What it's really like to work for a YouTube star
With the rise of YouTube as a viable career option for digital creators, much attention is focused on the talent in front of the cameras. They are, of course, the most visible components of the new wave of entertainment in the digital age. However, there’s more to these seemingly self-made celebs—specifically, the teams behind the camera.
Most of the current crop of big-name vloggers did begin their rise with single-person operations. They shot, edited, and managed their online presences completely alone, and their interactions with their core fanbases were all self-directed. Many of them still have a heavy hand in their own production, but there comes a point where the demand for and pace of content requires more hands on deck. Enter production managers, script writers, producers, studios, managers, agents, and other trappings of traditional Hollywood. YouTube is now a booming career option, even if you don’t want to talk about your life in front of a camera.
Last month’s VidCon even featured a panel to deal with the trials and tribulations of working behind the scenes for a YouTuber, and served as a forum for aspiring employees of YouTubers to ask professionals in the field for guidance. David Heuff, the production manager for Nexttime Productions, the people behind Epic Meal Time, joked on the panel that his primary job is to “make sure all the bacon gets purchased on time” (perhaps off his plate now that the channel has inked a deal with Hormel as its bacon sponsor). He fell into his job by helping out around the productions and eventually becoming a valued member of the team.
“I just kept picking up new skills we had demand for,” explained Heuff. “I was a mattress salesman before this.”
Other entrants into the space had more traditional careers in video production and management before they found themselves on the team of a YouTuber. Lauren Schnipper worked in theater production in New York before ending up as head of production and development for Shane Dawson TV Inc.
“These jobs didn’t even exist five years ago. By no means ever in a million years did I think I’d work for YouTubers,” said Schnipper, who's helping Dawson helm his feature film project this year. “What’s really exciting is none of these jobs exist until you create it. You might have to work for a free for a while.”
Before Dawson could be her full-time gig, Schnipper spent about a year juggling projects and working for less money than she wanted until she could “make it” as a YouTube producer. One of the most repeated questions of the panelists was how young, aspiring, behind-the-scenes hopefuls could stand out among the throngs of fans just looking for a chance to get closer to their favorite stars.
“There’s a difference between, ‘I want to work for Shane Dawson’ and ‘I want to be an editor,’” explained Stevie Wynne Levine, a production manager with Rhett & Link.
“One of those is a red flag,” chimed in Jonathan Green, the executive producer for Fine Brothers Entertainment.
Overall the panelists recommended that those interested in working around YouTube focus on their portfolio and finding relevant experience to showcase so that when they do approach creators directly, they have something to back up their passions. April Salud, a producer for Strawburry17, also pointed out that traditional job boards in the entertainment industry are now hotbeds for digital production gigs.
Of course, some of the people that make their livings working for YouTubers are now stars in their own right. Rosianna Halse Rojas, who moderated the panel at VidCon, serves as the assistant to Vlogbrother and author John Green (no relation to Fine Brothers' Jonathan Green). But she also plays double-duty as a vlogger with her own passionate fans on the platform. The juggling act of having your own projects and working as part of the creative team for someone else’s projects is indicative of the many hats that creators wear in the emerging digital video space. According to Jonathan Green, a mark of a good partnership with a YouTuber is that the person is willing to wear just as many hats as you do.
“In the [traditional media] world, what we do would require 10 of us,” explained Schnipper.
Those smaller staffs are a function of both the funding gap between mainstream productions and YouTube and the DIY nature of the medium. When asked what was the hardest part about working YouTube creators, Schnipper pointed out that giving up control was an issue. The YouTubers who are used to doing everything themselves sometimes have a hard time stepping back and letting another person take on projects for them.
Jonathan Green found the challenges to be two-fold: battling perfectionism and the fact that the business doesn’t subscribe to a 9-to-5 workday.
“It’s like being a doctor without saving any lives,” he quipped of the 24/7 schedule and availability he’s expected to keep, further joking about his coping strategy: “I like to lie facedown on the floor a lot for 30 seconds at a time.”
“You have to have a line; you have to say no,” explained Schnipper, who also joked that her job has gotten easier since Dawson got a girlfriend and “discovered weekends.”
The chumminess with their employers is also key to these behind-the-scenes gigs, with Schnipper quipping, “I have a job because people want to hang out with me.” The YouTubers themselves even made time in their busy VidCon schedules to support their support staff, with Meghan Camarena of Strawburry17 sitting in the front row to cheer on Salud. When the Q&A began, Link appeared in the middle of the crowd and asked what it was like dealing with the overblown egos of creators. Levine wisely pleaded the fifth but claimed, “As hard as all our jobs are, we love what we do.”
Salud really brought that point home. She began working for Strawburry17 as an intern while also working paid gigs to pay her rent, simply because she was passionate about the space.
“I’d still be doing my full-time job and working for Meghan for free, but she offered me full-time,” claimed Salud.
You don’t get many people in traditional employment situations making that claim, but judging by the number of hopefuls looking for a chance to create in the space without the hopes of fame themselves, the YouTube community has no shortage of Saluds.
Illustration by Jason Reed