You might not see a YouTuber climbing out of a Porsche or a Ferrari and walking down a red carpet yet, but many of them are celebrities nonetheless. They reach out to millions through the internet and, in some cases, perform in jam-packed halls and auditoriums. Gone are the days when only an occasional YouTube fan-fest, held in an obscure corner of Mumbai, witnessed a gathering clamouring for a YouTube star. Today, they perform across the length and breadth of the country and, sometimes, all over the world.
Thanks to Reliance Jio and the disruption in the telecom industry, data cost is no longer sky-high and the internet is no longer restricted to the 'malt whiskey' consumer. Every region in the country now consumes content in every regional language. The 'Hinglish' toilet-humour dominance is now facing serious challenges from the ones creating content in Hindi and catering to the middle-class Indian.
afaqs! Reporter spoke to chef Nisha Madhulika, tech reviewer Praval Sharma who runs Sharmaji Technical, beauty vlogger Shruti Arjun Anand, music band Sanam and comedians Abish Mathew and Bhuvan Bam. These are six extremely popular YouTube content creators who operate across categories. This story tries to identify how one category is different from another an, in some cases, how two creators have become successful operating in two different ways even within the same category.
THE ROAD TO YOUTUBE
Fifty-seven-year-old Nisha Madhulika is a YouTube chef. She uploads vegetarian recipes on her channel that has over 3.1 million subscribers. Noida-based Madhulika had to shift house to a different neighbourhood that took away her daily visit to her office where she used to work with her husband.
Bored, she started reading recipes till one day, she thought, 'Why should I not try it myself?' In 2006, she started her blog uploading various recipes and once it reached 100 recipes, her son created a website for her (nishamadhulika.com). After many requests on the site asking her to upload videos on YouTube, she began doing so in 2009.
For Praval Sharma it was a 'bad' appraisal that drove him to the platform as a creator. Rajasthan-born Praval is an engineer and was working in an IT services company in Bangalore. One summer his wife went to her native place for a vacation and Praval had to cook for himself. Running short of ideas, he visited various websites to find recipes and landed on Madhulika's channel. That's what inspired him to start his own channel - Sharmaji Technical. He reviews gadgets and apps in Hindi and uploads them. Today, he has eight lakh subscribers on his channel.
Beauty vlogger Shruti also landed on YouTube to do something innovative. A computer engineer, she had moved to the US with her husband. "I belong to a middle-class family where you are always told that you look beautiful without makeup and makeup is something dirty. But when I moved to the US I saw everybody carrying makeup. That's when I said to myself: 'let me also do it'," reveals Anand. She started her channel - Shruti Arjun Anand - in 2010 and it now has over 1 million subscribers. When she first started the channel, it was to make more friends in her new locality.
For Abish Mathew, YouTube was a gateway to a world where he could express himself the way he wanted to. In his final year, the Delhi University, History Honours student, decided to pursue a career in performing arts. He loved music and had a talent for making people laugh; it encouraged him to become a stand-up comedian. He started his channel, Abish Mathew in 2007, but it took him four more years to upload his first video. "It took me that long to convince myself that I could do it," he says. Till 2011, he worked as a host on a radio station and then moved to Mumbai. Now the 30-year-old has his own show 'Son of Abish', which is in its third year.
The comedy space has another hero, Bhuvan Bam, who launched his YouTube channel - BB Ki Vines - for a totally different reason. The 23-year-old made it to the list of YouTube's top personalities in 2017. His video, Group Study, has fetched over 19 million views and is the most viewed video of 2017 in India.
He started his channel in 2015, "Before that, I already had a Facebook page, BB Ki Vines, where I was uploading my videos. One day, someone told me to put it up on YouTube. I started my channel when they told me that I could make money," he informs. Born in Vadodara and brought up in Delhi, Bhuvan creates his own music and his song 'Teri Meri Kahani' (Title track of TVF's Permanent Roommates) is hugely popular on the internet. BB Ki Vines has over 5 million subscribers.
YouTube is not just about showcasing individual brilliance, however. Teams can make it big too. Take the band Sanam; four school friends started uploading their music videos on YouTube five years ago and today they are the retro sensation of the country. They pick and choose yester-year songs and reproduce them. Viewers across all age-groups love their rendition of those songs. Sanam had to create a YouTube channel as the band wanted to reach out to the masses with their music, build a fan base of their own and then hope to get invited for live concerts and gigs. Sanam Puri, Samar Puri, Keshav Dhanraj, and Venky S are the four members of the band. They have over two million subscribers on their channel.
So how exactly does one go about becoming a YouTube sensation?
To run a YouTube channel, one has to upload videos. Producing a video still remains a very expensive proposition in the media and entertainment business. How did these individuals manage to run a channel all by themselves and fetch millions of views? Where did the content come from?
Madhulika had a simple idea. Set up a kitchen in her living room since her kitchen was not big enough to shoot videos. Her husband learned a few video-shooting techniques by himself and that is how the first video was shot, with a point and shoot camera that they had. They used to shoot early in the morning as the husband had to leave for work by 10.
