VidCon 2015 : Screaming Fans, Millionaires, and the Future That’s Already Here
- Ver Original
- Julho 31º, 2015
The madness of VidCon is not immediately evident. Simply walking down Anaheim’s palm-lined Katella Avenue on a July afternoon, with Disneyland on your left and the Anaheim Convention Center on your right, gives little indication of what is seething, roiling just a couple hundred yards away. But venture off the street, back into the convention center complex, around a corner or two, and the true scope of this event, an annual meet-up of digital video creators, fans, and profiteers—an ever-expanding entertainment industry born, and built to live, on the far-away servers of YouTube and Vine—reveals itself in all its rather staggering dimensions.
The crowds begin outside, in the thick, inland California heat, where the sunny convention center plaza takes on the charged, tingly quality of a storm about to break. Various mid-tier content creators, musicians mostly, entertain a small, cheering crowd from a stage. Dutiful parents, the majority moms, stand on the sidelines, most looking bemused at their daughters’ excitement, a pitiful few seeming exhausted already. Seeing each noodly, vibrating kid is like seeing thousands of YouTube comments and feverish tweets come to life—here are many of the actual people behind all that anonymous fandom.
For anyone not born in the 1990s or 2000s, the growing magnitude of the impact that digital video and its myriad stars are having on popular culture and the economy may often go unnoticed. By now, we’ve had the opportunity to read plenty of articles about YouTube celebrities and Vine stars, fascinating pieces that, for all their depth and research, are perhaps a little too arch, too skeptical about their subjects—out of haughtiness, wishful thinking, naïvety, who knows. I myself have been one of those raised-eyebrow types—even though I’ve been paying pretty close attention, I’ve been a bit smug, an air of dismissiveness animating everything I’ve written about these personalities and their business. Well, no longer. I have been to the high temple of digital video and I have seen its awesome, occasionally terrifying might. The revolution is not coming. It’s here.
HORMONAL CHAOS, STREAMLINED
Common sights at VidCon: ukuleles, dyed hair, hooded unicorn-horn onesies, long tunic-like T-shirts, groups of girls led around by one flamboyant boy, electric skateboards turned sideways called HyperWalks, which retail for close to $800. There were kids zooming around everywhere on these things, some clutching selfie sticks at the same time, and my dark desire to see someone fall off of one only mounted as the weekend wore on. (Sadly, I left unsatisfied.) I’d have to imagine that many of the people on HyperWalks at VidCon had been given them for the purposes of promotion—could that many teens really be scurrying around on handle-less Segways, all across America? Whatever the case, they cut a potently futuristic figure, both mesmerizing and chilling. It’s not that the kids riding them seemed too lazy to walk, it’s just that technology had found them a better way of getting around. And so they used it, with natural-born ease.
That’s one of the presiding sensations one feels at VidCon, a creeping dread that your way of thinking, not theirs, is the one that is foreign, strange, impractical. Almost everyone I spoke to at the convention held forth on media and branding and multi-platform synergy like it was their native tongue, because, for many of them, it is.
On the second day of VidCon 2015, I met Connor Franta, who, in December of last year, came out to an audience of millions, and has written a memoir, A Work in Progress. Franta’s personal brand is more bespoke and introspective, less manic and self-referencing, than some of the other VidCon stars’. His Instagram account is relatively light on selfies, instead favoring heavily filtered landscapes and food photos. He has his own line of coffee, Common Culture, and recently announced a record label, Heard Well. He’s fashioning himself as something of a boutique entrepreneur, a commerce-based lifestyle expert who, who knows, might someday rival Gwyneth Paltrow or Blake Lively. He is 22.
Like many young YouTube stars, the videos that have made Franta famous are often light on substance. He lists turnoffs and does goofy collabs with other YouTubers. But, like all YouTube stars, he’s possessed of an innate, undeniable watchability. Maybe it’s his gentle, camp-counselor good looks, which project a shy, soft-spoken kindness—he’s the sensitive older boy who might offer some one-on-one comfort when you’re feeling homesick or suffering some teen social trauma. In person, Franta is slighter than expected, but also much more confident, self-possessed. “I hate talking about myself. I’m really bad at interviews,” he said at the end of our chat, but you wouldn’t know it to talk to him. He’s not self-aggrandizing or gregarious, but he knows what he wants to say, and believes in it.
