued at US$360 billion, which represents over 40 per cent of the global advertising market. Annual growth of five per cent is expected, digital platforms are assumed to account for about 64 per cent of all advertising to the end of 2023, and digital platforms’ ad revenues are expected to grow 11 per cent. 32
“Digital advertising in general is critical for the creator economy because what we call creators — almost all starting out at a small scale — are primarily operating in digital environments because those environments best accommodate creators whether large or small. Although advertising need not be the only source of revenue, fee-based, subscription-based and affiliate-based approaches don’t have the same scale for these kinds of content producers. By contrast, because digital environments can aggregate advertising budgets from multiple advertisers, digital advertising is then able to support those advertisers at a massive cumulative scale. With that context, forecasts are important to the extent that they can help identify the growth in potential pools of budgets to fund creators in the future.” 33
— Brian Wieser
- This estimate was calculated for Perspectives 2023 and is detailed in the economic impact section of this report.
- Some platforms are in the hundred million (e.g., Twitter/X, Snapchat, Pinterest) and some are in the billions (e.g., YouTube, Facebook, Instagram).
- This estimate was calculated for Perspectives 2023 and is detailed in the economic impact section of this report.
- Evidence of creators who report working full-time as creators but do not earn a full-time wage can be seen in such studies as the 2022 Creator Earnings Benchmark Survey, where approximately half of creators self-identify as working full-time on content creation but only 35% reported making $50,000 USD or more annually after building an audience for over four years. See https://influencermarketinghub.com/creator-earnings-benchmark-report/
- Stuart Cunningham and David Craig, Creator Culture: An Introduction to Global Social Media Entertainment (New York: NYU Press, 2021), 5–6.
- Assumptions regarding FTE employment are based on a review of Statistics Canada, “Income of Individuals by Age Group, Sex and Income Source, Canada, Provinces and Selected Census Metropolitan Areas,” Table 11-10-0239-01, May 2 2023, https://doi.org/10.25318/1110023901-eng.
- Note that two studies that examine the Canadian digital creator landscape were also consulted for this report, though they were less helpful. Both reported on YouTube only and both were funded by Google (now Alphabet), the parent company of The two studies are the Oxford Economics report on YouTube in Canada in 2022 and the Watchtime Canada study conducted by a team at Toronto Metropolitan University in 2019. Oxford Economics generated an estimate of Canadian YouTube creators and the associated ecosystem of 35,000 FTEs and a GDP contribution of $2 billion. To estimate the GDP contribution in this report, the Oxford Economics ratio of creators and induced employment to GDP were used. In the Watchtime Canada report, “YouTube creators are defined as they are by YouTube as anyone who uploads a video.” Many people upload videos to YouTube who are not necessarily digital-first creators — including people uploading videos of their daughter’s ballet recital — and the definition may also include the channels of well-known Canadian musical artists such as Drake, Justin Bieber, Shania Twain, Avril Lavigne, and Nickelback, who have some of the highest views among Canadian YouTube channels. Canadian celebrities whose primary work is conducted elsewhere but who post to YouTube may also be included; for example, Canadian actor Ryan Reynolds has a YouTube channel with over 4 million subscribers and more than 700 million views, with content ranging from clips and trailers from Reynolds’ movies to short, entertaining videos. It is therefore debatable whether or not these kinds of lighthearted uploads of the likes of Ryan Reynolds should be included in the tally of Canadian digital creators as defined in the Watchtime Canada report.
- Brian Wieser interview with Leora Kornfeld, for Perspectives, September 2023.
The range of numbers provided in this report is based on a series of assumptions detailed below, the first of which is that the size of the Canadian economy is about 10 per cent of the U.S. economy. In particular, it is assumed that digital creators are found in the same proportion in Canada as in the United States.
While there are several studies that estimate the number of U.S. or global creators, upon closer examination only one focuses on the digital creators who are the topic of this report. That study is entitled “Taking Root: The Growth of America’s New Creative Economy,” commissioned by the Re:Create Coalition in 2017 and helmed by economist Robert Shapiro with Siddhartha Aneja. 1 Of the other studies analyzed, it is unclear how many include the online presences of major media organizations, from CBC to BBC to CNN, along with the channels of major musical artists or other celebrities with billions of views. This would skew the numbers and earnings of purely digital creators. Substantially higher numbers that are attributed to what studies call “creators” may, therefore, be inaccurate.
The first analysis was of Shapiro’s 2017 study. 2 Attributing income to creators on each of nine then-popular creator economy platforms, the study estimated full-time equivalent (FTE) employment of 123,539 people. Note that, in addition to the types of digital creators this report is concerned with, the Re:Create study also includes online sellers on eBay, Amazon, and Etsy, online writers using WordPress and Amazon publishing, and digital designers using the 3D printing platform Shapeways. When these six categories of creators are removed from the total to align with the digital creator definition used in this report, the Re:Create study number is reduced by 30.4 per cent to 85,987, making the Canadian FTE estimate for the same year 8,598, using the assumption noted previously that Canadian figures are generally 10 per cent of U.S. numbers.
