Even Top Creators Find That Star Power Is Fleeting

·8 min read

VidCon, the marquee gathering for creators and influencers, was poised for a triumphant return to Anaheim after its two-year COVID-19 hiatus. And this year, TikTok — the once upstart platform that skyrocketed during the pandemic to more than 1 billion-plus active users — was taking over YouTube’s spot as the conference’s title sponsor, promising the presence of top TikTok creators and an injection of new energy into the 12-year-old conference.

The creator economy has skyrocketed in the past few years, with the market size for consumers spending money on creators projected to grow from $9.8 billion to more than $18 billion, according to an October 2021 report from UTA. And with that growth has come sizable budgets from brands inking lucrative deals with talent and sustained interest from burgeoning creators seeking to monetize their followings and turn their content into a business. Influencer marketing spend in the U.S. is forecasted to exceed $4 billion this year, according to Insider Intelligence, and major brands like Levi’s and Louis Vuitton have partnered with top talent like Emma Chamberlain, while the NFL and the energy drink Celsius have tapped rising stars like Katie Feeney for partnerships.

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But as much as the creator-driven industry has grown, this year’s VidCon offered an unshakeable reminder of how the career of a creator — and, by extension, their relevance and star power — can fade as quickly as it explodes.

To illustrate as much, VidCon kicked off on June 22 with the dethroning of TikTok’s reigning queen, Charli D’Amelio. That evening, as featured creators gathered at the Hyatt hotel near the Anaheim Convention Center to check out the aesthetically pleasing lounges of platforms like TikTok, YouTube and Meta, Khaby Lame — the Senegalese and Italian comedian best known for his deadpan, wordless videos and wide-eyed reactions — became the most followed creator on TikTok, nudging D’Amelio from the spot she held for roughly two years. (As of publication, Lame has 144.5 million followers to D’Amelio’s 142.9 million.)

The next day, D’Amelio appeared onstage for a sponsored conversation with the creator Brandon Baum for Lightricks. But instead of being a marquee event located in the convention center’s main ballroom, especially given TikTok’s role as VidCon’s title sponsor, the conversation took place on a stage — sponsored by Spotify — that was tucked away at the back of the expo hall, competing with the chatter coming from the dozens of brand booths set up in the same hall.

That isn’t to say fans didn’t line up for a meet and greet with D’Amelio or that the creator’s businesses — which now include a fragrance, clothing line, reality show on Hulu and major brand partnerships with companies like Dunkin’, among others — have lessened in any way. But the fervor around top talent of VidCons past, where ear-piercing screams from fans were the norm, felt notably subdued for a creator with a following as large as D’Amelio’s. And when asked about her advice to other creators during her onstage appearance, there was the sense that D’Amelio was, perhaps, getting tired of it all.

“Don’t tie yourself down to anything specific,” D’Amelio, who initially went viral on TikTok with videos of her dancing, said. “It’s not worth it to always be forced to do one thing. I feel like if you do that, you can only do that for so long until you get bored of it and you want to switch. And if you’re so used to only making one type of content, you can feel kind of trapped.”

As for losing her top spot to Lame — who is repped by the Milan-based Iron Corp. and recently inked a multiyear deal with Hugo Boss — D’Amelio assured fans there was “no bad blood.” “I had No. 1 for two years. I feel like it’s time for someone else to have that spot,” D’Amelio said. “It feels great to know that someone else is getting that spot — someone that is sweet and a good person and loves what they do. … I wouldn’t want to hand it over to anyone else.”

D’Amelio’s presence at VidCon also highlighted the absence of other creators who were the main attractions at VidCons in years past, including YouTube creators like David Dobrik and his Vlog Squad, Jake and Logan Paul, Tyler Oakley, Jenna Marbles, Grace Helbig, Philip DeFranco and Casey Neistat. The conference also brought in a noticeably smaller crowd this year with 50,000 in-person attendees compared to the 75,000 participants at the 2019 conference, though COVID likely influenced the downturn in attendance.

