If adult content has proven to be the profit source of record on the Web at the top of this millennium, it could be argued that the gay adult Internet industry is the bellwether. Think about it: A customer base for an adult product in which cultural identity forms from sexual orientation, typically comprised of white-collar highly educated, lifestyle-conscious wage earners with an expendible income generally liberated from child bearing and rearing.
In short, a cash cow.
There is, of course, a catch: The ratio of homosexuals to heterosexuals is estimated at about one in 10 worldwide. Potential consumers are further limited to those who have access to the Internet. Still, the hard numbers don't factor in variables such as "bi-curiosity" (let alone curiosity in general) and women. (You heard me: emancipated, Sex and the City-addled, Cosmo-snarfing cock hounds, putting the XX back in XXX.)
Also, for the most part, those who peddle gay pornography are members of the gay community. As such, they conduct themselves and their sites informed with the pride of identity. The personal, to further queer the popular phrase, is profitable.
Let's Start at the Very Beginning
Gay sites have proliferated - along with everything else - from the inaugural stages of the Internet. Some even mark their beginnings in cyberspace's primordial soup: the BBS.
"The Internet was very, very new," Lisa Turner of Badpuppy (www.badpuppy.com) says. "It wasn't as we know it today. [Owner] Bill Pinyon had, for recreation, a bulletin board." This was in 1992. "That's all there was until images were available; then it became more of a home page. 'Badpuppy' was Bill's handle."
Bel Ami followed its fans onto the Web (www.belamionline.com), according to Webmaster Don. "The producer/director of Bel Ami, George, started by publishing photographs in Freshmen magazine in 1991." Movie deals followed, and by the time Bel Ami got onto the Net, "Hundreds of fan sites [had] appeared.... Bel Ami itself was a late-bloomer on the Net," with an ecommerce site opening in March 1999, and a member section following in June 2000.
Butch Harris, publisher of ManNet (www.mannet.com), remembers, "I started on AOL probably a good 10 years ago; one of their first subscribers. I don't even remember how the community of folks connected.... Obviously, the Internet enhanced that. It was natural for the gay community to fit into [the Internet] phenomenon."
"Bedfellow.com was founded June 23, 1997," Karl Edwards reminisces, "... 10 p.m. we got our first sign-up. I got in big trouble because my boyfriend at the time had planned a surprise birthday party for me. I showed up at 11 [p.m.] and everyone had left. Sacrifices!"
The Falcon family of companies, which includes the industry's iconographic Falcon Studios (www.falconstudios.com), Jocks Studios, Mustang Studios, the Falcon International Collection, and Hot Hand Productions, "has been creating gay adult video for 30 years," says director of online services RJ Davis. "We launched an Internet presence six years ago, and have been growing our online business and community steadily."
Diff'rent Strokes for Diff'rent Folks
These companies learned to exploit the Internet in different ways. Zac Adams, creator, Webmaster, and subject - along with five other exhibitionists - at CollegeBoysLive.com, nutshells his venture: "We live our entire lives on Webcam.
"It's not your typical corporation where you come in, say, 'I'm going to buy a house, put a bunch of guys in it, make a bunch of money.'" Adams introduces the one theme common among the interviewees - the personal nature of his site. "It never started out to be this big, commercial thing with a half-million visitors a day coming to us. When I came out, I put up a single page.... Before I knew it I had a big community. It wasn't sex, it wasn't anything... it was just me, sitting there and talking to people."
"Badpuppy isn't just a video site, and it isn't a picture site; it's what we call a portal - a GayOL, if you will," Turner says. "We now have over 500,000 pages of content and images."
Don says he "conceived and created [FalconStudios.com] with the help of one designer and one technical person. The ecommerce site was designed to create interest in and sell our product, and the members' section was designed to be an adjunct to our video productions - an extension and enhancement of the video experience. We don't license content from anyone else and don't license our content to anyone else. The people who come to our site come to see and know more about our exclusive models."
Morgan Sommer, president and co-owner of Cybersocket (www.cybersocket.com), had the idea of "cataloguing gay and lesbian Websites in a directory," and took it online. "We focus both on the consumer and the Web professional, heavily slanted toward the consumer," he says. "We are completely advertiser-supported. We do sell the [print] directory, but 90 percent of the directories every year are given away."
