Last year, 24 year old Felix Kjellberg made $4 million from playing video games. To be more precise, Felix made $4 million from playing video games really badly.
Known as PewDiePie online, millions of YouTube users love the camp, crazy commentary Kjellberg comes up with as he sword-fights with Minecraft zombies or screams like a girl playing Silent Hill. Over 30 million people subscribe to his PewDiePie channel, making it the most popular on YouTube.
So – yeah. $4 million. You’re probably thinking, like us, “I play video games really badly! I sound a bit stupid when I talk! Maybe I can make a fortune on YouTube.”
Well, that’s true, you could. But there’s one big difference between us and Felix. He’s actually doing it. Want to be the next YouTube millionaire? We talk to people who know exactly how to get you there.
Show Me the Money
In May 2007, YouTube launched its “Partner Program”. Under this initiative, popular YouTubers were able, for the first time, to run advertising on their videos. At first, it was a shadowy, secretive feature – with YouTube cherry-picking popular uploaders for its program. In 2012, the service was opened to everyone. Party time.
YouTube has been cagey about the exact amount of money its users can earn from the partner program – and it’s strongly rumoured that the more popular you are, the better the terms you get. In a Reddit AMA Felix Kjellberg refused to disclose how much he received from a single click on an advert:
“It’s against YouTube’s policy to answer that unfortunately. But there’s no exact number really.”
PewDiePie’s millions – and his earning capacity – is an extreme example. YouTube’s biggest earners are privileged.
“There are certain features that only some partners have,” an anonymous YouTube insider told Reddit users, “There are people that get away with more things. There are gifts/grants given to only the top YouTubers. There are people that are responded to by the company more quickly than others.”
If you want to aim for a more achievable goal, look further down the pecking order. Olga Kay, is YouTube’s equivalent of a nine-to-fiver, building an audience since 2006. The New York Times reported her earnings from make up videos and game commentary on YouTube as “$100,000 to $130,000 in each of the last three years”.
To keep that up, she has to publish up to 20 videos a week across five channels to a total of around 2 million subscribers. “It’s very stressful,” she told the NYT, “Every morning I wake up and think, ‘What can I do that’s different that will keep me relevant for another year?’”
It’s a real job but, personally, it still sounds better than waking up every morning knowing you’ll spend the day flipping burgers.
Music’s in the heart
Financial success isn’t the only benefit of YouTube stardom. Some of the platform’s biggest winners are musicians, sidestepping the old school routes of either a) slogging around the country in a transit van playing gigs to single figure audiences or b) going to stage school and successfully auditioning for the next big boy and/or girl band.
With YouTube, many media savvy singers, instrumentalists and songwriters have been able to build up a substantial following without ever leaving their bedrooms. Like Christina Grimmie, who began covering other artists on her channel ZeldaXLove64 five years ago – with a version of Nelly’s “Just a Dream” attracting 115 million hits. In 2010 she came second in a YouTube music competition – which doesn’t seem too impressive until you know that the other people in the top five were Justin Bieber, Selina Gomez, Nicky Minaj and Rihanna.
Now signed to major label Island Records, most of Grimmie’s success can be directly attributed to the audience she cultivated on YouTube.
So, how do you get there? It’s clear from the story of Olga Kay that you can treat it like a job and grind out a living from the site. The big success stories like Christina Grimmie show what’s possible when you have talent to match the graft.
We spoke to three of YouTube’s biggest stars to find out if there was a secret formula we could repeat.
A bona fide YouTube veteran, Corey Vidal was one of the first people to be signed up to YouTube’s partner program when it was introduced. Though he has clips dating back eight years, Corey’s best known video, an awesome acapella tribute to composer John Williams, was uploaded in 2008. With over 19 million views, it features bits from the themes to Close Encounters, Jaws and Superman – and the best wookie impression you’ll ever hear.
His tips for success are concise, “I always tell people to start out by making crap. Then find a way to make that crap better,” Corey told us – mirroring Samuel Beckett’s maxim that if you fail at first, you should try again and ‘fail better’.
He says you shouldn’t worry too much about looking for the perfect idea. Working at it is more important.
“A lot of people get hung up wanting to start a YouTube channel, but they build up their ideas so high in their head that it actually prevents them from going and making videos,” says Corey, “Don’t worry about making things perfect.”
“Get going. Make videos. Then make more. That’s the best way to not only get started, but to grow as fast as possible.”
Good timing is a recurring theme when you speak to YouTube superstars. Andrew Gunadie, known to YouTube as Gunnarolla, struck gold with a comedy song called “Canadian, Please” that racked up four and a half million views.
“Canadian, Please was a perfect combination of good content, good timing, and fulfilling a niche,” Andrew told us recently, “Canadian content, or more specifically, content that propped Canadians up and poked fun at stereotypes, was not something that we had seen a lot of on YouTube back in 2009 when it went viral”
The channel now has close to 80,000 subscribers with travel and video blogs rubbing alongside the funny songs. Gunnarolla’s currently on a tour of Germany and the UK, playing his music live in London, Birmingham and Manchester and the end of September. It’s been hard work getting there, despite the viral success.
“I’ve strived to be authentic in everything that I do – from videoblogs to music videos to all of my travel stuff,” says Andrew, “I like to involve the audience as much as possible in my work – that interactivity is one of the biggest benefits to a platform like YouTube, and I don’t think we tap into it enough. I’ve resisted the temptation to do the same thing every week, or to pander to the lowest common denominator.”
If you want to follow in Gunnarolla’s footsteps, it’ll take a great deal of dedication. “You’ve got to decide what you want out of this platform and work hard for it,” says Andrew, “If there was a secret to “going viral”, then a lot of us would be “going viral” today. There are just some things out of your control.”
20 year old Sara M Forsberg is better known as Smoukahontas, a prodigiously talented impressionist and video blogger who can (and does) play a variety of musical instruments on her goofy YouTube channel.
Unlike Olga Kay or Gunnarolla, Sara hasn’t had to work too hard for her YouTube fame, striking it lucky with a handful of viral videos instead. The best known of these, “What Languages Sound Like to Foreigners” showcases Forsberg’s perfect ear for accents and her ability to speak gobbledegook at the speed of sound.
To date, the clip’s had 12.4 million hits… and it attracted the attention of Capitol Records to her channel. As a result, she’s now the first Finnish person to sign to an American major label.
Unlike some YouTubers, there wasn’t much of game plan when she started, “I just wanted to do what felt fun for me,” she told us, “Simple rule in life; dare to be you!”
Ultimately, Sara’s story shows that you can throw the rule book out of the window and still succeed – if you have the chops to make it. “(You should) be creative, be yourself,” says Sara, “Believe in your talent and use the things you’re best at.”
Over and over, the one piece of advice that stuck as we spoke to YouTube’s biggest hitters was this; work at it. You’ll need talent and you may even need a bit of luck, but the main thing you’ll need are videos – and lots of them.
There are people reading this article who could be making a living right now from playing video games, or writing songs on the ukulele or doing make-up demonstrations. That’s got to be better than flipping burgers.