Here's how Backpack Kid really makes his money

When Katy Perry appeared on the season finale of Saturday Night Live in 2017, she created a new internet sensation: the Backpack Kid. During the final moments of her "Swish Swish" performance, the pop star was joined on stage by an unknown teen, who wore a backpack and busted out a crazy dance move that would become commonly known all across the world as the floss. That viral star in the making was Georgia native Russell Horning … but from that moment forward, he'd mostly be known as the Backpack Kid.

Perry wasn't the first celeb to come across Horning's mesmerizing moves on Instagram. Before the singer slid into his DMs to invite him on to the sketch comedy show, the then-15-year-old got a repost from none other than Rihanna, who used his signature dance as a way of expressing her delight at getting eight Grammy nominations in 2016. However, his status as a genuine internet star was sealed by his SNL cameo. "We filmed Saturday night and I went back to school Monday and then my Instagram account got verified," Horning explained to The Mix. "All the memes were going around the internet." 

But when do memes turn into actual cash? And how is it that Horning could afford to drop ten grand on a diamond-encrusted backpack pendant for his gold chain? Here's how the Backpack Kid really makes his money.

He's a mega-influencer

Making money from your social media output is still a relatively alien concept to some, but there are several different ways for influencers to cash in on their online popularity. Affiliate marketing and brand deals are now commonplace on both YouTube and Instagram, and mega-influencers — people with over a million followers — can demand some hefty fees. While speaking about the Kardashian sisters, for example, Michael Heller, the CEO of a digital-marketing firm called Talent Resources, once told Us Weekly that "about 25 percent" of their combined income has come from sponsored social media posts.

Russell Horning may not on the Kardashian level (yet), but with 2.2 million followers on Instagram at the time of this writing, he's still made a pretty penny on the platform. "Influencers with up to 1 million followers can get $10,000 [per post], depending on the platform, and 1 million followers and up, you're getting into territory where they can charge $100,000," Joe Gagliese, the co-founder of influencer agency Viral Nation, told Vox in 2018. "Some can even get $250,000 for a post!"

He signed a 'lucrative deal' with Sprayground

As of 2019, influencer marketing has grown into a multi-billion-dollar industry, according to Influencer Marketing Hub. However, prior to this boom, the majority of brand deals involved no money at all (via Later). Instead of paying influencers to promote their products, companies would simply send them freebies and expect them to post about it. Free products are still dished out to internet celebs on a daily basis, but the biggest influencers are now in a position where they can demand huge fees for follow-up posts and full-on campaigns. 

When it comes to backpacks, then, Russell Horning has worked exclusively with Sprayground, a tactic that's allowed him to get the most out of the deal. "I am trying to stay loyal to one brand," he told Complex in 2017. "I'm trying to get more from their business. I've known Sprayground for a very long time and I'm trying to only wear their book bags." While the exact numbers involved in this deal remain unknown, the Daily Mail reports that Sprayground — a.k.a. the brand the Backpack Kid wore on stage during his life-changing appearance on Saturday Night Live — has since "signed Horning to a lucrative deal."

He's landed other big brand deals

The Backpack Kid has no doubt made a small fortune from his exclusive partnership with Sprayground. However, that isn't the only deal he's managed to strike since his viral fame began. Horning's remained loyal to one brand of backpack, sure, but he's very much open to conducting other business. "I've worked with a lot of companies," the teen told the Daily Mail in 2019, "from Under Armour to NBA to NFL." 

While these are all huge names, it turns out that Horning had a preference for one particular association. In 2017, the NBA's Sacramento Kings asked the Backpack Kid to perform at a game. The social media star took to the court and did his thing while surrounded by the Kings Dancers. It was a good fit that the performer enjoyed … despite his trademark deadpan expression. During an exclusive phone interview with Nicki Swift in 2018, Horning explained that his style went "well with the family-friendliness of the NBA." Revealing that an appearance with the Harlem Globetrotters was even in the cards, he added, "That's going to be crazy."

Making bank at meet and greets

Before brands started throwing cash at influencers, one of the easiest ways for social media stars to make some money on the side was through fan meet-ups. While this practice has been questioned since the earliest days of internet celebrity culture — Vice, for example, asked if vloggers were "ripping off" their fans with bloated convention prices back in 2014 — meet and greets are more popular these days than they've ever been. 

Naturally, Horning has been keen to take advantage of this trend ever since he blew up online, leading to his very own show. In May 2019, the Atlanta, Ga. venue The Loft played host to Backpack Kid & Friends Live. According to Center Stage, general admission was $15 (or $12.50 if you booked in advance). However, that price only covered the performance itself. If you wanted the VIP meet and greet package, that would have set you back $25. Of course, solo shows like this one are just the tip of the meet and greet iceberg. Creators can also line their pockets by posing for fan selfies at big influencer events like VidCon and Playlist Live. For his part, Horning performed at both in 2019.

He has his own line of merch

Another revenue stream that the biggest influencers regularly dip their toes into is merchandise. The rise of print-on-demand services has made it simple for content creators to offer a wide range of merch without the need to have it all made up in bulk, and this model has been paying off big time. According to Kite, "These changes are opening up the merchandising opportunity for everybody from individuals, to mid-levels run by talent agencies, all the way up to the truly 'big fish.' Influencers are doing incredible numbers generating amazing revenue from merchandise sales — in many cases, 6 figures per month!"

