A successful YouTuber’s income often comes from a variety of sources: merch, ticket sales for touring or shows, brand deals, and of course, ad revenue from their actual videos. As YouTuber The Fitness Marshall points out in a recent video, however, a high subscriber count does not necessarily equal a big payout.
Caleb Marshall has been making videos for roughly four years, and his channel boasts more than 1.3 million subscribers. Over the years, he’s created 147 dance workout videos for his viewers. There are plenty of common misconceptions about YouTubers — they’re lazy, they’re superficial, they’re swimming in free stuff — but the idea that all creators are out to turn a buck quickly is among the most pervasive. As the commenter who inspired the video in the first place said, “Ugh.... Another money hungry YouTuber.” However, Marshall says that he and his collaborators aren’t in it for the money; they “do this because we genuinely love it.”
Marshall says his decision to use “real music” you’d hear on the radio severely cuts into the actual profit turned by his channel. Where the profits for a monetized video that uses music in the public domain would be split between the creator and YouTube, the record labels that own the top-40 tracks take “all of the money, and we are left with zero.” These videos can still be profitable if the YouTuber and the label can reach an agreement; otherwise, monetizing videos with copyrighted music is virtually out of the question. “Out of ... 147 videos, we are monetizing 11,” he says in a video explaining his earnings. “That’s 7 percent. We are monetizing 7 percent of the content that we put out.”
According to Marshall, the only way the team is able to continue making videos is through people buying merch, tickets to their tour (roughly $30 a ticket for general admission, according to a recent sale), or by buying a $4.99 channel membership for special perks. (This model is similar to the one employed by mid-range musicians, who also rely on merch and ticket sales, and independent writers and artists through platforms like Patreon.) “You’re supporting us. Just you buying a shirt, it’s silly ... but it’s what allows us to keep doing this,” he explains.
There are some special circumstances around Marshall’s earnings, but they serve as a reminder that YouTube-based income is a fickle business. In the four years he’s been making videos, Marshall says his grand total gross comes down to only $17,894.73. And that’s before the networks take a cut, or the 30 percent self-employment income tax he says he pays. When cash-outs are split among his staff, he says it works out to only roughly $2,818 a year. “If you think I’m money-hungry because I’m trying to find a way to make more than $2,818 a year, then I am so sorry,” he says.
There are real concerns among YouTube business practices, from the beauty industry to regulations over selling merch to young kids. As more creators seek financial independence, transparency about where creators make their money, as well as how profitable platforms are, is imperative to understanding the realities of success. It may even help bridge the gap between influencers and the basic YouTube literacy of their audiences.