Continuing on with the Stock-Wizards interview series, I’m happy to welcome the veteran Editorial Stock Footage, Mark R. Let’s get started!
Thanks Mark, for taking part in this exclusive interview. Please tell us about yourself. Where do you live, how long have you been submitting clips and to which agencies?
Hi Alex, thanks for this opportunity. I live in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. Prior to the 2008 recession, I was an editorial news freelancer where I basically covered hard news and severe weather, while listening to police/fire scanners and chasing breaking news for years and then was on contract to a local TV station. The 2008 crisis was a tough break for me and these types of work contracts ended, so I kept going but instead of selling the content to the TV stations I begun licensing via stock sites like Pond5, Shuttterstock and Videoblocks (before they closed to contributors).
In TV news there were often 15–19-hour days but I loved the work, such as the driving to scenes and everything else that went with it, loved every minute of my time there. Same with doing editorial stock…I’m not cut out to sit at a desk all day that’s for sure.
Breaking news filmmaker sounds exciting and reminds me of the movie “Nightcrawler”. Sticking to stock, how large are your ports and where do you currently upload?
What is your go-to gear for creating stock footage?
I use a Canon XF400 and a GoPro Hero 8 black for editorial video, before that it was the Canon XF305 which I loved and it survived the most extreme weather from heat to severe cold and neither camera has let me down once.
I would appreciate if you would share just how much do you currently earn from those ports? Have these earnings increased relative to to the size of your ports over the years?
Prior to April 2019, I was earning USD $2500-3000/month on Pond5 and USD$800-$1000/month on SS and USD$800-$1500/month on Videoblocks. So, combined on a good month it would be over $5,000. One of my best-selling clips was a POV night-highway shot.
Then, almost like a bad April Fool’s joke from April 1st 2019 it was like a switch was pulled at Pond5 as sales stopped for everyone…silence. I went from $3000/month with editorial to less than $800/month on P5 and rapidly falling each month…now it’s down to as low as under $200/month on Pond5 and I am building up my new account on SS and earning just $135/month.
I recall that around April 2019, Pond5 launched the exclusive program, do you think this is a factor in the reduction of your earnings?
That’s right, it was just when Pond5 launched the exclusive program and tried to convince us contributors that the reason buyers stopped buying stock is they want “exclusive” content. It may have worked for some contributors to become exclusive but not for most. I was against exclusivity since keeping in mind that if you removed your content from all other sites, you would be taking a pay cut and an even bigger pay cut should sales not be attractive on Pond5. Not all buyers would switch to Pond5, some have accounts with SS and can’t buy from others so they will not come over to Pond5 anyway.
Ouch, that’s a large drop in a short period. Do you think there were any factors which contributed to such a drop at Pond5?
Yes, there’s more. If you look at the new revision to the Pond5 Agreement, Section 2a has caught my attention as it states: “You hereby grant us the world-wide, right and license, to directly and/or indirectly copy…”
So, in addition to giving themselves the permission to wholesale out content out through the Partner sites and large distributors in places like China, they gave themselves the right to copy the content and license them out and we would see fewer reported sales at Pond5. I see plenty of views but few sales.
How else would you attribute such a drastic reduction in royalties at both Pond5 and Shutterstock?
There might be several other reasons for decline in sales but these agencies, all of them, can’t tell the truth if their lives depend on it. The agencies push the narrative that “it’s a competitive market and prices need to be lower and the customers want cheaper prices, etc” and expect us to align our expectations and continue to put in greater investments for lower returns.
Pond5 was one of the best for the longest time when it came to both earnings and transparency but I suspect the investors/shareholders have since 2019 forced them to change their business strategy. Even long-time staffers Mike Pace and Greg Andreacchi just left the company for other jobs.
Both Pond5 and SS (as well as other agencies I’m sure) frame every pay cut as an attempt to “increase our revenue potential”. In fact, the lottery also offers great revenue potential but is basically a tax on the ignorant who are bad at math. Likewise, these agencies continue to insult our intelligence by presenting each pay cut as “exciting news, great news, great new for contributors, and increasing your revenue potential…” and whatever other corporate-speak they dish out…not your actual revenue but your revenue potential, all while we see the balances DROP.