For his part, the Backpack Kid chose to align with Riot Society — a brand known for its "crazy" and "WTF" t-shirts — for his own line of merch. His Flossin Collection includes long- and short-sleeve tees featuring a bear performing (you guessed it) the floss. In 2018, Horning held a Black Friday sale, which offered a buy-one-get-one free deal on all of his merch. At the time of this writing, this Riot Society collection is out of stock on the website. However, you can still pick up kids' size Backpack Kid t-shirts from Tillys for a cool $17.99. Horning has a finger in many pies — this is just one of them.

Then there's that YouTube ad revenue

Instagram may be Horning's main hunting ground, but he also has a sizable following on his YouTube channel. YouTubers make money through Google AdSense, which pairs their content with brands. When a viewer clicks one of these ads, the YouTuber gets paid, which means overall income from ads varies between smaller and bigger channels (via Vlog Nation). With over 400,000 subscribers, Horning's channel is impressive, but far from the most-followed on the platform. His overall video views, however, tell a different story. According to Social Blade, the Backpack Kid's YouTube content has been watched over 34 million times.

"The actual rates an advertiser pays varies, usually between $0.10 to $0.30 per view, but averages out at $0.18 per view," notes Influencer Marketing Hub. "On average, the YouTube channel can receive $18 per 1,000 ad views. This equates to $3—$5 per 1000 video views." In this sense, if we assume that Horning has been making the low-end estimate of $3 per 1000 video views, he would have still earned over a hundred thousand dollars from YouTube at the time of this writing. Not too shabby considering YouTube isn't even his main outlet.

His agent has connections

One surefire way to spread your influence and bolster your income is by teaming up will fellow stars and enticing their followers to join you on your journey. Networking, then, is a key piece of the influencer puzzle, which is something that Horning's manager has understood all too well. "My agent Russell has very good connections with a lot of famous people," Horning told Complex in 2017. "He got me in that video [Blac Youngsta's "Hip Hopper"] because he had connections with them. He told me being in that video was just a sample of the things he could do for me." The dancer has also made cameo appearances in a handful of other music videos, including reuniting with Katy Perry for "Swish Swish" not long after working with Blac Youngsta. However, Horning released his own in 2018.

That year, the Backpack Kid teamed with Atlanta-based rapper Swag Hollywood to create a joint EP entitled SwagPack Kid. It dropped the same day as the music video for lead single "Drip On Boat," a parody of the cult comedy Napoleon Dynamite that's been watched more than a million timesWhile we already know that this means thousands of dollars in ad revenue, where does the term "drip on boat" come from? "Drip is just a term to fashion," Horning explained during an interview with Hollywood Life. "Fashion is something that's really important to me. It's all about the drip!"

He's suing Fortnite

The amount of money that the online game Fortnite has made for Epic Games is truly staggering. According to SuperData, spending on the game reached a record high of $3 million in a single day in July 2018 (via Metro). According to sources cited by TechCrunch, the company itself grossed $3 billion that year, and the Fortnite machine has shown no signs of slowing down. 

All of this is to say that the Backpack Kid (or his mom, to be more specific) has demanded a piece of that extra-large pie. But on what grounds? Metro reports that one of the most popular moves in the game is apparently based on Horning's own floss dance. Claiming that the creators allegedly used it without permission, Horning's mother filed complaints at the US District Court in Los Angeles in December 2018 to sue Epic Games for copyright infringement on her son's behalf (via the Independent). While the company has faced several of these lawsuits, the media outlet noted that "they are likely to argue that the dance moves cannot be copyrighted." 

Still, Horning's team may be smelling a payout. "It was really my mom and my management that did the lawsuit. I'm kind of just the kid having fun in life. I'm just letting the adults do all the busywork," the teen told TMZ at the time. Horning added, "I don't really care about the money … I have more stuff to worry about."

Is the 'big money' coming?

Readers may be wondering what could possibly be more important than a potentially massive payout from the makers of Fortnite. While the Backpack Kid's mom and manager believe that Epic Games has "taken advantage" of the teen dancer, Horning himself is instead focusing all of his energy on building his own empire. During his exclusive interview with Nicki Swift, he revealed that he has grand plans for his future as an aspiring actor. Explaining that his dance moves were "meant to be comedy," Horning said that he hopes to do a "comedy movie or TV show," adding, "I think I'd do pretty good at acting."

Will the name Russell Horning one day become well-known outside the realm of the internet? Well, according to the teen, it's just a matter of time before he's making that Tinseltown cash. "The big, big money isn't rolling in yet but it's coming for sure," he told the Daily Mail in 2019. "But that's the least of my worries, I'm just trying to have some fun, make some content for my supporters." 

Whether the Backpack Kid fades away or is really here to stay remains to be seen. However, we hope Horning manages to achieve his dream and crack Hollywood — if nothing else, to see what other crazy-expensive jewelry he'll have custom-made.