The Wealth of Grumpy Cat

In defense of the monetization of uncommon cuteness.

Danny Moloshok/Reuters

Update: Ben Walsh at the Huffington Post reports that Tabatha Bundesen has denied the $100 million reported by the Daily Express. My colleague Megan Garber has more here.

Grumpy Cat is a fur bundle with a lovably cantankerous punim and a mouth like an isosceles triangle where the bottom has come detached. Since appearing on Reddit in 2012, it (née "Tardar Sauce") has become "Internet famous," which is becoming a less useful term now that billions of people around the world are practically breathing the Internet all day long. (Does anybody say, "she's just primetime cable-TV famous"?) Indeed, Grumpy Cat is famous, period, and its owner has licensed her pet's very real and enormous fame to make a great sum of money, as she should.

The Daily Express reports that Grumpy Cat has made $100 million in the last two years. That means its owner, the former waitress Tabatha Bundesen, is making more money than all but a handful of actors and athletes in the world, even when you include their endorsements, licenses, and filmed appearances. (Indeed, endorsements, licenses, and filmed appearances is exactly how Grumpy Cat makes its money, too.)

Average Annual Earnings, in Millions of Dollars
Forbes/The Atlantic

As surprising as the number behind the dollar sign was to me, I was even more surprised to open Twitter this morning and find people downright hostile to the idea that it's reasonable to make $100 million from an insanely famous cat's mildly deformed face.

Ben and Joe are smart journalists, but they don't know what they're talking about. People make money—obscene amounts of it—from their looks, or equally randomly advantages, all the time. Gisele Bundchen is worth $290 million, and I can't think of any way that her height, place of birth, skin tone, or bone structure is any less a natural lottery than Grumpy Cat's perfect caret mouth. Gisele works hard, but licensing deals worth tens of millions of dollars don't fall out of the sky, either. Both fortunes are earned.

This will seem like a non sequitur, but the Grumpy Cat story really reminds me of ... the music business. The irony of the music industry today is that because there is so much free music on the Internet, it is a great time to be heard as a band, but a bad time to make money as an artist. In other words, the Internet has complicated the relationship between exposure and money. Bands with far more global listeners than rich acts from the 1960s or 1970s aren't making nearly as much, because those global listeners are paying either little or nothing to hear them.

I don't think anybody has ever said of a band like alt-J, or Betty Who, or Two Door Cinema Club—bands that are extremely popular on sites like Spotify, but not quite in the stratosphere of music celebrities—"that act is just Internet famous." But the reality is that lots of musicians today are, practically speaking, "just Internet famous." They are massively popular on the Internet, but not rich enough to afford health care. Internet fame is just marketing. The real money is in turning that marketing into licenses, merchandise, concerts, films—anything with the singular property of scarcity, the one thing you cannot find on the Internet. Tabatha Bundesen knew that, and now she's rich.

You can argue that something is broken in a cultural market where creators can't make money from being famous, as lots of people do with music. Or you can argue that something is broken in a system where creators make lots of money for being "Internet famous," as some people do with regard to Grumpy Cat. But these positions don't live comfortably with each other.

The Internet is a whirlwind of massive media exposure, and random memes and personalities and mobile games and artists get super-duper-famous for reasons that can't be fully explained, all the time, for complex reasons. It's pointless to be moralistic about the fortune of Grumpy Cat any more than we're condemning of the fortune of any other celebrity. Don't be a Grumpy Cat hater. Hate the game.