This past weekend, I shlepped out to Long Island to visit Jerry, my distant relative through marriage. Back when I was starting out in broadcast news, Jerry got me an interview at 60 Minutes and while I didn't get the job, I got to yuck it up with Mike Wallace and Don Hewitt and I will never forget how I ended up in their offices. Jerry's major claim to fame (well one of them) was being behind the camera at MTV for their opening shot sometime before Video Killed the Radio Star.
Jerry still brings this up and just about anyone associated with that time at MTV knew they were on to something--the edge of a precipice, electrified air. I bring this up because I feel like I've been in some similar rooms lately. They're not just in one NY studio, but in private residences and nondescript places across the country. This historic moment in the next chapter of our cultural history will not be televised.
There has been so much talk about Youtube. I don't want to add to the heaps, but there is a coming of age going on here. While Youtube, for most, is still something to watch cute baby videos on-- I saw this one about Bob Marley passed around recently -- there is proof of intelligent life now on Youtube: the formats are surfacing that give you a window into what gains a following on this newly fangled media that has confused a generation of media executives. They could never have come up with this stuff.
While most people have not heard of them, most of the artists I'm referring to are not new to Youtube. They have been on it for years now, with no promise of anything except a consistent outlet for whatever it is that they make. They're still there because they worked hard, kept at it, and while their audiences may be incredibly young-- you are considered an old timer if you are 25 --these Youtubers are mastering this new form.
What is genuine about this generation is that they did this before they had audience and before there was even a thought of money. In fact, the only change to occur of late is the Youtube partners program: now they are actually starting to make some money based on views and clicks, with varying results.
What is most important to me, and I think everyone should take notice from here--this generation-- the founding Youtube generation-- were not conceived in conference rooms in midtown Manhattan or Burbank, California -- nor are any of these folks related to anyone.
These Youtubers are pure, raw talent -- but beyond that, they've done something that shatters the brains of 'social media strategists' from Silicon Valley to kingdom kong -- if they're in the top 100 they all have intimate connections to their audiences you just can't force, trick or buy.
It has been said by I don't know who that 'most people lead lives of quiet desperation'. The interactivity of the internet embraces this loneliness better than any other format. The intimate connection these Youtubers have is the thing they've worked the hardest for and are most afraid of losing.
VIDCON: The First Ever Youtuber Convention
My first introduction to the Youtubers was at VidCon, a convention thrown together at the Century City Hyatt, in Los Angeles, CA in July of last year. Billed as the first event of its kind, people traveled from all over the world to finally meet the Youtubers they've had this solitary connection with, face to face and in person.
For me, it was a cross between the Beatles landing at JFK and an old Radio and Television News Directors conference at the Vegas Hilton. But while the crowd's intentions were pure and their admiration for this new talent severe (with one girl in particular flying in from Dubai just to be there that day), what was troubling for someone who worked in the broadcast industry was how truly small it was.
In many cases, all the BIG NAMES of Youtube were there, but they fit all on one stage in a single hotel ballroom. Some of the most popular Youtubers get over 1 million hits per video, but Good Morning America when I worked there a few years back had 6 million viewers for two hours every morning.
Of course, the point of this article is online video hasn't nearly peaked yet--but the troubling thing for those in the industry looking for a messiah at VIDCON is that when a Youtuber is successful, it means providing for themself and maybe a couple of others ... not the staff of 350 hungry, Upper West Side lunch-eating mouths that Good Morning America used to feed.
In fact, on a recent visit to the Youtube world headquarters near the SFO aiport, I made a comment to my colleague that the entirety of Youtube was about 350 people. Youtube syndicates seemingly unlimited hours of content, but with a similar headcount, Good Morning America put on 2 hours a day. Even more troubling for those who enjoy their offices at 30 Rock, Youtube is just 2 or 3 stories with an open floor plan. I didn't see too many corner offices.
The future will be small, particular and personal.
