A kid from Nebraska shows up in New York City to make it big. This kid was Bryan Odell, a 21-year-old college dropout who lived with his parents. Gangly, with curly blond hair, he looked and talked as if he arrived straight from central casting. ("I was just a kid from Nebraska," he says.) But central casting had nothing to do with it. As an aspiring YouTuber, he cast himself.
Odell's destination was the Manhattan office of Google Inc., YouTube's corporate parent. He was among the 25 winners of a competition called Next Up, which is aimed at "accelerating the growth of the next big YouTube stars," as an official YouTube blog explained. The prize included four days of tips and training from "YouTube experts" in New York. It also included a $35,000 check, no strings attached.
Founded in 2005 and owned by Google since 2007, YouTube today contains multitudes: 72 hours of video are uploaded onto the service every minute. For some, it is an infinite museum of moving images: Patti Smith singing "You Light Up My Life" on a 1970s kids' show; Mike Wallace puffing Luckys through an interview with Salvador Dalí; forgotten teenage dance shows. For others, this is the medium of the one-off "viral" video — the often accidentally funny home movie or blooper that is e-mailed, linked and tweeted into collective consciousness. There is also an endless variety of produced material: "supercut" mash-ups, TED Talks, book trailers, brand campaigns.
Then there are the YouTube stars — people like Ray William Johnson, Mystery Guitar Man, Smosh, Michelle Phan, the ShayTards, Jenna Marbles, Freddie Wong, What the Buck or Philip DeFranco. If these names mean nothing to you, trust me: these are famous, successful YouTubers. Their videos get millions of views, and because they get a share of the resulting ad revenue, they are almost certainly among the "hundreds" that the company says earn six figures or better from their videos.
YouTube executives sometimes refer to such YouTube stars as having been "born on the platform": they built careers through skillful use of YouTube itself. Given the numbers of viewers involved, it makes sense that YouTube, which places revenue-generating ads on videos, might take an interest in creating more of these stars. This was the goal of Next Up, to which several hundred YouTubers applied. While the final selection process was murky, I was told that the winners were chosen based more on metrics (views per video, subscriber growth rate, uploads per month) and ability to whip up fan support than with some entertainment executive's opinion about quality.
The winners were a curious mix. Aside from Odell, who interviewed the members of touring metal bands, there was Meghan Camarena, a sweet young woman from Modesto, California, who made the grade with her video blogging and lip-synced pop songs. J Brent Coble created college-humorish skit videos in Denton, Texas. Richard Ryan, originally from small-town Tennessee, destroyed high-tech gadgets with guns and explosives in the Southern California desert.
Franchesca Ramsey made comedic videos, and Meghan Tonjes sang earnest songs into her webcam. Others uploaded travelogues, cooking shows, makeup tips, craft tutorials, basketball lessons and stop-motion videos of Lego figurines.
Lately YouTube has received more attention for its focus on a very different approach - household names. Not long after the Next Up winners were named in May 2011, YouTube announced an initiative in which mainstream celebrities like Madonna, Shaquille O'Neal, Ashton Kutcher and Jay Z would curate "channels" of content. A New Yorker article summed up the meaning of this strategy: "YouTube, the home of grainy cellphone videos and skateboarding dogs, is going pro." YouTube would shell out something like $100 million for these deals, which makes the $875,000 doled out to the Next Up winners look paltry.
But YouTube's homegrown stars tend to be self-starters. They understand the intimacy of the platform in a way most Hollywood A-listers don't. YouTube is not just television on a computer, and YouTubers, whether established or aspiring, are their own breed. The Next Up winners are an almost random group of nonfamous people with an idiosyncratic range of talents, striving to succeed and fully conversant in the culture of this relatively young medium. And this medium definitely has its own culture. Any YouTuber could tell you that.
One useful place from which to consider YouTuber culture is the parking lot next to the Granada Theater in Lawrence, Kan. Behind three or four grimy tour vans and a Tioga camper, Bryan Odell and two buddies set up his Canon Vixia HF-10 high-definition camcorder on a tripod. Odell wore a bright blue Aeropostale hoodie that was inadequate for the cold November twilight but indispensable as his on-camera uniform.
We had driven the three and half hours from Lincoln to Lawrence so that Odell could interview four bands that were playing together on a tour organized by the independent hard-rock Fearless Records label. Thanks largely to his Next Up winnings, Odell moved out of his parents' house and bought a new computer for editing his videos. "BryanStars Interviews" had become more or less his full-time job. When the camera was set, Odell stood between two members of a French group called Chunk! No, Captain Chunk! and began by asking each what his ideal "porn name" would be.
