Welcome to the cat economy

MAHESH SHARMA
Last updated 10:49 24/03/2014
WHY SO GRUMPY? Grumpy Cat has made a fortune out of its signature look. Well, it's owners have at least.

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Making cat videos may have previously appeared to be a fantastic waste of time but this hobby is now a legitimate source of income. Some cat owners are making tens of thousands of dollars a year from their prized felines who, via YouTube, entertain millions of cat lovers around the world.

The allure of cats is timeless: the ancient Egyptians idolised them, the inventor Thomas Edison immortalised them, while today millions are laughing, crying and sharing the joys of their affections for the humble house pet.

Maru, which has had more than 175 million monetised views, and Grumpy Cat, a seemingly perennially disapproving sort who will soon be starring in her own feature film, have already delivered windfalls to their owners.

Now other cats are getting in on the act too.

William Braden's spoof French new wave films starring his cat, Henri le chat noir (Henri the black cat), have been viewed more than 15 million times, netting the owner more than US$25,000 (NZ$29,000).

A select few are even in a position to quit their day jobs to live off their cats alone, according to Scott Stulen, founder of the non-profit Internet Cat Video Festival.

Dozens of people make a living from publishing cat videos, he says, earning between US$40,000 and US$75,000 a year.

He believes hundreds more make up to US$20,000 a year from their hobby, through YouTube royalties and small merchandising deals.

''A few, like Grumpy Cat, may exceed even that,'' Stulen says.

For some, it's quite a living. Aside from the upcoming movie, for which the cast has yet to be announced, the Grumpy Cat book spent 10 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list this year, and his agent - yes, that's right, cats have their own representation - recently signed a deal for his client to become the face of cat food brand Friskies.

Stulen spoke at a panel this month titled Cat Cash: The Economy of Internet Cat Videos at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas. An unannounced appearance by Grumpy Cat in the Q&A session enlivened the crowd, propelling the hashtag #cashcat straight to the top of Twitter trends that day, alongside Lady Gaga and the besieged Wikileaks founder Julian Assange.

Other cats are also making scratch for their owners through YouTube advertising and even a range of stuffed toys.

But the craze is not just limited to cats.

Doge is another popular meme where pictures of shiba inus, a small Japanese breed of dog known for its playful eyes and smile, are captioned with phrases in broken English, written in multicoloured Comic Sans typeface.

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Doge had its own breakthrough moment when Australian advertising professional Jackson Palmer launched the digital currency dogecoin, making the shiba inu the face of its own peer-to-peer payment system.

While it's a cryptography-protected currency modelled on bitcoin, unlike its forebear the value of each dogecoin is so small - at the time of publication one Australian dollar bought 1083 dogecoins - that the only real value is to tip and donate the coins online.

''In the cryptocurrency world things often get out of hand quickly, as people are treating it as an investment and often losing a tonne of money in the process,'' Palmer says. ''Dogecoin is not an investment that you sit around and hoard one day hoping to get rich.''

In the six months since launching, it has become the sixth-largest alternative currency in terms of overall value. The Dogecoin Foundation also raised tens of thousands of dollars to help send Indian and Jamaican athletes to the Sochi Winter Olympics, as well as raising money for the drought in Kenya.

Stulen says the value is in the devotion of the community. His non-profit cat movie festival is a focal point to rally cat video lovers and to raise awareness and funds for social causes. ''There is a lot of emotion and a lot of people are wanting to believe in something,'' he says.

While Stulen believes his festival has a finite life - it might last another six months or another six years, he says - perhaps the question of how long cats can make money on the internet is best answered by the star herself.

Grumpy Cat was asked at the South by Southwest event whether she agreed with Andy Warhol's famous quote: ''In the future, everyone will be world famous for 15 minutes.''

She didn't need to speak. Her look of disapproval said it all.

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