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Subbable and the future of YouTube

Hank Green of the VlogBrothers sounds off on his subscription service for content creators. 


Aja Romano


On the surface, the VlogBrothers‘ new subscription service may not look like the kind of thing that can change the face of YouTube. But Subbable represents a fundamentally different approach to the business of YouTube: It’s about people—not pageviews.

Subbable is a crowdfunding platform that offers various rewards to subscribers for their contributions. Unlike Kickstarter, its closest comparison point, the service is focused on sustaining creative projects, not creating standalone products. While Subbable’s designed to support everything from webcomics to novels, its origins are very much a reaction to YouTube culture and its recent, ready-for-TV approach to content.

Few have been more outspoken about—or are more uniquely positioned to address—YouTube’s emphasis on premium content than Hank Green.

“I’m getting a little bit worried that in the future, only the big stuff will be able to support itself, and 99 percent of the people will watch 1 percent of the content, and the 1 percent of the content will be the same, like, boring stuff that’s currently on television,” Hank said in March, “and there will be no new innovation and no new cool things happening, and there will be rich people who have a vested interest in keeping it that way.”

Since launching his first channel seven years ago with his brother, acclaimed Young Adult novelist John Green, he’s been at the center of YouTube’s vlogging community. With the motto DFTBA (Don’t Forget To Be Awesome), the two have culled a substantial fanbase, known as Nerdfighters, and started numerous side projects that have tapped directly into YouTube’s homegrown culture for success—including YouTube’s major conference, VidCon, which opens today in Anaheim, Calif.

With Subbable, his message is not just that the community of YouTube doesn’t have to end, but that the community of YouTube is only the beginning. Ahead of VidCon, the Daily Dot reached out to Hank to learn more.

What ideal existing project would you love to see come to Subbable?

I really love this podcast, Hardcore History. It’s the only thing that makes me /want/ to go for a run, so I can listen to that guy tell me all about the Mongols or the Russian Front in WWII or whatever. I would love to support it, but there’s just no way to do it. Any project like that, where people love the content so much the /want/ to pay for it, that’s who we can’t wait to work with.

You’ve basically said that you don’t want to change the content but the model. What makes you have confidence this model can work?

Well, nerdily enough, we did research. We did a test case with the Brain Scoop (our zoology and taxidermy show) and were able to raise about 10 times what we were making from advertising (with no perks). I talked to other people who had similar systems (BlameSocietyFilms does this) and see how it worked for them (very well), and finally we asked our community in a survey if they would pay for content and, if so, how much. They said they would, and the numbers were impressive.

That doesn’t mean it’s not a risky bet. It’s a low-margin business, and this is easily 10 times bigger (in terms of startup capital) than anything else we’ve ever funded. So it’s scary and exciting, and I really hope it can sustain not just itself but a lot of amazing content.

If a project can’t fund itself through Subbable, what happens to the project?

The creator tries everything else they can to keep it alive. If they can’t, it dies and the subscriptions get cancelled :-(

Let’s suppose that Welcome to Night Vale comes to Subbable, and fans give it all their money. But then Carlos and Cecil break up in the course of the narrative, and heartbroken fans refuse to give any more money. How do we keep crowdfunding in-progress creative projects on Subbable from turning into crowdfunding the narratives of those projects?

I think being beholden to your viewers is much more creatively freeing than being beholden to advertisers or granting agencies or whatever. If your viewers don’t like your content anymore, if you piss them off, then yeah, you lose your audience and your funding. That’s the same way it’s always been. Also, I would LOVE to have Welcome to Night Vale as part of Subbable. Are you listening, Joe?

Would you say YouTube’s single biggest challenge moving forward is just to get out of its own way? And how can Subbable help with that?

I don’t spend my days in San Bruno, so I really can’t say. But if I had to guess, I’d say YouTube needs to give its employees, as well as its creators, more freedom to innovate.  

But YouTube has great reasons for doing what they do. I think there are a lot of creators who could benefit from a new way of thinking about monetization and success. I’m not making a platform for YouTube or even for YouTubers—just for the people who think it’ll work for them.

What about for video creators?

The biggest challenge is always how to maintain and grow your audience. Of course, that’s been the case since the first poet, and it will remain the case forever.

One of the criticisms of crowdfunding, especially with projects like the Veronica Mars Kickstarter, is that fans don’t really receive joint ownership in the stories they invest in, so if the story goes downhill, there’s no way to really “refund” the customer. Is this a misunderstanding of how fans’ emotional investment in shows operates?

It’s insane to me that anyone would say that the people who gave to the VMars Kickstarter don’t feel invested in or have a sense of ownership in the project. The idea that you have to have a financial stake, or be on a board of directors to be a part of something is infuriating. This new kind of relationship between creator and community is fascinating, and no one understands it particularly well, but there’s no doubt that it is almost always an extremely rewarding relationship for all parties involved.

You guys would consider applications to sponsor fanfic?

Fanfic is content like everything else is content. If people love it, it fits our mission. As to the copyright concerns… that’s for the creator to work out.

Do you have tips for how a creative team using Subbable can make a strategic initiative to help them reach long-term funding goals?

Probably someday; at the moment, our advice for Subbable creators is the same as our advice for all creators: Imagine your audience complexly and be creative.

Advice to anyone applying to Subbable?

Don’t be surprised if you don’t hear back for a while… We are a very small team.

Illustration by Fernando Alfonso III

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