“Any YouTuber who touched this microphone tonight is a millionaire, don't you ever forget that!” Harley Morenstein, creator of the YouTube channel EpicMealTime, reminded the audience last night at the fourth incarnation of the more-or-less annual Streamy Awards, a ceremony celebrating creators in YouTube and new media.
Morenstein makes a good point: success on YouTube can be almost as lucrative as success in traditional mediums, with YouTubers like gamer PewDiePie earning as much as an estimated $9 million a year. Clearly, YouTube has undergone a pretty radical transformation since it emerged almost a decade ago, and has developed a ruling class of sorts.
This ruling class, composed of influential young people like comedy duos Smosh and the Fine Brothers, has carved a niche for themselves—a niche that is expanding rapidly, given that American teenagers told a Variety poll over the summer that they're more influenced by YouTubers than movie stars such as Jennifer Lawrence or Seth Rogen. Smosh ranked at the top.
But as new media finds its identity, it has, like any other form, encountered some growing pains (see: integration of Google+, YouTube partnerships). And understandably, there's a lot of attraction to the money to be made from YouTube videos.
While YouTube has its roots in the creation of content that's free for anyone to access, plenty of companies are happy to spend big money to advertise on channels that regularly garner millions of views, or to manage a YouTube channel (or even 20) in exchange for a cut of the creator's profits.
The focus of the 2014 Streamy Awards was decidedly on new talent, many of whom were partnered last night with the ceremony's sponsors. Indeed, sponsorship seemed to be the theme, between the multiple shout-outs to Coca Cola, conspicuous integration of Samsung phones, and, most insidiously, the influence of producers like Endemol, Maker Studio and Fullscreen.
Even the night's venue seemed to send a message: The elegant Beverly Hilton Hotel (which was obligingly name-dropped a few times) is a far cry from Wadsworth Theater at the Westwood VA, where the first Streamys were held in 2009.
The spirit of YouTube lies in the independence it provides. Creators have a platform to talk about literally whatever they want, and if other people care about what they're saying, they'll attract an audience. There's a freedom many YouTubers find in not being beholden to anyone or any company.
However, there's plenty of appeal in the infrastructure that being absorbed by a network can provide. As Hannah Hart, one of the ceremony's hosts and creator of My Drunk Kitchen, puts it, “There are a lot of brands that are happy to integrate and capitalize on your relationship with your audience, and your platform.”
Pairing up seems to have benefits in non-financial ways, as well—production company Endemol, which is best known for its reality TV shows like Big Brother and Deal or No Deal, is partnered with two of the four recipients of last night's Icon Award. The award acknowledges the impact of creators like beauty guru Michelle Phan, vlogger Tyler Oakley, longtime YouTuber Shay Carl and … Pitbull? As the Sesame Street song goes, “one of these things is not like the others.”
Pitbull is no more or less involved in the YouTube community than any other major recording artist, yet he was named an icon. The only thing that differentiates Pitbull from any other Top 40 artist on Vevo is his partnership with Endemol, one of the sponsors of the evening.
Meanwhile, most of YouTube's “old guard” (if such a thing exists in a medium this new) was absent.
There was nary a Vlogbrother in sight, though the Hank Green-produced Lizzie Bennet Diaries took home the Streamy for Best Comedy Series, and YouTubers like Michael Buckley and Philip DeFranco were featured only briefly. Also absent was vlogging pioneer Ze Frank, who is now in charge of Buzzfeed's video content.
Regardless of concerns about the influence of monetization and sponsorship, the night was filled with a sense of excitement about being part of a new way of connecting with audiences. “YouTube has been essential to our success,” explained Scott Hoying, one of the singers in the a cappella group Pentatonix. “Being able to connect with the fans directly and post content whenever we want has been invaluable.”
Where does the future of new media lie?
Will Keenan, president of Endemol's division for new media, Beyond, thinks YouTube is the next mainstream medium. “When you look at silent [films] that were disrupted by talkies and radio, that were disrupted by musicals, that were disrupted by TV, that was disrupted by cable TV, it's happening all over again.” He adds, “This is history book stuff!”
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