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TikTok’s a year old, when will its creators make money?

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‘On TikTok you don’t get money from views right now’

Tessellated TikTok logos against a dark background. Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

TikTok stars wanted to be taken seriously in 2018. Now, one year after Musical.ly became TikTok and skyrocketed its creators into mainstream fame, they want to start earning money for the videos they produce.

“On YouTube, you get money from the views you get, but on TikTok you don’t get money from views right now,” Javi Luna, a TikTok creator with 4 million followers, told the BBC.

For the most part, TikTok doesn’t offer creators a way to make money on its platform. Creators can secure sponsorships and brand deals for individual posts, but those deals have to be secured without TikTok’s help. A select group of creators hand-picked by TikTok can also earn money through tipping in live streams, but that doesn’t cover the most popular part of the app. This lack of monetization options could make it harder for TikTok to get its top talent to stick around, and it’s already led popular creators, like Brendan Robert, a creator with close to 3 million followers, to direct fans to their YouTube accounts. After all, that’s where they can earn money far more easily.

There are ads on TikTok right now, but none run directly on creators’ videos and offer a cut of the money, like on YouTube. Monetization on TikTok is difficult because videos don’t run longer than 60 seconds, and putting a lengthy ad in front of them would ruin the fast-paced experience. The company is “exploring a variety of opportunities to create value for our brand partners, with our main focus being on creating a great experience for our community,” a TikTok representative told The Verge. The representative did not mention whether a program like AdSense would ever come to TikTok.

“TikTok is a platform for creative, fun, and positive experiences,” the representative said. “The brands we see having the most success are those that embrace the creativity and authenticity of the TikTok community.”

Right now, TikTokers (as they refer to themselves) are still relying on alternative ways of making money like tipping and brand deals. Discussions between people in the industry strongly suggest that TikTok will support native advertising on the platform as an effort to retain creators, according to Jacob Pace, CEO of the content firm Flighthouse. Direct monetization for creators is important to keeping them on the app, Pace said, and TikTok executives know this. There’s a never-ending battle over where top creators land, and being able to financially compensate people is at the center of that fight.

“It’s going to take a while for the system to really be there,” Pace argued. “As someone who has channels on TikTok, and works with creators, we all want to monetize, and I think they absolutely will.”

As goofy videos turn into careers, monetization goes from being an added bonus to a necessity. It’s why YouTube is still the golden standard for creators earning money, followed closely by Twitch and Facebook. Twitch, Facebook, and YouTube allow creators to earn money directly from ad revenue, while the latter two options also allow people to earn ongoing payments via subscription models. YouTube and Facebook take a 45 percent cut of revenue from videos, giving creators 55 percent; Twitch takes 50 percent for most creators.

All of these are infinitely simpler than what TikTok currently offers. Influencers don’t earn ad revenue on the platform from posts, but they do work with brands for sponsorships and can sell merchandise through the app’s integrated commerce tool. It’s a growing part of being an online creator, but it’s not as simple as YouTube’s AdSense program. Pace is hopeful that will also change.

“I think YouTube has done it in a super smart way,” Pace said. “I would like TikTok’s monetization program to be something like a YouTube. I hear people say they use TikTok like a short-form YouTube — I hear people comparing it more to YouTube than Instagram.”

There is one type of “creator” that is making bank through TikTok — musicians, as well as their labels. Lil Nas X credits TikTok with helping him become the biggest musician of the moment, and Spotify is full of playlists built around songs trending on TikTok. Labels are now looking to TikTok to generate buzz in a way that other platforms can’t. This helps the record labels monetize, but not individual creators.

If TikTok doesn’t find a solution for creators, it could face the fate of another beloved short-form video app: Vine. Vine never figured out a way to pay its creators, and they went to YouTube as a result.

“When you’re making videos, you go to whoever’s the most excited about what you’re doing and who sees the most potential in your brand, and that includes paying you for it,” Pace said. “TikTok wants to be a short-form YouTube. It can be, instead of Snapchat or Instagram, but it has to help out creators.”