"I've been with Naked Sword for three and a half years; I'm Webmaster there," explains Mark Kliem. "It started sometime in 1997.... part of a company that does corporate Websites and hosting of corporate Websites; and marketing and print advertising.
"We decided we wanted to create an online movie theater, which hadn't been done before. That was the model for it. We've had to learn the hard way about things like billing and marketing and credit card processing; but we've pushed through."
"ManNet has been online for about six years," according to Harris. The online magazine is a free site that's advertising supported, concentrating on gay video and DVD reviews. ManNet's concern is "more a celebration of the work versus the personalities. I find a lot of [review] publications get too ingrained in the gossip....
"What is the end result? I don't care if the person's a crack whore or a silly bitch or any of that. It's irrelevant to the work. That's where we come from." The site's main attractions are the reviews, links to porn companies and retailers, and an alphabetical listing of porn star Websites.
Content supplier GayLinkContent.com's founder, Matthew Skallerud, has carved out a place in the industry with specialty sites as well. "I started Gay Wired about six and a half years ago. What started as that idea grew into what [GayLink Content] is today. I've taken what I've learned, my experiences in and understanding of the gay market," to use the site and other projects in "partnering and teaming up, allowing different Websites to be able to find and have access to a variety of authors out there."
"I joke whenever I do the conferences," says Edwards. "When people ask me what I do, I tell them I show people enough to get them horny, and sell them enough to get them off."
Edwards' Bedfellow.com is one of the largest of the gay porn content megasites. "We founded the site on 'the regular guy'; the guy you would see out at a bar, who you could almost imagine, 'This is someone I met who I fantasized about.' This is my basic supposition about gay sexuality, both online and off: [Gays] internalize the imagery and the fantasy lives in our heads."
Bedfellow offers original, exclusive content; licensed content; and "virtually every live sex show that's on the Net." One of those licensed feeds belongs to LiveandRaw.com, a tandem project with ChiChiLaRue.com. Webmaster Rob says the famous director saw a need for quality live feed and launched a massive attack to fill it. Now, "we're live from 3 p.m. PST through midnight every day. That's nine hours live - it's like filming a movie, every single day. It's a lot of coordinating and a lot of scheduling and a lot of work.
"We have Webmasters getting a one in nine conversion rate, because of the brand name. People are leery of the Internet, thinking they're going to get ripped off. I think they feel more comfortable with the brand name 'Chi Chi LaRue.' They at least think it's going to relate more to the [company's] videos and the quality they've always gotten in the past with us."
Branding and name recognition provide the foundation for Falcon's Web presence as well, according to Davis. "All of our products are available through our Website and from our subscription service." This is divided into "basic" and "premier" grades. Videos, DVDs, and accessories are also available through mail order, by phone, through retailers world-wide and online. A new line of clothing, Falcon Gear, is coming to soon-to-be-announced FalconGear.com.
Formula for Success
All of these companies, established as they are, have examined the market thoroughly and use their experiences to distinguish themselves.
"I believe it's an extremely competitive market," says Bel Ami's Don. "A consumer has many options where they can spend their money on the Internet. If we want them to spend their time and hard-earned money with us, we have to make it worthwhile. Just being 'Bel Ami' isn't enough. We have to make our site an entertainment vehicle unto itself and not just an advertising medium for our mail-order company."
Bel Ami is increasingly creating original programming, and have developed a popular page called "Casting Couch," offering the "casting audition video of a new applicant."
Adams of CollegeBoysLive.com identifies his site's original community as all gay, though he understands closeted and curious surfers use such portals as safe points of entry through which to ask questions and express themselves. "Right now we talk to a lot of them. I know they're in smaller towns, that they might not ever be out in their communities."
Badpuppy has several chat rooms, as well as an active members' forum. "We gain a lot from the members' forum," Turner says. "Today's member suggestion has such an opportunity to be tomorrow's reality."
