Unless you were living off the grid in the summer of 2007, you likely marveled for a moment or two at the unadulterated weirdness that is Tay Zonday. Back then, he was just Adam Bahner, a graduate student in American studies at the University of Minnesota. But a music video he had uploaded to YouTube months before suddenly experienced a burst of renown. His “Chocolate Rain” quickly racked up 4 million views. In short order, John Mayer covered the song and there was a Darth Vader version, a parody called “Vanilla Snow,” and a profusion of other send-ups. Soon he was invited onto Jimmy Kimmel(twice) and featured on Opie & Anthony,right after a segment about whale sperm. “I inadvertently became an icon of viral video success,” Zonday says.
Face-to-face, he comes across a bit like a facsimile of a person, as if a robot or alien has not quite nailed its impersonation of a human being—the eyes excessively round and unblinking, the neck and shoulders too stiff, a grin as broad as the Cheshire cat’s. And then there’s the impossible voice, the Paul Robeson bass emerging from the Emmanuel Lewis face, which Zonday uses to say things like: “Mutatis mutandis, look at Nielsen ratings, a lot of these top YouTubers are getting results that are numerically higher than television and movies.” He’s well aware of his oddities, what he calls his “distinct brand.” But where Hollywood is “eugenic” in its relentless pursuit of a specific type or look, Zonday says, YouTube allows unique artists to find their audience.
Until now, the trajectory of viral stardom has generally involved a spike of fame followed by a plunge into near-total anonymity. And from one perspective, Zonday fits that pattern: You haven’t seen him onKimmel lately, after all. But under the radar, he has figured out how to make his semi-celebrity pay, earning more money each successive year from the scores of videos he continues to post on YouTube. Like many of the other 20,000 content creators who have been invited to join the site’s Partner Program, he has essentially become a full-time YouTuber, a Google company man. Although partners are contractually prohibited from revealing how much they earn from the ads running on their YouTube channels, independent estimates put Zonday’s take at between $24,000 and $72,000 a year, based on a Google ad rate of $1 to $3 per thousand views (his videos are seen roughly 2 million times a month). And beyond that, Zonday says, he is able to match what he receives from Google by promoting products in his videos and by uploading advertisements himself, a capability enabled in 2009. Without anyone noticing, so-called “Internet fame” has started adding up to real money.
Perhaps inevitably, the nucleus of YouTube fame-seekers has migrated to Los Angeles. Hundreds of top-tier partners have left high-speed Internet connections in hometowns everywhere and settled here, on the periphery of the traditional entertainment industry. But for these viral stars, many of whom already pull in six figures a year from their channels, this move isn’t about getting their faces seen by studio heads or their voices heard by A&R reps. Instead, they come to work with one another. They room together, appear in one another’s videos, lend each other equipment and skills: camera work for special effects, say, or video editing for a song. Several have pooled resources to create mini networks, and an ancillary advertising business has materialized whereby YouTube luminaries are matched with companies scrambling to reach a young audience and build a presence online.
Zonday himself now lives in the Hollywood Hills, in a 700-square-foot bungalow that’s nearly empty but for the converted bedroom crammed with tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of electric keyboards, computers, video cameras, and sound recording equipment. (With the higher-end gear, he no longer has to “move away from the mic to breathe in.”) He collaborates as much as possible with neighboring YouTubers, appearing in a Katy Perry parody with Shane Dawson—a 23-year-old whose comedy channel has 2.9 million subscribers—in an ensemble episode of JoeNationTV’s “YouTube Assassin.” Because he can’t write and record songs fast enough, Zonday has created a second channel on YouTube for casual videoblogging. It started awkwardly, with some pontificating about public restrooms and farting barbers, but now he’s settled into a steadier rhythm, taking viewer requests to put his basso profondo to use reading Miley Cyrus tweets or the ingredients on a box of Corn Flakes.
Most people move to Hollywood with the hope of making it big, but Zonday is helping show the way to something strange and new: making it small. He says he does recognize that (borrowing a line from Chris Rock) “you aren’t really famous until someone’s mama knows who you are.” But a narrow, lucrative fame is the path that has opened up for him and for the thousands of others like him. After going viral, they’ve figured out how—against all expectation—to stay viral.
