NME Investigation: Are YouTubers The New Pop Stars?

With millions of teen subscribers, best-selling books and even its own magazine, vlogging has become big business. Jordan Bassett investigates the global phenomenon

“My favourites are Dan and Phil,” says Ellie Cleasby, a 12-year-old from Sheffield. “They just make me feel better about myself. When you feel like you don’t fit in, they show you it’s OK to be different. When you’re sad, they make you laugh. They’re so funny and interesting and they’re real people who care about their fans.”

Ellie is talking about the comedians Dan Howell and Phil Lester, her favourite YouTubers (usernames: danisnotonfire and AmazingPhil), though she could be talking about a pop group. She’s a sign of the times: a recent survey by American entertainment trade magazine Variety found that eight out of 10 of the most influential media personalities for teenagers are YouTube stars, rather than traditional celebrities. Since 2009, these vloggers have risen to internet fame sitting in their bedrooms and talking into cameras, narrating their lives, making jokes and discussing their interests.

Video game commentators Olajide Olatunji (YouTube name: KSI) – above – and Evan Fong (Vanossgaming) and comedian Felix Arvid Ulf Kjellberg (PewDiePie) took the top spots in the Variety survey.

That report was limited to US teenagers, but none of the above YouTubers are American – they’re British, Canadian and Swedish respectively. Vlogging has had a substantial impact on pop culture in the UK, too. A closely entwined Brit pack of A-list YouTubers has garnered the kind of massive fanbase once reserved for pop stars. You may recognise the big three: beauty vlogger Zoe Sugg (Zoella) – above – prankster Joe Sugg (ThatcherJoe) and dreamboat Alfie Deyes (PointlessBlog) – below – who are all closely entwined – Joe is Zoe’s brother and Alfie is her boyfriend. Alfie and Zoe, together known as ‘Zalfie’, now have waxworks in Madame Tussauds, the creation of which they dutifully vlogged, of course. They’re clearly doing well out of being YouTube stars – in February, they moved into a £1m five-bedroom home near Brighton. Alfie is 21, Zoe 25.

A-list vloggers attend enormous pop concert-like vlogging events, such as Summer In The City which takes place at London’s cavernous Excel convention hall from August 14-16 and during which the likes of YouTube wits Jack & Dean and comedian and musician Emma Blackery will give Q&As and meet overwhelmed fans. Pre-teen vlog fan Ellie’s favourite star, Dan Howell, will also be in attendance. “I’d love to meet them in real life, but would be so star-struck!” she says.

These British vloggers also release books that seem guaranteed to become bestsellers. Last year, Zoella’s novel Girl Online sold over 78,000 copies in a single week, a record for first-time novelist since Nielsen BookScan began compiling such records in 1998. The release however was mired in controversy after it was revealed that it has been ghostwritten. There also five other YouTubers who have released books, all of which reached Number One, including Hello Life by Marcus Butler and The Pointless Book by Alfie Deyes. Vloggers also feature in each other’s videos, aiming for the kind of cross-pollination of audience that pop’s exploited for years, although admittedly the results are sometimes less glamorous. One Zoe and Alfie video just features him doing a massive fart.

Other signs that vloggers are infiltrating the pop sphere include Deyes and the Sugg siblings appearing on Band Aid 30 last year alongside Bono, One Direction and Rita Ora, and as of July a magazine, called Oh My Vlog!, created by the same publishing company as the teen music magazine We Love Pop and aimed at a similar audience of 10 to 16-year-olds. One of the motives of the magazine was clear: to print posters for teenagers, because no one can Blu-Tack a video to a bedroom wall.

Oh My Vlog! editor Malcolm Mackenzie, who also edits We Love Pop says: “There are fewer big pop stars that we can cover in [We Love Pop] than there were five years ago. Lady Gaga, Rihanna, Katy Perry and Justin Bieber have kind of gone through their journey – they’re five albums in – and the excitement behind them has vanished slightly. It’s human nature to become obsessed with certain things as we hit those teenage years and there’s less pop music for them to get obsessed with. The vloggers seem to have jumped in to fill that space because they are accessible and they upload a video every week, so you can have a very close personal relationship with them.”

When Oh My Vlog! launched last month, it sent Twitter into a tailspin, blindsiding Mackenzie, who still doesn’t quite understand why the magazine was subjected to such negative online reaction. Some commenters questioned the purpose of a print magazine about something that exists online (said @moonydamonsta: “I don’t really get the point of Oh My Vlog! magazine. Weren’t vlogs invented so you don’t have read shit and carry around a printed format?”). To this kind of criticism, Mackenzie responds: “What’s the point of having a music or film magazine? It’s the same thing – an extension of that world. If you love something, you want to learn more about it.”

