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San Francisco's Almost Famous YouTube Sensations

As production values grow, YouTube is becoming less like the Wild West of online videos and more like an eclectic meritocracy. Meet the locals hell-bent on using the company's partner program to make it big.


Photography by Gabriela Hasbun

MICHELLE MARTINEZ CHANTEUSE
YouTube Channel: MM2786, est. 2008
Approximate Subscribers: 66,000
Signature Videos: "Take Me Away" and "How to Love"
Prediction: "In the future, I think that TV and the Internet will be pretty much the same thing. We're seeing that already with Hulu, Google TV, and Apple TV."
Say Never: "Britney Spears songs don't sit well on my voice. Love the girl, but watching me cover one of her songs would not be entertaining."
TV Off: "I've tried out for almost every TV talent show you can think of, but they've never worked out for me. I don't worry about it too much. I guess TV isn't the way I was meant to become famous."


During one week this past fall, the official YouTube Trends blog reported views in the millions for videos chronicling everything from corn shucking to Muammar el-Qaddafi's death. Considering the Bay Area-based platform’s staggering 800 million visitors per month, its planetary reach has long been a force to be reckoned with. Every minute, 48 hours of video are uploaded, much of it a tonnage of ill-conceived detritus.

To counteract the sometimes shoddy and random videos, YouTube launched a partner program in 2007 that is made up of 20,000 content creators in 25 countries—from makeup artists to fitness instructors to political video bloggers—who are incentivized to keep up their production by receiving revenue from advertising on their channels. In other words, if you make awesome one-of-a-kind videos, you might be taking checks to the bank.

As a whole, YouTube operates under the premise that compelling content—created by the people and for the people—is the future of media. “Where TV studios sit around, carefully selecting their shows for the season, we don’t,” says Margaret Healy, head of partner social engagement at YouTube. “We enable total creativity and let the viewers choose what’s most appealing to watch.” To embolden an ever-evolving, highly visionary lineup of entertainment, YouTube holds a cash carrot out to its best video innovators. Though the company remains mum on the actual percentage paid out to partners, it reports that in 2010, “partners generated more than 100 billion views and drew in millions of dollars.” “It’s a virtuous cycle of more and better content and revenue,” says Phil Farhi, a senior product manager at YouTube. “Everybody wins.”

If you make the cut, that is. The first rule of the program: Be original. Consider Oakland resident Nicholas Pitera, the 3-D modeler at Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville who gained a happy-accident type of notoriety in 2007 when one of his first YouTube videos—fuzzy footage of him singing both the male and female parts of the Aladdin duet “A Whole New World”—went viral to the tune of 26 million views (and counting).


NICK PITERA CROONER
YouTube Channel: GoonieMan86
Approximate Subscribers: 253,000
Signature Videos: "A Whole New World," "Don't Stop Believein'," and "Edge of Glory"
Last Laugh: "I realize there's a gimicky aspect to my videos, but rest assured, I am singing very seriously."
Peer Review: "Those of us who grew up with Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, and Aladdin are now 20-something, and some of us still hold those movies and songs dear. It's more fun to perform for people my age."
Strong Bond: "Unlike TV, YouTube allows us to directly conect with our viewers with no middleman. That's one of the reasons it's so successful."


Today, the 24-year-old’s undeniable Internet currency includes 253,656 avid subscribers who follow his YouTube channel to watch him belt out Disney movie songs and bear witness to his remarkable falsetto, which elicits mostly worshipful but sometimes bigoted comments. The Michael Bublé doppelganger has also performed twice on the Ellen DeGeneres Show. “YouTube really levels the playing field for talents who might not have the right industry contacts,” says Pitera. Despite all that, Pitera was rejected by the Partner Program. “Ads couldn’t be placed on any of my cover videos. So it wasn’t worth it toYouTube to partner with me,” he says.

In this way, the Partner Program functions as YouTube's vehicle for quality assurance. It’s particularly easy for singers to get ensnared in the murky limbo that is copyright infringement. Original content (or, at the very least, covers with remixed melodies and lyrics) naturally prevails. Hopefuls like Pitera cling fast to a silver lining in the website’s dense finger-wagging Copyright Center: “Use your skills and imagination to create something completely original … If it’s all yours, you never have to worry about the copyright—you own it!” Thanks to his latest crop of what he calls “chin-up, believe-in-yourself” original songs, Pitera’s most recent application to the program is pending final approval.