It’s not just Pond5 that is guilty, as you’ve written extensively, Shutterstock cut contributors’ royalties (and introduced that ridiculous tier system that resets every January) during the middle of the pandemic when most contributors were struggling and the “Alamy 7 cents thread” says it all on the MSgroup forums (they also cut royalties by 20% back in 2019).
Transparency is certainly lacking…there is a trend now for customers wanting “free” content, what’s your opinion on how this is impacting on contributors’ earnings?
The massive amount of quality free content out there on social media and the free sites isn’t helping us to make a living wage. It’s sad to think that some contributors actually think working for free in exchange for exposure would pay their bills. I can’t think of any other industry that sells a product or service that’s obsessed with giving it away for free like these agencies, especially these days with historically high inflation, the odd sale and discount yet but these agencies would try to give the whole store away for free if they could.
There’s also been a rise of quality cell-phone / smartphone content which 10 years ago media outlets would have labelled as “amateur video”. Today it’s considered “broadcast quality”, so as the technology has improved, barriers to entry have dropped and worst of all is that what would have been sold is now given away for free.
I see it with the severe weather and tornado stuff all the time on Twitter, someone posts their work for free, gets a nice funnel cloud or the storm damage and media outlets tweet at them, “Great video!, you film that?, can we use it on all our platform with no payment to you….we’ll give you credit” and a lot of people say YES…..but I bet those same people won’t work for free for their regular employer.
Wow, Mark, you’ve gone into a lot of detail about some pertinent issues that contributors face. Can you discuss any solutions to the issues you’ve outlined?
Might not be much we can do, perhaps start applying for jobs I guess and that’s really hard for a lot of contributors as most are self-employed and have been full-time stock contributors. I always thought that if one day this business ended, I’d happily do some min wage job, guess what? I was told at McDonald’s, “I’m sorry but with your background you’re not a culture fit”. I’ve gone to every employment agency we have here in Waterloo and once they realize my past really is just self-employed / camera work they tell me the phone number for the homeless shelter intake line. No joke!
Also, many are older and it may be more difficult for them to re-train. These contributors look tired from all the stress and it really shows on their faces. Last week, here in Ontario I was at the rally for Ukraine and you could tell who the stock photographers were… as it shows in their faces.
I know I keep identifying problems without practical solutions so I’ll try harder. Perhaps, a better business model for contributors would be the content stays on OUR HARD DRIVES instead of uploading to the stock sites and we would adopt a model closer to torrenting (think of the old times: Limewire/Napster software). Therefore, the “agency” would deal with the search engine and the financial transactions but the content stays on our computers and uploads only when a sale is made and if they want to sell our work for pennies, we can simply close the app.
This site here works that way but it’s for shoes and when a deal goes down you ship the property. This site sells shoes and hoodies and stuff, would be a better business model for stock photos/videos as well.
There are some artists that sell directly and interesting videos on YouTube, such as the following:
Once you have enough subscribers and watch time and get monetized on YouTube I guess there’s some revenue there to be had not just with the stock clips but maybe making tutorials on the industry, this guy does financial advice for young people and is now making $3000/month just on YouTube:
What advice would you offer to those wanting to get started as editorial stock contributors in 2022?
My advice and this is just my opinion but the time to make a living at this might be over, I’ve probably had an extended run due to the fact I do editorial news which is basically a one-off each time event vs something that can be shot on set or in a studio, that, and I was a high volume producer.
To be able to make it in this industry you need a lot of quality clips and stills as the agencies now have many millions of clips and photos you’re competing with and you’re also competing with their partner deals all for commissions as low as pennies as many are reporting in the MSgroup forums.
Can one still do it as a side business?, hobby that pays?, probably, as a full time living and make a profit? those days might be over for many or coming to an end.
Wow, I think I need a stiff drink after reading this…the prognosis doesn’t look good for contributors, but I appreciate your brutal honesty, Mark and wish you success in the future.
I’m an eccentric guy, currently based in Lisbon, Portugal on a quest to visit all corners of the world and capture stock images & footage. I’ve devoted eight years to making it as a travel photographer / videographer and freelance writer. I hope to inspire others by showing an unique insight into a fascinating business model.
Most recently I’ve gone all in on submitting book cover images to Arcangel Images.
I’m proud to have written a book about my adventures which includes tips on making it as a stock travel photographer – Brutally Honest Guide to Microstock Photography