Martin Schmalz has uploaded 1,487 videos to YouTube over the past nine years, but struggles to find his own videos where searching for them on the platform. “When I look for my own stuff or something that’s related to my own stuff, I get all of this garbage coming up instead of my own,” says Martin, 49 and living in York.
He is one of thousands of YouTubers who create prolifically for little to no reward. There are thousands of YouTube channels carrying over 100 videos, but with fewer than 1,000 subscribers. They’re the hidden creators on the platform; the unsung heroes.
Think of the YouTube videos you’ve watched over the past week. They probably fall into one of three broad categories of YouTube channel: YouTubers (WillNE, HOWTOBASIC, The Bootleg Boy), The Establishment (BBC News, John Lewis, Pitbull VEVO) or Anonymous Channels That Had the Exact Thing You Searched For That Is Possibly in Infringement of Copyright (an Artie Bucco supercut, a person falling on ice on a news broadcast, a specific scene from Come Dine With Me).
It’s difficult to break past those channels to the smaller creators, but they are out there. YouTube don’t confirm exact figures, as if it’s somehow gauche to talk about non-ad revenue numbers, but statistics trackers Social Blade keep across around 32.9 million channels. In Britain alone, they tracked 55,562 channels with over 100 videos and fewer than 1,000 subscribers – and they tell me that’s probably lowballing it.
Finding them on the platform is the tricky part. Geoffrey Reemer is a Dutch web developer who works with smaller creators. ”YouTube only shows channels that are popular, content that is popular, but if you were looking for smaller YouTubers there is really not a way to do that,“ he says. He created the independent YouTube search site Channel Crawler to more easily find smaller channels.
Once you find them, it’s a whole new world. One where people are rarely polished, occasionally awkward, but overwhelmingly positive. Thousands of channels pushing out regular content, sometimes to double-figure, or even single-figure viewing numbers. When I first fell down this particular YouTube hole, some of the channels made me sad. It wasn’t about their content – it was the stark view counts. It’s something peculiar to YouTube – there’s no expectation that we should reach millions with our Instagram posts, despite many users earning a living from doing just that. But uploading videos to YouTube for an audience of 50 people? Why even bother?
I reached out to a bunch of UK-based uploaders who fulfill the dual criteria of having over 100 videos and fewer than 1,000 subscribers. Aside from one person who seemed slightly insulted and (accurately) points out they have more Twitter followers than me, everyone is happy to chat. And they all quickly disabuse me of the notion that YouTube success can solely be measured in views or subscriber count.
Cabhån Budd, 20 from Aldershot, has uploaded at least one video to YouTube for the past 1,943 consecutive days. “I found the times I’ve been doing best are when I’m doing it for fun, doing it because I want to do it or doing it because I enjoy it. The times when I’ve deliberately been seeking out views, I would get frustrated I wasn’t getting the kind of views I thought I should be,” Cabhán tells me. Lately he’s had more success with motorsport videos, which he’s excited about – but that’s just a bonus. The creators I spoke to rarely mention views. If they do, they’re incidental to the output.
There is also a high level of interaction and community on channels with relatively small subscriber counts. Again, I have to check my prejudices at the door. At first glance, I worried some of the uploaders were shouting into the ether.
Jake Somerfield, 32 from Sheffield, has uploaded 1,566 videos, mostly about his local club Sheffield Wednesday. He feels he’s close to hitting the ceiling for committed subscribers to his topic of choice, but he has a band of loyal viewers. Beyond connecting with other fans, the channel serves a more important purpose. “I have something called functional neurological disorder where I can have 15-30 fits a day and it makes me unable to work,” he says. “It actually worked as being therapy, giving me something to do. It gave me back my order that I used to have when I used to be a chef – I had a routine.”
“YouTube is a lifeline to the outside world for me,” says Beverley Dickinson, 41 from Staffordshire, who shares videos around disability, spirituality and vintage fashion. She has uploaded 194 videos since April 2017 and has gained 685 subscribers. Many of her videos focus on living with chronic illness and managing her mental health. “The disability community is so supportive and we help one another as much as we can. I’m so grateful for it honestly as a hobby. It’s the best decision I could have made. I don’t feel lonely as much anymore”.
Steven Fowler, 29 from Leighton Buzzard, who has over 2,000 poetry and literary videos on his channel, takes a different tack. “I don’t have any utopian goals of reaching new audiences and ‘converting’ them to weird literary performances and experimental poetry readings. But the bigger the archive has got, the more it seems people do find something in it that makes them interested – maybe.“
Despite views not being their primary focus, there’s some frustration from these YouTubers about being somewhat hidden on the platform. “There is this whole feeling that unless you have a lot of subscribers your content is not worthwhile,” says Beverley. “YouTube do not promote your videos until you hit 1,000 subscribers, but those of us who post about disability, or vintage fashion, things like that it is so hard to grow.”
Geoffrey from Channel Crawler maintains it’s easier to make the breakthrough than some YouTubers think. “A lot of small channels have the potential to break through, and a lot of them are on the verge of breaking through, but that’s the hardest part on YouTube. That’s when you have to persevere, because once you’re on 1,000 or 2,000 or 3,000 subscribers, that’s when people give up and think this is it. But it only takes one video that really goes viral and then you can hit 10,000, 20,000, 30,000 subscribers. I’ve seen it happen over and over again. If you really want to get there you have to stick with it.”
I ask him about the widely-held perception that the gates have been shut on new YouTube creators; that after the initial YouTube goldrush, it’s nigh-on impossible for new voices to break through. “If I was to do a search of channels that have started in the last 12 months that have at least 10,000 subscribers,” Geoffrey says, “there are hundreds of them, even thousands.”
Like most of the smaller creators I speak to, Martin Schmalz won’t be holding his breath waiting for viral success. But he’ll continue to upload his music and photography. “I really enjoy it. It’s something I do almost on a daily basis, or two, three, four times a week. It’s also like a mobile diary wherever I travel I can always access my own YouTube channel and listen to my own stuff. It’s like a portal little home away from home.”
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.