The most dramatic place to witness this digital fame machine in action is in Culver City, a mile from the ocean, at the offices of Maker Studios. An independent media company led by several prominent YouTubers, Maker oversees a large stable of partner channels. Starting out two and a half years ago with a handful of content creators and three or four people working production, the studio has since swelled to more than 200 partners and a full-time support staff of 140, with plans to ramp up to 1,000 partners in the next few months. Their offices sprawl into several buildings, as well as to two nearby rented apartments where staff and talent live and work. Maker is on the lookout for 50,000 square feet elsewhere—understandably so, since it’s hard to move about the current space without having to sidestep someone lugging equipment or rushing to a set.
Maker’s business model is simple. It takes a cut of the partners’ share of ad revenue; in exchange, it provides emerging talents with directors, editors, extras, costumes, technical support, studio space, equipment, and help with websites and brand deals. Maker’s founders see this model as comparable to United Artists, the revolutionary studio formed in 1919 by D. W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin, and other budding stars who wanted to control their work and its distribution. And visiting the Maker offices, you feel the same sort of anarchic energy that defined Hollywood during that wild, pre-corporate era. In what was once a piano store, executive producer Nikki Fancy, an intern just two years ago, describes the “pod” of nine channels and eight to 10 weekly videos she oversees. One building over, a few dozen people stare into computers, working on postproduction and web management. A woman there posts celebrity news items to the website of Ray William Johnson, Maker’s and YouTube’s biggest star—his videos have been viewed 1.3 billion times and counting. While I interview Maker’s three founders in a makeshift conference room, we overhear repeated cries of “Fuck! Fuck!” through the thin walls. The profaner, I find in the studio next door, is a pasty-skinned man in green tights brandishing a sword and shield. He is portraying a Legend of Zelda character, shooting a video for one of Maker’s gaming channels. The director asks for another take, and the actor raises his sword in readiness.
One of the founders, Lisa Donovan—LisaNova on her channel—is also one of the few early YouTubers to have crossed over (briefly) into traditional entertainment, joining MADtv as a featured player in 2007. After her YouTube experiences, though, she found the process maddeningly inefficient: 30 people would work over a single sketch, with a producer approving every small change. So she left the offline talent mill and launched Maker with her brother, Ben, who had been helping to write her skits, and her boyfriend, Danny Zappin, a director and producer.
YouTube is the anti-Hollywood, the anti-TV, Zappin declares, because there are no decisions by committee, no casting calls, no gatekeepers to pass just to get started. Distribution is global, instantaneous, and free, and shows can’t be canceled. He emphasizes that it isn’t just partners benefiting from the new entertainment industry that Maker is helping to build. YouTube is bringing about a creative renaissance that is also cultivating talented directors and editors and techs who are struggling to find work in Los Angeles.
Will all of these people get rich on YouTube? Not a chance. But unlike previous waves of aspirants hitting LA’s shores, Zappin insists, they aren’t wasting their time waiting tables or watching someone’s kids. They’re working on their craft, doing what they love, and making some decent money in the bargain. In an economy without much opportunity, they’re trying to join an uncharted and expanding demographic: the YouTube middle class.
As inviting as it sounds, a billion YouTube accounts still earn zilch. With an astounding 48 hours of video now uploaded to YouTube every single minute, and with real money at stake, the barrier to entry has risen significantly. The days of happy accidents like “Chocolate Rain” are largely over. To get noticed today, you need to understand the inner workings of this competitive market; that is, you need to know the YouTube rules. These can be broken down into five maxims, and all around greater LA you can find YouTube partners who are busily putting them into practice.
Make a lot of content. A lot.
“By making a ton of videos, I plant a forest that I can harvest forever,” says Corey Vidal, a Toronto YouTuber who travels to Los Angeles every other month or so to work with his peers. Vidal established his YouTube following with a song about Star Wars set to John Williams’ instrumental score, and he points out that each of his more than 200 videos is seen thousands of times daily by the website’s global audience. Every YouTuber says it’s vital to post on a set schedule, and YouTube itself encourages creators to turn their viral videos into viral series, something episodic—a distinctly branded show with story lines, recurring characters, and a TV-like feel. Evidence shows that viewers of these series not only tune in more often but are also more likely to watch the high-paying skippable ads.