I met Franta on the fourth floor of the Hilton Hotel, the epicenter of VidCon social life beyond the convention center itself. We were joined by a publicist and by Franta’s manager, Andrew Graham, himself a handsome young guy, wearing designer geek glasses and sporting a clean haircut. Graham works for Big Frame, the management arm of AwesomenessTV, one of the premier multi-channel networks (M.C.N.s) that represent thousands of digital-media stars and their business interests. (More on Big Frame, and other multi-channel networks, in a bit.) Franta is one of the agency’s top talents, because his videos are tremendously popular (4.7 million subscribers, more than 250,000,000 views), and because he’s got all of these outside interests—which is where all the business-minded adults in the room hope to make even more money.
“I’m kind of an entrepreneur of sorts,” Franta told me. “I like doing all the things. So I’m very much into building a company and a brand around me and just putting out really cool things related to that, like music, and coffee, and clothing.”
I asked him, as I asked many other content creators at VidCon, if the youth of his fans was any cause for concern—might they fade away as they get older and caught up in their own lives?
“I see my analytics statistics, and my demographic is growing and my age group is aging up,” he told me matter-of-factly. “The average age on [my videos] is 18–20. There’s a lot of younger kids [at VidCon], but it’s just because younger kids come to things like this.”
On another day, I met Joey Graceffa, a 24-year-old Angeleno who also recently came out, in a music video, a testimonial video, and in his memoir, In Real Life. I had arranged to observe Graceffa at a meet-and-greet, the core part of a fan’s experience at VidCon. When I shook hands with Graceffa—who is small and delicate-featured, pretty and elfin, with a light fuzz of beard and a whimsical flourish of brown hair—and gazed into his glowing eyes, I realized with a start how, well, star struck I was. And I wasn’t alone—but not in the way I expected.
I anticipated screaming hordes at the meet-and-greet, a hormonal chaos that would be near impossible to wade through. Instead what I found was curiously ordered, calm and polite, a result of a new lottery system that selected 250 anointed ones to meet Graceffa, eliminating the uncertain lines and youthquake frenzy of the past. VidCon has made things smooth and streamlined, like a business should be.
Following my interview with Franta, I trailed him and his team to a Make-a-Wish event in a small conference room in the Hilton. A young girl—age and ailment unknown—had asked, of all the things she could have asked for, to meet some of her favorite YouTubers for her wish. Disneyland was still across the street. The foundation had set her up with Franta and YouTube mega-star Tyler Oakley, arguably the queen bee of this and other segments of the YouTube community. (Oakley and Franta greeted each other kindly but a bit stiffly, dispelling my notions that all these YouTubers, the gay ones anyway, are all the best of friends.) Once inside, Franta sat down with his nervous-seeming fan and her grandfather and two sisters, and he made amiable small talk with them. He gently asked questions and they compared favorite YouTubers, while a cameraman hovered, a little invasively I thought, around the table. (The whole thing, naturally, is now on YouTube). More Make-a-Wish meetings like this would happen throughout the weekend in El Capitan Room A, the harder realities of life hushed and tucked away behind closed doors.
200 MILLIONAIRE INFLUENCERS, AND COUNTING
Inescapable buzzwords at VidCon: content, creator, space, platform, influencer, brand. The convention, which started in 2010, has grown from less than 2,000 attendees in its first year to an estimated 19,500 in 2015. The cost to attend depends on what kind of badge you want. Lowly Community badges, which grant access only to the big public events, mostly held on the main floor of the convention center, sell for $150 each. (They sold out very quickly.) The top badge price listed on VidCon’s Web site is for the Industry badge, which will set you back $600. Branded booths—for new media superstar Taco Bell, for The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon—filled the big hall, leading me to believe that VidCon may be developing into a tidy money-making operation in its own right.
To get a true sense of what this world, this new and shiny economy, is really all about, you have to talk to the business people. They are, after all, the ones who are turning many of these content creators into millionaires, mostly through lucrative branding deals set up by M.C.N.s. Many of us have read things about huge deals, have seen YouTubers move into lavish homes. But concrete numbers are hard to come by; creators and their managers are, understandably maybe, cagey about discussing such things. Luckily for me, I was tricked into a meeting with two ambitious young Stanford dropouts, 21-year-old Misha Talavera and 20-year-old Jesse Leimgruber, the founders of an “influencer marketing company” called NeoReach.