"Husband ka support milna ek badi baat hai, especially jab aap aise kuch kar rahe ho or uss support ke bina shayed me aage hi na bar paati," she smiles while acknowledging her husband's wholehearted support without which it would not have been possible. She started with her own recipes, which were already available on her blog.
Praval, on the other hand, shot videos with a smartphone that he was using. Once he raked in 1 lakh subscribers he went and bought himself a DSLR camera which he now uses to create his videos. Interestingly, in the early days, Praval bought the phones that he reviewed before uploading them on his channel.
Abish, Shruti and Bhuvan also created their own content, edited them on them on their own and uploaded them to their channels, "I had no clue about editing and shooting, it took me two months to finish editing my first video because I learnt it by myself," Mathew recalls.
The story was a little different for Sanam since they are a band. They had to first create the song and then create the video by asking their friends to help put together content, without charging anything. "We could not afford to hire anybody," says a band member. "The pecuniary drought came with its pitfalls," pipes in one of the band members. "One of our friends was supposed to edit the first video, but he did not. So, Samar learnt editing and then edited the video. We bought Chinese lanterns and used thermocol as a reflector and that's how we used to light our set."
Sanam's channel is filled with exquisite videos shot in exotic locations, "Wherever we travel, our DOP friend travels with us and he shoots the videos there with his equipment. People come and ask us who shot this, what camera was used and that it must have been a very high-budget video. The reality is that we did not spend any money and, in some cases, also shot with our mobile phones," informs a member of the band.
So, what is the thought that comes to mind first when they look back on their YouTube performances? The number of views? Or money?
The number of views was not a matter of concern for Madhulika. Her website was driving traffic to the videos in any case. Her major challenge was the quality of videos. "Bana nahi paa rahi thi (I could not make them)," she says candidly about her early days. "Either there was an issue with the light or with the sound," she remembers. It was in 2011 that she had the feeling of having 'arrived'.
For Praval and Sharmaji Technical, that moment came two months after he had started putting up content on his channel. In his initial days, his requests to mobile companies to send a review piece were all ignored and by the time he got hold of phones and reviewed them, there were plenty of them already streaming.
A new mobile company was launching in India and Praval managed to get a hold of a review piece and was the first one to put up a review of that phone on YouTube. "That video was trending. In the comments section, people wrote that this is what they had wanted for a long, long time. 'Finally, we have a Hindi reviewer'. That is when I realised that there is a lot of opportunity here," recalls Praval.
Shruti recalls how it all came to her when she saw people in India aspiring to look good and viewing her videos. "Back then, my audience was limited to NRIs or urban Indians because I was creating content of that kind. I was under the impression that only these people watch content online. When I returned to India and saw the proliferation of mobile phones, I started changing my content and making it more Indian. Then the explosion happened and the views and subscribers all shot up," she says.
Bhuvan's unplanned journey on YouTube saw its high point when a video went viral in Pakistan. Abish's kick came when someone came to him and said 'Oh, you are the one in Son of Abish. I watch the show.' Sanam found satisfaction when they were invited to concerts abroad. "Dhaka, Dubai, Maldives, Mauritius, South Africa, Holland, and Israel became possible because of YouTube," says a member of the band.
MANAGING THE BUSINESS
While Madhulika, Sharmaji Technical and Shruti manage themselves, Bhuvan has his friend Rohit Raj who goes and pitches to brands and handles the commerce of BB Ki Vines. Abish and Sanam have managers or talent management companies doing the job for them. There is a revenue share deal. A contract is signed for a particular period of time, with a termination clause available for either side. The Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) stay with the creator - if the creator decides to move out, he keeps his content as well as followers.
Ben Thomas, who is a veteran in the Indian music industry and has managed Sonu Nigam and Vishal Shekhar in the past and is currently managing a pool of singers, manages Sanam. The band called themselves the SQS Project earlier - the letters stood for Sanam, Quesh (Keshav) and Samar. In 2010, the band won Times Superstars (a music talent search programme under the Times Music Label) and changed its name to SQS Superstars.
As a part of the winning package, the band was awarded a contract with the label and a music album. "Though much was promised, the label went on to say that they could only sell our music. 'For the rest, like live shows and all you go find yourself a manager'. That's when we decided to look for a manager," says a band member.
Keshav, who used to work at Furtado's, managed to establish a connection with Ben, both of them being Malayalis. "We were told that he manages celebs like Sonu and Vishal so we were not sure. But one day he came to our jam room in Wadala and fell in love with us. Since then, he has been more of a team member and less of a manager," says another band member.
Ben helps them make strategic decisions - the change in the name was one of them. "When Ben started managing us he used to send out messages, 'check out this new band SQS Project'. He would get replies like 'when did you start this company?' So we decided to change the name..." says a member.
Abish is managed by Only Much Louder (OML). The agency liked Abish's show, Son of Abish. They reached out to him with a proposal and in 2015, he was signed on. "I had worked with OML a few times. Son of Abish Season 2 happened after I joined them so they went and got brands on board," says Abish.