Odell is no Johnny Carson. But he is a heartland showbiz striver, with one notable Web-era difference: He's not looking to leave Middle America. Though his show, subjects and audience have little to do with where he lives, he prefers staying close to family and friends. Besides, he doesn't need to move. He told me the number of people who subscribe to his videos has roughly doubled (to about 90,000 when we went to Lawrence). A few months earlier, he started selling BryanStars T-shirts and wristbands. He predicted that he would be recognized in Lawrence, and he was right: a couple of the kids who were already queued up several hours before the show knew him from YouTube. He seemed slightly disappointed that they weren't more fawning - he had told me several times about fans asking for his autograph - but otherwise he radiated enthusiasm. YouTube, he told me repeatedly, changed his life.
As a senior in high school, Odell won a C-Span contest with a video report about gas prices. While majoring in broadcasting at the University of Nebraska, he interned at an NBC affiliate doing local stories for a segment called "Omaha Buzz." He found himself reporting from an event called Rib Fest, and he had an epiphany: He did not care about Rib Fest.
Some of his reports, however, involved covering concerts. ("I'd go to a show, and I had a camera with me, so all of a sudden I was V.I.P., you know?") In November 2009, he uploaded one of his concert-story clips to YouTube, picking the handle "bryanstars" without much thought, and was thrilled to see it rack up 100 views. Then he interviewed the members of Slipknot, the over-the-top metal band, as they were passing through Omaha. The band's rabid fan base pushed the number of views of that clip past 5,000 in a day. "That's when I knew that this could be something," Odell says. "The fact that you could just throw something up from the middle of Nebraska and get thousands of people from all over the country interacting with it was . . . was huge."
What made BryanStars Interviews go from promising to profitable was YouTube's Partners Program. Until recently, becoming a partner entailed an application process. Odell and several other Next Up winners told me it took four or five tries before they were accepted. Meanwhile, they uploaded scores or even hundreds of videos and built up views and subscriber momentum, without making a dime. But being chosen meant they got more than half the ad revenue their videos generated. By 2011 there were 20,000 participants in the Partner Program. That same year, YouTube bought Next New Networks, a company that works with entities like the Gregory Brothers (creators of "Auto-Tune the News") and Barely Political (known for the "Obama Girl" videos). The Next Up program followed soon after, conceived as a way for the company to both help and learn from "people who are looking at YouTube as a platform to build their own career in a way that has never been possible before," Tom Sly, director of strategic content at the company, told me.
The Partner Program forbids participants to reveal specifics about their ad-share revenue. Rates can vary depending on the size and demographics of the partner's audience and an array of other metrics. But through conversations with partners and others knowledgeable about the program, it's possible to come up with ballpark figures. Someone like Odell - who now has around 125,000 subscribers, is averaging about two million views a month and posts a lot of videos, often with 15-second preroll commercials - can make more than $4,000 a month. (Odell and YouTube declined to comment on that estimate.)
It's not a bad salary for a clean-cut, cornfed, mall-preppy kid interviewing tattooed, pierced, black-clad guys in gothic makeup, using liberal profanity and often-crude questions. If the interviews are not-ready-for-prime-time, the advertising is: spots for the Mini Roadster and Stihl saws pop up on his videos. Besides, Odell is pretty sure his future has nothing to do with prime time, or covering Rib Fests, or moving to New York to scrape for attention from TV bigwigs. "In college, other people decided what would happen to me," he says. "With YouTube, it's really not up to anyone but me, and the audience."
About half of the Next Up winners live in and around Los Angeles, and I assumed they were attracted to the area by the idea of Hollywood, with its showbiz ecosystem. That turned out to be not quite the case. Many had come not for Hollywood but for other YouTubers. A parallel ecosystem has taken root, built by born-on-YouTube creators who "went pro" years ago and are now supported by production companies and agencies with a YouTube-specific focus.
I met Jimmy Wong and Meghan Camarena at Wong's apartment in downtown L.A. At 24, Camarena has a sweet-little-girl quality about her, with bright eyes, a camera-ready smile and a singsong voice. She talks about how hard it was to move away from her close-knit family in Modesto, about 90 miles inland from San Francisco. As a child, she told me, she watched Nickelodeon and wondered how she could get inside the television set and be on that screen. Later she discovered YouTube, and the skits and home movies and music videos from all kinds of people, delivered to a different screen. "If they're doing this all on their own, then that means I can probably do it," she remembers thinking. She got a video camera for Christmas in 2007, and under the handle Strawburry17, she started video-blogging and "lip-dubbing" songs by up-and-coming bands.