I received an invite to NeoReach’s party on the first night of VidCon, but in order to attend, I had to meet up with Talavera and Leimgruber to pick up a bracelet that would get me in. This was a sneaky, clever way of getting an audience with various press and industry people, but any resentment I felt about being duped into a pitch quickly evaporated once Talavera and Leimgruber started rattling off intriguing facts and figures. Talavera is the duo’s charismatic front man, strikingly handsome and possessed of a lilting, barely detectable accent—Slavic, maybe. Leimgruber is the more fidgety numbers guy—both times we met, he had his laptop open, ready to reference figures and show me demos of their product—but equally adept at enthusiastically communicating just what a massive business this whole sector already is, and will only continue to be.
“If you’re a brand now and you’re trying to reach 16- to 22-year-olds, you can’t do it with TV commercials,” Leimgruber explained emphatically. “Two years or less, I think the model is completely going to shift.” Talavera concurred: “Digital spend, according to eMarketer, is already going to overtake TV spend by 2016. That change is coming quick.”
And with that change comes big dollars for these influencers. After our second meeting, Talavera and Leimgruber followed up with an e-mail that included some hard numbers. What they had to tell me: approximately 200 social-media influencers have earned over $1 million in the past year, and another 550 earned more than $250,000. The NeoReach guys estimate that the number of “Millionaire Influencers” will double next year. Popular YouTubers (1 million-plus followers) can earn as much as $40,000 per video, and $5,000 per Instagram post. That money is coming from sponsorships that pay out $0.05 to $0.10 per YouTube view, or $0.15 to $0.25 per Instagram like. Add on top of that the money made from Google AdSense, and any merchandise sales and appearance fees. In short, these people, and there are many of them, are getting very rich.
Before sending Talavera and Leimgruber off to conquer the world, I asked them if they see any potential for a bubble here. They explained that “rates are growing far faster than the follower counts,” which could eventually lead to some sort of reckoning. Where they see more immediately looming trouble is in the multi-channel-network model. “For the next couple years the brands have no other option,” Leimgruber told me. “If they want to spend $10 million, they have to go to an M.C.N. right now. But, once they realize that they can stop losing hundreds of thousands of dollars paying people to orchestrate and organize and just go directly to influencers, I think it’ll fall apart.”
Sure, this might just be two ambitious guys talking up their own business, their own direct-access technology, at the expense of the more traditional middlemen currently controlling this economy. But it’s hard to not see their point.
MEET THE MIDDLEMEN
When multi-channel networks, like Fullscreen and BroadbandTV, first came onto the scene, roughly between 2005 and 2011, they were seen by some as coercing talent into restrictive long-term contracts. Flooding a previously free, un-monetized zone, they seemed like raiders and leeches, greedy adults exploiting earnest kids who just wanted to connect with friends and fans. There’s been some course correction on that front, or at least some efforts at positive P.R. spin, and many of the industry’s bigger movers and shakers were eager to talk to me to make their case.
I met with Big Frame C.E.O. Steve Raymond, C.O.O. Chris Erwin, and S.V.P. of sales Max Polisar in the Oasis Lounge, also on the Hilton’s fourth floor, thumping music playing and various YouTube stars milling about. I saw Tyde Levi, younger brother of mega- YouTuber and nascent pop star Troye Sivan, looking bored and fiddling on his phone, surrounded by a bevy of beaming girls. There was Jack Baran, a.k.a. ThatSoJack, holding something of an impromptu photo shoot, though I wonder if any photo shoots are really impromptu for young millennials—all of life is becoming a photo shoot, isn’t it? (Incidentally, Baran would release his own coming-out video the next day.) It was strange to sit down and talk to a few middle-age-ish guys in blazers and blue button-ups amid all this youthful swirl and swagger, but it was fascinating to listen to Raymond, Erwin, and Polisar discuss, in no small amount of jargon, the practicalities of the capitalism that is fueling and feeding off of the digital-video surge.
“We’re representing buoys of excellence in a sea of average,” Polisar urged. “And that sea is expanding, but so is the number of buoys.” All three men insisted that Big Frame, which Erwin described as “a full-service talent management and influencer marketing company for the digital-first marketplace,” had the interests of these buoys chiefly in mind when making deals. As Erwin explained: “We can provide all the different holistic advising for everything that they want to do, whether it’s raising capital for a mobile app, doing a movie deal, or licensing their content.”
