YouTube and Patreon Still Aren’t Paying the Rent for Most Creatives
Without major platform overhauls, the creator’s gold rush will come to an end
In 2020, YouTube’s highest earner, according to Forbes, was nine-year-old Ryan Kaji, who made $29.5 million — up from $26 million in 2019. Gaining fame through unboxing and reviewing toys, Kaji surged to the top of YouTube’s charts after publishing a 2015 video in which he reviews more than 100 toys, and he’s remained there ever since. Drawing inspiration from other YouTubers like EvanTubeHD and Hulyan Maya, who also reviewed toys, Kaji and his mother started the channel when he was three years old. To many in his generation, Kaji’s living the dream — in a study of 3,000 children ages eight to 12 conducted by the Harris Poll in 2019, the most popular career aspiration among respondents was YouTuber.
Children aren’t the only ones who dream of making a living with platforms like YouTube. As tech YouTuber Shelby Church writes in OneZero: “Becoming a YouTuber is one of those things that feels within the realm of possibility for just about anyone.” And YouTube isn’t the only platform that appears to offer people a chance to convert their passion into fame and fortune. Aspirational stories abound of streamers making $16,000 on Twitch overnight, a viral TikTok skateboarder making $30,000, and a high schooler making more than $1 million in five weeks on Snapchat. Job losses caused by the pandemic and remote work may have even strengthened the narrative that this is the best time to make money from creative work. Author William Deresiewicz calls this enhanced ability of individuals to get rich from creative work the “techno-utopian narrative” in his book The Death of the Artist.
But there’s also a dark underbelly to this narrative that it’s so easy to make money online. There’s the tragic death of streamer Mocha, who made a meager living streaming on Chinese video-sharing website Bilibili (which has been described as “the nearest thing China has to YouTube”), and actor and comedian Brittany Ashley whose YouTube videos for BuzzFeed were seen by tens of millions in 2015 while she paid most of her bills by waitressing. We could call this side of the coin the “techno-dystopian narrative.”