From book deals to radio shows, chart success, television, and stage work, YouTubers are increasingly breaking into mainstream media. But how is it affecting the YouTube community and outside perceptions of it? Are YouTubers now classed as celebrities? And is YouTube itself becoming mainstream? TenEighty caught up with Riyadh Khalaf, Hannah Witton, Orla Gartland, and Jimmy Hill to find out…
With the addition of the word ‘YouTuber’ to the Oxford English Dictionary and the Made For You advertisement campaign, YouTubers are increasingly being legitimised in mainstream terms.
THE WORD YOUTUBER IS NOW IN THE OXFORD DICTIONARY THIS IS NOT A DRILL CONGRATULATIONS WE EXIST pic.twitter.com/z8DSVIOgrm
— Caspar Lee (@Caspar_Lee) December 28, 2016
Speaking to TenEighty, Riyadh Khalaf defines mainstream media as “traditional media that we’ve known for decades: film, terrestrial television, print, and radio. It is the media that was our mainstay before the new media and the internet exploded in popularity”.
Hannah Witton mentions that it is “established and wide-reaching”.
“Hitting the ‘mainstream’ is when my granny stops hassling me to get a real job,” jokes Orla Gartland.
YouTube has traditionally been seen as the alternative to the mainstream or, as Riyadh asserts, the “young, misbehaving, boundary-breaking, boisterous, insecure yet overly confident, annoying yet loveable cousin to traditional media”. But with so many YouTubers seeing success in mainstream media, this reputation is quickly changing.
In 2009, Jimmy Hill starred in BBC Switch’s documentary Chartjackers, which aimed to get a charity single to Number One. Speaking to TenEighty about his experience on Chartjackers, Jimmy says: “It was new and exciting and I’d never even thought about doing TV before.”
Since then, Jimmy has worked in number of presenting roles, such as for 4Music and Radio X. Comparing Chartjackers to these more recent roles, he says that the attitude in 2009 was akin to “let’s get the YouTubers in, shove them on telly, and see what happens”, whereas nowadays, he appreciates working in roles where he is valued more for his own work than his audience on YouTube: “Being hired by Radio X… the fact that I was hired as a presenter in my own right rather than as a YouTuber, that was quite a big moment for me.”
Charlie McDonnell, who starred alongside Jimmy, also mentioned Chartjackers in his 2015 interview with TenEighty. In the second part of the interview, Charlie said, “I don’t get those offers as much any more, which is probably cos I’ve turned down a lot of them in the past”, so the mainstream clearly doesn’t always appeal.
While Dodie Clark has had some mainstream media roles, including her appearance on CBBC’s Got What It Takes?, in 2016 she told TenEighty that writing music for films interested her much more than the mainstream music industry, which she described as “‘Let’s get a hit, let’s write in this structure’”. Doing things her own way, Dodie has recently seen chart success.
Orla has also had chart success, with her debut EP Roots reaching Number One in the Irish albums chart and Number 15 in the UK albums chart. She says that steps like these are “good pat-on-the-back moments, and they feel like sweet bulletpoints to have on your Wikipedia page”.
However, that’s not what keeps her going. “As corny as it sounds, things like that are never really as meaningful as someone just coming to your show and sticking around after to tell you they like your songs,” says Orla.
“YouTube is still seen as a less valid platform…”
Troye Sivan has taken to the mainstream music industry with ease as well. His 2014 EP TRXYE reached Number Five in the US Billboard 200, while his 2015 single Youth peaked at 25 in the Billboard Hot 100. His mainstream achievements have led to him being one of Forbes’s 30 Under 30 musicians while he has maintained his presence on YouTube.
In 2016 alone, we saw mainstream successes like book releases from Savannah Brown, Candice O’Reilly, and Giovanna Fletcher, plus Bry’s tour with Twenty One Pilots, Jack Howard and Dean Dobbs’s series Jack & Dean of All Trades, and BBC Three documentaries from Riyadh Khalaf and Grace Victory, to name a few.
However, the relationship between YouTubers and mainstream media hasn’t always been easy. In the past we have seen an onslaught of criticism of vloggers in the mainstream, as shown by TenEighty’s 2014 response to a Vice article criticising Alfie Deyes after the release of The Pointless Book. Zoe Sugg has also recently been criticised in a Guardian article, sparking a discussion among creators about mainstream media’s opinion of and relationship to YouTube. Dodie Clark, Tom Ridgewell, and Carrie Hope Fletcher were among creators to upload videos in response to this article.
Jimmy says that he experienced a similar kind of criticism in his earlier mainstream roles. “I definitely struggled earlier on when I was starting my career as a presenter as just being labelled as a YouTuber, in almost quite a derogatory way by people who worked in the industry, and I think that YouTube is still seen as a less valid platform,” he says. “I struggled to shake off that title and be respected for being a good presenter rather than just a YouTuber who’s got lucky.”