The Big Frame guys are aware that multi-channel networks have not always been viewed favorably. But, Raymond said, the more the people making content learn about their business, the more M.C.N.s have to work to be, in the Google way, not evil. “They’re savvy, they trade a lot of information, they talk quite a bit. So your reputation is really important. If your business is based on swooping in and taking advantage of people, you won’t last very long.” That savviness, though, isn’t always visible when YouTube stars or Vine stars are forced to earn their keep in their videos. Watch any video in which a star clunkily plugs Audible.com or NatureBox snacks and it’s immediately clear that the business has miles to go before brand integration—creators becoming “brand advocates”—is seamless and unintrusive.
Though, chafing at that kind of obvious shilling might be generational. Young millennials (or Generation Z, a term I heard more than a few times over the weekend) don’t seem to care much about product placement or branding. Raymond explained, “You see 13- to 24-year-old kids comfortable with the fact that these people are making a living, they’re being paid by advertisers, as long as the products aren’t offensive to them and the content doesn’t make their eyes burn, it works.” Selling out is just not a concern anymore, it seems, as long as brand advocacy is done with “authenticity,” perhaps the most ubiquitous buzzword at VidCon. No one could quite explain what that authenticity looks like, exactly, but they seemed to know it when they saw it.
Still, there are some established YouTube presences who have been able to do things profitably and reasonably independently for a number of years now. Freddie Wong is a Web filmmaker with a string of successes—including the series Video Game High School—whose production company, RocketJump, is not owned or operated by a larger media company. We had an interesting, discursive conversation, in which Wong, a graduate of U.S.C.’s film school, held forth on old Hollywood systems (“You can chart the entirety of cinema as a history of distribution and control.”) and the new models available to viewers (“I want it to live everywhere. I don’t care where you see it”). Companies like Wong’s seem to be outliers, though, in a once Wild West–seeming space that is quickly being subsumed and monetized by a lot of familiar players.
“I hope we don’t get bought out, I hope we can keep doing what we’re doing independently,” he told me.
PROM KINGS TURNED MONETIZED CELEBRITIES
Nighttime at VidCon: drink tickets, swag bags, teen Vine stars showily grinding on dance floors while adults look on, a sudden onslaught of primal social stress. A peculiar darkness invades once bright, cheery spaces. Parties begin, bars fill up, shrieking, mad-eyed teens tear around various floors of the Hilton like groupies hunting for rock stars in Almost Famous. It’s one thing to vaguely talk shop and ambition with creators and business people; it’s another to see how digital fame manifests itself in the physical world.
Seeing this nightly drama of access and exclusivity play out, one gets the unsettling feeling that there’s something grim, even unseemly, about the way that VidCon, and the larger digital economy, throws adults and suddenly famous kids into business together. Watching 16-year-old Anthony “Lohanthony” Quintal, who mostly makes low-production-value videos in his bedroom, dance on the bar at the party thrown by Collective Digital Studio, another M.C.N., on Friday night, while adults staggered around with their vodka sodas, I was struck by an acute feeling of despair.
Kids who would, a mere 10 years ago, just be prom queens and kings, or lovable class clowns, and then continue on with their lives as normal, are now monetized celebrities, because thousands and thousands of Instagram and Vine users think they’re cute (attractiveness is an undeniable factor in a lot of social and digital fame) or passingly funny, and adults want those users’ money.
And this is not always the chaste, squeaky-ish community of upbeat creators VidCon seems to be frequently advertising. Popular Viner Carter Reynolds, currently embroiled in an alleged sexual misconduct scandal (one that bears similarities to some recent YouTuber scandals), claims he was told to leave VidCon on Friday after rumors of death threats. He fired off some angry tweets, young fans and detractors entrenched themselves on either side, and all the while grown-ups upstairs worked to put even more kids in this particularly glaring spotlight, for profit.
Big Frame’s Raymond was careful to remind me that this is a very new business, that “we only have data points looking back a few years. There are no 20-year YouTubers.” So we really don’t know what to expect as these people grow and navigate their booming enterprises. Outcomes could be good, with stable and flourishing careers lasting well into adulthood. Or, we could be creating a new and exponentially larger class of child stars headed for oblivion—a hundred Lindsay Lohans, or, in the worst possible scenario, a dozen River Phoenixes. We really don’t know. The older, presumably more responsible people involved all adamantly insist that they’re looking out for their clients, for their talent, but it’s not immediately clear if that’s enough. Watching the cool kids inside these parties dance and drink while hundreds of not-cool-enough kids clamored to get past the rope, it was easy to draw comparisons to the cruelest and most punishing of places, high school.
