VidCon has been around since 2010, and if you haven’t heard of it, ask a teenager. The conference for online video creators and their fans was held this month in Anaheim, California. It’s the first major event since Viacom bought the conference last year. That purchase made the “creator economy” officially mainstream. And with that status comes a more Hollywood-style vibe. TV execs, talent scouts and advertisers were all over the show. And there’s a big conversation about how creators can move past the biggest game in town — YouTube. Jim Louderback, general manager of VidCon, spoke with Marketplace Tech host Molly Wood about how the event has changed since it started eight years ago. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Jim Louderback: Back then, it was just YouTube. So the creators were on YouTube, the fans were on YouTube, the connections in the communities were being built on YouTube. And now it’s so much broader. So yeah, YouTube’s here and they’re huge. I mean, they’re still the 600-pound gorilla, but we’ve got Facebook and Instagram and LinkedIn and Twitch and Twitter and Musically, and there are all these different platforms that are doing different things and allowing people to find audiences and be creative and do what they love in so many different ways.
Molly Wood: Talk to me a little bit about those other platforms and where they stand in comparison to YouTube. Because my sense is that right now, YouTube, it is “it.” You live or die by that algorithm, and you have, like, tweenagers walking around that conference saying “algorithm,” which is all by itself a little unusual. How important is it and has it been to you, to kind of increase the power of those other platforms?
Louderback: For me personally, YouTube is amazing. But it’s good for certain types of content; they own certain things. Like they’re very good at things like comedy and DIY and vlogging. There are other formats, like LinkedIn, for example. A year ago they weren’t even doing video. LinkedIn now, there are all these creators that are putting video on LinkedIn, but it’s more business oriented. It’s stuff that if you put it on YouTube, you probably wouldn’t find an audience. You put it on LinkedIn, hundreds of thousands of people watch and you can build real communities.
Wood: Is YouTube though right now kind of the only place to make real money, to build a career?
Louderback: Heck no. People are making hundreds of thousands of dollars on Twitch streaming. They are making money on all the platforms, but in many different ways. Now YouTube has done such a good job sharing advertising revenue with the people who are big on YouTube. The other platforms haven’t really figured out how to do that ad revenue share at the level that YouTube has. But it’s not the only monetization game in town, and you can build a career outside of YouTube and make a ton of money. Just ask some of the people at Twitch.
The entrance to VidCon 2018 at the Anaheim Convention Center in California.
Wood: Is it fair to say that there’s a little bit of a downside to the YouTube monetization model? That because it is so dependent on views and therefore the advertising that comes along with that, it’s so dependent on getting seen in a huge crowd of creators that it kind of encourages stunts?
Louderback: Well, yeah, I mean, let’s go back to the algorithm for a minute, because you talked about that earlier. And essentially what that means is there are things inside of the platforms that dictate who gets to see a video when you post it, after you’ve watched a certain video, what other videos are recommended. And with YouTube, YouTube is all about wanting people to spend more time on the platform. They want you to watch more videos, they want you to keep watching and keep watching and keep watching. And so they give benefits and they give precedence to videos that people watch all the way through, that are longer. Over time, building your audience and being a YouTube star, it is required that you make more videos every week, that you make longer videos. And for many creators, it’s become a hamster wheel, and you just can’t get off that hamster wheel. But there are ways to build audiences on YouTube using Patreon or merchandise or other things where you’re not beholden to the almighty ad dollar. But other platforms are sort of experimenting with new ways to do it where maybe you don’t need to be at that level to have a living wage.
Wood: And you know, Jim, I mean, you and I have been kicking around this industry a long time. You’ve been dealing with online video talent for a lot of years, back when arguably we were all trying to make high-production-value TV for the web. How have you seen it changed in ways that you would not have expected when you were dealing with online video talent in 2009, 2010?
Louderback: I think the thing that I thought was really interesting back then was that we were creating a brand-new medium and that we were going to go out and we are creating this new world, which we are. But what I couldn’t have predicted is how much television has changed to be like online video, and, in fact, how online video in many ways is changing to be more like television. So, for example, look at Jimmy Fallon on “The Tonight Show.” The first 15 minutes of “The Tonight Show” is basically formatted like a series of YouTube skits. And more and more, we’re seeing high-production, you could call them television shows, I mean you could put them on Netflix, or you put them on CBS and they’d look great, but they are actually being produced, delivered and consumed only on these online digital platforms. So I kind of expected online video to develop into its own thing, and it has. But I didn’t expect that it would start to look more and more like television, while television would start to look more and more like online video.
The Social Media to Social Change panel hosted some top YouTube talent, including YouTuber Markiplier, center.
Wood: Well, you could argue that the talent path is also starting to look more and more like television. And so what are nuances or even the downsides of that when you start to have real security concerns, or essentially child stars who don’t know how to deal with this level of fame and attention?
Louderback: Well, I think that that’s always happened, right? We’ve always had those sort of child stars who’ve confronted those issues, we’re just now doing more and more of it on other forms. And, you know, you can go through a litany of child stars from the ’60s and the ’70s who, you know, ended up probably, you know, not working out so well in their adulthood. But the nice thing that I like on the online video space is that, yeah, we are seeing people build up as big celebrity. And you know, here at VidCon, we’re definitely celebrating some of the people that have those big followings, but we’re also celebrating the people who are never going to be that. They’re never going to have a million followers. They’re never going to break through celebrity where they can’t walk down the street or they can’t go to Denny’s and have a sandwich. But they’re able to build a career and a satisfying life out of creating video and putting it out there, and building fans and community. And let’s face it, that is the big change in media, because 20 years ago, 30 years ago, if you wanted to be a video star, a TV star, a movie star, a media star, you had to go through gatekeepers. We’ve been through this industry for a long time. The gatekeepers, back in the day, they were the ones that would say whether you could reach an audience or not. I mean, I was in magazines early on, and I had this dream when I was 25 that I’d have a column in a major computer magazine, and all the gatekeepers got in the way of that, until I’d got a job at PC Week and they gave me a column, and I was like, “Oh, my God, I’m the luckiest person in the world.” And then two years later the internet came out and anybody who wanted to be a computer columnist could put a blog up. Well, that’s the most wonderful thing about the digitalization of media in general. And I think we see it with online video is, wherever you are in the world, if you have the talent, you can create video, you can put it on the internet and you can build an audience and you can build a life with it. And 30 years ago, you couldn’t say that. Thirty years ago, you’d have to go to Hollywood or go to New York and pay your dues and hope that somebody would put you in a magazine or put you on a radio show or put you on TV. Now you can do it yourself. And I think that is amazing.
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Correction (June 25, 2018): A previous version of this story misstated Jim Louderback’s title. The text has been corrected.