One of the most successfully prolific YouTubers is Shay Butler, who each week posts (as Shaycarl) a short action-adventure-fantasy video studded with hilariously low-budget special effects. On his second channel, he uploads a video a day, mostly by turning the camera on his life with his wife and four children—first as they lived in Idaho and now in LA. The Shaytards, as these videos are known, often run for 15 or 20 minutes—an eternity in YouTube time—and each is watched tens or hundreds of thousands of times, the ensuing comments often numbering 10,000 and more. At Maker, I sit down with Butler and KassemG, another prominent YouTube partner. A guileless and charming everyman, in the mold of a Kevin James, Butler wears mirrored sunglasses perched atop a backward baseball cap and sports a plunging beard that hangs down like a bib. Because of the intimacy of his videos, his fans are especially loyal, if not rabid.
“If my mom tells me on camera that I’m looking a little fat,” Butler says, “my fans will be like, ‘Shut up, bitch,’ in the comments. I mean, come on, guys. That’s my mom!”
“His mom is a huge bitch, though,” KassemG interjects.
Before he created the 16th-most-subscribed channel on YouTube, with 1.8 million fans, Kassem Gharaibeh was working at Best Buy in Thousand Oaks and struggling as a stand-up comic, performing at Chinese restaurants where the three customers were annoyed that someone was interrupting their meal. In the past couple of years, though, he has uploaded 350 videos. His “AsKassem” series has him riffing off of fans’ sexually sophomoric questions. In a recurring show called “Going Deep,” he interviews porn stars with the pomposity of James Lipton on Inside the Actors Studio. Before the first episode, he reached out to a hundred porn actresses before one finally agreed to appear in a YouTube show. That video has received 4 million views. Now porn stars and their managers proposition him—Ron Jeremy did a recent episode. “They’re banging down our door,” Gharaibeh says, mugging into an imagined camera for an extra beat.
Target a niche.
Before the 2010 launch of freddiew, a YouTube channel of live-action first-person-shooter videos that reached a million subscribers in the shortest time ever, Freddie Wong and Brandon Laatsch determined that they needed to identify an underserved niche. Wong and Laatsch run the channel together, and I meet them, along with Wong’s 24-year-old younger brother, Jimmy, at their warehouse workspace just east of downtown LA. When I arrive, three employees—guys who moved to Los Angeles to follow their own YouTube dreams—are riding a zip line from a second-floor landing down past a bank of computers and all the way across the room. They slip on black gloves and arm themselves with replica handguns and assault rifles, kneeling behind computer boxes as they take aim at enemy targets only they can see.
Wong and Laatsch love playing videogames, they tell me, and when they looked on YouTube they saw that videos of people acting out the gaming experience all had poorly produced special effects and badly choreographed stunts. They knew they could do better. Laatsch says, “We asked, are there are a lot of people on the Internet with tastes similar to ours?” The two often finish one another’s sentences, and Wong adds, “Yeah, male and nerdy.”
But before going after that niche, Laatsch spent two years studying every YouTube video that had found a substantial audience, watching hours of lonelygirl15, Smosh, Fred, AtheneWins, and Shane Dawson. He and Wong figured there was a pattern to viral success, and they could deduce and replicate it. Laatsch says the secret to a YouTube hit for them turned out to be getting the delicate balance of comedy and spectacle just right. They would create action comedy. “You meet expectations and then constantly exceed them,” Wong chimes in. They now have 2.5 million subscribers on their main channel and 450 million total video views. “We knew from our research that viewership would eventually snowball,” Laatsch says.