Sommer believes Cybersocket is a viable business with an advertising-based model because his customers have viable businesses with a consumer base. "I'm just as dependent on happy, satisfied consumers out there as my customers are, which is why I bend over backwards to do consumer awareness and branding," he says. Sommer believes Cybersocket's success can be attributed to providing information. "We help to distill the massiveness of the Internet," he says. The company increased from two to 11 people just trying to keep up with this task.
"We're the only company in the market that I'm aware of at the moment that has combined both a print and Web media focus. Our content itself is 70 percent nonsexual," with the majority about various aspects of technology and using the Web, Sommer says.
Conversely, ManNet's Harris delights in pronouncing his love for porn, citing it as the motivating factor behind his production. "Working for other publications I found that only a few genres and a few companies were represented. I wanted to create something that would be more broad, more representative of all the porn that was out there. In my reviewers, I like to find folks who have a strong interest in a particular niche. They can be more credible in their review."
Harris broaches the subject of specificity, which everyone cited as an important marketing leverage tool to one degree or another. It seems that more success comes of not trying to be all things to all people. "I used to have a message board," he says, "but I shut it down... there's another site that does it better. I think ManNet is probably the best site on the Web for gay porn reviews," but Harris has opted to let the message board traffic go to channels that serve it exclusively.
"At GayLinkContent," Skallerud says, "we try to put ourselves in the middle [of gay content supply-and-demand] using technology as a tool. We make it so that authors have the freedom to post as many articles as they like: stories, columns, even cartoons. What we have to do is let other Websites and publications know that these resources are available." To achieve this, Skallerud mostly makes use of direct email. "I always reinvest the money the company makes back into it; as it grows and generates more and more revenue, we put a big portion of that into marketing."
Bedfellow, however, subscribes to the "bigger is better" notion. This is pointed out to Edwards after he's hyped focus and specificity as the industry trend. "Here we go," he moans. "One of the founding principles of Bedfellow was that it was a collection of smaller sites. If you look at the content on Bedfellow, you'll see a section called 'Little Star' where, it so happens, we put our twink content. There are 150, 200 models [there] now. But it's treated as a mini-site unto itself.
"We've always presented ourselves as a boutique; our users have a choice about what they look at. The downside, of course, is if somebody only wants to look at twinks, then the twink area has to be updated at a rate that would keep them interested. It's a constant struggle."
Rob identifies LiveandRaw.com as the new kid on the block, up and running since March 2000. "Everyone told us it'd never make it, we'd go out of business within six months. The feed costs a lot of money to make, because it's A-list porn stars, with a cameraman/typist for the performer." While these very elements that might have buried another startup, the clout of Chi Chi LaRue turns such challenges into advantages.
"Chi Chi wanted it to look like a live version of one of his movies being made," Rob says. "Pretty much every [other] gay live feed, you still see the model sitting with the keyboard on his lap, running the camera. [LiveandRaw] is more of a performance feed. It's a show. It's like watching a movie, and [the consumer] gets to call the shots.
"The way we launched it, and the only way we were able to pay for this huge undertaking, was by wholesaling our feed to the big sites," Rob says. "They're about the only ones who can afford it. The problem with our product is it is a premium product, and it is expensive. We don't compete with [companies] that are able to put out a very cheap, almost free product. The cool thing about it is it only plays on 30 sites worldwide, so the people who have it can brand the name 'Chi Chi.'
"It's working this way. I'd rather have an exclusive product than one that's everywhere."
The Three Dollar Bill
Gays have been conditioned through centuries of oppression to be wary of the hostile environment in which they live, love, and do business. The caution that typifies the adult industry with regard to personal and political freedom is honed to a fine point in the already-sensitized queer community. The current socio-political climate affects the gay adult Internet industry sweepingly, which reverberates with fallout from Sept. 11 as well as a more "vice"-vigilant administration.
"What's going on now politically is definitely a threat to individual freedoms in this country," Falcon's Davis notes. "Conservative interests are re-targeting the adult industry and will likely go after content companies and consumer freedom. Companies know what they have to do today to not be willing targets, but at the same time, our basic constitutional freedoms are at stake and we need to defend them. There's also a lot of attention being paid to online privacy issues. Good thing, too. It's a time to be watchful and help advocates of personal freedom and individual choice as much as we can."
