It’s with a heavy heart that I heard of the failure of the Wemark stock photography project. However is wasn’t a surprise. If you’re a non-photography person, to explain, Wemark promised much to image creators who wished for a more equitable share of stock photo revenue.
Perhaps it could even spell the start of a re-emergence of stock images as a viable revenue stream? They were optimistic, the team behind it seemed ethical and professional and I have no reason to doubt otherwise.
Sadly, from the beginning I knew in my heart and my gut feeling that is was doomed to fail as a stock image sales platform. I feel like I sound terribly negative as I write this, as if I’m smugly saying “I told you so.” It’s NOT like that, I really, really wished that Wemark had succeeded. I was one of the early photographer signups and initially I had great enthusiasm for the concept.
Stock photography used to be a significant element of my income some years ago. The industry was eroded by several elements and now lies as a shadow if it’s former self. It was, to be brutally honest, a combination of market forces, changing technology and the fact that getting a collective of photographers to agree on any kind of stance was like herding cats.
The creators gradually lost control and lost most the their revenue to the large image distribution platforms and of course, the inrush of digital photography in high resolution and at a lower price point flooded a marketplace with almost free or completely free images.
So surely, the stock photography industry was simply waiting for one of those disruption models we hear so much about in recent times. Moving into an industry, revitalising it, empowering the individual?
Could Wemark be the Uber or Air BandB of stock photography?
No. Here’s why I feel that Wemark failed. And what we can both can learn from it.
Wemark was started with the objective of bringing power back to the creators. As they often said, the current stock image marketplace is broken. Artists and creators are constantly exploited by image aggregation middlemen who take an ever bigger slice of the cut. It’s not unusual to see an artists share of a sale to be only 20%. In the boom days of stock photography, the reverse was true. Then it slipped to 60/40. And then slid downwards ever since.
It’s not unusual to see royalty agreements of 20/80 ratio. In favour of the image distribution platform. Crazy, right?
Wemark pledged to reverse that, with the 15/85 split in favour of the photographer. Good times. I so wish it could have happened.
The Wemark founders are stating reasons such as the collapse of the crypto currency marketplace at a critical time in the funding cycle. Crypto currency is something I know very, very little about and I defer to their expertise in this area. In their post over on Medium, there are various reasons given for the financial failure, including their Israeli location working against exchange rates and other factors. I’m sure that Wemark are quite right in their assertion of the financial elements that stopped the business moving forward.
However a telling factor in the explanation was that several rounds of VC pledges and Angel Investor interest all failed to turn into hard cash investment. Why? Probably because like me, they looked at the Wemark business model and were initially inspired. After all, in this modern age, there is tremendous affection for the little guy online, trying to upset the status quo and beat the corporate bullies. It’s a popular and affectionate vibe right now that companies such as Innocent Smoothies and others have enjoyed success with.
And the ‘disruptive’ business model has proved a success in other industries where large corporations seem to dominate the individual. There are many noble and well meaning reasons why it was a truly great idea, from an ethical, technological and financial standpoint. In theory.
The reason why that initial enthusiasm from VC and Angel Investors didn’t turn into hard cash in the bank is perhaps because when they took a look at the actual stock photography industry as a whole, they maybe realised what I also realised some time ago. The stock photo industry is screwed for creators and the race to the bottom is in it’s final years of the suicide mission that began more than a decade ago.
It was simply that the industry was already broken. So no matter how equitable the revenue share, no matter how ethical the business plan, no matter how good the imagery was, the marketplace is almost totally destroyed. That simple.
So how is the marketplace so badly broken that even a super-feel-good startup like Wemark, with support from some great business people and some truly great photographers, could not make it work?
All of Wemark’s enthusiasm, the willingness of photographers to commit and the feel-good vibe were great things. However, there was one thing that nobody seemed to figure out.
There needs to be a viable business model and price point in the industry that makes all of this worthwhile. If you have an industry that has spent the last decade or more consuming itself in a race to the bottom on price, added to a world where high quality images are everywhere, very often for free, then it doesn’t matter how noble your ambitions, how cool and equitable your business model is. There’s simply no marketplace there any more at a decent price point.
The stock photography image price point is only a few dollars most times, with micro stock photo libraries pumping out thousands of images each day.
It’s the marketplace. It doesn’t care. Get over it.
I’ve written before that ultimately, the market doesn’t care. In this case, the market simply wants an image that fits their use. There are some image users who are ethical and value the effort that the artist puts into creating work. For the overwhelming majority, they simply don’t care. They want an image that fits the use they need. And they want to pay only a few dollars for it. In fact, they would rather it was free.
I genuinely loved Wemark. The contacts I had with the company were enthusiastic and professional. I dearly wished it could have been successful. And for a short while, I donned my rose tinted glasses and thought back to the times when I enjoyed regular royalty payments rolling in from my library of images.
However once that had worn off and reality returned, I simply could not figure out how you could convince and entire world of people used to free, or micro stock image prices, to start paying more again.
Wemark was a fantastic business model. For artists and creators. The marketplace?
It doesn’t give a shit.
Get over it.
So What Can We All Learn from Wemark?
Probably the single biggest thing is that, in my view, it simply didn’t take into account the massive over supply of images in today’s world.
Now don’t get me wrong, in many ways that’s a wonderful thing. iPhones (other devices are available) have made taking photographs far more of an every day occurrence that it ever used to be. For many, they’re happy with drunken selfies and pictures of cats. For other people, they’ve been inspired to start thinking more about photography and being creative.
Indeed, several friends of mine are now quite attracted to the fun and love of photography in ways that they never were before the immediacy of the iPhone. More people have become interested in photography, in making better photographs and in becoming more creative people, thanks to iPhones and the immediacy of digital cameras.
However, it does mean that when images are everywhere – and I do really mean everywhere – then the market for them is going to pretty much collapse.
Imagine if every car on the road was an Uber? If every single house you walked by was an Air BandB? It’s literally that kind of over supply.
So if you want to learn anything from Wemark, it is probably that no matter how noble your aspirations, no matter how cool your ‘disruptive’ business model may look – and indeed Wemark’s was stellar – there needs to be a marketplace there that is viable and ready for that disruption.
Stock photography is a shadow of it’s former self when it comes to the income delivered to the creator.
The market doesn’t care.
So what’s the plan? In a follow up post to this, I’m going to explore the alternatives to what has historically been a log term slow burn business model for photographers and professionals.
And I’ll consider that, if the stock photo marketplace only values your images at around $1, surely you value them more? And therefore isn’t there a way to use them more effectively yourself?