Getting famous on the Internet certainly seems glamorous. But even in the frenetic whirlwind of likes, adoring subscribers, and viral videos — is anyone actually making money off their online fame?
Strong Opinions Loosely Held host Elisa Kreisinger sat down with comedian Gaby Dunn, whose YouTube channel, Just Between Us, boasts over 750,000 subscribers. Dunn and her creative partner, Allison Raskin, have worked to turn their robust following into a profitable brand by spinning their YouTube success across a flurry of other ventures, including a forthcoming YA novel, I Hate Everyone But You, and a hit podcast, Bad With Money.
But even with so many opportunities, how do you translate popular content into a sustainable income in the crazy, and ultra-competitive, marketplace that is the Internet? Listen to Elisa's full conversation with Gaby, and check out a brief excerpt of their Q&A below.
How did your YouTube channel snowball into a massive following across Twitter and Instagram? Was it intentional to cultivate such an engaged social media audience, or were you just making content that people identified with?
"I think it's the latter. But also I like to run my mouth, so my Twitter is, I assume, interesting to people because they enjoy the drama. On Instagram, I imagine that it had something to do with me and Allison being symmetrical-faced and attractive...it's these privilege factors that we're two cute girls, we're two white girls, which I think is helpful, and it's part of this privilege thing that kicks into it.
"I also think there're different communities that have started following us. What's been amazing is that I wasn't trying to do anything on the channel, I was already an out bi-sexual, but I just talked about that pretty normally. The queer community has been super supportive because I was speaking about it in this really honest way, since mainstream entertainment sucks at giving us anything, so they latched on and wanted to follow on all platforms. If they're not getting it on T.V., they want to see an out person just living her life, especially kids who are looking for openness about their sexuality."
You mentioned earlier that your community is younger kids who, at least on YouTube, are looking to see themselves and their realities reflected back to them in the content that you're making, specifically from a more progressive or queer perspective. How have you been able to monetize that and has it been difficult?
"It's been helpful that Allison and I were not just YouTubers, because I think then we'd just be screwed. We knew that YouTube couldn't really be sustainable, which is terrible, because we'd love for it to be. But since Allison went to school for screenwriting, and I was a journalist for 10 years and knew I'd want to write a book, there was always other stuff going on. I try to think steps ahead, where if we make a video that we really like and the sketch does well, we'll wonder if we can use it to make a movie or pitch a T.V. show. We've sold four television shows in our time together, though none of them have gone up (that's a whole other story), but we were only able to get those meetings because of the YouTube channel, because of its following. It allowed the executives to see that the concept has legs because of its number of views.
"The big thing for us is intellectual property—we write all the videos and own all the content on the channel. And that's the first thing production companies ask us about. 'Do you own the video?' We wanted to be able to say, unequivocally, 'Yes.'"
Did growing that audience with a loyal following make you richer, happier, or feel more validated?
"No. Growing the audience didn't really help with money on YouTube, especially now that stuff is getting de-monetized. Honestly, we happened to be talented in a mainstream way as well, so we've made money from selling television shows, and from selling the book, we are able to parlay that into other things. I was planning the Bad With Money podcasts 6 months before it came out. Everything that we do, Allison and I both try to think of how to scale it further.
Did that instinct to ask "what else can I do with this" come naturally?
"Yeah, because it all comes back to intellectual property. If you have something that's working, you always wonder, How can I make this into the next thing? So Allison and I never wanted to rest on the laurels of YouTube. We know from our fanbase what issues do well and that people want to see them represented, so we take them into a new form, like our book that's coming out in September."
Just listening to you now, it sounds like you have a huge audience and you're fucking rolling in it. Like, it sounds like you are so successful at not only making content that people love, but scaling it in a way that is smart. Do you feel like you're adequately compensated for the creative labor that you do?
"Not really, because none of our shows get picked up! You sell them, you get a script fee, but we would love to make a second episode of something. It's tough. We know we're working in this town, we're just waiting to actually get something on air. The podcast pays some money, but everyone's situations are different. They don't pay you as much as you would think (or would like). I'm about to be 29—in the last 6 months, I've been like, We're okay now, we're level. When I started doing Bad With Money, it was not good, debt-wise. And that was from years of just trying to chase this thing and making poor decisions and not talking to people and assuming that everyone was having the same money problems that I was or avoiding it at all costs.
"We did the channel for 3 years for essentially free. Let's say we made 200 videos for free, maybe 10 of them are sponsored. But then people would comment that we were sellouts, even though I'd eaten noodles for years and provided content (and joy) to an audience for free, getting paid for 2% of those videos. Then you start to get mad and resent your fans, because you get upset. Sometimes it feels like they don't have any idea about the amounts of money and labor that goes into making these videos for free."
Looking for more stories about the pleasures, and pitfalls, of being Internet-famous? Check out our bonus interview featuring Refinery29 features writer, Ashley Ford, and be sure to follow Strong Opinions Loosely Held on iTunes and Facebook.