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The economics of being an independent porn star

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Until fairly recently, the business model for adult entertainment performers was simple: Agents handled their business arrangements, and that was that.

But as the industry consolidates and develops new outlets, a different kind of star is appearing—one in charge of her own destiny. Though independent players are still somewhat rare (agents continue to represent most performers), a few big names are starting to branch out on their own.

Stoya, one of the most popular performers, recently left Digital Playground, where she had been on contract (exclusive to the company). While she hasn't quit performing, she's now focusing on directing, self-financing her first film which will shoot in February.

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"It was really scary at first, but then I remembered that when I chose to enter the naked lady business, it was a gamble," she said. "Every year is a gamble. Is my expiration date up? Do I go another year? And when I thought about that, it took the fear away."

Her former colleague Jesse Jane is still under contract with Digital Playground but does not plan to renew her contract this year, saying she will either retire or go to another studio. If she does remain in the business, she added, she will represent herself.

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"I've got an established name, and I've been doing this a long time," said Jane, who is also a co-owner of Diosa Tequila, which has been expanding into markets around the country. "I know the studios. And I know how this industry works. I was trained about marketing by one of the best, Adella [Curry]. And, luckily, I'm a businesswoman already."

Stoya also named Curry, a marketing executive in adult entertainment, as having a tremendous influence on her career.

Running your own career in porn takes luck, connections and a deft hand in social media. Twitter, Instagram and other tools are critical for amateurs and professionals alike.

"This industry isn't about shooting [films] anymore," said actress Teal Conrad. "I only shoot two to three times a month, if that. Now the business is about being really personal."

Social media facilitates dialogue between performers and fans, and helps players promote their own ventures—from webcam appearances, to featured dancing at area clubs, to personalized services.

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One such service, used by both independent and represented stars, is Customs4U, which lets fans buy short, personalized videos from their favorites. Performers set the rates, which generally range from $250 to $750, and can make the videos on their smartphones.

"This allows the models to say, 'I don't need a studio,' " said Tim Stokley, founder and CEO of Customs4U. "Our aim and focus was to allow the girls to set up an independent profile and earn from their cellphone or tablet or PC."

Though Customs4U is new, it's proving a good source of income for some stars.

Conrad, for example, said she got an order for four videos in a single tweet. Additional revenue comes from merchandise sales, in-club dancing and Verified Call, a service that lets fans talk to stars for a preset rate.

"In the beginning, 90 percent of my income was just shooting," she said . "Now, my [scene] shooting income would probably be 30 percent to 35 percent of my total. Feature dancing is a big percentage. If you have one booking ... that can be 35 percent of your income that month."

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Tasha Reign, another star who's making money outside of her film career (where she has an agent), says diversity is the key to today's market. She interacts with fans on Verified Call and has her own production studio, which oversees about one film a month for the Girlfriend Films studio.

"There are so many different ways to make money," she said. "You can really cross-market your brand and do things that will get you paid, but not necessarily for the content you put out."

Some of today's fastest-rising stars actually eschewed the agent model when they were getting started.

Bonnie Rotten represented herself for a year, landing several films and establishing a solid fan base, then joined an agency to concentrate on work in front of the camera instead of on business dealings.

"You have to constantly develop and pursue business relationships," she said.

—By Chris Morris

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