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The following is a reprint of an article written in the April 11, 2001 edition of NYPress.com.

 

Paid Per View
On the Net, Sex Is Recession-Proof

Jay Servidio is a ringer for Matthew Broderick. Behind the sleepy
eyes, under the puffy part, the fecund mind of a Ferris Bueller:
"Listen, if more parents were at home running adult websites,
maybe their children’s tension needs would be met. Maybe these
Santee-Columbine shootings wouldn’t be happening."

In the driving rain. Polo buttondown. Pleated khakis and soaked suede Timberland loafers. Golf umbrella fairing the gale.

"But that’s just a thought. What I tell all my students is, ‘You’re not–n-o-t, not–gonna make a killing in this business.’ These guys who say they make a million bucks every time they sneeze, they’re full of shit. Seventy-five thousand in your first year? That’s doable. But you’ll have to grab me like a rabbi. You’ll have to grab me like a rabbi and trust me to show you the ropes."

On 34th St., an umbrella graveyard. Spines and tatters curling at our shins.

"My students don’t make any money for the first two to three months. It’s all a process. But then you get your first check for $500 and you’re like, ‘Oops I crapped my pants.’ From that point on it’s like a drug. Today you’re doing five vials of crack. Tomorrow you're doing 10. It’s the same thing. More. More. Grow! Grow! Grow!"

On tv, through a ground-floor window of the Empire State Bldg., the Nasdaq keels over, vomits 94 points. Inside a poor yutz jabs his half-smoked White Owl into his beer. A new low. The weather, the stock market–for many, the worst night in memory.

Half a block away 24 students await their man outside Source of Life, where Learning Annex and Seminar Center classes are held. A wilting, eager knot of black, white, Hispanic, Indian and Korean cityfolk. In their early 20s, their 40s, their late 50s, a third of them women. They are Mom ’n’ Pop. It’s nasty as hell outside and they’re here to grab the Rabbi.

But Really. Why bother with a dotcommer? The very word draws thoughts of smug vulgarians. Why, on so foul a night, blow $35 to listen to one of them? Because, say Mom ’n’ Pop, Jay Servidio can stuff real dollars into our afflicted, middle-class pockets.

It’s axiomatic at this point: Adult entertainment is the only "content" people consistently purchase on the Internet. We all know how porn has revolutionized online billing, spurred on live, interactive digital video, streaming video, Internet video on demand, server push, Internet telephony, media players and so on. We’ve identified the Moloch of our collective lust as the driving force behind $1.5 billion of annual online commerce. In these poor, foul-spoken days Mom ’n’ Pop could use an additional revenue stream.

So they’re here to wring some profit from axiom. The question is, is Jay Servidio really their Rabbi?

A weak signal, from his Infiniti Q45T bolting toward New Canaan:

"Can’t talk long, going to the salon for a facial."

"So what’s your pitch?"

"Did I mention I work out five nights a week?"

"Right."

"I’m fighting in a full-contact karate tournament next month up in Toronto. You should come check out my dojo in Manhattan."

And then we’re cut off. He calls back.

"I just got American Psycho on DVD. Have you seen that movie, dude? It’s awesome."

"The pitch, already."

"Simple. Who couldn’t use a little extra money every month? Pay down debts, cover rent. Build a savings account."

"A savings what?"

"Exactly. Nobody saves these days. The people who come to me–teachers, policemen, housewives, blue-collar workers–most of them want to put some money away for their kid’s education, pay some bills, take a vacation once in a while. They’re not looking to quit their jobs or anything."

"So what do you do for them?"

"I hold their hands and kick their asses till they start making money."

"How much do they make?"

"Anywhere from four thousand to sixty-thousand a month, net."

"Bullshit!"

"I’m not lying."

"Can I see your tax returns?"

"No can do."

"Enjoy the facial, friend."

The signal is lost.

A day later, inside a sparsely furnished meatpacking district floor-through, Magdalia, owner of three "boutique bondage" websites, speaks about her avocation.

