BY BRIAN D. SMITH
The perky young woman with expressive hazel eyes sounds slightly tentative as she introduces herself to the unseen audience on the other side of her computer. “Hey, everybody, my name is Jessica, and I am brand new to YouTube, and this is a brand new channel.”
She spends 45 more seconds foreshadowing her 8-minute video, “Best and Worst in Beauty,” before reviewing her first cosmetic, a blush that she awkwardly describes as “really, really nice”; “really, really pigmented”; and “just kind of … nice.”
Then, suddenly, Jessica Braun is in her element. Entertaining, engaging, genuine, the Carmel resident dismisses a bronzing makeup product with a frown and a slow shake of her head, explaining that because of her fair skin, “it’s just ‘Bad News Bears’ for me.” And in those moments of spontaneity, a star is born on YouTube, the internet website where average people can share their own video recordings with the world.
Today, what began as a diversion in 2013 has evolved into a profession for 30-year-old Jessica, whose YouTube channel, JAMbeauty89, has attracted half a million subscribers and enough ad revenue to enable her to leave her teaching job last year. Her husband, Tyler Braun, also mixes business and YouTube, having started his own travel agency (People Mover Travel) in 2016 after his YouTube channel, TylerTravelsTV, generated countless requests for free trip advice.
Jessica ranks among Indiana’s most successful YouTubers, and her husband claims a respectable 60,000 subscribers of his own. But they’re far from the top of the heap, even among Hoosier YouTubers. For instance, globetrotting millennials Damon Dominique of Fort Wayne and his friend Jo Franco have attracted 1.2 million subscribers to their DamonandJo channel with such videos as “11 More Things I Hate About Paris” and “Almost Kidnapped in Italy.”
Nationally, the highest paid YouTube star of 2018 was a 7-year-old California toy critic named Ryan Kaji. His Ryan ToysReview channel has garnered 20 million subscriptions, spurred a Walmart toy line, and earned its namesake $22 million last year, Forbes magazine reports.
Such a bonanza seemed far-fetched in 2005, when YouTube.com debuted on the internet. Its three founders envisioned it as a dating site where singles could introduce themselves by video. But five days later, when no one had submitted any, they decided to allow anybody to upload videos about anything (within the bounds of legality and taste).
A year later, still-unprofitable YouTube sold to Google for
$1.6 billion. The gamble paid off: YouTube now encompasses an estimated 23 million individual channels, with subject matter as diverse as how-to advice, popular music, sports highlights, old and current TV shows, personal family recordings, and the ever-popular funny cat videos. YouTube users watch more than 1 billion hours of content a day.
Naturally, not every channel draws hordes of viewers and subscribers. For every DamonandJo and Jessica Braun, there are innumerable others struggling to make their mark. Madagascar native Andry Rakotomalala, now of Indianapolis, helped organize a meet-up of Indiana YouTubers
this past February, and eight of them showed up.
Rakotomalala counts at least another 100 active Hoosier YouTubers, the vast majority of whom – like him – have yet to find widespread popularity. But he doesn’t take his 350 subscribers for granted, noting that if they were all assembled in a room, it would be a substantial audience.
Besides, like many YouTubers, Rakotomalala is not singularly focused on parlaying his recordings into a career. He enjoys the creative outlet that his channel provides, as well as the opportunity to entertain and amuse the people who view his material. “I don’t do professional videos,” he says. “I do fun videos.” And as if to prove his point, a recent video features Rakotamalala taking an exhausting hike in a Puerto Rican rain forest and quipping, “You see, YouTube, I hike and give myself pain for you guys!”
Justin Gerald says he didn’t start a YouTube channel to get famous, but it almost happened along the way. Gerald, of Cedar Lake, is a ghost-hunting enthusiast who saw YouTube as a place to post videos of his group’s investigations. He now has 18,000 subscribers and says his team’s paranormal pursuits once caught the eye of a cable TV network contemplating a new show.
His advice to would-be YouTubers? “You’ve got to be in it for the right reasons. If you’re not passionate about it, people are going to see that, and it’ll fail.” It’s also important to develop a thick skin, because anytime you put yourself in front of a worldwide audience, you risk criticism and mockery, sometimes in rude terms.
Remember, too, that while an enjoyable video may look like it was all fun and games from the word go, veteran YouTubers know better. “My Top 10 videos take anywhere from 20 to 30 hours to do,” Gerald says, “and if we’re doing an actual ghost hunt, we put two weeks into one video.”
That’s why, if you’re going to create a YouTube channel, it’s best to play to your strengths. Before she became a teacher, cosmetics reviewer Jessica Braun went to Roosevelt University in downtown Chicago to study musical theater. A class in stage makeup taught her such esoteric skills as how to make someone look like a witch or a monkey – but it also broadened her knowledge of skin products.
And her performing arts experience didn’t hurt when it came time to gaze into a camera and speak directly to a YouTube audience. (It’s also how she met her future husband: The two had been cast as Aladdin and Princess Jasmine in Indianapolis’ Beef & Boards Dinner Theatre production of “Aladdin,” and shared a stage kiss before they ever smooched with more serious intent.)
Thanks to her YouTube popularity, Jessica has become conversant in industry terms such as “monetized,” “sponsorship,” “dedicated video” and “influencer,” and has even put out a video explaining the business side of YouTube. She’s learned that success is not only defined by how many subscribers you have, but how many minutes the average person watches your videos. She knows not to jump at every promotional offer that comes down the pike, no matter how lucrative or flattering it might seem. “In a given month, I probably get contacted 50 to 60 times,” she says, “and I accept about two of them.”
And she tries to keep it all in perspective. “We are fully aware of how lucky and blessed we are,” says Jessica. “And we know it could be taken away at any moment.”
Her new career as a full-time YouTuber enables her to spend more time with her husband and their 1-year-old daughter, Genevieve – although being a YouTube couple can create strange problems. Tyler now finds himself watching travel shows not as entertainment, but with an eye on visual effects. And sometimes the Brauns have to remind themselves to film their own everyday family memories, not just material for their next videos. But Jessica also cherishes the YouTube side of their lives and looks forward to the day when Genevieve will similarly appreciate it. “In the future, we can watch videos of trips we took when I was pregnant with her,” says Jessica.
These are the kinds of moments that average YouTubers can experience, regardless of the size of their audience. “There’s enough room for everybody in the water,” Jessica says. “And even if only a couple of people are watching, think how cool that is.”
Brian D. Smith is a freelance journalist from Greenwood, Indiana.
Indiana YouTubers Featured in this Article
Jessica Braun — Carmel, Indiana
JAMbeauty89: Make-up reviews, vlogs, unboxings
Tyler Braun — Carmel, Indiana
TylerTravelsTV: Travel, Disney parks, food, photography
Andry Rakotomalala — Indianapolis, Indiana
Vlogs, travel, subscriber requests
Justin Gerald — Cedar Lake, Indiana
Dust Productions: Ghost hunting investigations, interviews