In 2018, Caleb Finn created a TikTok account to join his friends in vying for a shot at virality. Some four years later, it’s a schtick that rakes in a six-figure annual income, supporting him, his partner, Lil Soup, and their newborn boy.
With 14.8 million followers, and a running average of about 10 million views per video, Finn is a creator that most would agree has the better end of the deal. Even still, he said, it’s a job like any other, and requires a lot more effort than the average person might assume, based on whatever they may project onto his “caricature”. It’s more than vaporwave and Fiji Water.
“I think a lot of people don't understand how many times you have to recreate yourself and refresh your content and keep things interesting on a daily basis,” Finn told VICE. “And I think, like, talking to other creators at ‘cons, and people asking me, like, ‘What's the hardest part?’ It's creating daily content, one hundred percent. It's got to be like, consistent, good quality content every day for years.”
“It's extremely hard,” he said.
Finn is a bit of an anomaly, though. Australia’s TikTok economy has grown extremely bloated over the last 12 months, and is on track to soon become a multi-billion dollar industry. Once you square that up with the market’s vast creator talent pool, the likelihood of earning a livable income withers away exponentially. Each creator is as committed to churning out an endless stream of content for even the faintest sliver of success as the next – all in the face of an incomprehensible algorithm. The odds are stacked.
But that doesn’t mean there isn’t money to be made.
According to a new report from marketing platform, Hootsuite, and the creative agency, We Are Social, about $3.6 billion was tipped into Australian social media advertising last year. That’s a jump of more than $547 million compared to the year before, and the cash is increasingly going to creators on TikTok.
It’s a trend that becomes less surprising when you consider the app was the third-most downloaded app in Australia through 2021, beaten out only by the Service NSW and Service Victoria apps, which were legislated prerequisites for moving through life with any sense of normalcy for residents of their respective states during the worst of the pandemic.
As a result, last year emerged as a bumper year for Australia’s top-earning creators. In Finn’s case, it saw him bag ad spending from Adobe, Sony, and countless other multinational corporations. He wouldn’t be drawn on exactly how much, though. For others, like creator Sari Ella Thaiday, COVID-19 lockdowns and the captivated eyeballs that came with them drove her account through an explosive stage of growth.
“There’s been times I’ve had to just turn off my comments altogether just to settle things.”
A six-figure earning that could support an entire household, however, is still a ways off both for her, as well as the vast majority of creators on the platform competing for a foothold in the Australian market. Thaiday told VICE that even though she’s started making money on TikTok, there’s no way to get a read on what she could earn from any given brand. Rates are, for the most part, heavily mystified.
Thaiday, in other words, occupies an extremely common position in the Australian creator economy: her audience thinks she’s far wealthier than she is, and for the most part doesn’t understand that TikTok isn’t her full-time job, even though she’d like it to be.
“I think it’s building towards being [full-time], but… I still need a job,” Thaiday told VICE. “I feel like the [income] is not as consistent, and each brand just has a different budget, so there’s no telling what you’ll get. It could just be anywhere from $500 to the thousands.”
It’s a sentiment that was shared by Finn, too. He said it’s the most misguided assumption most people make about their favourite personalities on TikTok, and others who might be watching the space from afar, thinking that it would only take meeting basic trend and aesthetic requirements – which are each in a constant state of flux – to sink their shot.
“I think that’s a huge misconception for people. It’s extremely hard to make money. If you aren’t brand-friendly, if you don’t have something that is easily marketable to people, like a type of content that’s marketable, it’s extremely hard to make money,” Finn said.
“There’s no telling what you’ll get. It could just be anywhere from $500 to the thousands.”
A lot of what drives that misconception, Finn said, was the amount of money they think is on the table by way of TikTok’s “gifts” and Creator Fund, which is said to pay users who have at least 10,000 followers and 100,000 views for their videos, every 30 days. TikTokers have broadly reported the payouts for videos, which are rarely based on views alone, to amount to mere pennies.
“I mean, they’ve got a pool of money, right. And it’s like, regardless of how many creators are in that pool, that amount of money stays the same. So, if you’re thinking that you’ll [try it], and rely on TikTok to create a fund to sustain yourself, you’ve got another thing coming.”
“It’s not something you can do and say it’s sustainable to do this full-time.”
Thaiday is still trying to figure out a way to scale her account as a business, while trying to manage her audience and encourage having healthier conversations about working as a creator. She said she will often cop flack for posting too much, even though “that’s what the job entails,” but will then be criticised by users on the platform for not taking time off to rest. The worst of it came when her hometown newspaper wrote up a quasi-profile on her.
“It was, y’know, ‘Up-and-coming content creators’ and stuff,” Thaiday said. “And because it’s such a regional, local place, the opinions weren’t that great, either. So, a lot of the comments under [the story] were like, ‘Oh, she’s just looking to get free stuff’, or, ‘She’s looking for this and she’s looking for that’,” she said. “‘Attention seeker’ – all that sort of stuff.”
“I didn’t really plan on doing this, it just kind of happened. It just kept growing and growing,” she said. “So, I don’t know. It is what it is. There’s kind of a negative stereotype around this whole type of job, because it’s also so new as well.”
On that same token, though, TikTok could be doing more to circumvent the venom its algorithm rewards, Thaiday said. That could include any number of improvements, like hardening the language in its safety guidelines, and enabling profiles to block others that might all be connected to the same person – a feature that’s available to Instagram users.
“You could just tell people to stay off social media, but that’s not really the reality,” she said.
“And it’s not really fair for them unless you actually get the platform itself to fix what they’re doing, because a lot of people are being attacked. There’s been times I’ve had to just turn off my comments altogether just to settle things. Even recently, I just deactivated [my account] at the beginning of the year to just chill out for a bit and then come back.”
Other creators have taken a more binary approach to the platform, implementing strategy and creative direction in the way that a regular creative agency would.
Among them are Sam, Jack and Isaac, who run the account @swag.on.the.beat. The trio told VICE that their account is more a “business”, similar to the way entertainers of all ilks – comedians, gamers, whoever else – used to approach YouTube. The fact they share the account, they said, also makes it easier to put space between them and their work, as well as their audience.
For the most part, their account was a happy accident that the three only started to take seriously once it started to show promise as a serious income stream.
“I think there has been gradual stages where we’ve posted videos and have then gone viral. For example, that RAT test video was recently viral and got about 11 million views,” Sam said. “And I think when we first realised we could sort of keep going, or develop into something more, was when we started posting more than just our ‘American-Australian’ videos. We started posting a few videos with, a dad character, or a lad character.”
“Then, about six months ago, that’s when we knew we should keep going and create something more.”
After that point, Jack said, the trio started thinking less in terms of what to make, content-wise, focusing on “bigger-picture” plans that could be folded into a broader business strategy. It’s a vastly different approach to those of Thaiday, and at face value, even Finn, whose businesses each osmosed their online personas, as opposed to approaching the platform with an explicit business strategy from the jump.
“I think it is definitely hard with social media, always looking at numbers. And that’s pretty much how we promote ourselves to companies,” Isaac said. “But I think, overall, we’d like to consider ourselves comedians, or be considered as comedians of the future, and hope that the quality of the videos we make, or the quality of the jokes in our videos, would outweigh the views.”
Sam, Jack and Isaac have come to TikTok with a perspective unlike most of their peers, but they will likely come out of it asking the same question: “How do we make money?”
They’re hoping the next six months will tell. Just like millions of others.