It is 3 pm, and outside shines the brilliant Los Angeles sun. But Olga Kay has drawn her blinds. Kay sits cross-legged in front of a glowing screen, offering cheerful commentary as she navigates her way through the violent video game Grand Theft Auto 5.
The video game marathon is not a diversion; it is her job. Kay, 31, is part of an emerging group of entertainers who are trying to make a living by producing content for YouTube. On this particular weekend, she is filming a week’s worth of segments for her online game channel, because during the week she must feed the rest of her network.
Yes, network. With neither writers nor producers, she has made herself the star of five channels on YouTube that together attract roughly 1 million subscribers. That following helps her earn money through advertising, sponsorships and merchandise.
It’s a living. But it’s a frantic one. The 5-foot-1-inch Kay, who started out as a juggler in Russia, has turned everything in her life into material for her videos.
Her living room has become a studio for Olga Kay Games, the hall space outside her kitchen is used as an editing suite, and her bedroom has been wallpapered in pink and white stripes to create a background for the taping of Mooshville, on which she gives make-up and fashion tips to her fans. There is even a channel featuring her Shih Tzu dog, Roxy.
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She posts at least 20 videos a week to her main channels. “It is very stressful,” she says. “Every morning I wake up and think, ‘What can I do that’s different that will keep me relevant?’.”
Once an outlet for zany antics and animal videos, YouTube has more recently sought to attract the kind of high-quality programming that advertisers will want to buy against.
In 2012, it announced a partner’s programme that allows content producers to share with YouTube the ad revenue from their videos. All creators have to do is agree to let Google sell advertising that will appear on their site in return for a share of the revenue. Today, the company says, there are a million “partners” trying to make money off the platform.
That same year, the company gave more than 100 content producers grants of roughly $1 million apiece to improve the quality of their videos. And it has built huge production facilities that are open for no charge to YouTube contributors.
The message was seductive: Come to YouTube, attract an audience, build your brand and even make real money. But success remains elusive. Kay, who has been slogging away since 2006, says she has earned from $100,000 to $130,000 in each of the three years. She puts much of it back into her business, into merchandise, equipment, staff.
Then there is YouTube’s cut of the profits. Content creators say the company takes 45 per cent.
Robert Kyncl, YouTube’s head of content and business operations, admitted that ad rates are declining and will probably drop even further as more people post material. But Kyncl is unapologetic. “If you had to choose higher ad rates or choke off growth, which would you pick?” he asks. “No other platform has invested in video delivery like we have.”
Google has put its worldwide advertising sales force of 12,000 behind the platform. Kyncl also cited the investments that allow for high-quality video uploading from all over the world, even on cellphones. Hollywood studios have made substantial investments in multimedia studios to enter the YouTube market.
It’s a lot of money, but it is right now spread very thinly.