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The intrepid stars of The Uranus Experiment 2 made film history in 1999 by recording what was supposedly the first sex scene under weightlessness. But the film also marked something else: the dawn of a lucrative era for porn.
The production was on a large budget (for the genre), ambitious to the point of absurdity (simulating weightlessness in an airplane on a parabolic flight), and funded by Private Media Group, a mainstream adult entertainment company enough to get on the List stock market to be listed.
This blue film model should not last. Within a decade, porn – and much of the media industry – had succumbed to the weightlessness of the internet. The money from distributing music, films, or news in physical form began to evaporate.
As some scientists have found, adult entertainment offers an insightful look at this digital disorder.
Today, business is rocking another major shift in the power to make money, a sequel with wider relevance to industries that rely on creative talent. In exaggerated form, porn is a kind of paradigm for how the creative economy shapes the media.
Typical of the change is OnlyFans, the most famous of several platforms connecting artists with a paying fan base. Musicians, fitness trainers and influencers use the service as well as porn stars. But its business potential is being tested to the max by adult entertainment.
These early days of digital disruption help explain why. The Internet brought porn to a mass audience of astonishing proportions – the two largest operators of free “tube” sites claim to receive 330 million visitors a day – just as producers realized they had no real means of protecting their copyrights.
In 2014, MIT’s Kate Darling described the industry’s need to do “IP without IP” – Internet pornography without intellectual property.
Porn survived by developing sideline activities. In the age of physical media – VHSs or DVDs – a porn movie was the product. But when millions of videos became available for free on tube sites like Pornhub or Xvideos, that changed. The videos became more like an ad.
There were other services for sale that were easier to protect or harder to copy. Paywall sites provided access to more niche material or higher definition videos. Cam sites that featured models performing live provided an interactive experience that generated lucrative revenue.
OnlyFans is another stage on this journey. The difference is that the platform allowed the artists to squeeze out middlemen who took in the lion’s share of the revenue.
Adult performers may only make $ 500 for a sex scene today, maybe a few thousand for more established names. In contrast, some porn stars at OnlyFans make $ 50,000 and even $ 100,000 a month.
Most OnlyFans cast obviously nowhere near that; some estimates put the average at a few hundred dollars a month. And even the profit potential has its price: a risk transfer.
That reality became clear when OnlyFans (temporarily) announced a porn ban, claiming it was being frozen by its risk averse banks. The break made it clear that independence can also have disadvantages; Substack newsletter writers concerned about libel claims will know the feeling.
Moving to a more efficient market for porn or other media also poses problems. Those unable to attract large audiences may be attracted to niches or extreme demands where the prices are higher.
But the most important unresolved question – for porn companies like MindGeek, as well as news publishers or music labels – is how the balance of power between the old industry and the creators will shift.
The income from porn depends on a relatively small pool of paying users. Unlike YouTube or Instagram, free porn sites can’t sell their audience to mainstream brand advertisers. These porn companies instead take advertising money from others promoting paid porn or direct traffic to their own paid websites.
It’s practically a closed ecosystem. The bottom line will be whether OnlyFans is increasing overall spending on porn or just helping performers get a bigger slice of the same pie.
The full effects of all of this on music, news, and the celebrity economy are still playing out. Porn can provide answers sooner than most. In the adult world, things can move quickly; The director of the Uranus experiment said the weightless sex scene was successfully completed in less than 30 seconds.