"It’s like the chutney business my Great-Aunt Suzie used to run." Said with a chuckle. "Sooz wasn’t mining gold or anything, but she had some fun with it, made a little mad money."

This one is bouncy-cute. She says "mad" with these bugged-out eyes. A self-described "full-time cog" in the book publishing industry, Magdalia say she’s been grossing an additional five grand a month over the last half year. An offer to mention her URL is declined. "We’re choosy. We turn down a lot of potential customers. Don’t need the hassle."

"That part of the whole dominance bit?"

Her left hand disappears behind her razor-sharp bob, her right pets a riding crop cradled in the bevel of her coffee table. "Well, we’ve been at this a while." Three years to be exact. "Our membership fee is almost $50. It’s our little world and we get to say who lives in it. But we do offer added value to our clients."

"How’s that?"

"We hold ‘events.’" Bug eyes again. "That keeps them coming back."

Giggling, she clicks on a photo from a recent event. The client with the clothespins on his nads seems pleased with the added value.

"You do business with Jay Servidio?"

"No, but I’ve heard of him. He’s a rock star on the trade show circuit. Knows everyone. Our business is a little less, uh, mass, if you follow."

"What do you do with your profits?"

"Some of it goes back into the site. The rest of it helps pay food and rent. Book publishing pays shit, you know."

"Is it really possible to make, say, $5000 a month without quitting your job?"

"Absolutely! Sex is recession-proof. But I’m speaking for myself. I mean, I keep costs down. I have my own Unix right here [procured on eBay]. And I produce my content locally, instead of buying it from others."

"Locally?"

"That brick wall you’re leaning on?"

"Yeah?"

"That is the dungeon."

Dateline: Winnipeg. On the flip side of the screen. My contact is O’Reilly, a short, crumple-faced moppet with a bush of wiry black hair descending to his browline. He’s got a high squeaky voice like rubbing styrofoam. O’Reilly is known to all players. The carte blanche he enjoys is a residual benefit that goes along with his title: "Phone-Sex Infomercial King of Western Canada." Jack O’Reilly’s Lounge Dial-A-Date! Weeknights 2am from Dundee to Dakota.

As arranged through channels, the phone sex king believes I’m a well-to-do "Manhattanite" looking to partner with a content provider for my new Web empire. In this business, it never hurts to know people with discretionary funds. O’Reilly is only too happy to help me (unwittingly) accomplish my real goal: a firsthand glimpse inside that which no news organ has ever been permitted–Camera Delights.

From Camera Delights’ base here in Winnipeg, there flows an estimated 85-90 percent of the world’s continuous live interactive hardcore, orgy, dungeon, gay, lesbian, scat, geriatric, ethnic, pregnant, gyno amputee and freak sex feeds. According to Jay Servidio, due to U.S. indecency laws Canada is a repository of this stuff. Camera Delights is to adult online what, say, McDonald’s corporate is to its franchisees–beef central. "Everything but snuff," says O’Reilly, adding, "but who knows, eh?"

Camera Delights practically mints money by selling its feeds both directly to webmasters and to middleman content providers. Their content gets repackaged and resold a thousand times over and, according to O’Reilly, "everyone profits along the way." The feeds eventually become available to small, turnkey businesses like the ones Jay Servidio sets up for his clients. Though live interactive currently represents only 15 percent of total adult Internet revenue, a membership site cannot draw customers without packaging it in its menu of services. Live interactive share of the revenue pie will grow as availability of highspeed bandwidth increases.

Camera Delights is an hermetic operation with alleged mob ties. My initial requests for journalistic access were all flatly declined. Unreturned phone calls, unanswered e-mails. I was on the verge of trashing the idea until some surly low-totem Canuck in their back office practically challenged me by assuring me over the phone that I was receiving the exact treatment proffered two highly connected New York glossies and a major cable network film crew.

"Why," he reasoned, "if we’ve turned them down, should we accommodate you?"

