YouTubers: Who makes it, who doesn’t and is it worth it?

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It’s 10 a.m. on Jan. 2 in Brewer, Maine. The temperature hasn’t yet reached 25 degrees but Craig Haywood, a Skowhegan resident is out walking a two-mile stretch while being followed by a police car. Though he has his own vehicle, he won’t drive it lest the police record his license plate number.

Across the country in Los Angeles, Andrew Hales is preparing for an interview with a laughter coach. He spends about five to ten hours per week on his main source of revenue and spends the rest of his time helping his friends launch their own careers.

In Utah, Jenny Oaks Baker has been awake for hours, cooking breakfast, practicing her violin, spending time with her kids, and planning her next video performance. In Sandy, Dave Roberts is working on his media company, CVX Live while his wife runs her own business and they care for their kids together. 

Though each of these people’s lives are vastly different, they have one thing in common. They are all Youtubers.

Haywood calls himself a first-amendment auditor, a new online trend that involves impromptu video interviews with city officials in order to gauge compliance with First Amendment rights. Haywood most frequently evaluates the freedom of speech, and the right to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

On Jan. 2, Haywood had videotaped a confrontation between the manager of Brewer City Hall and two police officers who he refused to give his name to. In order to film the rest of his video where he filed a complaint, Haywood walked two miles across town to the Brewer Police Department.

“I was told to leave the property at the town office in Brewer. I went to the police station to explain that they were going against my rights,” Haywood said. “If I could find a lawyer, I could potentially sue the town for a lot of money, but I’m not that kind of guy. I don’t really care about that stuff, I just want to them to understand.”

Haywood repeatedly assured the police officers that he had violated no laws, and therefore was not required to give the officers his name. Haywood was eventually let off with a warning.

“My viewers went absolutely crazy,” Haywood said. “I had viewers post information in the comments for the town including personal cellphone numbers. The Brewer Police Department and the town office had to shut down their Facebook pages because so many people were leaving comments.”

The two videos Haywood posted on his channel following the confrontation each received over 20,000 views, which is equal to double the population of the city of Brewer.

Haywood has 4,000 subscribers for his First Amendment auditing channel and though he has had the account for less than a year, he said he has already made over $1,500 from ad revenue. Even when he doesn’t post a video, he can make up to $50 a month from his previous videos, which isn’t bad for a side gig.

Haywood believes anyone who wants to do First Amendment audits would probably see the same kind of success because the community is so supportive. The barrier, however, is that pursuing confrontation is way outside of most people’s comfort zones.

“The outcome of the video is purely determined by the person that I am in front of,” he said. “It has nothing to do with me; I just go and record the situation. I’m critiqued as much as the person in front of me on Youtube.”

According to Haywood, there is a certain unspoken rule of being a First Amendment auditor.

“You’re not ever to give up your ID. You’re to be thrown to the ground at all costs if your rights are being violated and then go and sue.”

While there are many things that Haywood’s viewers expect from his videos, the most common is some sort of confrontation. Haywood admits that on occasion he has purposely recorded in areas with “No Recording” signs because he knew he would be confronted, but he believed that sign was a violation of his rights.

“There are different types of auditors,” Haywood said. “There are the of people who go through the building and put the camera in peoples faces and they are very rude. I don’t like to do that and that’s probably why I’m not as successful, but I don’t care. In my opinion, I record people only if they say something to me.”

Those some may view Craig’s actions as provocative, to him, it’s about preserving the rights of the people, not necessarily making money.

“I think it helps government officials to understand the power of a community is not to be trifled with. The American people have rights, and you cannot stomp on those rights,” he said.

While Haywood quickly saw success with his First Amendment auditing channel, he had an unsuccessful gaming channel for eight years before he changed his brand and saw success.

A popular misconception about Youtube is that once you hit it, you hit it big. A website called Social Blade disproves this theory. Social Blade is dedicated to making viewership, subscribers and monetization of Youtube partners publicly accessible.

While it’s true that top earners can make millions in ad revenue each year, according to Social Blade, there are currently over 27.7 million Youtube creators. Of those creators, only a handful make money in the five-digit range. According to research conducted by Mathias Bärtl, the top 3% of YouTubers get 90% of the traffic and not everyone in that 3% is making more than five figures.

Though the odds are clearly stacked against those trying to make a living off of Youtube, that doesn’t stop people from dreaming about quitting their jobs in order to make millions as a vlogger. For those brave enough to try, Haywood offers advice based on his experience.

“Don’t treat it like a hobby; treat it like a business,” he said. “You need a brand.”

Haywood said he got lucky because he got into something that already had a huge following.