Camarena used her Next Up money to move to L.A., where her roommate, Catherine Valdes, is another YouTuber she met online. Camarena's life is now grounded in the local YouTuber community and the business infrastructure it has spawned. When we met, she was about to travel to India to make a video for the nonprofit Water.org. The job was arranged for her by a year-old firm called Big Frame. (Big Frame describes itself as a "network" representing about 75 YouTubers and brokering moneymaking and audience-growing deals.) She had also just signed a six-month contract to make videos for Teen.com - a property of Alloy Digital, the entertainment and branding firm, which has been signing up its own network of YouTube talents - with Valdes and another cute young YouTuber friend named Joey Graceffa.
She and Graceffa and another YouTuber also formed a band, of sorts, called the Tributes, to record songs and videos inspired by "The Hunger Games." The movie was coming out in March, and Camarena told me they needed to get out in front of the release with appropriately tagged content, so that they would benefit from the inevitable online search frenzies. "If you're gonna jump on the bandwagon," she explained, "you have to do it soon."
Her fellow Next Up winner Jimmy Wong, an accomplished musician, had a far less systematic approach to YouTube. During his senior year in college, he watched his older brother, Freddie Wong, start building freddiew, a channel for action-comedy shorts that has become one of the most popular channels on YouTube. Jimmy was unsure about devoting himself to YouTube so completely. But then his third video went viral. It was a musical-parody response to a very unfortunate video made by a U.C.L.A. student complaining about Asians in the school library. He ended up discussing "Ching Chong! Asians in the Library Song" on NPR - and that helped him become a Next Up winner.
At first, he couldn't figure out how to capitalize on that one success. He resisted comedic music for a while, making serious music videos, but they didn't catch on. By November he was thinking about making more parodies. But in January, he arrived at a completely new idea: A funny cooking show, making fanciful recipes for foodstuffs that exist only in books or movies, called "Feast of Fiction."
Because there is no such thing as a prime-time debut on YouTube, creators work their way up from small audiences with whom they tend to interact directly on the site's comments boards and who play a vital role in promotion. While this makes building an audience a challenge, it also means the audience actively and intimately creates its stars. Thus YouTubers constantly exhort viewers to "like," to forward, to leave a comment.
This bond between YouTube creator and audience is of increasing interest to some advertisers. Some brands will pay stars at Freddie Wong's level six figures to create an ad and upload it to his or her channel, says Margaret Healy, YouTube's head of partner engagement. That money is over and above what the YouTubers earn through the ad revenue-sharing Partner Program. For top YouTubers, then, the platform isn't a farm system for the "real" entertainment industry. It is what they do.
Camarena is far from the Freddie Wong apex. Based on her monthly views, her Partner Program ad-split revenue probably brings no more than $1,000 or $2,000 a month. But having tapped into the YouTube universe, she has found other ways of leveraging what fame she has. She wouldn't tell me specifics, but she did say that a majority of her income probably comes from side deals like her Teen.com contract and various one-offs for other entities.
Five years ago, "brands would not touch this stuff," says Barry Blumberg, the former president of Disney television animation who now runs Web sites and YouTube channels for Alloy Digital. Even now, he suspects that many mainstream advertisers don't quite understand the dynamic between YouTubers and their audiences: "The audience thinks they know them." And that, he says, can be monetized.
A history of the entertainment business could be framed as a series of experts asking, "Who the hell wants to watch that?" When the answer is "more people than you think," the definition of profitable entertainment changes. And those people might converge by the hundreds on the Buena Vista resort, outside Orlando, Fla., to meet their YouTube heroes.
Playlist Live is a cross between a fan convention and an entertainment festival. This year, it took place over three days in late March, drawing more than 2,000 attendees who paid between $50 and $80 to get in. On a stage at one end of the hotel's sprawling ballroom, a rotating series of YouTubers sang, told jokes, showed clips or answered questions; elsewhere fans lined up for autographs, meet-and-greets and cellphone pictures with their favorite stars of the very small screen. A huge kiosk sold T-shirts featuring YouTuber-specific designs and logos.
Surveying the noisy scene, I heard a squeal from the corridor outside the ballroom and turned to see the people I was here to meet: Meghan Tonjes, a singer, and Mike Falzone, a fellow YouTube musician, had just been recognized by a few of their enthusiastic admirers.
