It’s the Beginning of the End for Independent YouTubers

As studios pump out the type of content the site originally intended to subvert, the barrier to success rises

Photo: Andrew Francis Wallace/Getty Images

WWhen T-Series surpassed celebrity influencer PewDiePie in YouTube subscribers last year, most people in the West hadn’t yet heard of the Bollywood movie and music studio. An outspoken and controversial independent creator based in the U.K. had been displaced by a media monolith based in India.

The coup is a sign of how YouTube is changing. For the first half of its existence, the company had a slogan that sat under the logo on its homepage: “Broadcast Yourself.” It emphasized the individualistic, democratizing idea of the platform: Anyone with a camera and an internet connection could upload videos and potentially be thrust into superstardom. PewDiePie, whose real name is Felix Kjellberg, was a prime example of that. The Swede, who now lives in Brighton, England, was studying industrial economics and technology management at university before he grew bored of it and focused on his YouTube channel instead. Rather than a career in middle management, PewDiePie is now a millionaire celebrity creator adored by millions.

But as the site became more popular — two billion people now visit it every month, and users upload more than 500 hours of footage every minute — competition on the platform increased, and the barrier to success rose.

Instead of being a small one-person-band channel with a handful of support staff, T-Series is a media giant: It both produces its own content and buys the rights to others’ content. It owns the rights to a deep back catalog of movies and music that it can pick and choose from to bolster uploads when needed, and it runs 30 separate YouTube channels, each focusing on different niches and languages.

There’s a sense that succeeding on YouTube now requires this sort of industrialized mass production.

Unlike many of the individual creators who have often topped YouTube’s charts throughout the last 15 years, T-series was a music, television, and film studio before it was a YouTube channel. The company produced its first albums in 1984 and joined YouTube in 2010 after bootleg versions of its own content appeared there. T-Series published its first video on January 1, 2011, and it wasn’t long before that channel was growing fast, especially in India, now the home of YouTube’s largest and fastest-growing audience.

“In prioritizing watch time, high-quality production, and viewership on TVs, you really see how traditional production companies have a strategic advantage.”

Within a year, T-Series had a million subscribers. Since then, it’s repeatedly broken records. YouTube invented a new category for its creator awards when T-Series crossed 100 million subscribers in May 2019. And recently, T-Series marked a new landmark: It became the first YouTube channel to surpass 100 billion views on all its videos, having added an average of 2.8 billion views per month for the last year.

T-Series’ background as a studio has aided its success. While YouTube’s homepage and recommended video algorithm remains an impenetrable black box, third-party analysts including Matt Gielen of Little Monster Media Co., believe it promotes channels that post regular, long-form, high-quality content. That’s a lot easier for a company like T-Series to pull off than for an individual YouTuber.

“In prioritizing watch time — preferably over 10 minutes — high-quality production, and viewership on TVs, you really see how traditional production companies have a strategic and resource advantage,” says Brendan Gahan, chief social officer at creative agency Mekanism. “That advantage is starting to play out, and in looking at the most-subscribed channels, you see major media companies like T-Series, WWE, Ellen, and late-night TV shows generating massive audience and views whereas [for many of those] five or 10 years ago their footprint was small to nonexistent.”

While popular YouTube creators often hire staff once they reach a certain scale, T-Series does things differently. Its whole creative process is designed to bring in content that looks more like traditional media than the “Broadcast Yourself” site that was meant to supplant it.

T-Series manages some music artists, producing tracks that are then uploaded to their YouTube channel. It also acquires videos and broadcasts them through its own channel. The same thing happens with movie productions. “We’re looking at producing and releasing close to 18 films this year,” T-Series president Neeraj Kalyan told OneZero. “Each film will have at least five songs, then we’re acquiring music from outside and producing singles from assets. With our scale, we’re able to acquire content and push it through.”

“We’re looking at producing and releasing close to 18 films this year,” T-Series president Neeraj Kalyan told OneZero. Photo courtesy of T-Series

T-Series follows a similar model to South Korean cutesy-pop factory Pinkfong, the conglomerate responsible for the Baby Shark earworm that drove you crazy in the winter of 2018. (Sorry for bringing it back to your frontal cortex.) Pinkfong has hundreds of employees across South Korea, China, and the United States and A/B tests its songs to maximize the likelihood of viral success. Baby Shark was published in roughly a dozen languages and with different backing beats. When I spoke to Jamie Oh, the company’s global marketing director, in December 2018, she reckoned “In all, we have probably 30 or 40 different variations of Baby Shark.”

And the videos keep coming. While Pinkfong hasn’t managed to capture lightning in a bottle twice, it does keep churning out content. The channel has posted 20 different videos in the last month — a similar volume to T-Series.

“There are many companies that do some sense of industrialized production,” explains Bastian Manintveld, co-founder of 2btube, a YouTube media company based in Madrid, Spain. 2btube follows a similar model with its own channels and also helps other brands run YouTube channels. It manages Sony’s PlayStation YouTube channel, which produces between four and six pieces of content a week for its 1.5 million subscribers.

“I think if you’re just starting, it’s probably hard to compete,” Manintveld says. “But I think it’s not different than a musical artist starting out having to compete against U2 or Coldplay with big, multibillion record companies behind them. If they have an ability to find an audience and an ability to be original, they will find a way.”

Others aren’t so sure. “This system is particularly stacked against small individual creators, who are competing on an overcrowded platform against corporate monoliths such as T-Series, BuzzFeed, and Bon Appétit, as well as seemingly independent major influencers, who in fact more often than not have teams of people working for them,” says Zoe Glatt, a PhD researcher at the London School of Economics who studies YouTube. “These companies have the time and resources to pump out a much higher quantity and quality of content, which performs better algorithmically than an independent creator who has to work another job to earn a living.” Glatt says the algorithm — and the industrialization of YouTube — is “yet another compounding factor as to why traditional inequalities across intersections of race, class, and gender persist and, indeed, why the barriers to entry remain extremely high in the online video industry.”

Kalyan disagrees that T-Series’s scale gives it an unfair advantage. “YouTube is based on search. If the content is good, it will get consumed,” he says. “If our content isn’t good, it won’t track, irrespective of which and what kind of channel it is on. At the end of the day, the consumer is very choosy — they want good content. Where it’s coming from, they’re not interested.”

Whether that’s true or not, people across the world will end up watching a lot more content from T-Series and others like it in the future. “We are continuing to deliver content after content almost every single day,” says Kalyan. “There’s nothing we’re not going to do.”

UK-based freelancer for The Guardian, The Economist, BuzzFeed News, the BBC and more. Tell me your story, or get me to write for you:

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