While Naked Sword's Kliem recognizes this concern, he feels that subsequent events changed things. "When the Bush administration came in, we started to become a little concerned about obscenity laws and what might happen. After Sept. 11, we realized that, look, the FBI, the CIA - they've got bigger fish to fry."
Badpuppy's Turner marks another result. "After Sept. 11, we, along with hundreds of other companies [straight and gay] I personally spoke with, noted for about two to four weeks the drop on the Internet. Traffic was down. When traffic is down, then memberships are down. People were freaking out. But after that, it started leveling off; and now I think we're starting to see more people on the Internet, because they're not traveling as much. If this war does continue, for months or even years, I think there will be more growth on the Internet. I think it's a healing thing for a lot of people."
Sommer concurs. "I think the consumer - and the movie industry is starting to show this; I know Blockbuster certainly is - I think the consumer is gravitating to activities that provide a sense of escapism and comfort. All of us have always offered valuable services anyway; if you continue to offer a valuable, useful thing, it's necessary even in a time of crisis."
Among those weighing in, the company affected most directly by the general (if changing) atmosphere of intolerance is CollegeBoysLive.com. The dorm operates in a suburban neighborhood in Orlando, Fla. "We're fighting for our home," Adams says. "We went down to the big annual homeowners' meeting, and they refused to let us in. What's happening is the homeowners' board is trying to get everybody to vote to raise the dues to fight us. And obviously this is much easier when you don't have the other side there saying, 'Uh, excuse me, that's not correct, we're not having wild parties and orgies every night.'
"VoyeurDorm has helped us a lot - because they actually won [a similar case brought against the straight site which Webcasts the goings-on in a house of girls 24/7]. This is going to be harder because... I've heard people. "When I've talked to neighbors one-on-one and I've said, 'What is this really about?' a couple of them have actually said, 'Yeah, it's a gay issue.' Sure, I can understand that they probably wouldn't like a bunch of girls and guys living here, but they wouldn't be as up-in-arms about it."
The other side of the marginalization coin, however, is being able to detect the market's demographic with surgical accuracy. The sensibility, "gay," dictates all. What the players choose to make of it is up to them. Most I talked to identified discretion and anonymity as the primary forces behind gay adult. This is one of the reasons, even with site success stories tapering off, people consider gay Internet to be a growth industry.
Bel Ami, Adams, Badpuppy, Cybersocket, and Naked Sword all observe their traffic flows according to the laws of convenience and connection. The Net as an answered prayer for isolates and "outcasts" is, perhaps, the source of its power, and the reason it persists as a growth market - especially for particular populations.
But if the engine powering the gay adult Internet market is fueled by the desire to access sensitive material in a society where sodomy laws are extant, the question's begged: If being queer were to become totally acceptable, would there be as much demand? Adams feels certain there would be. "Gay people like to get their rocks off too," he quips.
"I think that openness would allow us to publicize in places we can't publicize; it would be okay to market in areas where we're usually careful," Kliem rationalizes.
Bedfellow's Edwards argues the impulse to be sexually secretive is universal, making it the province of adult Internet in general, and that's not a bad thing. "The Internet, ultimately, and adult entertainment on the Internet, took off so quickly because people were able to discreetly - and that's the very important thing - discreetly express their desires to themselves, completely anonymously, and not have to worry."
GayLinkContent's Skallerud dismisses this aspect as an economic propellant. "For years, people have been saying, 'Oh, the Internet is a wonderful way to reach all those poor, closeted folks who don't have access to these things.' And that would mean, if I looked at my sales records, all of my sales would be coming from that good ol' boy in Iowa. It doesn't work out that way. The reality is, our sales come from more lifestyle-accepting areas, where [gays] can, in comfort, walk down to a variety of stores in their neighborhoods and buy right off the shelves."
More openness, then, would mean more sales.
"It's a frictionless transaction," Skallerud explains about the allure of conducting any business over the Internet. "The ease of action is such a natural [thing] for people to gravitate to, as a superior way to get information and buy."
"'Taboo' - that's a good word," Falcon's Davis concludes. "Gay people have used the Internet in powerful ways to learn about themselves, meet others with similar interests, and stick together. It's all of the details of our 'taboos' that define who we are and keep things exciting."