Tonjes, 26, is another Next Up winner. In college, she wrote a paper about YouTube when it was a new phenomenon, speculating on "what it says about us as a culture that we put ourselves out there." Within a year, she was putting herself out there, making videos of herself in her bedroom singing and playing guitar (an instrument she took up at 19 and learned to play largely by watching instructional videos online).
And who the hell wants to watch that? Well, bedroom singers are an established genre on YouTube, and Tonjes was at Playlist to meet fans and perform. Before Next Up, she had one major star turn on "The Ellen DeGeneres Show" in January 2011. She built up audience support in other ways, like "Request Tuesdays," in which her viewers suggest songs she should cover. And she gets personal: in a recent video, "I Am Fat," she sassily rebukes the "trolls" who leave nasty comments about her weight. When I first spoke to Tonjes last October, she had used a chunk of her Next Up money to pay off student debt and bought a real camera and a better microphone. She had just arrived home from a monthlong tour.
Her video view count is far lower than, say, Bryan Odell's, but Tonjes didn't seem that concerned with making it big. She was living near Allentown, Pa., and YouTube just seemed to be one tool - along with selling her music through iTunes and BandCamp and using social media to promote shows - that allowed her to forgo a day job and be an entertainer. She and Falzone, who lives in Connecticut and whom she met via YouTube, had made their way in her car to Playlist, stopping to play in clubs and coffeehouses. This was her goal: Traveling, playing live shows with people she likes and supporting herself through "music and YouTube."
Playlist Live draws "fan boys and fan girls," says Kevin Khandjian, the chief information officer of AKT Enterprises, which runs the convention and sold about $2 million of YouTuber merchandise last year. Many are in their teens and accompanied by parents, and many are aspiring creators. The crowd I saw was diverse but mostly young and consistently sporting T-shirts for YouTube stars, or just for YouTube. Many attendees carried video devices, and plenty paced around, recording and narrating. (YouTube itself was represented with only a modest booth.)
Samantha Rider, a young woman from Sanford, Fla., bought her Playlist ticket months in advance. Until a year or so ago, Rider paid little attention to YouTube. "I thought it was people with cats," she said. But she stumbled on a Tonjes video during a difficult period in her life, and the connection was immediate. Rider sent Tonjes a long letter about what an inspiration she was - her voice, her poise, her frankness about weight, her confidence. "I was incredibly nervous to meet them," she says of Tonjes and Falzone.
Actually the stars at Playlist are almost aggressively accessible - more likely to give fans a hug than a "don't bug me" - but even second-tier YouTubers can inspire borderline burst-into-tears-level fandom. This is partly a byproduct of online interactivity and the homemade feeling of many YouTube productions. The way people physically experience these videos must matter, too. On a computer or other device, the image is 18 inches away, not across the room. Frequently a YouTuber addresses the camera directly. More often than not, the YouTube viewer watches alone, not in a group, and studies suggest we engage more deeply in that circumstance. It's possible to feel as if you're in on something new and special, no matter how many people may have watched before you.
Rider tells me she has only one friend who really "gets" YouTube. Everyone else she knows looks at the videos that interest her and says, "Why are you watching that?"
A few weeks after Playlist, YouTube gave a party for the advertising industry at the Beacon Theater in New York, featuring a performance by Jay Z. A new era had arrived, the gathering seemed to suggest, in which a slicker and glitzier YouTube, with what it called its "originals" strategy, ought to attract higher ad rates. The message seemed to be: The future of YouTube is mainstream celebrities.
Interestingly, about a third of the new channels that are part of YouTube's $100 million "originals" strategy were actually created by the production companies formed by born-on-the-platform YouTubers. Philip DeFranco, whose popular YouTube show delivers a witty, high-octane take on current events (punctuated with gratuitous discussion of sexy girls), is producing a show called "SourceFed," which racked up 100 million views in its first five months. "I think the channels that are going to thrive are the ones backed by YouTubers, or ones that partner with them," DeFranco told me. Outsiders fail to understand how demanding it is to cultivate an audience and maintain that sense of community. "I think we understand the space," DeFranco continued. "Being a 'tuber - it's a grind."
A few weeks later, DeFranco devoted several minutes on his YouTube channel to discuss the state of YouTube itself. The platform remains a unique vehicle for creative "awesomeness," he began. But he speculated that "the YouTube community" - the people who make and support born-on-the-platform content - may feel marginalized by YouTube's mainstream-focused evolution. "Smart YouTubers," himself included, have been adjusting to make sure they maintain their audiences. "But it hurts me," he continued, "to see a lot of these smaller YouTubers squirming" because they feel YouTube doesn't care about them. He wrapped up by addressing YouTubers directly: "There are many people in YouTube that know that you are the heart and soul of this Web site," he said. "It just seems like there's less and less of them every day."