Marques Brownlee, a tech reviewer who has more than 15 million subscribers on YouTube, describes the careers of creators as being akin to those of professional athletes. “A lot of people want to be a professional athlete. But when you look at it, the life cycle of a professional athlete in most sports is fleeting and small,” Brownlee, who led a creator keynote on the last day of VidCon, tells The Hollywood Reporter. “You get, like, five years of your prime. If you’re lucky, you play for eight, nine, 10 [years]. If you’re literally LeBron James, you play for 20 years. That’s a short career in most fields.”

And as creators seek to capitalize on their popularity as quickly as possible by churning out more content and following the whims of platforms, creator burnout can lead to an even faster decline in a career — or at least one that exists primarily online. After more than a decade uploading videos to YouTube, Ingrid Nilsen — a longtime beauty and lifestyle YouTuber who appeared at past VidCons — uploaded her final video in 2020, expressing the desire to retire as a professional content creator and explore new pursuits, offline. Now, Nilsen runs candle company The New Savant with her partner, Erica Anderson.

Meanwhile, Emma Chamberlain, who rose to fame on YouTube and now has 11.5 million subscribers, has begun posting less frequently on YouTube, where she recently returned from a six-month hiatus, to stem burnout. The creator, who runs a coffee company and has a successful podcast, is now in the midst of growing her career outside of YouTube through appearances hosting red carpet interviews at the Met Gala and on The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon. 

For those trying to eke out a living through content creation, the pressure to keep up with trends and maintain relevance is still ever-present. The rise of new platforms like TikTok also signals changes for the future of creator success, meaning creators who have focused on longform videos on YouTube, for example, must be ready to incorporate shortform into their strategies to sustain their relevance. YouTube’s major activations at VidCon, a “drive-thru” experience that handed out snacks from creator brands and a 40-foot-tall gumball machine created by Jimmy Donaldson, aka MrBeast, all came emblazoned with the YouTube Shorts brand, offering another clear signal of how much emphasis the company is placing on shortform video instead of the longform content its past stars were best known for.

Being platform agnostic is especially key to diversifying followings and revenue, with creators like Katie Feeney and Alyssa McKay telling THR that they post across YouTube, YouTube Shorts, Instagram, Reels, TikTok and Snapchat. But being flexible with the type of content they post is just as important, too.

“You have to just constantly be ready to evolve as a creator,” McKay says. “I started doing [point-of-view videos] and then I started rapping and then I started noticing, OK, my audience isn’t resonating with this anymore. So now it’s all about lifestyle, but I’m sure within six months I’m probably going to be on to something else. You can’t try and force something that just isn’t working anymore. … That’s hard because that could lead to burnout, trying to constantly think of the next thing, but that’s one of the biggest parts of the job.”

Brittany Tomlinson, a TikTok creator and podcaster who goes by Brittany Broski, also noted during a panel discussion with fellow creator Kris Collins (aka Kallmekris) that the job of a content creator can be all-consuming. “I’ve hit burnout a few times — and that sounds so navel-gazing, like, ‘Oh, poor me.’ But when you think of it, this isn’t a nine to five,” Tomlinson said. “This is an ‘all the time.'”

Hank Green, the co-founder of VidCon, also pointed to the “struggle” that creators face when keeping up with changes in the industry. “I feel like the way that YouTube disrupted television, TikTok has disrupted all of these big incumbents, and it’s so weird to have had VidCon around for both of those events now, to some extent,” Green said in his opening remarks. “Things have changed a great deal and, for better or for worse, there’s a lot of struggle that comes along with a disruption of that size. But that also means there’s lots of opportunity. There’s lots of time to figure it out.”

But in that time, creators like Tomlinson say they’re not afraid to leave if the time is right.

“The kicker of the issue, what underlies everything we do, is the minute it stops being fun — and I’ve hit that point a few times — don’t expect anything from me,” Tomlinson said.

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