Jimmy Wong, the younger brother, engineered his own YouTube hit. After a busty, blond UCLA student ranted on YouTube about the “hordes of Asians” that didn’t use “American manners” in the library, Jimmy responded with “Ching Chong! Asians in the Library Song,” in which he reveals to the coed the hidden messages in his chattering—”Ching Chong [It means I love you] / Ling Long [I really want you].” Jimmy appealed to what he calls a “politically conscious comic-music niche,” as well as to pissed-off Asians. He says he was also one of the first and the best to react to a trend, thus jumping in front of its search traffic. “Every train needs a caboose, and that’s Jimmy Wong,” Laatsch teases. More like a sidecar, Jimmy corrects. Plus, he insists that he’s done the same cool stuff as his brother and Laatsch. “As soon as I bust into song,” he says, “I create two things simultaneously: one, the surprise that this meek Asian guy is singing, and, two, that the voice doesn’t match the face. That exceeds expectation. It’s partly comedic and partly spectacle.” It was a deliberate and distinctly Asian take on what worked in “Chocolate Rain.” Jimmy says, “I consciously planned what Tay accidentally did.”
Connect with your fans.
It’s a truism that the Internet is about conversation, but the daily life of Olga Kay shows just how consuming it can be in practice. An effervescent former Russian circus performer, Kay now lives in the San Fernando Valley with two other YouTube partners, Joe Nation and Jessica Lizama, both of whom appear often in her videos. She runs five different YouTube channels, the first of which she started in 2006. Kay calls her followers the Moosh Army, after her cat, Mushka—a suggestion from one of the hundreds of logged-in fans who watched the live webcam shows she used to do two or three times a week. At the end of every skit, she speaks to her Moosh Army directly, offering advice as well as prizes and displaying pencil and ink drawings viewers have sent her.
Kay always closes by asking some sort of question (“Do you feel embarrassed to dance in public?”) and by prompting viewers to leave a comment or a video response. (Also, of course, she asks them to subscribe if they haven’t already.) On her second channel, she speaks to the audience as herself, seemingly without a filter, as the camera shows Kay moving about her house or hanging with friends. On her iPhone channel, she appears three to five times a week solely to offer advice. Her cat channel, meanwhile, has been on hiatus, but she plans soon to have Mushka teach one Russian word a day.
When I meet Kay in Beverly Hills, she is preparing to shoot a show, a weekly rundown of the best of YouTube, for the website of Relativity Media. She tells me she is halfway through the Herculean task of sending a personal note to all 450,000 people who have subscribed to her channels. She can do 250 an hour, as many as 3,000 in a week. The audience engagement isn’t just virtual either. Kay has traveled around the US and to Canada for meet-and-greets with fans. Dave Days, a young musician with 1.6 million subscribers, sometimes tweets where and when he’ll be shooting a video, and people come out to appear as extras. In fall 2010, Wong and Laatsch rented an RV for 30 days, driving 10,000 miles to personally interact with their fans across the country.
Collaboration is where the Maker Studios model really pays off. An established star features an unknown in a video, sending legions of devoted followers to check out this unfamiliar talent. The newbie still needs skill and pluck to retain the audience, but they’ve already cleared the imposing threshold of discovery. One recent beneficiary of this phenomenon is Pete Shukoff, who was a struggling singer in Chicago for nine years, at times living out of his car, before he answered a craigslist ad that Maker had placed seeking a part-time songwriter. He did some funny improv street singing on KassemG’s channel and had a song featured in a Shaycarl video. Now, as Nice Peter, he has one of the most subscribed channels on YouTube. His best-known videos are the seductively forwardable “Epic Rap Battles of History,” a collection of lyrical donnybrooks that pit the likes of Hitler against Darth Vader, or Einstein against Stephen Hawking. (Einstein: “When I apply my battle theory, minds are relatively blown. So take a seat, Steve. Oop, I see you brought your own.”)
Even for top partners, collaborations are essential, not only to cross-promote but to feed the constant demand for content. I got to witness two other leading YouTubers team up at the West Hollywood studio of Joe Penna, otherwise known as MysteryGuitarMan, whose first viral hit, in 2009, was a stop-motion short of him in signature sunglasses and emergent beard strumming a couple of chords, the images cascading, the sound looped to form a fully orchestrated piece of music. Penna puts out a new clip every Tuesday and Thursday, each one viewed around a million times. At his studio, a list of ideas for upcoming shows is scrawled on a dry-erase board: “Booty Bounce Office Walk,” “1 Finger Symphony,” “Beat Box Alberto.” Today his guest is DeStorm Power, a recent transplant from Brooklyn who himself uploads multiple videos a week to his 1.1 million subscribers. Power is a lyric-writing savant, never committing anything to paper. On his channel, he regularly performs songs in response to challenges posed by his fans—do an anagram rap, say, or a song about how to solve the Rubik’s Cube.