Riyadh agrees: “YouTube was, for a long time, seen as lesser than all other forms of media. It was and at times is still seen as an embarrassing thing to identify as a YouTuber, but all of this is changing – and fast.”
As Riyadh says, the understanding of YouTube within the mainstream has clearly developed. The frequent inclusion of YouTubers in mainstream media nowadays indicates a relationship leaning towards collaboration rather than rivalry. This is especially shown by an article from The Guardian which describes Dodie Clark and Bry as “self-starting artists who are finding an audience on YouTube, and building careers before they get mainstream awareness” as well as another article on the rise of the YouTube author and Variety’s survey that focuses on YouTuber popularity among teenagers.
Riyadh has presented and produced a series of LGBTQ+ themed documentaries on BBC Three called Queer Britain, set to be released in April, as well as regularly uploading to his YouTube channel. Previous to this, he worked as a presenter and producer on Irish radio.
Speaking about his collaboration with the BBC, he says: “Without the BBC, there would have been no way for me to make this alone. The time, resources, talent, and respect they have as a broadcaster has come together to make this something so special and that I am incredibly proud of.”
“I like to provide something different for each medium…”
He goes on to mention the relationship between his mainstream roles in general and his presence on YouTube, saying: “Having worked my entire teenage and adult life in both traditional media and YouTube, they have definitely complemented and at time come head to head with each other.
“It can be a great advantage to understand my own platform, how to speak to my audience in an open, caring, and real way, and bring this stripped-back version of myself into the mainstream where vulnerability and realness is rarely seen!” Riyadh adds.
Hannah agrees that her mainstream roles and presence on YouTube complement each other: “For me, they all inform each other, and although there’s some overlap I like to provide something different for each medium and work out what works best in the given format.”
“I’d like to take YouTube out to dinner and thank it properly for all it’s given me…”
Referring to her experience with YouTube and the mainstream music industry, Orla says: ”YouTube support builds a story which helps a lot with radio play and gigs, but whenever new folk hear a tune of mine on the radio or at a show, they might search and end up on my YouTube channel… YouTube was definitely the initial springboard!
“It’s great; I’d like to take YouTube out to dinner and thank it properly for all it’s given me.”
But Riyadh admits there can be risks when you have a presence both on YouTube and in mainstream media. “At times it can be difficult when my unfiltered nature online could be seen as unprofessional to broadcasters who I want to work with,” he says. “But I have to remember, being unapologetically me is what got me here in the first place, and censoring myself to appear as a polished ‘product’ or presenter repulses me.”
He continues: “I want to work in both TV and online without either suffering. I’m still trying to figure out if that’s possible, though.”
But does working in mainstream media mean a loss of the creative control that YouTubers are used to? Jimmy asks whether full creative control is even possible on YouTube, a question explored by TenEighty in 2015 with regard to brand deals.
He says: “Technically you do [have full creative control] – you can do whatever you want as long as you’re not getting your willy out! – [but] when it comes to putting together a video that is going to do well and be picked up by the algorithm and be clicked on by people, you’re actually quite limited.”
He adds that this is not too different to working from a script on a television show: “Although you’re not coming up with the creative, you’re often allowed to change it and to contribute. All of the jobs that I do, I actively participate in the creative, in the scripting, in coming up with the ideas, because I just really enjoy that.”
Riyadh disagrees, referring to his time working in radio, when he “was very much constricted by the station’s creative code or content ‘bible’. It killed me that I was being forced to make a certain type and style of content with very little creative freedom.”
He says that he has been able to change his attitude to creative control in his mainstream roles nowadays: “I only accept a job if I have control of what I say and do on camera or in front of a mic. Even in my BBC Three series, there have been moments where I will have a prolonged disagreement with a director over a piece of content until we are both happy with it ethically and creatively.”
Hannah also believes that she has been fortunate in retaining creative control in her mainstream roles: “The guests, songs, and segments on my radio show are created by me and my producers and nothing would go on air if I wasn’t okay with it. My book is completely my words, and when presenting it can vary to things being heavily scripted or improvised. But either way, I get a say in the topics and tone.”
Orla firmly believes in retaining creative control over her music. “It’s everything!” she affirms. “I’ve never been signed to a label but I’ve heard other [artists] speak about it, and it can be a real struggle to balance listening to the advice of those on your team and standing your own ground.”
But do large online audiences along with some mainstream success mean YouTubers should be considered celebrities?
As Hannah points out, this can be seen in YouTube’s Made For You campaign: “the main thing that springs to mind are the massive ad campaigns that YouTube runs that puts YouTubers on massive billboards and on the side of buses. I think this encourages the idea of YouTubers as celebrities.”