“I had the drive and the determination and the courage to go out and do it … and it’s very hard to do. People think if they upload a video to Youtube, they’re magically going to get subscribers and views. That wasn’t the case with me, I just got lucky with a few videos.”

Andrew Hales, a Youtuber also known as LAHWF had a very different experience. Hales has seen continuous Youtube success since he began his prank channel in 2012, and to him, success is 50% luck, and 50% hard work.

“There is a lot of luck involved,” he said. “With pranks in 2012, they were just getting big and no one was sick of them yet. It was like a wave and now it’s over. I was in that wave and it jumpstarted my channel.”

Hales grew up messing around with a video camera with his friends, but he always intended to become an entrepreneur. He was busy running his own rapidly expanding Hawaiian ice cart company when his first video took off on Youtube.

The video was called “Almost picking up chicks,” and featured Hales approaching girls on campus at UVU, and then promptly walking away after almost asking them out. Though in real life, Hales doesn’t like to approach strangers in public, he knew it would make his videos popular.

He was right, and that video received almost two million views after a local news channel picked it up. After he gained hundreds of thousands of followers, the channel became Hales’ full-time job and has remained that way for the last seven years.

“Having a natural eye for what is entertaining and what you would want to see is important,” he said. “I am naturally pretty introverted but I exaggerated that personality in the prank videos. In real life, sure I’m a little eccentric, but I hardly ever just approach strangers in public; that’s just not me.”

Though Hales has seen success in regard to how many views and subscribers he has, he personally defines success as making content he is proud of, not being in debt, and making money among other things. To Hales, his Youtube channel is kind of like his baby.

“It’s been my life,” he said. “The channel is almost like a timeline of my life for the last seven years. When I look back at some of my older videos I cringe because I was such a punk sometimes.”

Hales has recently changed his brand for his channel because as he said, “I’m just getting old.”

While Hales isn’t even 30 yet, he wanted to do something that really mattered.

“I want to stay young and keep a young spirit but I don’t want to be this old grandpa guy on Youtube. I can’t be doing pranks my whole life,” he said. “I got really sick and tired of bothering people and pranking people in public. I’m much happier now.”

His newer videos focus on conversations with the sort of people you don’t meet every day. From a laughter coach to a ketamine user, Hales brings the experts on the odd and interesting directly to his viewers.

Though Hales’s videos have millions of views, he doesn’t feel that the fame of his channel gets in the way of him living his life.

“I’m not famous famous,” he said. “But sometimes clout-chasers will date me for a little while because they want to do Youtube too, so that’s kinda frustrating.”

Hales said when he feels like his channel is taking up too much of his time he can “pull in the reigns and cool down and take a break to control your level of fame.”

He said sometimes that makes it difficult for him to progress in his career. While he is now focusing on Youtube, Hales hopes to get involved in producing films someday.

While Hales rarely has issues with being recognized in public, Dave Roberts from Bored Shorts TV can’t even take his kids to get pizza without being recognized and approached by his fans.

“My wife is pretty over it,” he said.

Best known for his “Kid History” and “Kid Snippets” videos, Roberts is unique in that he never intended to create a Youtube channel before his videos became famous. The first Kid History video was actually an entry for a film festival that Robert and his brothers created with friend of the family, Richard Shara. Youtube was just the platform they used to upload it.

“We released it and by the weekend it had a ton of views. Before it was released, the judges had actually seen the video online and they won that thing by a landslide.”

The reception was so positive that fans were asking for Bored Shorts TV to make more videos. Before they knew it the channel was thriving and each video started to bring in significant amounts of money. Each of the creators of Bored Shorts TV has their own full-time job, so none of them work on the channel full-time, and at the beginning, it was a struggle to keep pumping out content.

“It took all of us including a film crew, location, costuming, editing of the kids, it was nonsensical, which is why we only had eleven or twelve releases of Kid History,” Roberts said.

Once the channel changed the format to weekly two to three-minute videos, they saw a huge jump in subscribers, and according to Roberts, they were approached by countless TV stations that wanted to collaborate, a project Bored Shorts is still considering.

“It kind of just blew up, and we all kind of looked at each other like, ‘Where do we take this?’ What really made us successful was keeping our recipe for funny consistent.”

Roberts had so many stories from their childhood, but they realized kids tell them in a better fashion.

“We had the kids tell stories and they would obviously make up whatever version of it that they imagined, and that made it funnier.”

“When we blew up, we had a lot of friends in the Youtube community come together and said, ‘Man we need to share what we know on a larger platform.'”

The Roberts crew partnered with a few other Youtube channels that they were close with and went from there. For six years they have run an online training program called Creative Viewer Experience, CVX Live for short, where they teach Youtubers to be successful in creating online content.