Are we not just placing the shinier, prettier kids on a gleaming pedestal and telling them, over and over again, that the often mundane things they’re putting on camera—the dating tips and wacky pranks and Draw My Lifes—are more special than they really are, simply because of their popularity, their potential profitability? There’s also a troubling whiteness to the top-tier of YouTube talent. Vine is a more diverse medium, and of course there are plenty of people of color making successful careers for themselves on YouTube—GloZell, Michelle Phan, Kingsley, etc. But the overwhelming consensus from the young fans I talked to (with their parents’ permission) during VidCon seemed to be that the cute, white males, gay or not, were the must-sees. The viewership numbers bear that out. It’s hard not to read this as long-established prejudices descending on what was once supposed to be an egalitarian, entirely inclusive community.
I’m not the only one concerned about this culture of sudden young celebrity, and what it might come to mean. Felicia Day, 36-year-old geek empress of both Comic-Con and VidCon, creator of the long-running Web series The Guild, and the founder of a digital production company that was recently bought by Legendary, told me that she’s uncertain what the future will bring for younger creators who don’t have the perhaps crucial perspective—afforded by age and professional experience—that she and others do. “What I worry about are these kids who you see walking around and they’re mobbed like the Beatles, they have 10 handlers now, and they’re a commodity. And they have no experience in this world and now they’re a very big playing chip on the board.”
Grace Helbig, an actress turned YouTuber who now hosts an E! show, has a Web series debuting soon, and still maintains her YouTube channel, seemed less concerned when I interviewed her, in the Instagram Featured Creators Lounge. (I had to hide my bright-green press badge so other creators wouldn’t get spooked by the sight of a prying journalist.) Helbig, beautiful and warm and appealing in a cool-babysitter sort of way, has an evenhandedness to her that I was not expecting from a rising media mogul. She told me that she understands why some people might look at this YouTube stuff and scratch their head. But that doesn’t mean we should discredit it, she insisted.
“Sure, maybe you don’t like the stylings of a lot of these videos or personalities or whatever, but you cannot deny their ability to speak and build an audience that will watch and buy books and buy tickets to tours and feel connected and feel like a community,” she said. “That’s talent. So now the definition of talent is completely changing.”
GETTING USED TO IT
At the end of a particularly long day of interviews, I met with 19-year-old YouTuber Kian Lawley, a former member of the defunct YouTube collective Our 2nd Life, which also included Connor Franta. He was about to head to the premiere of his first film, a horror flick called The Chosen. We were seated in the dimly lit bowling alley where the premiere party would be held later that night. I asked him about his experience filming a movie versus a video, and he paused before saying, “Having to keep up with my YouTube at the same time as doing the movie, I was just constantly in front of the camera. So seeing the camera was just like seeing my mom. I’m constantly surprised, but slowly but surely getting used to it.” Though he kept looking off to his manager, who is also Franta’s manager, Andrew Graham, as if to make sure that he was saying the right thing, I believed him.
Later that night, at a party in Downtown Disney, I saw Lohanthony dancing on the bar and glimpsed Lucas Cruikshank, who rose to early YouTube fame with his character Fred (he also had Nickelodeon movies and a series), clutching a drink as middle-agers pushed past him to belly up to the bar. The party was packed, the event of the night, and I’d had to sweet talk my way in with some publicists. Though the party was raucous and fun, being surrounded by all that churn, that ubiquitous mood of striving and scheming, eventually took its toll. I left with a colleague and we prowled for one last drink, somewhere quieter, to no avail. It was time to say goodnight. When I finally did head home, walking with sore feet across the convention center plaza, still dotted with teens at two A.M., I found myself very glad to be going to bed. VidCon is exhausting, and consuming, and loudly announces the arrival, or the right-now-ness, of a new era I’m not quite sure I’m ready for. Better to just hide under the covers—until the morning, anyway.
Though, there was one small scene I caught a glimpse of on my way home that night that at least heartened me a little: a boy and a girl, 14 or 15 maybe, sitting cross-legged on a bench together, sharing what looked to be a first kiss. It was barely a peck, but they seemed surprised, and, as they pulled away, laughed a little, maybe suddenly feeling a little bolder, a little more mature than they did a minute before, and then they headed back in for more. It was a strangely comforting sight. There in the relative dark, alone and unfilmed, two as of yet un-monetized content consumers were simply making out, the same old analog thing that so many of us once did, too. Back when we were their age, and the world belonged to us.