Why indeed, Terrence. Now I’ve come, and I’ve got the phone sex king of Western Canada with me. And so we wait from a busy street in downtown Winnipeg. A crisp, clean, Canada day on a sidewalk of flower shops, restaurants, record stores and bookstores. We stand at a doorway with drabbish brown faux-marble siding. O’Reilly, who lays just the faintest Elmer Fudd into his R’s, is irate because "you don’t keep O’Weilly waiting."

We wait. And comes flying down the stairs a young Hispanic-looking man. A wraith with an Eminem buzzcut, earrings in both ears and puffy down vest. Shift over. Done for the day.

"Who is it?" says the intercom voice.

"O’Reilly, for Chwist sake!"

We’re buzzed in. We climb a flight of stairs and turn right onto a long, narrow hallway with light blue walls and a coating of black fingerprint smudge. The door frames are a darker blue. There are 23 small, say 10-by-10, rooms in this first hallway. To the right of each door is a narrow vertical strip of glass brick that has been covered in cardboard from the inside.

We turn the corner at the end of the hallway and pass a bathroom located at the top of a 3-foot stair. The door is wide open. Inside are two brunettes. Both are naked. One is shaving her legs, the other is on the toilet. A handheld video camera resting on the white linoleum-tiled floor points up at the girl on the toilet. A poster of a naked woman hangs above the toilet. Odd redundancy. I don’t realize I’m staring. But the woman shaving her legs does. She hops with her left leg still on the sink, reaches out and slams the door shut. O’Reilly looks at me, raises his eyebrows.

"Happy Pee Pee Fun Time, eh?"

Camera Delights takes up the entire second and a portion of the third story of a city block. It is an aboveground catacomb, a labyrinth of identical narrow, blue-on-blue hallways. We come to the brain center, a subdivided office of low ceilings, desks, rack servers, PCs and monitors. Surrounding each desk is a collage of cutouts or newspaper postings reflecting the personal music/sports tastes of its respective occupant. It hews generally to hockey.

To our right at the entrance floor-to-ceiling metal shelving holds about 100 starched white towels. A hamper sits nearby. Above the hamper some sort of scheduling board with aforementioned categories across the top. What’s remarkable is how quiet it is here. I’d expected darkness, covered windows and so forth. But this is like some sort of sound vacuum chamber. We’ve seen nobody other than the bathroom girls.

"Who the hell buzzed us in?" asks O’Reilly.

We poke into different offices looking for a guy named Brad. Brad is the company president.

Finally we encounter a ponytailed man sitting at a computer next to a wall of rack servers.

"Brad’s not coming in today."

Fine with me, I think. I buy a Snickers from a vending machine back at the entrance. A notice taped to the machine announces sign-ups for the spring softball league. Fast-pitch league teams forming. First practice April 16th. See Terry.

O’Reilly and I stand at a monitor bank. It’s 11 a.m. and four of 16 screens are active. On the first screen a young man is alternately pulling his butt cheeks apart and typing at a keyboard. On the second screen are the bathroom girls we’ve just encountered. On the third screen a tanned, completely shaved blonde woman faces the camera, straddles a guy, throws her hair back over her shoulders and stuffs him inside of her. On the fourth screen a fat woman eats fruit.

That’s a joke. On the fourth screen a girl in a Matchbox-Twenty t-shirt talks into the camera. "I know her!" says O’Reilly. "She was in one of my infomercials. Sweet girl."

At any given time, Camera Delights employs about 300 men and women (split 20/80, respectively). Models are solicited primarily through classified ads on adult-industry employment websites, and print classified ads in local swinger-sex scene newspapers. Strip clubs provide a steady flow of local and international talent as well. U.S.-based porn actors and actresses working the Canadian strip circuit will often stop in for a day of live cam stripping. With enough advance notice, Camera Delights can send word to its webmaster clients who can then promote these special visits to the end user.

Monthly model turnover at Camera Delights runs about 20 percent. As is the case in phone sex, models are encouraged to develop personal, ongoing relationships with clients.