To assist the process, YouTube provides a no-cost, 70-page handbook filled with tricks of the trade. More exclusive, hone-your-craft opportunities include YouTube’s Creator Institute, a free, digital media course for 10 lucky partners, hosted by top film institutions such as the USC School of Cinematic Arts. Then there’s YouTube’s NextUp program, which in the first round, awarded 25 partners $35,000 and brought them to New York City for a week-long training to turn their video hobbies into careers.

While such bells-and-whistles programming is, of course, invaluable to those fortunate enough to receive it, those less privileged still hold the key to YouTube success: Fresh content is king, no matter what your training. Just ask former Carnelian Room chef John Mitzewich, a Partner Program member since 2007, who transitioned his YouTube passion into a career without the benefit of a cash award or fancy boot camp.

Though the Mission resident’s Food Wishes channel sees half as many subscribers as Pitera’s, the quirky hands-and-pans style filming and sing-songy voiceovers that characterize his step-by-step recipe videos caught the attention of one of the largest digital food brands in the world. In August of this year—the same year Saveur magazine awarded Food Wishes “Best Food Blog” for its video content—Allrecipes.com acquired Food Wishes for an undisclosed sum, perhaps securing Mitzewich’s financial future.

But even before Allrecipes.com jumped on the bandwagon, Mitzewich was able to eke out a living from his YouTube earnings thanks to more than 650 videos demonstrating recipes from tuna tataki to lamb moussaka that the chef likens to a “modern-day Joy of Cooking.” Mitzewich can also thank the Johnsonville food conglomerate, a regular advertiser on his channel (though he has no control over who advertises). “I half-joke about my chef friends who work 80-hour weeks [and then discover] what I make off posting two videos a week on YouTube,” says Mitzewich. “It’s my best secret recipe.”


JOHN MITZEWICH CHEF
YouTube Channel: Food Wishes, est. 2007
Approximate Subscribers: 139,000
Signature Videos: "Garlic Chicken Wings," "How to Make Cheese" and "Buttermilk Fried Chicken"
Fire Starter: "Online video is slowly taking the future of culinary instruction and entertainment away from television, so I love where I am now. Appearing on the Food Network would be great for more exposure, but I don't have much interest."
Time Served: "Is this even a job? It's way too much fun, expecially compared to what I used to do: 15-hour days, plus "oh, you just burned your hand-too bad" or "oh, you'll get that stitched up after service." Believe me: The next time I complain about my workload will be the first time."


There are also rare cases in which partners have been able to quit their day jobs, subsisting solely on their six-figure YouTube checks and endorsement deals. Las Vegas resident Ryan Higa’s shrewd—and, by some accounts, obnoxious—cultural parodies have earned him 4.6 million subscribers and enough cachet to command a $75,000 appearance fee plus starring roles in ad campaign videos for Carl’s Jr. and Google. See, too, Tampa beauty guru Michelle Phan, a former sushi waitress-turned-Lancome-spokeswoman whose channel boasts 1.6 million subscribers and more than 485 million views—impressive numbers that attract blue-chip advertisers like Colgate and Verizon.

While San Francisco-based pop singer Michelle Martinez’s 66,000 channel subscribers and average $200-per-month payout from the partner program seem paltry in comparison, she won’t be satisfied until she reaches one million subscribers.

Martinez, who has been posting R&B music videos on YouTube since 2008, began to implement higher production values when, in the wake of a floundered artist development deal in Japan, she found herself back home, ready to make original music. “That experience made me realize that nothing in this industry is guaranteed,” says the 25-year-old, whose videos have gained her enough recognition to book weekly paid performances at small venues across the U.S., Canada, and Australia. “I really needed a fallback plan.” At San Francisco State University, Martinez uses the skills she’s acquired as a broadcasting major to finesse her latest videos. For starters, she hires professional actors and producers and skillfully uses Final Cut Pro and iMovie to edit her footage, complete with choreographed dance routines.

“I don’t shoot many videos of me sitting in my bedroom, singing into the camera anymore,” says Martinez. “I’m doing more complete, story-based concepts that require more time to put together.” The singer’s video remix of Lil Wayne’s “Right Above It” reveals Martinez clad in a black lace mini dress and kitten-heel boots, confidently ascending a mountaintop, and belting out: “No one told me that it would be easy/but I never dreamt it would be this hard/Everyday I push a little bit harder/in my hopes to be a superstar.” It's crystal clear how true for her this is.