Power sits at a computer and opens a file of a beat he has created for the musical challenge he and Penna are going to tackle together—a song about the comments posted by their viewers, thousands of which will flash on screen during the video. They will each show a slightly different version of the video on their respective channels, prompting fans to check out the other take. Penna will handle the actual production of the video. Power takes on the lyrics. He sings a few lines, filling in gaps with placeholder phrases to get the rhythm right. He makes a second pass through, fleshing it out, and then settles into the hook. “All these haters call me fake, they call me lame. / These comments get stuck up in my brain,” he begins to rap. Penna grabs his guitar and plays along.
Optimize for the algorithms.
Last summer, YouTube ran a six-week Creator Institute at USC, inviting 10 novices judged to have impressive partner potential. On the day I sit in, Margaret Healy—employee 81 at Google and now a manager of the Partner Program—has flown in from San Francisco to conduct a tutorial on how to build an audience and maximize earnings. “Success depends on how hard you work and how you work the platform,” she explains to the group. Healy shows them a way to assess the effectiveness of their content, displaying a chart of “attention scores” that YouTube makes available to all partners for tracking exactly when viewers stop watching their videos. She encourages them not only to respond to fans but also to reach out to bloggers and journalists who link to their clips.
One of Healy’s main themes is the importance of optimizing for YouTube search: the benefits that come from tagging, titling, explaining, and annotating videos with as many specific and general descriptors as possible. By adding this metadata, she says, creators’ work will appear more readily in search results, and more ads will reach their videos. To inject a bit of fun into this math lesson, Healy’s PowerPoint presentation turns the search algorithms into a character with a human name. “Text is food for Al,” Healy says, as “Al”—an animated robot with a boom-box head—appears on the screen. “Al can’t watch a video. Al can read the words around your video.”
Since this is USC, the program isn’t all about search engine optimization and brand-building; it’s also about filmmaking. Pablo Frasconi, the professor in charge of the summer curriculum, says it’s important to think of YouTube as part of a long arc of cinematic democratization. He cites the Super 8 explosion of the ’60s, the improvisational style of Jean-Luc Godard, the neglected American master Monte Hellman. Some of the guest speakers USC brings in for the Creator Institute are decidedly mass-market entertainers, like the director McG (Charlie’s Angels, Terminator Salvation) and Avatar producer Jon Landau, who tells his audience that YouTube videos could launch movie careers just as music videos gave a start to directors like David Fincher.
Nevertheless, Kaitlyn Pendleton, a senior at William and Mary, says the institute has convinced her that YouTube is her future. In front of USC’s Douglas Fairbanks Fountain, she grants that she has just 40 subscribers to her sketch-comedy channel, but she is raring to build on that. “New media is about to erupt,” she says, “and I’m going to ride the eruption.”
YouTube believes we are poised at another transitional moment in the history of broadcast. Its service, as the company sees it, will provide a nearly limitless number of personalities to speak to any audience, to reach every niche. Cable television took us from a few channels to a few hundred, but the selection offered by YouTube will be in the hundreds of thousands or millions. YouTube’s challenge now is to convert its audience of casual users—27 million unique visitors every day—into real, devoted fans. When I visit YouTube headquarters, the executives there are excited about a three-person-wide slide that’s being built from the third floor down to the second and about gnomes that have been surreptitiously placed in clusters throughout the building, each accompanied by a printed-out pun (“Oh gnome you didn’t!”). They are also eager to present their vision of a future in which YouTube is viewed on all devices, all the time.
This future will begin with a new look: what the company calls “lean back,” a site design that has been fashioned for streaming to a television. Actually leaning back on a couch beside a Chuck Norris poster is Shiva Rajaraman, the engineer in charge of the site’s redesign, who shows me a continuously running set of ogre cartoons on a large flat-panel television. Basic website functions—Like, Dislike, Subscribe—can be accessed with the remote control. YouTube may already rival cable in terms of total audience size, with nearly as many people watching Maker Studio’s videos each day as tune into ESPN. But YouTube viewers spend on average just 15 minutes a day on the site, compared to the five hours daily that people watch television. Part of the reason for that is formatting. YouTube’s current design encourages its viewers to watch a video, and when it ends they must actively choose to watch another, or the session is over.