O’Reilly shows me to a room adjacent to the office suite. Green lockers line the right-hand wall, cubbyholes line the left. First and last names are written on masking tape. Inside a few of the cubbyholes sit heart-shaped cellophane-wrapped chocolate boxes. The sign below the analog wall clock reads: Please take your flowers home with you or throw away promptly.

Matron Chuzzlewit. Of the fleshy gullet, straight from the Dickens. She’s dying to know: "Isn’t there a glut?"

The Rabbi is prepared. "At any given time there’re about 50,000 adult websites online, and guess what? You’re still not in a competitive marketplace. Two-thirds of those sites look like shit. They lose money and they get shut down."

A knock on the door. A timid gentleman glances down at his Seminar Center prospectus.

"I’m sorry," he peeps. "Which class is..."

"Sir, this is…PORNOGRAPHY!" Belly laughs. The door slams.

"As I was saying, design is crucial. You gotta create a consistent look. The free tour is critical. It’s your primary sales pitch, and here’s how it’s gotta be done."

Pencils at the ready and a deep breath. Bring on the science.

"Page one of the tour says, ‘We have 100,000 pics in our library. We got black girls, we’ve got white girls, we’ve got Asian girls. We’ve got girls with penises, we’ve got girls with no penises. We’ve got girls with large breasts, small breasts, we’ve got girls with no breasts. We’ve got girls with facial hair, girls with beards.’" Deep breath. "Wanna join now? No? Fine, continue the tour. Page two, ‘We’ve got 100,000 six-minute videos. We’ve got gynecological exams with the tools, and the masks and the stirrups.’ H’bout now? No? Okay, page three. Page three talks about jungle fever. We got black guys with white girls, we’ve got white guys with black girls, and we’re all mixed up together. Wanna join now?

"Enough!" booms the Rabbi. "Who can tell me? What’s the point of the tour?"

Chuzzlewit with her hand up high. "To sell."

"That’s right!"

They high-five.

"Now listen up. Whenever you sell something to someone, be it porno or lunar shuttle tickets or copiers, this is what you do."

Pencils up.

"You tell them what you’re about to tell them. Then you tell them. Then you tell them what you’ve told them. And you repeat that whole thing over and over. You stand up on the top of the desk, crack open the client’s mouth, climb inside and don’t stop talking until he’s seeing things your way."

Ken and his wife Farrah are a Southern couple in their mid-50s. They have two children. Ken works in finance, Farrah in human resources. About six months ago Ken launched a membership website called WantonWife.com. The sight features X-rated still photos and video clips of Farrah alone and with other men and women.

"We did WantonWife for fun at the beginning. The early response was so good we believed we could make money at it. But technically speaking, we didn’t know much."

Ken met Servidio in January at the biannual Adult Internet trade show in Las Vegas. He brought his business over to Servidio soon thereafter. Since January, Ken’s been grossing $6000 to $7000 a month with about $1400 in expenses. With the Rabbi’s help, Ken has identified some essentials that affect his business:

(1) Service. Re-bills–the monthly recurring billing charged to a member’s credit card–"are the name of the game. Re-bills create a consistent revenue flow which allows me to reinvest and grow WantonWife. In our case, guys are coming in to view and interact mostly with one person–Farrah. It’s like they’re wanting to have a sort of fantasy relationship with her, which is great. So it’s important that we provide fresh content every week and respond to their requests for a particular type of photo.

"At any time, when a member wants to cancel, it gets handled right away. Billing is smooth because we deal with the best company around, CCbill. Automatic, electronic payment on the first and fifteenth of every month."

(2) Speed. "Bandwidth is really crucial," says Ken. "If a download takes forever a guy’s just gonna get frustrated and leave. Who can blame him?"

Ken is soft-spoken. But his voice picks up when he comes to the final principle.

(3) Traffic. "This one’s pretty obvious. You can build the most gorgeous site in the world and if you don’t have an audience, you won’t make any money."

"So how do you drive traffic?"

"Well, we’re still trying to figure that out. We didn’t have a great experience with bulk e-mail. We do some advertising on adult search engines. Banner linking probably helps, but I haven’t had the time to do that just yet. We’re still very new at this."

