Updated: Mar 19
"...the agreement has never been more relevant or more indicative of the future of the [entertainment] industry.'"
By Emily Hadraba Davis
As of February 7th of this year, the National Board for the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA), the leading union for performers in the entertainment industry, agreed to expand their union coverage to include social media influencers and content creators that sign the new Influencer Agreement.  This latest development in the union’s over 80 year history (9 years since the two unions merged to form one in 2012 and 69 years since television was included in 1952) , marks another landmark decision that changes the face of the union and reflects the recent shifts in the entertainment industry.
The previously unregulated market is now increasing in validity and is a rising career path for people looking to make a living as performers. As Lindsay Silberman, a New York lifestyle influencer quoted in The New York Times, said, “I think this just legitimizes and lends a lot of credibility to an industry many have not taken seriously.” The advantages of being SAG-AFTRA members consist of benefits ranging from health plans and retirement funds to collective bargaining and discounts on a variety of services. 
SAG-AFTRA already represents a variety of performers (around 160,000 people). These include actors, broadcast journalists, dancers, DJs, puppeteers, voiceover artists, and a variety of other categories.  Now that list has expanded to include the social media influencers and content creators that dominate platforms such as Instagram, SnapChat, TikTok, YouTube, etc.  So, for example, the TikTok dance stars that have taken over social media feeds during the COVID-19 pandemic are presently SAG-AFTRA eligible.
For several years now, companies looking to increase their brand’s recognition have often
commissioned social media influencers to creatively advertise their companies to the influencers’ unique follower base. Influencers have earned their money through advertisement deals with these companies.  This model has proven so lucrative that, according to Insider Intelligence and Mediakix, the influencer marketing industry was reported to be worth $8 billion dollars in 2019 and is projected to be $15 billion dollars by 2022. 
Despite the power influencers have wielded, they have had little power in negotiating their contracts with advertisers, have not often had health insurance, and have been forced to work outside of the protections offered by the union.  Also, many people that already are SAG-AFTRA members have been unable to participate in the influencer market because it has been outside the union. 
This agreement changes all that. Now, influencers are able to get the same coverage as performers in traditional mediums, and there is more transferability of performers between the tradition and digital content mediums.  This means that a film, television or radio performer is able to participate in content creation, and influencers, as SAG-AFTRA members, are able to work union industry jobs. Just like traditional members, influencers receive health benefits and pensions “based on contributions made on covered earnings.”  The minimum contribution that a member pays toward their benefits plan is 20% of their compensation. This change also gives the union a larger pool of members to contribute to the pension, retirement, and health plan funds. 
There are, however, some limitations to eligibility for this new performer category. Besides the normal rules that deny membership access to some performers, union coverage does not include content creators that perform in groups; as of now, only solo performers are included in the agreement. The influencers’ content must be their own intellectual properties (IP), and no third-party can help with their creation. Influencers need to be incorporated, and their content can only be posted to their social media feeds or those of the advertisers (having content be on traditional platforms like television or in commercials is not allowed). Also, content cannot include hazardous stunts, sexual content, or nudity. There are no limits, however, to follower counts, so any content creator that meets the criteria can become a member. 
Even though not every single influencer can be included, this new agreement still marks a large shift in the industry. The Influencer Agreement comes after three and a half years of research by the union and a few previous attempts by content creators to unionize. With the changing market moving more and more toward digital content, the increasing use of social media as a method for finding and transmitting talent, and the COVID-19 pandemic pushing more performers to use content creation as an income source, the agreement has never been more relevant or more indicative of the future of the industry.  In a statement made after the agreement was made, Gabrielle Carteris, the union president, said “As new ways of storytelling emerge, it’s imperative that we embrace and lift up these artists.” 
Emily Hadraba Davis, University of California - Film & Media Studies.