It's not just porn films that have been disrupted by the Internet. It's porn stars, too.
Ten – or even five – years ago, the highest earners of porn were the actresses whose names marqueed big films. Today, they're more likely to be models who will never perform a hard core sex scene on camera – and whose face will never appear on a DVD cover.
They're known as CamGirls – and they make their money by stripping in front of a computer webcam, while hundreds – often thousands – of people watch live online, paying anywhere from token amounts to major cash outlays.
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The adult webcam industry currently tops $1 billion – and is growing fast, said Sean Phillips, vice president of marketing for SexyJobs.com, a recruitment service for adult models. Collectively, the webcam industry is estimated to be visited daily by some 5 percent of the web's global users – with one site (LiveJasmine) reaching over 2 percent alone, according to Alexa.com.
"Five years ago, webcam was just about 5 percent of the job offers on our site," he said at a conference session during InterNext, an adult business convention in Las Vegas that precedes the Adult Entertainment Expo. "Today, we have about 2,500 job offers being made every day on our site –and over half of them are for webcam girls."
As with any aspect of entertainment – adult or otherwise – some stars make more than others. Doug Richter of Adult Webmaster Empire, which runs LiveJasmine, said the site's top performer made $34,000 last month – by working just four to five nights per week. (That's after the site and her agent took their cut.) Another model, who goes by the name "Miss Kitty," makes $25,000 per month on only two to three weeks of work per month.
And that's hardly the top of the pile.
Ross Love, owner of the Best Kept Secret Talent Agency, said he has one model who makes as much as $2,000 to $3,000 per night - but limits herself to income of $10,000 per month. Some top models, he said, are making between $75,000 and $100,000 per month on the site MyFreeCams.com.
Each cam site works slightly different, but the idea is largely the same. Viewers head to a website where they're presented with a huge assortment of models to choose from. Once they pick one, they enter a public forum with other users, where they can chat with the model about anything they'd like and offer "tips" – which can range from just a few cents to thousands of dollars. (Hosting sites generally split the tips with the model.)
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For those tips, models will strip – sometimes in "private" sessions, which aren't viewable to the public.To watch those, users must pay a per-minute fee and often tip on top of that.
The appeal of being a CamGirl is multipronged. First, most models are able to work from home. And many do this to supplement their income when unemployed or underemployed.
But many also choose this route since it doesn't leave as big a footprint as engaging in a typical porn career.
"These are the girls that don't want to do the whole porn career," said Richter. "A lot of the webcam girls want to be lawyers or want to be doctors. They want to be able to leave the industry quietly and not have anything come back to haunt them. By streaming live, there is nothing out there to haunt them."
"They don't consider what they do to be porn," added Love."They don't want to be porn stars."
It's not easy money, though. Natalie Star, one of the top CamGirls around, said models have to market themselves via Twitter and other social media sites and have to constantly engage their customers.
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"Porn stars every day are becoming web girls because that's where the money is," said Star, who has been a full-time CamGirl for the past three years. "I can't get on for an hour a day and say I'm going to be successful. I have to get on four hours in the morning and night. … You [also] have to engage your customers. You have to be creative. You don't just sit there and say. 'I'm pretty me, pay me.' ... It's about the relationship you build. Your favorite porn [film] does not look and say 'Hey Billy. How was your day? Did you get your kids last weekend?' After you watch your favorite porn a few times, it's boring."
The "girlfriend experience" can turn users into digital sugar daddies. Love noted that one of his models posted an Amazon wishlist full of toys for her son around Christmas, and fans bought every single one for her. Another, he said, made $10,000 by celebrating her birthday online with fans.
While there's certainly room for established porn stars to cash in on the CamGirl market – and many have (Vivid, Digital Playground and other studios offer CamChats with their stars) -- talent seekers for the leading sites said they actually prefer fresh faces.
"Just because they were in porn doesn't mean they're going to make it in chat," said Love. "I don't want porn models. I don't want strippers. I want the college girl who's trying to make her tuition payment. She's going to show up."