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

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.