Part of vlogging’s appeal is that teenage viewers are able to discover YouTubers without adult help. “They’re very protective of the vloggers,” Mackenzie says. “They don’t like to think that people who don’t love them in the same way that they do are talking about them. It’s like they’re saying: ‘I discovered this band first. I saw them when they were playing to 50 people in a grotty basement.’”

YouTube stars forge deep connections with their audiences, fostered by their interaction with comments and the sense that perhaps viewers can emulate their favourites (Dan and Phil megafan Ellie Cleasby says: “I’m really shy, but watching YouTubers makes me know I could be just like them”).

As with pop music, brands have been keen to capitalise on this. In addition to the money made from ads that run before the vloggers own content (a report in The New York Times put this at around $2,000 per million views, with a 45 per cent cut going to YouTube), vloggers are now doing lucrative product placement deals with advertisers.

A successful vlogger who asked not to be named says: “If a brand wanted to talk to someone with a million-plus subscribers, they’ll be paying about £20,000 to mention a product.” Here lies another parallel YouTubers share with the music world: from Michael Jackson’s 1984 TV advert for Pepsi to Swim Deep gracing the catwalk for YSL in 2013, artists and brands have long gone hand in hand.

Dominic Smales founded Gleam Futures in 2010 to represent vlogging talent in the press (slogan: “We develop, monetize & protect”). It’s a competitive business. He says “40 to 50” vloggers request representation from Gleam per week (only a handful have been signed this year) and that when he views their channels “it’s fairly obvious pretty immediately if someone’s got potential”.

He adds that YouTube viewers have become more accepting of product placement: “When we started, you did a video with a brand in it and [viewers] would call you out for being a sell-out. Now the market has matured and people understand that these guys are doing this to be able to earn a living and if they didn’t have 100 per cent of their time available to make videos, they wouldn’t be getting the content that they get.”

This chimes with George Orpe, a 17-year-old from York who watches KSI, the British vlogger who plays and commentates on videogames for over 10 million subscribers: “Sometimes it [bothers me], but not very often. I don’t mind a YouTuber trying to make a bit of extra cash, but it annoys me when they hide it in their video, like films do when you see a passing Coke van. I say just be upfront about it.”

In addition to vlogging other people’s wares, many YouTubers now develop their own make-up and fashion lines. Now, for example, you can watch Zoella vlog about the “extracts of blueberry and acai berry” in her own brand of moisturiser.

“I think it’s a real betrayal of her followers,” says author Chloe Combi, who recently published Generation Z: Their Voices, Their Lives, a sociological study for which she interviewed hundreds of teenagers in a bid to better understand their world. “You have this loyal following because you’re one thing – and then someone gives you a whole load of money to be something else. The viewers that like you are then pushed into doing something because you said so. In a sense, it’s taking the piss of them because the exchange that teenagers have with their chosen YouTube star is that they trust them.”

The vlogger and filmmaker Benjamin Cook – above – whom The Observer dubbed the “official chronicler of Britain’s YouTube generation,” directed Becoming YouTube, an excellent 2012/2013 web series about the then nascent world of vlog stardom. He will also make a guest appearance at this year’s Summer In The City, and has a different take on Zoella’s range of products.

“There are plenty of teenagers who’ll spend more money on gig tickets and it’s the same as that,” he says. “I’m not sure many people buy Zoella’s makeup, get home, open the bag and feel the whole weight of how very pointless life can be. They’ll be delighted with that make-up. If it makes them happy, and it makes the YouTubers happy – they’re doing what they love while making some money, which is the best possible life – I’m not sure necessarily who’s the loser… except art itself.”

Strangely, it’s hard to find out what A-list vloggers themselves make of all this. It turns out some are less approachable than they seem. Although YouTubers trade on their apparent accessibility, their inaccessibility resembles the pop world. The big guys exist on a higher plane and are closely guarded by managers and publicists.

Requests sent by NME to interview Zoe Sugg, Joe Sugg – above – beauty vlogger Tanya Burr and her fiancée Jim Chapman – all represented by Gleam – were unsuccessful. But a 10-minute phone interview with Alfie Deyes was secured – on the condition that my questions were emailed over in advance. I conformed and submitted the most vanilla set of questions imaginable (example: “How do you maintain a connection with your fans as you become more of a celebrity?”). They were deemed unsuitable and the interview was pulled. After some undignified groveling, the interview was rearranged, then postponed indefinitely due to Deyes’ schedule.

