Some of the most popular entertainers in the world create their work with little more than a laptop and a webcam — and many do so without ever leaving their bedrooms.
No, not amateur porn stars — YouTubers, those DIY entertainers who create all manner of videos for YouTube, including make-up tutorials, social commentaries, travel diaries, and narrated game-play.
While a certain ilk of viewer might scoff at YouTubers being lumped in with entertainers who have the backing of major studios and broadcasters, the fact remains that YouTubers are an increasingly influential force, especially among millennials.
The three YouTubers with the most subscribers account for more than 27 billion views: controversial gamer PewDiePie has garnered 17,765,087,403; comedian and musician Germán Garmendia has logged 3,492,585,815; and another gamer, ElRubiusOMG, has 6,565,312,000 views, and counting.
In 2016, investment bank Piper Jaffrey released its annual survey of 10,000 teens and showed that, for the first time since YouTube’s launch in 2005, youth were consuming more YouTube than cable on a daily basis.
For top YouTubers, popularity can translate into an income derived from a combination of ad revenue, branded merchandise, sponsorships, live tours, and book deals (kid-friendly gamer DanTDM is estimated to earn $16.5 million USD per year; Toronto-based YouTuber Lilly “Superwoman” Singh parlayed her superstar status into a sold-out live tour, a documentary and a bestselling book, 2017’s How to be a Bawse: A Guide to Conquering Life — all from a YouTube channel that began in a bedroom in her parents’ suburban home).
YouTubers are influential, which is fine when you’re talking about kid-friendly YouTubers such as DanTDM and Singh, but it becomes problematic when content creators actively court controversy to attract young viewers.
Consider Logan Paul, the fastest Youtuber in history to cross the 10 million subscriber milestone, who earlier this year visited Japan’s “suicide forest,” Aokigahara, and posted footage of a man who had died by suicide.
Closer to home, there’s the still-developing story of Lil Tay, an aggressive, foul-mouthed nine-year-old whose videos find her spewing obscenities, flashing wads of cash and purporting to live like a Kardashian in the Hollywood Hills, but who — according to a flurry of recent media reports — is actually the daughter of Vancouver real estate agent Angela Tian. Lil Tay’s reach? 165,000 subscribers and more than 4.5 million views.
And even when they’re popular and producing positive content, YouTubers must contend with misconceptions about their work, according to Miri Lee, the Vancouver-based YouTuber behind Sylphilharmonic. Lee’s channel has garnered more than 54 million views and 326,000 subscribers.
More than 1,000 people launch YouTube channels every day, but few are able to stay the course because making and posting videos on a regular basis is more difficult than they believed it would be, says Lee.
“You can lose your motivation,” notes Lee. “I see YouTubers come and go. They’re passionate at some point, and then their passion fizzles down and they don’t do anything for a year, and then they come back and they post a lot. There’s a cycle, and it’s sometimes hard to overcome the cycle.
“They should love what they do,” adds Lee. “They have to be crazy about it, or otherwise don’t even go there.”
Lee is an award-winning concert pianist. Her channel — which she launched in 2007 and populated with classical music performance videos in order to promote her wedding business — kicked into high gear in 2011 when she began posting videos wherein she performed her own interpretations of Top 40 hits.
Lee’s fans are located all over the world. Her most popular videos have logged more than one million views apiece.
Says Lee: “Some classically trained musicians look down on pop songs and have asked me why I’m doing it, and they’ll say it’s a waste of time, but I see them later trying to do what I do, and they’ll ask me, ‘Why is it so hard to get viewers?’”
Lee considers her YouTube channel a passion project as opposed to a career (the latter of which she uses to describe her work as an accompanist, teacher, and performer). “I love it when people say, ‘This video really made me feel something,’” says Lee. “Even if I touch just one person and they say, ‘Your video inspired me to pursue piano,’ or, ‘Your video has inspired me to continue with my lessons,’ that’s when I feel most appreciated.”