YouTube shares 55 per cent of the advertising revenue that it earns from an original video with the creator of the video. That is one source of revenue for the creator. The other source of revenue for a YouTube creator is to go and get a brand to endorse or integrate into the content.
"The money I get from YouTube is enough for me to run this. It was never my intention to make money. I just want to work my way at my pace and have never thought about brand integrations," says Madhulika.
Every video on Sharmaji Technical starts with a banner that says: 'This video is brought to you by Cashify'. "They are our sponsor now," clarifies Praval. He does not have a sales team to pitch his videos to different brands. It is the other way around. The brands reach out to him through the email id available in the YouTube description. If Praval finds a fit, he does it; if not, he sends the mail to his junk folder.
"The moment you pitch to a brand they will come to you with a series of terms and conditions. If we follow their conditions, our viewers will go away. I do unbiased reviews," Praval informs.
His first sponsorship deal came six months into the business. It was a US battery optimising application and the company reached out to the channel. "We said we can review the product, but not in English. They agreed to Hindi," Praval recalls. Today, 75 per cent of Sharmaji Technical's revenue comes from sponsorships. "The number of views attracts brands to my channel," says Praval. So, is it a pay per click/view model? "No, we have a fixed cost that we charge," he informs.
Bhuvan and Shruti also do branded content. Bhuvan makes the brand a part of his sketches while Shruti reviews make-up products. Both make money. For Sanam, it is again a different story. Their popular songs are all renditions of old songs - the YouTube revenue goes to the original IPR owner like Saregama, T Series, Universal and others. "We get the money for the original songs that we compose and create," says a band member. Their main source of revenue is live shows which they get primarily because of their popularity on YouTube.
The digital explosion, which is still in its nascent stage, has already brought a lot of changes. While Bhuvan Bam creates content (with him playing several characters) on his mobile phone, Abish Mathew's Son of Abish has become the Koffee with Karan of digital, where people come and chat. The show is shot on a proper set with a live audience and a multi-camera setup.
"Kuch naya karenge tabhi hum tike rahenge (To carry on, one has to think up something new each time)," is Nisha's forecast. Sanam wants to popularise original compositions through YouTube while Shruti wants to penetrate the platform deeper and deeper.
Abish believes that for him to make one of his videos trend, he needs to see the schedule of other content creators. If he releases a video on a day Bhuvan Bam does, there is very little chance that his video will trend. "It might in Bangalore, but not more than that," is his frank opinion.
According to him, YouTube is becoming a voyeuristic platform like Instagram, where people come to see what their stars are up to. "YouTube is soon going to become a personality-building platform. Look at Carryminati (who makes videos roasting other YouTubers) or Bhuvan Bam. These are guys who put their own personalities in front and that is something people love and are crazy about. That is what I mean by a personality building platform," he says.
He thinks that music videos, fiction shows, sketches or shows like Son of Abish, will have to find a new home in an over-the-top player (like Amazon Prime, Netflix or Hotstar) where people come to watch such kind of content and not to see what a particular personality is up to.
"I am not saying, 'abandon YouTube'. I am just saying that earlier, there was a majority which liked butter chicken and we served them butter chicken. Now the majority likes pizza on YouTube so you serve them pizza on YouTube. Take your butter chicken to that platform where the majority comes to eat butter chicken," he concludes.
That is some food for thought.
This story was first published in our magazine afaqs! Reporter on December 16, 2017.
A Note From the Editor
Do you remember an old, famous-in-its-time ad film by Intel that showed a bunch of bespectacled, sweatered tech nerds swooning over a markedly unattractive, almost comical, gentleman, as he walked around in office amidst his 'fans'? The punchline was 'Our rockstars aren't like your rockstars'. In the world of technology, the co-inventor of the USB is a superstar.
I was reminded of this ad by the subject of our cover story this issue - it's an ode to the stars of a new universe - the YouTube universe. Unlike conventional stars, and even moderately famous starlets ,who're recognised - not necessarily liked, sure - by almost everyone, these YouTubers are phenomenally popular among certain circles and are not known at all in others.
Almost every actor of yore has spoken about receiving fan mail and letters written in blood. Well, in the digital age, where netizens' 'online me time' is so precious, and likes, shares, comments and subscribers are currency, these YouTubers enjoy popularity that's comparable.
Besides the platform they found fame on, the stars we spoke to have little else in common. Each galaxy, oops channel, has a different theme, flavour and audience. We profiled YouTube chef Nisha Madhulika, tech reviewer Praval Sharma, beauty vlogger Shruti Arjun Anand, music band 'Sanam', and comedians Abish Mathew and Bhuvan Bam.
A memorable part of this exercise was a text message I received from our young, 20-something reporter who wrote this story: "This is the first time I've interviewed someone who's younger to me..." He was referring to the aforementioned Bhuvan, a 23-year-old meteor in this new universe, who goes by BB on his YouTube channel BB Ki Vines. Well, our reporter had better get used to it.
One of our interviewees Abish brought up an important point - 'What next?' Ought these stars to think about taking their content beyond YouTube, to a new platform? Are Amazon Prime, Netflix, Hotstar listening?ASHWINI GANGAL