The "N" Word
When Edwards was first contacted about "a cover story on the gay niche for AVN Online," his immediate reaction was, "Don't call it a niche." He feels there's a belittling quality to that characterization that belies the hard work and passion that, for example, is put into Bedfellow.com. "When you say 'gay' equals 'niche,' it's like saying 'underwear' equals 'panty fetish,'" he explains. "Something that's insignificant but worthy because you can cash in on it; 'cause it's kind of 'now' and 'happening.' It's an uninformed opinion, because the gay side of the industry encompasses as much as the straight side. No one would say the straight side of the industry is a niche. They would simply say the straight side is an industry and within it are many niches. It's exactly the same on the gay side.
"It's sort of reacting to... it's almost like it's an implied marginalization. It's not something that's as easy as throwing up a new front end saying, 'Hey, gay Gay GAY!' and running a site; there's so much more that goes into it, just as there's so much more that goes into building any site."
But there are selling elements specific to the gay lifestyle that straight marketers tend not to grasp. Awareness of this is beautifully exemplified by a Nov. 2001 press release from Adult DVD Empire, the "largest online retailer of adult DVDs in the world": "Adult DVD Empire is proud to announce the launch of Gay DVD Empire (www.gaydvdempire.com). Previously a section of Adult DVD Empire, Gay DVD Empire will focus solely on gay product.
"'... In an effort to better serve our gay customers, we set up a separate site so our gay products could get the attention they need,' said Mike Barry, director of adult operations for the Empire."
Harris reluctantly notes that het-oriented sites just don't seem to try as hard when it comes to offering gay content. "Straight content companies - particularly the bigger sites, video retail or porn-content-streaming - they always throw in a 'bi' section and a 'gay' section, and they're always [substandard]. You don't see that on even the big gay sites," meaning the inclusion of straight content; "they know they can't do it right. Why bother? So again, as a business proposition, 'Let's try to appeal to as many people as possible!', even if it's poorly done, 'Even if we don't understand the market,'" is the straight side acumen. They'll stock anything, they'll buy anything, they just don't know, because they're looking at numbers, not quality."
"The straight market is there," Turner further observes, "but you have to work so much harder for it, because let's face it, there's 10 times more straight sites out there than gay. I think, in the gay market, only the strong survive."
The difference revolves around gay identity, Sommer opines, "and a gay identity is not necessarily about sexual activity. It's an identification with a culture, a way of life, possibly shared beliefs - but not necessarily across the board."
"What we're in the business of is the commodification of gay desire," Bedfellow's Edwards says. "You have to understand gay desire - you can't sell a stereo if all you know about is cars. It's really that different. We're all in sales, but I would caution Webmasters, at the very least, have someone gay be in charge of your gay content. And I don't mean bring in a gay guy to do a lesbian site, or a bear to do a twink site, I mean find someone who's directly connected with the content they're going to be promoting, and give them the ability to make decisions about that content. It's going to show through. It sounds so touchie-feelie, but - if you water your garden, it will grow."
"The trends that we set or try to keep up with [are about] freshness," Badpuppy's Turner says, with regard to wide-ranging industry changes. "We get a brand new interface - a complete interface - that comes up the first week in January every year.
"I think for us the trend has been to keep things fresh and keep expanding. If something new comes up, or tickles our fancy, we're on top of it."
Badpuppy's entr�e into the Internet/PDA phenomenon, QueerPalm.com, is a good example. "We saw something coming up, an opportunity to expand, and we did it."
Rob imagines the megasites are more attuned to sweeping market trends than content-specific sites like LiveandRaw .com and ChiChiLaRue.com. "They're going to be able to give more analysis because they've been on the Internet so much longer." One trend, he notes, is a decline of video sales, as the Internet has grown. "Where's it all going? I think it is all going online. I mean, that's why we suffered, trying to pay our dues to get into it first in the gay arena."