Ken and Farrah devote an average of three hours a day, every day, to WantonWife. He’s planning on launching another site with the Rabbi in the near future. By this time next year, conditions remaining ceteris paribus, Ken projects WantonWife will be generating monthly net of $12,000. With their profits, Ken and Farrah are building a lake house and girding their retirement accounts.

As for the political climate and possible antisex legislation?

"We’re Republicans. I was for Bush. I know they’re more aggressive in legislating against this sort of thing, but I don’t see it as a threat. My personal feeling is it’s so big and so powerful, I don’t see how it could be shut down."

He adds, "I’d love to see more control put on it so that minors can’t get access."

The WorkingGirl.Com is a feature-length documentary film currently in postproduction. It was written and directed by James Ronald Whitney, whose first project, Just Melvin, debuts April 22 on HBO. Hearing that I was writing about amateur adult porn as a cottage business for Mom ’n’ Pop in the new recession, Whitney suggested I screen a rough edit of his film, since it touches upon some of the personal and professional pitfalls people encounter when running an amateur online adult site.

Whitney explains, "About a year ago I was contacted by my old friend Sharon Alt, who’d written to tell me that she couldn’t pay her bills, especially the health insurance and preschool bills for her four-year-old son, Jake. Sharon said she’d done due diligence and concluded that the Internet was the place to be, because of the terrific amount of money going specifically to these amateur sites.

"Essentially," says Whitney, "my old friend had decided to become an amateur porn star to pay her son’s bills. The problem was she had no audience."

Alt appealed to Whitney, a vice president at Wall Street brokerage firm Tucker Anthony, and he set to writing a business plan.

"I soon realized that if I made a movie about her business venture, the movie audience might then traffic her website. If they liked what they saw, they might pay for membership."

So Whitney was going to shoot porn and use it as content on his friend Sharon’s new and improved website. But first he had to do some due diligence of his own. To learn how to properly design and market an adult website, he turned to none other than the Rabbi, Jay Servidio.

In The WorkingGirl.Com Jay Servidio struts the floor of the Cybernext Expo 2000 Trade Show in New Orleans, introducing the doc crew (Whitney, et al.) to all of the big players in the online world. Later, at a table inside of what looks to be a Cracker Barrel restaurant, Jay Servidio gives Alt a point-by-point tutorial on porn site marketing and design.

Unlike so much of the popular discourse on the subject of porn and porn people, The WorkingGirl.Com suspends moral judgment, leaving that entirely up to the viewer. The lighter and less effective side of the movie pokes self-effacing fun at the director and crew, whose purportedly monastic sensibilities are quickly drenched in the sticky fluid of discovery of the reality of shooting porn (sights, sounds, delicious smells). In the course of preparing content for Alt’s new website they take "Porn Cinematography 101" lessons with online triple-X celebrity Teri Weigel and her manager/husband Murrill Muglio.

So it’s a film with an avocation (and vice versa): to drive membership to a website, whose profits will then fund a trust for Alt’s four-year-old son. If that sounds a little slick, the film recuses itself of its own cleverness ("Wall Street and the Porn World join caring hands to save the life of a child!… A movie to sell an adult website") through a fierce, exhaustive and objective mining of the ethical issues at its core.

Thoroughly explored are Alt’s tangled relationships and dubious motivations for doing porn. One of the film’s more wrenching scenes shows Alt in a bitter quarrel with her ex-wife Marci (the guileless, lovable bulldyke with whom Jake was conceived through insemination). Marci believes Alt’s choice of online sex is potentially hurtful to the child. She also thinks Alt is a flake and is simply using her/their kid to justify what amounts to a personal fetish. Where between Alt and Marci there was once love, there’s now only paint-peeling hatred.

That scene which occurs late in the film eventually delivers a much-needed cathartic chestnut. But neither woman actually emerges victorious and this is how Whitney prefers his art: unsettled.

Alexa is 33. BA and master’s in journalism, both from Columbia. Listening from the back row to the Rabbi’s solipsistic drone.