The dynamic between the Youtubers, especially at an event like this as more and more have moved to LA to be a part of the 'scene', is that while they compete against each other they also NEED each other to be successful. Everyone in the room seemed to know the rise and fall of the Vidstatsx.com rankings, like a horse trader knows the stakes, but they also need each other to collaborate, forge alliances, close the ranks. It's impossible to make too many enemies in the Youtube community and stay popular for very long. Its all interconnected, wonky and 2.0.
Within the last year, some of these Yotubers have made it BIG. And by that I mean, they're making nice livings all of sudden in their late teens and early twenties. I'm 30--and my partner Tom Hallaran and I felt like old fogies--for the first time in our lives. We also couldn't help but notice the LA sharks swarming around them like fresh blood in the water.
What is very different about this crowd is, instead of going the way of the Doors when they get piles of money, they're not going out to blow their wads on tons of blow-- of those that I'm aware of, there's talk about buying property, accountants and in some extreme cases, I think I heard someone mutter something about a Roth IRA.
While VIDCON was the closest thing to Woodstock this crowd had ever scene, there's something STILL inherently very nerdy about making it big on the internet. These folks need to be smart enough to know how to edit their entire things, whatever they are, because when they first started, they didn't have any help. This DIY ethic is the best shark repellent I've ever witnessed. Beware agents: this crowd may need some help managing all the growth, but in most cases, they may seem young, but they've gamed a system and found the audiences all the 'majors' couldn't figure out and we all know how hard they tried.
If you don't know them now, you will
For those taking notes here, I'd like to introduce you to my two most favorite Youtubers who represent an evolution beyond those ranting into a grainy webcam in their bedrooms.
I've gotten to know Joe well over the last year. He first started trying to find editing work on the creative network we started called schmooru.com. Over the course of the year he's really blown up, becoming the 6th strongest guy on Youtube, after he's been at it now for over 4 years.
Joe is one of the most modest super stars you'll ever hear about. When he was beginning to explode last May and came camping with me for my birthday, he told all my other friends there when asked what he did for a living he quietly answered he made videos on Youtube. I distinctly remember his girl friend, later fiance/manager Sarah Evershed nudging him--Joe... tell them what you do!
It wasn't till we got back to civilization and looked up his page that we understood what the deal was. I've never seen anything like it and its for those who can't figure out what Youtube is going to be, for me the first time I saw Mystery Guitarman was my 'man landing on the moon' moment.
There was a time Joe left Youtube for a little while to go to med school--but then he came back. I think of the intelligence and surgical care needed to make any of his videos. The process is truly Byzantine if you think about it--despite the help of cutting edge technology. The guy has to plan every single shot just so and then add them all together and there appear to be hundreds, if not thousands of cuts in everything he does. I've never been to medical school, but it would seem like whatever Joe is doing all night would be harder for me than probably gross anatomy.
If you have some extra time, check out this interview he did for American Public Media--if that doesn't warm your heart you're made of silt.
I always find it funny that just as DeStorm was leaving Brooklyn to move to LA, I was moving into his neighborhood in Brooklyn from California. My feeling about DeStorm has always been, in the olden days not too long ago, if you had raw talent and had to launch your music career, you'd have to go through a ton of gatekeepers who would either steal your money, ruin you in the process or all of the above. Destorm has raw musical talent--this song he wrote for the end of VidCon--for tons of Youtubers was something he just conceived hours before they did it.
DeStorm's shtick is his crowd gives him all sorts of 'challenges' and he answers two of them a week. As he always says, "another day, another challenge:" He answers their call with his organic musical genius
And now to the darkside of the moon...
While things are on the up and up for Mystery Guitarman and DeStorm--there was one girl that didn't make VIDCON last year. Brooker's was one of the first Youtube phenomenons ever and was billed as the first Youtuber to get signed to a major deal. I interviewed her for the job of coordinating our online community for creative people, schmooru.com.