However, she believes that vloggers form a different kind of celebrity, referring to them as ‘niche famous’. “Beyoncé can’t go walking down Oxford Street without getting mobbed whereas a famous YouTuber can,” says Hannah. “But stick that YouTuber at VidCon or Summer in the City and it’s like Beyoncé on Oxford Street.”
Orla also thinks YouTube’s campaigns encourage the concept of creators as celebrities , especially when they are “pushing some of the really popular [YouTubers] to the masses on billboards and buses.
“YouTubers market themselves, in some cases they often build their own li’l empire, but YouTube is still their platform,” she says.
Riyadh points out the positives of YouTubers being perceived as celebrities: “After a long and hard battle, mainstream media is finally letting down their self-important guard and letting YouTubers into their club, celebrating them as real talent, and holding them up in a similar light to singers, actors, dancers, etc. And about damn time too!”
He continues: “The online community still has a way to go in order to be seen as legitimate celebrities or talent. The more YouTubers who break the mould, making amazing work on traditional media, the more respect for us will grow.”
Jimmy, however, feels that that some popular vloggers have already achieved celebrity status, and attributes this partly to the more mainstream position of YouTube nowadays. “The fact that YouTube has started to go more mainstream has made the popular YouTubers seem more like celebrities, for sure.”
He also focuses on our role as viewers in popularising certain creators, saying that “we are almost a part of their celebrity and their wealth by being one of their viewers. They weren’t just put onscreen by some faceless TV executive…. we made these people popular.”
“I definitely wouldn’t say I’m a celebrity…”
The extreme popularisation of YouTubers hasn’t always had positive effects. In the past it has contributed to issues with YouTube gatherings, causing the need for security and capacity control through ticket purchases at events such as Summer in the City.
Speaking of how he would describe himself, Riyadh says that the term ‘celebrity’ implies a sense of other. Jimmy agrees, saying, “I definitely wouldn’t say I’m a celebrity. I used to say that I was a YouTuber… now my career’s taken off a little bit, I probably would describe myself as a presenter first and a YouTuber second.”
Orla describes herself as a musician first and foremost. “That’s where I’ve put my energy for the last couple years,” she says, “[but] if someone called me a YouTuber I wouldn’t throw a hissy fit.”
Riyadh struggles to categorise his job as one thing: “I see myself as a YouTube content creator, digital entrepreneur, and television presenter and producer.” Hannah agrees that it is difficult to place what exactly her career is: “I consider myself a vlogger, a writer, a radio and podcast host, and a presenter. At least for now, it’s always changing!”
The role of YouTube as a platform is also changing all the time. With over a billion users, what was once the alternative choice could now be considered mainstream too.
“Interestingly, over the last couple of years, it seems as though the two are fusing a little bit more and YouTube is becoming the mainstream,” Jimmy says. “The boundaries are blurring a bit.”
Orla agrees, saying that “some genres within YouTube (and their figureheads) have been ‘mainstream’ for a while now. There are still awesome niche corners of site, of course, but when the word ‘vlog’ joins the Oxford English Dictionary you know it’s all become a lot bigger than us.”
“YouTube is the face and forefront of the ‘new media revolution’…”
Hannah mentions music videos and movie trailers as examples of YouTube being “mainstream in that it’s completely a part of people’s lives”. However, she feels the YouTube creator world isn’t. “Some creators are [mainstream], but the whole culture around vlogging and YouTube celebrities is, for the most part, still niche.”
Despite this, Jimmy feels that YouTube and traditional media will continue to be two separate entities. “There was a rush amongst TV people just to put YouTubers on telly and on the radio… and it didn’t always work, because that’s not where YouTubers are most comfortable.
“Now it seems like we’re at a point where there’s still a little bit of cross-pollination – a bit of crossover between mainstream media and YouTube – but I almost feel like online’s been left to do online and TV’s been left to do TV.”
Regardless of its future, Riyadh asserts that YouTube and its creators are being legitimised and can no longer be underestimated by mainstream media. “YouTube is the face and forefront of the ‘new media revolution’ where rules don’t exist and the creator/audience bond is so tight; it shines a light on how pretentious and un-relatable traditional media can be.
“Traditional media are anxiously watching as young audiences fall away and lose interest in overly-produced content with no heart,” he says. “[They] are now, thankfully, beginning to respect online creators and their audiences by recognising our talent, the platform, and its influence.”
Check out some of the following features by TenEighty:
- Can YouTube Combat Bisexual Erasure?
- How Niche Can Empower Creators
- 2016 on TenEighty in Review
- TenEighty: YouTuber Picks 2016