"…so then my friend Bill tried to get me into the phone sex industry back when we worked at Sprint. Late 80s baby, 900 was born and we knew it was gonna be huge! Only I’m Roman Catholic, didn’t want to get into that…"

Unlike most of the others here, Alexa’s already got a business up and running. She’s here to learn what new tricks might be applied to her fledgling phone sex site, GoodTimePhone.com. Somewhere in the course of the narrative, the Rabbi praises some credit-card billing outfit and Alexa demurs.

"What?" he snaps.

"It’s just–"

"What?"

"Well, I run a phone sex site and–"

"Phone sex is dead, lady! Didn’t you get the memo?"

Later, Alexa tells me, "Well, Jay Servidio’s right when he says cam-sex is the new phone sex. But phone sex is far from dead."

Alexa’s site is basically a compendium of female phone-sex subcontractors who are amassed under the GoodTimePhone.com moniker. They hang their digital shingles through a private FTP link to her site. To generate repeat business she asks that they work a minimum 25 hours per week. In three short months her site is in the black and turning a small profit.

"I’m determined to run a dependable, respectable operation, and I have strong principles about treating my girls right." Alexa says that her girls make well above the industry standard 55 percent host/45 percent subcontractor split. "It’s a scam to pay someone only 45 percent of their earnings."

"Wouldn’t you make more money running a hardcore membership site?" I ask.

"I’m kind of afraid to get into the membership portion. I feel like I’m on the edge of being involved in pornography. Not that there’s anything wrong with pornography. But I’m not ready to take that plunge. With phone sex, a boyfriend and a girlfriend can do that very innocently. It’s very different from having sex in front of a camera."

But a word on the numbers. When it comes to porn, verifiable revenue data is next to impossible to find. There’s no way of knowing if figures are inflated to fire business and fan egos, or deflated to ward off the taxman. Some sources insist lowballing is the more common practice.

"Keeps the taxes down and potential competition at bay."

So you might do well by reducing all quoted revenues herein by a factor of your own skepticism.

It’s also commonly held that it’s too late to become Rockefeller-rich through online adult entertainment, because of big-player competition and the cost of continuously updated premium content (videos, pics, live feeds).

No argument there. But what about a low-overhead side gig that brings a little stability in these trying economic times?

Here, the consensus seems to be a resounding yes, but with two caveats. Caveat number one: it’s more drudgery than you think. Alexa, for instance, spends a large portion of time checking up on her link partners, verifying that they’ve placed her banners on their sites as they’ve agreed to. Caveat number two: you can’t simply acquire a set number of clients and then sit still.

To his credit, Servidio makes this known from the start. "Members only stay with a site three months or less. So an owner’s gotta be out there continuously trolling for new business."

Trolling means reinvesting profits back into advertising that drives traffic. Reinvestment and growth take time. Like the Rabbi said, it’s a process.

Still, newcomers and veterans alike believe in the immutable popularity of the product: the barriers to entry are low, it’s legal, it can be done from home, and if you do the work, it sells.

And so the Rabbi makes his pitch.

 "Four thousand dollars for a customized, turnkey website, plus $100 a month for hosting and $125 a month for video for the first three months. That buys you 100,000 six-minute movies, 2000 new channels added monthly, with 100 live rooms."

The hands go up.

What about billing? What about bandwidth? Should I incorporate? Maintenance? Advertising?

They follow him down the stairs and out onto 34th St.

What about consultation? How do I get paid? Can I buy a URL direct from you?

The gusts earlier are breezes now. Drizzle. It’s late and the broad midtown cross street is a hollow chasm, a sound chamber refracting the Doppler wail of ambulances skidding north toward Times Square.

"I’m off to Budapest," says the Rabbi. "For the big European trade show." Card swaps and handshakes. "But let’s do business when I get back."

April 11, 2001
URL: http://www.nypress.com/

Jay Servidio is President of Teleteria, Inc., a company that has been building and hosting commercial and adult custom Web sites since 1994. Teleteria's clients are located all over the world.

 

 


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