Jesse Brown: How fame seekers finally figured out how to make a living on YouTube

Jesse Brown: How fame seekers finally figured out how to make a living on YouTube

Across the GTA, a new breed of entertainer is making a living and playing to audiences in the tens of millions. Welcome to the era of the professional amateur

Jesse Brown: Meet the YouTubers
Corey Vidal’s videos have been viewed over 64 million times (Image: Corey Vidal)

Blame it on the Biebs. As everyone knows by now, Justin was just a poor tween from Stratford when he uploaded his first homemade videos to YouTube. The clips went viral, and soon Usher and Justin Timberlake were fighting to sign him to their labels. International superstardom, of course, soon followed.

It’s the classic talent discovery story, upgraded for millennials. Forget music lessons, forget auditions—forget even leaving your bedroom. Just upload your god-given talent and wait for the fame. YouTube is rife with baby-faced crooners, convinced perhaps that Timberlake, still sore about losing Bieber to Usher, spends his days clicking around for the Next Big Thing.

For a growing number of Canadian talents, posting videos to YouTube is not merely a way to get discovered, promote CD sales or get booked on professional stages. YouTube is their stage. They are registered YouTube “partners” who get a share of the advertising revenue their content generates. When the Partner Program launched in 2007, YouTube cherry-picked a handful of Toronto participants, basing their invitations on existing online popularity. This past spring, the doors opened to anyone, and there are now hundreds of YouTube partners in Canada. When you click play, they get paid.

They don’t get paid much—not much per view, anyhow. YouTube won’t disclose the average amount partners receive, and there are complex algorithms involved in determining fees, but sources estimate it’s about a seventh of a penny every time someone watches their video. For someone like Corey Vidal, a 25-year-old performer from Oakville who has made his living posting dance instruction videos, lip-sync videos, comedy sketch videos and video diaries to YouTube, it would take approximately 700 views to earn $1. That means Vidal would need about a million views to earn a couple thousand dollars. Since he began posting six years ago, his videos have been viewed over 64 million times, bringing in revenues of
around $130,000.

But Vidal isn’t making money from the partnership program alone. Once his videos started taking off, major brands began approaching him, offering decent money if he’d feature their products in his videos, and serious money if he’d custom-make videos specifically to spotlight their wares. Today Vidal lives in a house he bought in Burlington, where he and 10 full-time employees make their livings solely by making YouTube videos.

There are others. Vidal can count 11 or so YouTubers in the GTA who make a living exclusively through the partnership program, but dozens have built hybrid careers around their popular YouTube channels. There’s D-Pryde, an 18-year-old rapper from Brampton with 53 million views. There’s Walk off the Earth, a rootsy pop band from Burlington with 248 million views. There’s Shimmy, a funny Korean guy from Waterloo who just sort of talks, and who has 26 million views. And there’s BodyRock, a massively popular YouTube channel of hardcore fitness videos created by a former soft-core porn model in Kingston, Ontario, and her videographer husband (Zuzana and Freddy split up sometime after they hit 400 million views, but their lucrative BodyRock brand lives on). These Internet celebrities are outliers who live on the fringe of Canada’s media capital. Had they approached success through the front door of Toronto’s established channels, it’s difficult to imagine any of them achieving the same level of fame. In the U.S., no matter how big you get on the Internet, Hollywood could get you so much bigger. The opposite is true here. If you’ve made it on YouTube, your audience is almost certainly larger than if you were on Canadian TV or signed with a Canadian label.

Professionalism and YouTube might seem mutually exclusive. Despite hosting bits of Hollywood content from all the major TV networks and movie studios, the site still struggles to shake its image as the home of randomness—a massive trove of frenetic, ever-changing non-sequiturs and geek memes, most of them asinine, forgettable, amateurish, cat-related and unrepeatable. Sure, that kid in the car who was high on dental anaesthetic was a riot, but would anyone tune in to see him get stoned again? Making steady money off YouTube videos means somehow creating viral video after viral video, which is like trying to generate regular electricity on the expectation of multiple lighting bolts striking the same rod. And yet, it is done.

Google executive Jeremy Butteriss, who directs the YouTube Partner Program in Canada, assures me that “there is a recipe for creating a viral video.” He goes on to lay down a three-point strategy. First, aspiring stars must borrow some fame. Nothing launches a YouTuber better than an endorsement or cameo appearance from a celebrity. (Many people break through by simply covering or remixing a famous piece of pop culture. This can get views, but it won’t make m0ney, because ad revenue generated from cover songs goes to the copyright holder.) Butteriss’s second step is to “tent-pole” videos to hot topics. Partners’ content must always be topical, forever related to news events or pop culture. YouTube is the Internet’s second-biggest search engine (its parent company, Google, being the first). So when people search for a trending topic, You­Tubers want their clips to come up in the results. That means a lot of songs and skits about elections and Kardashians. Finally, Butteriss tells me, a professional YouTuber must interact with the audience. They must chat with their fans, they must take on their haters. A Hollywood star’s image relies on being unreachable and inaccessible, but Internet celebrities are expected to have a common touch.

Talent, you may have noticed, is not an ingredient in Butteriss’s recipe. It’s true: none of the GTA’s highest-earning YouTube partners could be described as extraordinarily gifted musicians, dancers or comics. Yet most of them are capable at two out of three of the above. Additionally, they all have video production skills, pop culture acumen, tech savvy and a touch of charisma. They are whatever they need to be in order to get views, and that which gets views is forever changing. The extended list of money­making Toronto YouTubers includes instructional hairstylists, Caucasian aficionados of Korean pop who are big in Japan, and a “Machinima” creator who turns video game footage into short narrative films. Internet fame can seem unpredictable, idiosyncratic and just plain weird. But really, it’s nothing new.

All of the randomness hearkens back to a bygone era of novelty entertainment. The YouTubers are vaudeville variety acts, digital buskers performing for spare change on the busiest corner of the Internet, where millions of pennies rapidly add up to thousands of dollars. To get noticed, they must be loud and tacky. Nobody would confuse what they do with art. Like comic books and music videos in their early days, the form they are pioneering is brazenly commercial, completely unpretentious and beneath any serious cultural consideration. It’s all terribly exciting.