Why almost no one is making a living on YouTube

A new study finds the odds of making a modest living on the video service are tiny.

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One of the main attractions of YouTube is that anyone can become a star. There are no gatekeepers. No talent agents or television executives need to be won over. Stars can come from anywhere. And they do.

Forbes' recent list of the richest YouTubers is proof: It's filled with people who post clips about playing video games or kids playing with toys. The top spot went to Daniel Middleton, known as DanTDM. He's a 26-year-old British gamer, and he earned more than $21 million last year.

But a new study finds that the odds of striking it rich on Google-owned YouTube — or even making a modest living — are vanishingly small.

Reaching the top 3.5 per cent of YouTube's most-viewed channels — which means at least 1 million video views a month — is worth only about $15,500 to $20,500 a year in advertising revenue, according to Mathias Bartl, a professor at the Offenburg University of Applied Sciences in Germany, whose study is one of the first to probe YouTube data for clues about how it works for creators.

Bartl found that it's gotten harder for new creators to reach the top, as YouTube alone adds 300 hours of video every minute and the biggest stars become more successful. The median views per video has plummeted to 89 in 2016 from 10,262 a decade earlier. At the same time, YouTube's biggest channels are gobbling up more eyeballs. The top three per cent of channels got 64 per cent of all views in 2006. A decade later, the top channels took 90 per cent.

YouTube did not immediately respond to a request to comment on the study.


What's happening on YouTube is occurring across the internet, where creators are finding that long odds of success in the online world are not so different from IRL (internet-speak for "in real life").

In fact, they might be worse.

In music, song streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music have mostly benefited superstar acts. No one needs to fight a music label to get their song distributed, but getting listeners is a different problem. Less than one per cent of songs represented 86 per cent of the music streamed last year, according to the market research firm Nielsen.

And since no one buys music these days, making even a little money from streaming requires songs to be played millions of times. That's hurt the music industry's middle-of-the-road acts the most, the kind of musician who once could eke out a decent living selling several thousand albums a year and touring without ever breaking into the mainstream. Increasingly, such acts face the pressure of going viral or going home.

In television, thanks to streaming services, so many new shows are being made that no one can watch them all. That's led to plenty of new opportunities for actors and writers, but the new era has some distinct challenges, including shorter seasons and less predictable schedules that make it harder for many to make ends meet.

Competition among creators on YouTube is fierce, and that's also led to trouble.

In February, YouTube suspended all advertising on channels run by Logan Paul, one of its biggest stars, after a series of controversies, including videos he made showing his visit to a so-called suicide forest in Japan and jokes about eating Tide detergent pods.

Another star, Felix Kjellberg, known as PewDiePie, was found to have used a racial epithet and made anti-Semitic jokes in some of his gaming videos. He was dropped from Google's lucrative ad service for high-performing videos, and his planned series on the pay channel YouTube Red was canceled.

Now, YouTube is taking steps that make it even harder for creators at the bottom. The company recently said channels need to reach 1000 subscribers and 4000 hours of watch time over the last 12 months before they can start to earn money from ads. YouTube said the change is aimed at discouraging videos with objectionable or offensive content and that it would "affect a significant number of channels."

Bartl's study did offer some hope for YouTube aspirants; hints on how to boost the chances of financial success. YouTube offers 18 genre-like categories, and selecting the right one "is a highly significant predictor of channel success," Bartl wrote. The most popular categories over a decade were entertainment videos, which took in 24 per cent of all views, followed by music and gaming categories.

But the chance of a channel making into the rarefied top three per cent was best for comedy; entertainment; how-to and style; and gaming. It was worse for sports; education; nonprofits and activism; and people and blogs.

Bartl also noted that YouTube's upper echelons still featured a mix of both professional and user-generated videos, writing that "it does give hope that YouTube's 'broadcast yourself' rhetoric is not a complete fiction."

Washington Post