YouTubers are reluctant to give interviews, perhaps fearing bad press could damage those sponsorship deals. It’s happened before. In 2012, it was reported that KSI (represented by a different agency, OP Talent) had been banned from the London video game event Eurogamer after being accused of sexual harassment when he groped women in his videos. His manager released a statement attributing the behaviour to the “character” KSI, rather than Olatunji – a technique we’ll call ‘the Dapper Laughs defence’ – and also said: “In recent months, he has also been actively avoiding certain content seen in the distant past and wants to be judged on the great content and value he gives to brands and partners, without controversy.”

In fact, many male YouTubers have faced accusations of sexual misconduct. Former Big Brother contestant Sam Pepper – above – caused outrage by filming himself sexually harassing women in the street and later faced separate sexual assault allegations. Musician and former YouTube star Alex Day, who holds a Guinness World Record for having the highest-ranking single by an unsigned artist in chart history (‘Forever Yours’ reached Number Four in the 2011 Christmas countdown) admitted manipulating young fans into sex. Both have since slid back into the abyss.

Former NME writer Peter Robinson, who edits the influential pop music website Popjustice and has written about vlogging for The Guardian, says: “If you’re asking, ‘Are they the new pop stars?’, I’d say they’re actually a bit more like Hollywood stars in that they’re very controlled by agents and because they make so much money they don’t need to [give interviews]. In fact, they’re almost more like sports stars – that sounds more accurate to me. They’re like Premiership footballers in a way: they have their huge endorsement deals and they don’t particularly need the media to stay afloat.”

Pop stars, Hollywood royalty, Premiership footballers – just what is this new breed of celebrity? It’s very difficult to define, and you certainly can’t lump all vloggers together. Zoella and Alfie receive the most mainstream attention, but they have fewer subscribers than KSI (almost 9m and 4.5m respectively for their primary channels at the time of writing compared to KSI’s more than 10m). Although KSI’s alleged sexual harassment at the Eurogamer event in 2012 could certainly be a factor in this lack of coverage.

For all its disparateness, A-list vlogging is strikingly white and criticism of Oh My Vlog! focused on its lack of racial diversity. “There were nearly as many photos of guinea pigs as there were of black people [in the magazine]”, journalist Benjamin Cook says, but editor Malcolm Mackenzie insists that was simply a reflection of the industry. “Because I was focusing on the UK YouTuber gang of Zoella, it just happened that way,” he says. “Obviously, it wasn’t a conscious decision. If you look at the cover it’s Zoella, her brother, her boyfriend, her best friend Louise Pentland (Sprinkleofglitter). In the UK, there’s a group of the 10 vloggers who are the biggest in the country and it just so happens that they’re white.”

At the time of writing, Gleam Futures features 29 vlog stars on its books, 25 of whom are white. “There’s no rhyme or reason to the ethnic make-up of our roster,” Dominic Smales says. “We represent ethnically diverse people and are open to representing ethnically diverse people as much as we are anybody else. It just so happens that is the roster as it stands today. There’s no reason for it.”

Benjamin Cook, who plans to upload a new series of Becoming YouTube – above – in the autumn, believes that vlogging – like many other creative outlets – is more accessible to certain members of society in the first instance. “I love that romantic notion that anyone with a webcam or camera on their phone can start YouTubing,” he says, “but actually it helps to have a better camera. If instead of getting a part-time job you’re doing it to devote time to YouTubing or buy a camera, it helps to be middle-class and, because of the socio-economic make-up of the country, that often means white. And that is shit.” He’s optimistic, though, about a more diverse wave of British vloggers coming through, including Pakistani comedian Mawaan Rizwan and trans vlogger Alex Bertie (TheRealAlexBertie), both of whom seem like vital new voices.

It’s oft-repeated that YouTubers build their careers from the ground-up with no outside help from experts, and some interviewees for this piece suggested that in this respect vlogging resembles punk – just like bands inspiring kids to pick up guitars. Now, though, the landscape is dominated by big business. With its commercialisation and young fans, perhaps vlogging is the new pop after all.

It’s easy to be cynical about this, but 12-year-old Ellie Cleasby, who has started her own YouTube channel (Ellie’s World), which she says has increased her confidence, shows vlogging’s grassroots spirit lives on. “Lots of my friends want to be YouTubers now,” she says. “The internet makes it easier to show the world who you are and to make a difference.”