How should this estimate of 8,598 be adjusted to account for growth from 2017 to the present? The Re:Create study estimated creator economy growth between 2016 and 2017 at 17 per cent. The growth estimate can be updated in a few ways. First, we could assume the 17 per cent per annum growth is sustained for six years through to 2023. This may seem to be a remarkably high rate of growth but it is supported by data from Adobe, 3 Stripe, 4 and Goldman Sachs. 5 For example, Goldman Sachs’ forward-looking estimate is a 10 to 20 per cent Compounded Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) for the next five years. The Re:Create number can therefore be updated with a mid-range CAGR of 15 per cent per annum to arrive at a Canadian creator figure of 19,889 FTEs.
However, a 2018 report on the internet-based digital economy conducted by the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) estimated an annual growth rate of 5.6 per cent between 2006 and 2016 for the digital economy in general. 6 If this BEA annual growth rate is applied to adjust the Re:Create study’s figures through to 2023, then the number of Canadian digital creator FTEs comes out to 11,924.
The second analysis conducted for this report was of a 2020 study by the venture fund Signalfire. 7 It estimates that there are approximately 50 million creators globally, with 46.7 million designated as amateurs and over two million considered to be professional, defined as earning a full-time wage. The Signalfire figure of 50 million creators is cited frequently in creator economy articles and reports, including one recently penned by University of Toronto professor Richard Florida entitled “The Rise of the Creator Economy.” 8 Despite this generous estimate of global creator size, this study is less useful for our purposes because it does not provide any basis for translating self-defined creative economy participants to FTE workers. The Signalfire report enumerates two kinds of “individual creators”: the first group, estimated at over two million globally, is considered to be “professional,” making content full-time; the second group, estimated at 46.7 million globally, is termed “amateur.” In both cases the creators are defined by the number of followers they have, and there is no way to determine whether they are digital creators or corporate entities with accounts or channels on the various platforms.
Note that there are two studies that examine the Canadian digital creator landscape and they were also consulted for this report, though they were less helpful. Both reported on YouTube only and both were funded by Google (now Alphabet), the parent company of YouTube. The two Canadian studies are the Oxford Economics report on YouTube in Canada 9 and the Watchtime Canada 10 study conducted by a team at Toronto Metropolitan University in 2019. Oxford Economics generated an estimate of Canadian YouTube creators and the associated ecosystem of 35,000 FTEs and a GDP contribution of $2 billion. To estimate the GDP contribution in this report, the Oxford Economics ratio of creators and induced employment to GDP were used. In the Watchtime Canada report, “YouTube creators are defined as they are by YouTube as anyone who uploads a video.”
Many people upload videos to YouTube who are not necessarily digital creators — including people uploading videos of their daughter’s ballet recital — and the definition may also include the channels of well-known Canadian musical artists such as Drake, Justin Bieber, Shania Twain, Avril Lavigne, and Nickelback, who have some of the highest views among Canadian YouTube channels. Canadian celebrities whose primary work is conducted elsewhere but who post to YouTube may also be included; for example, Canadian actor Ryan Reynolds has a YouTube channel with over four million subscribers and more than 700 million views, with content ranging from clips and trailers from Reynolds’ movies to short, entertaining videos. It is therefore debatable whether or not these kinds of lighthearted uploads of the likes of Ryan Reynolds should be included in the tally of Canadian digital creators as defined in the Watchtime Canada report.
Following a careful review of the existing studies, the work of economist Josh Bivens was consulted on the concept of a “multiplier” in the analysis of industry sectors’ overall economic impact on and contribution to GDP. A multiplier provides an estimate of how many workers in a sector’s supply chain are required to support the work of a single worker in the sector being studied. As Bivens explains: “Production in a given economic sector involves linkages with other sectors — that is, production in one industry depends on suppliers in other industries (backward linkages), while wages earned in the production and supplier sectors are spent in other economic sectors (forward linkages).” In the context of the creator economy such linkages may include workers in industries ranging from equipment production to software engineering, advertising, marketing, PR, travel, and other goods and services sectors relevant to creators’ work.
To convert the estimated range of 11,924 to 19,889 Canada FTE digital creators to a GDP contribution for Canada, Bivens’ multiplier of 3.785 for the category of “Arts, Entertainment, and Recreation” is used to arrive at an estimate of 45,132 to 75,279 Canadian FTEs in the broader digital creator ecosystem, including industry sectors and communities experiencing economic benefits from the activities of these digital creators in Canada. The Canadian GDP contribution associated with this range of numbers is $2.579 billion to $4.302 billion.