It doesn’t take the media to make a media star any more.
The new economics of entertainment have enabled a foul-mouthed performer working on his own to carve out a very lucrative business. He doesn’t have the backing of a traditional media conglomerate. He’s a lone comic with a YouTube channel.
Ray William Johnson curses constantly, often gives his audience the finger and sometimes dresses up as a penguin, but he is attracting more than five million regular viewers to his twice weekly video commentaries, making him the biggest draw at Google Inc.’s online-video outlet.
Known as RayWJ, the 30-year-old has morphed into an idol of the teen set at home and abroad by ranting about others’ viral YouTube videos on subjects ranging from a hippopotamus defecating to people who staple the heads of co-workers.
These days, YouTube’s audience easily dwarfs the viewership for traditional TV networks, drawing more than 780 million unique visitors a month globally, according to comScore’s most recent data. That audience is fragmented among 30,000 channels and millions of videos, but a handful of personalities like Mr. Johnson are drawing significant audiences, according to traditional media benchmarks.
Mr. Johnson, who spikes his dark-brown hair two inches high, is the poster child for how some performers can harness the viral power of the Web to build a career, bypassing traditional media. The Oklahoma native earns an estimated annual income of around $1 million, say two people familiar with the situation, partly by participating in YouTube’s Partner Program, which gives him a cut of the ad revenue generated by his video commentaries. In addition, he sells merchandise like Ray William Johnson bobbleheads and mobile applications for the iPhone. His “Pimp Hand Strong” app, for example, sells for 99 cents on iTunes, where it’s described as “your chance to finally slap Ray.”
“I produce a few shows. I’m also sexually attracted to women who look like Abraham Lincoln,” Mr. Johnson’s @RayWJ Twitter bio informs his more than 800,000 followers. Recently, one of his 2:26 a.m. Facebook posts notched more than 42,000 likes. “LOL,” it read. “TRY THIS IT ACTUALLY WORKS! 🙂 1. Hold your breath for 20 minutes. 2. Die.”
Thirteen-year-old Bliss D’Andrea of South Adelaide, Australia, says she has never missed Mr. Johnson’s YouTube show. She especially enjoys it, she says, when Mr. Johnson says “Geezus!” or “Zing!” during his raunchy riffs. “He may be inappropriate at times, but that’s what makes it funny,” she says.
Ads from major marketers like McDonald’s Corp. pop up during the videos of YouTube partners, including Mr. Johnson. The ad revenue is then shared between YouTube and the partner. “McDonald’s wants to be where our customers are,” a spokeswoman says. “Video is important to us, and YouTube is one of the many engaging digital platforms in our marketing mix.”
Other YouTube stars leverage their YouTube followings to sell music, get on television or produce movies. Kevin Wu (kevjumba on YouTube) has more than 2.2 million regular viewers and 56 million total views. Last year he collaborated with YouTube star Ryan Higa, whose channel has five million regular viewers, to make the song “Nice Guys.” It eventually became one of the top 50 songs on iTunes alongside songs by Justin Bieber and Jay Z, Mr. Wu says with a laugh.
He was also a contestant on CBS’s “The Amazing Race” with his father, toured in Australia twice and is wrapping up a feature film that he plans to charge for, a strategy pioneered by comedian Louis C.K., an early YouTube star. People familiar with the matter estimate that Mr. Wu makes hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. Mr. Wu wouldn’t comment on his earnings, but his YouTube channel is the Houston native’s full-time job.
“If it really works, if it really goes,” he says of his clients, “it could end up being worth millions and millions and millions of dollars.”