To remedy this problem, YouTube needs to replicate some of the passivity of TV-watching, with its long, lucrative viewing sessions. On the Test Tube section of its website, you can already opt for a new layout where content is presented as an uninterrupted playlist of related videos. Go to MysteryGuitarMan’s channel, for example, and you can choose between sets of all his looping videos or stop-motion clips. Type in “James Brown” and you get a 20-video package starting with the Godfather of Soul performing “It’s a Man’s World” with Luciano Pavarotti.
YouTube is also refining the algorithms that match its video suggestions to your taste, by adding in your viewing and subscription history, how long you watch, what you tagged in the past, who your friends are, and which of their recommendations you click on. Someone watching “Great Depression Cooking” on YouTube, I am told, should be led to episodes of “My Drunk Kitchen,” in which the host drinks a couple of bottles of wine and fails miserably and comically in her culinary efforts. Or a video of James Brown dancing in 1964 might eventually lead you to a surprisingly large stock of “tutting” videos, a dance that involves bodies contorting to look like hieroglyphs. “Our goal is not just to increase the amount of time you’re watching but also to broaden the interests you have,” says Cristos Goodrow, an engineering director. “We’ve got to incorporate that into the algorithms, otherwise you’ll never get to tutting.”
And better matching isn’t the only improvement. In late October, YouTube announced that a hundred celebrities and media companies had signed deals to launch premium channels on the site. As these channels roll out over the next year, each will produce a few hours of original, often regularly scheduled content every week. The programming will have more of a cable feel, even as YouTube goes way more niche than cable ever could. There will be Deepak Chopra’s “The Chopra Well,” Madonna’s “DanceOn,” Shaquille O’Neal’s “The Comedy Shaq Network,” and more. Maker Studios will offer three premium channels—one for Hispanic viewers, another geared to mothers, and a third dedicated to musical content. Dozens of other top partners are involved as well, including Michelle Phan, Phil DeFranco, Ryan Higa, and the Vlogbrothers. Also, YouTube plans to enlist more partners as curators of a different kind: They’ll put together playlists of videos they like, send their vast audiences to check them out, and get paid for the resulting views. “If I have 10 channels on YouTube that reflect niches I’m passionate about,” Rajaraman says, “and they’re constantly updated and increasingly curated by people I trust, then I know I’m not going to waste time. Every curator will be a new television channel in a living room.”
It’s a truly peer-to-peer vision for TV, a future in which individual creators cultivate their own audience and are compensated for it. Many partners actually feel a bit spooked by their outrageously good fortune, wondering whether YouTube is a bubble that might burst. A year or two or three ago they were posting videos for fun, just fooling around on the computer, and now Google is sending them checks that cover the grocery bills, the rent, and in some cases much more. So they build out their brands, ensuring that their real capital, their fans, will still be able to find them elsewhere if the site somehow falls apart. “YouTube provides a service,” Brandon Laatsch says. “That service is the uploading and distributing of video, and for a select few the monetization of it. Any one site might go away overnight—but the service won’t.”
More important, what won’t go away is this demand for an unmediated connection with performers. YouTube might host Tay Zonday’s channels, but there’s no question about who the fans are coming to see. In this micro-fragmented entertainment world, it’s faces and voices like his—jarringly oddball but ultimately likable and utterly unique—that become brands. At Zonday’s house in the Hollywood Hills, he shows me a preview of a video he plans to upload later in the week. It’s an original song called “This Is You.” As the clip begins, disco lights set up around us start to flash blue, red, and white, activated by the pulsating club beat. “Don’t ever let the world forget that this is you,” he sings onscreen, dancing jerkily in his shower, then in his bedroom studio, and, finally, atop a nearby bluff overlooking Los Angeles, his arms raised in dominion.
Ben Austen (email@example.com) is a contributing editor at Harper’s Magazine. He wrote about caricatures in issue 19.08.