Brookers still has roughly 85,000 subs(what youtubers call subscribers), but hasn't posted any videos recently. As we sat outside a coffee beanery at a Studio City strip mall (I mean where else do you have meetings in LA?), she told me her story. I witnessed what looked like a soul that had been elevated to what seemed the pinnacle of her media world for a split moment, only to be chewed up, spit out and left for dead--all before her 24th birthday.
Brookers was really popular -- the New Yorker called her the first "Youtube Star." The old school media took notice and in 2006, she was offered some sort of deal with NBC through Carson Daily--the Wall Street Journal proclaimed her a 'crossover star". When I heard Carson was involved, I knew there was going to be a sob story. I had some friends that went around the block with that guy on another deal and quite frankly, I get the impression that he's the kind of guy who looks for prey using his 2 AM time slot on NBC as the lure and somehow always turns some sweet soul into road kill.
Throughout most of the conversation, I felt like Brookers was going to cry, yes even during the somewhat banal parts of the interview. She was bitter about what had happened to her and about the Youtube world in general. She felt those who made it played the game, and in her case it seemed like the game played her.
Brookers went after the NBC deal, but what NBC and Brookers didn't know is NBC didn't know what they were doing on the internet(and still don't). No one who gets a good job there does so by admitting weakness. Brookers, an 18 year old at the time, had figured out the internet on her own, by not being governed by NBC and their corrupt system of 'tastemakers'.
Youtube's First Generation--Coming Of Age
NBC, ABC, CBS: all those 20th century places are based on the concept of scarcity. They have a scarcity of supply and access to it, or at least they used to, so they can hire their cousins to make programming decisions (and they did). It didn't matter because they had a captive audience. The audience had nowhere else to go when there were 3. I don't care what they tell you now--they still only look at each other and not the rest of the world of possibilities. This closed-minded system is something Brookers was not born out of. It's not how Mystery Guitarman or DeStorm developed their intimate connections to their audiences and the trust they've gained there.
Essentially, even the successful on Youtube will fail more often than not, if they bring their acts to the so called 'majors.' They are the future they seek.
Youtube people made their name on Youtube. It's a particular format and they need to stay in there, declare victory and do what they can to help ensure the next generation of Youtubers comes from the same honest place they did, or they won't. There's nowhere else to go anymore--and I'm not crying rivers for the old system of lunches, and worthless, talentless gatekeepers who got an interview when their distant cousin Jerry did them a favor (thanks Jerry-for the record, I got my overnight weekend desk job at ABC News Radio by my bootstraps), where it was considered a mistake that David Lynch got Twin Peaks onto ABC.
As I drove away from Brookers, I couldn't help but think while she was the first Youtuber to get a major deal, was she also the first victim of this new form?
In general, I don't have much of a stomach for LA. I love people for who they are and I want them to be happy all the way through life whoever the hell they are. You can call me a socialist but I think even washed up 24 year olds have value and deserve some love. These moments of "OMGAAA!" are often fleeting and they make people do weird things. I can't tell you any place else that makes me long more for the sweat pants town I grew up in -- Toledo, OH -- than one or two lunches with Hollywood types that discuss where they're going to sit at a table in order to make sure they have the best lighting to see their prey and for their prey to see them (thanks for that one Kirby Dick, I always found your last name fitting).
As for Jerry, while his place in time was all about the shared experience, the Video Killed the Radio Star moment for Youtube is not happening in a single studio or even a single space and it probably won't be a single moment at all--but it is happening right now. Even with Foursquare, its so scattered, its hard to find out where exactly that is, its like we saw in Egypt, its decentralized and hard to stop--like the internet.
Former FCC Chariman Newton Minow once concluded in a similar but distant era, "television is a vast waste land". Well in that case, Youtube is space junk in an ever expanding universe (or is it contracting)? All I can tell you is: I've found proof of intelligent life out there and if you haven't yet, soon you will too.