The overnight sensation experience isn’t something most Youtubers experience, even if they have the talent and resources to make it happen. For example, Violin sensation Jenny Oaks Baker has poured thousands of dollars in resources into her channel, but it hasn’t taken off the way she’s hoped.

Unlike the other creators I interviewed, Oaks Baker didn’t gain her fame from Youtube. As a Grammy-nominated musician with a masters degree from Julliard, Oaks Baker has seen her share of worldly success, but for some reason, it hasn’t translated well to Youtube.

“In the beginning, I thought all you really need to do to be a superstar, as Alex Boye told me, was get fifty videos uploaded,” she said. “I did that, and while I am glad I have those videos and I enjoy sharing them with people … it certainly didn’t thrust me into the world spotlight like I was told it would.”

Oaks Baker professionally produces her content with actors, collaborations, expensive filming equipment and comprehensive editing. However, she has found the Youtube community to be fickle and ever-changing.

“Every time I think I have it figured out, they change something about the platform and I have to learn it all over again,” she said.

Oaks Baker is constantly busy taking her kids to soccer practice or violin lessons, not to mention the concerts she performs in and her other day-to-day activities. When she actually has a minute to try and upload a video, Oaks Baker often realizes she has to learn to navigate a completely new system.

“I guess I’ll just be completely honest. I feel like I kind of missed the gold rush on Youtube,” Oaks Baker said. “In the beginning, I was getting 100,000 views at least on each video, and now it’s a lot less. For me, I feel like Youtube is kind of over.”

Regardless of how many views Oaks Baker receives, she still finds fulfillment in creating content that has the power to impact lives.

“At this point, I don’t do videos to get views, I do it because I believe in them and I want to bless people’s lives,” she said. “I have kind of grown up to be where the Lord wants me to be. For me, Heavenly Father opens doors that will bless people’s lives spiritually. He doesn’t necessarily open doors that will get me a lot of views. That is the way my life has been.”

In the past Oaks Baker created videos that were off-brand for her personally because she thought they would get a lot of views. Those videos, such as a Star Wars style Jedi duel, didn’t see the kind of success Oaks Baker expected.

“It wasn’t really my brand, and it didn’t see success,’ she said. “But I did ‘Savior Redeemer of My Soul’ because I love that piece and I loved working with Dallin Bayliss and the Philharmonic. It’s a beautiful song by Rob Gardner, and that video has like 1.5 million views. That is my brand, but I didn’t do it for the views.”

Oaks Baker feels that as long as she is trying to “build the kingdom” and follow the path God would have her follow, He will open doors for her to have beautiful experiences and to bless lives.

“But he doesn’t really open doors for me to have amazing worldly experiences,” she said. “I have learned that that is not my path. I can bang my head against the wall over and over and those doors just do not open for me, and I am grateful, but it was a little bit of a process to understand.”

After twenty-two years in the music industry, Oaks Baker feels grateful that her career didn’t blow up on the big world scene like she originally hoped because she has been able to be home with her kids.

“I have been able to have a family and have a husband and give my kids a pretty normal upbringing,” she said. “I am just so grateful because if it had gone the way I wanted it to at first, that wouldn’t have happened, and I wouldn’t have the beautiful life that I have.”

Making it on Youtube is not easy, but to many YouTubers, the definition of “making it” varies. To Jenny Oaks Baker, her views aren’t nearly as important to her as having someone tell her that her music touched them personally. Having performed in as a soloist at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, Strathmore Hall, the Library of Congress and many other locations worldwide, Oaks Baker doesn’t measure her success by the number of views she gets, or the paycheck that comes from ad revenue.

“I am really grateful that sometimes the Lord doesn’t give us what we think we want,” she said. “He always gives us what’s best and the faster we can accept our path and joy in it, the better off we will be. In my older years, in my mid-forties, I am grateful and satisfied and happy.”

To Andrew Hales, making content he is proud of is worth more to him than doing something else that could give him more views. While the initial excitement of internet stardom can be fun, Hales said he realizes that life goes on and that it’s better to roll with the punches and move forward than become too preoccupied with fame or popularity.

Dave Roberts from Bored Shorts TV said making family friendly content and sharing his knowledge with the world makes his hard work worth it, and Craig Haywood is fulfilled knowing that he is contributing to the protection of First Amendment rights across the country.

While the levels of monetary success may vary from creator to creator, they have each expressed that success doesn’t mean the same thing from person to person, and as long as they are aligned with their own personal definition, their reasons for creating aren’t as much about the money as they are the journey.

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