One of the main attractions of YouTube is that anyone can become a star: There are no gatekeepers, no talent agents and no television executives who need to be won over. Stars can come from anywhere — and they do.
But a new study finds that the odds of striking it rich on YouTube — or even making a modest living — are small.
Reaching the top 3.5 percent of YouTube’s most-viewed channels — which means at least 1 million video views a month — is worth only about $12,000 to $16,000 a year in advertising revenue, according to Mathias Bartl, a professor at Offenburg University of Applied Sciences in Germany whose study is one of the first to examine YouTube data for clues about how it works for creators.
Bartl found that it has gotten harder for new creators to reach the top, as YouTube — which is owned by Google — adds 300 hours of video every minute and the biggest stars become more successful. The median views per video plummeted to 89 in 2016; a decade earlier, that number was 10,262. At the same time, YouTube’s biggest channels are gobbling up more eyeballs. The top 3 percent of channels received 64 percent of all views in 2006. A decade later, the top channels took 90 percent.
A YouTube spokesperson said in a statement that the services continues to see "tremendous growth" for its content creators, with the number of channels earning at least $100,000 a year increasing more than 40 percent in the past year.
What’s happening on YouTube is occurring across the Web, 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.
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In music, song streaming services such as 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 1 percent of songs represented 86 percent of the music streamed last year, according to the market research firm Nielsen.
And because few people buy music these days, making even a little money from streaming requires songs to be played millions of times. That has 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 the nation without breaking into the mainstream. Increasingly, such acts face the pressure of going viral or going home.
In television, so many new shows are being made that no one can watch them all; nearly 500 scripted original series aired last year. The traditional networks are being challenged by cable outlets and streaming services. That has led to new opportunities for actors and writers. But the new era has 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 has also led to trouble.
In February, YouTube suspended all advertising on channels run by Logan Paul, one of its biggest stars, after his controversies included 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 paid-subscription 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 have reached 1,000 subscribers and 4,000 hours of watch time over the past 12 months before they can 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 genrelike 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 percent of all views, followed by music and gaming categories.
The chance of a channel making into the rarefied top 3 percent was best for comedy, entertainment, how-to and style, and gaming. It was worse for sports, education, nonprofit and activist groups, people and blogs.
Bartl also noted that YouTube’s upper echelon 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.”