"There are new people coming to the Internet every day, and new people discovering our site and the wealth of other material available on the Web," says Don at Bel Ami. "As more and more people get high bandwidth connections, the programming will have to get more sophisticated. There's a huge demand for video over the Net from all over the world, especially from Asia, where the distribution of adult material is prohibited. Right now I think we're only seeing the tip of the iceberg. I believe there's tremendous growth to come as computers and Internet connections keep up with the demand for high-quality video over the Net."
Kliem goes even further. "The gay adult market changed from the moment I picked up the phone with you, in a million ways. The technology's gotten so much better in the past year. DSL and cable modem usage has increased so dramatically. The producers who make the movies - that's changing too. [Naked Sword] set ourselves up right from the beginning with the prediction that consumers of gay adult movies are going to be relying more and more on getting material over the Web in one way or another."
ManNet's Harris also acknowledges the preponderance - almost a glut - of streaming and live feeds. The result he's seen is a general backpedaling in this kind of production. "There's a retrenchment: doing what you do best. If you are really a video company, you're focusing on creating your videos and DVDs and doing that to the best of your ability. There's also more syndication of content. Most of the companies have backed away from the video-on-demand model."
Skallerud agrees. "[There's an] overall consolidation on the Internet. I think we're seeing a lot of companies, particularly that were pay-per-view or selling videos online, [fold]. What's good is this allows the strong ones to roll up their sleeves and do what it is they do best."
"There are trends toward more and more sites having the same content," Sommer of Cybersocket believes. "Very few sites have unique content, when it comes to adult membership sites."
"There's definitely going to be more growth in this industry as the established players fine-tune their offerings and the market gets more competitive," Falcon's Davis adds. "There'll be the best-of-breed gay adult Websites, which understand how to target a broad audience, and a lot of smaller niche sites. Things like pay-per-view of full-length movies will be standard and the quality and presentation of streaming media will continue to improve." His prediction? "More streaming media, building communities around content, paying attention to privacy issues, hot amateur content."
Edwards' trend laundry list sums up the gay adult Internet industry zeitgeist. "I see huge trends: tremendous shifts in the sense of what's erotic, an issue of the 'type' people seem to be interested in looking at." He says the twink-based aesthetic that typified the old gay Internet is less and less prevalent. "I also think there's a shift away from the megasite as sort of a catch-all, generic here-for-all-your-porn-needs; that's been happening for a long time. That's why people are thinking niche sites are the way to go."
But the biggest change, he believes, isn't about content or structure. "It's about the way people use the Internet. This is my big crusade now - and is why we're basically restructuring everything that we do on [Bedfellow], and the way we produce and present the content," Edwards says. "Back in 1997, the Internet was this terrific new thing we all wanted to have. Everyone wanted to get on the Net, and part of that was an eagerness and a willingness to learn about new things, whether it was plug-ins or browser technologies or whatever.
"This has all changed, it seems. The Internet is no longer this great thing to be [explored]; it's just part of our lives. As a result, it seems that users, when they run into any kind of problem, whether it's 'My password isn't working' or 'This live show isn't going' or 'I can't get the feed,' that's it, it's done, that's the end of the show.
"Accessibility and ease of use is really becoming important, even to the point of stripping away design, stripping away concepts, and just saying to people, 'Here's our new model,' and 'Here are all our old models.' Not saying, 'Feature,' 'Archive.'"
Edwards believes this change will affect the industry at large. "Look at your conversions from one week to monthlies, look at your conversions from monthlies to second monthlies. The stats that I'm seeing - among my colleagues, people who run straight sites, anyone who goes to the shows - people are generally saying that those conversions are going down.
"When we started, I figured we had about two minutes to capture a user. Now I think it's more like 10 seconds."
Do That Better!
At the other end of the change gauge (shifting from those the industry is anticipating to those it's pursuing), claims are myriad.
Davis wants, simply, more quality content. He believes that Falcon delivers the goods.
"I'd like to see the elimination of 'leech' sites," Bel Ami's Don says, "those who exist solely by stealing the content from us and from other legitimate sites."
Adds Cybersocket's Sommer, "My new theme is about self-policing. We don't want any agencies or watchdog groups hounding us to be ethical. We need to do it amongst ourselves as peers; we need to hold each other to some set of standards. And I don't mean to have some organized group do this, because that's the last thing any of us want to see. We need