With or without Hollywood, it's getting tougher to break through to YouTube stardom and become the next Phil DeFranco. The stringent partnership rules of the past have been dropped, and the number of wannabe YouTube stars chasing ad dollars has exploded. Perhaps inevitably, the weird originality gets harder to maintain as new aspirants try to replicate what is already popular. Young as it is, YouTube has already evolved its own genres. This niche-i-fication is reflected in the sequels to the Next Up program, which focus on categories - Next Chef, Next Comic, Next Vlogger. "YouTube is doubling down on content creation as a core feature of its site," Richard MacManus argued on ReadWriteWeb. "It is doing this across the whole spectrum of content creation: from amateur to professional, with a lot of gray in-between."
Whether YouTube sees grass-roots creators as "the heart and soul" of the platform, the company seems to recognize them as a secret weapon that no rival currently possesses. Aside from the hope that Next Up creates more bona fide stars, the real goal is to continue advancing the story of YouTube culture in general, says Tim Shey, the director of YouTube's Next Lab, a division devoted to making the most of what the platform gives birth to. "StrawBurry17's story, we hope, inspires 100 more people like her to get excited," he says. "And make videos."
Strawburry17 - that is, Meghan Camarena - was at Playlist to meet fans and sign autographs. The videos she and her friends were making for Teen.com started to run out; she mentioned plans to make a scripted Web series this summer, and to start a "clothing line," as well as Strawburry17 perfume and Chapstick. ("My merch sells really well," she told me.) She and her YouTuber roommate set up at a table, and a line formed. Sam McGillivray, a high-school student from London, Ontario, was there with her mother, Mary. "I like how she's trying new things," Sam explained somewhat bashfully of her admiration for Camarena. "And she's so nice."
Jimmy Wong had to cancel his Playlist plans because he landed a role in a movie called "Resident Adviser." Five months after its debut, "Feast of Fiction" had a respectable 50,000 subscribers and about two million total views for its 15 or so episodes. His viral hit "Ching Chong" now seemed less like a launching pad than an interesting one-off. "I almost feel wistful about my first couple of videos," he told me - the ones he made before he was thinking about audiences and revenue.
Easily the biggest viral-hit video to emerge from the Next Up crew was from Franchesca Ramsey, who had been making comic videos since about 2007 while she pursued acting and stand-up comedy and got a degree in graphic design from the Miami International Institute of Art and Design. She moved to New York, kept making videos and built up some decent numbers. In January, her parody response to another popular YouTube video - hers was titled "Stuff White Girls Say to Black Girls" (of course the real title had another word where I've substituted "stuff") - attracted millions of views and landed her on Anderson Cooper's afternoon talk show. "For a long time, I worked so hard, and I felt like no one was watching," she told me in April. "I wasn't getting the numbers that, you know, cat videos were getting." When we spoke, she was negotiating to host an online series, as well as pursuing more mainstream options, like a TV writing gig and developing a pitch for a network show.
In the months since I visited Bryan Odell, his audience grew steadily, and he posted a constant stream of new interviews and videos. In one, from January, he spoke directly into his webcam about complaints from some viewers that he'd been rude to a band. He seemed exasperated and exhausted by the 'tuber grind. "What you don't see," he said, is the time he spends researching, driving, waiting, editing. "I'm a person; I'm not a corporation. . . . I have feelings." Then he made an abrupt pivot: "I do this for you guys," he declared. "This is everything to me." When I spoke to him in April, he had rebounded. He was looking for ways to push his "formula" further, perhaps interviewing unsigned bands, being a champion to the underdogs. "I want my viewers to relate to me," he explained, as he rattled off his latest stats. "And to see that I fight my way through it."
For all these YouTubers - and for YouTube - the future is about the fans. A few days after Playlist, Samantha Rider told me that finally getting to see Meghan Tonjes live was a highly emotional and deeply gratifying experience. Tonjes's performance made her cry. When it was over, she found Tonjes and gave her a hug. "I'm actually pretty sure I'm going to find a way to start making videos now," Rider told me. "I really want more of that community in my life."
Rob Walker is a contributing writer. His last article for the magazine was about Kinect.
©2012 The New Yotk Times News Service