When news hit that Disney subsidiary Maker Studios was dropping support for over 59,000 YouTubers, the mood for many was less “I’m fired” and more “I’m free!” YouTubers interviewed described their struggles against Maker’s detached management, late payments, high fee and undelivered features, painting the picture of an inflated network whose bubble may have popped.
Last week, creator network Maker Studios, which Disney purchased for $500 million in 2014, announced it would pare down its 60,000 partnered YouTubers to under 1,000. Disney is going in a new direction with its multi-channel network, scaling back YouTube clients and integrating the operation into its Consumer Products and Interactive Media division. In an e-mail to its partners, Maker said they’d “outgrown” their original model and were “moving towards a more targeted approach to our creator relationships.” In other words, they’re pitching a more personal mode of managing their remaining creators.
YouTubers still do not know who will make the cut. Many hope they won’t.
Several YouTubers had been attempting to cancel their contracts for months, even years, before Maker warned of the upcoming purge. Stories of late payments, hands-off management, unresponsiveness and general incompetence were rife among Maker-partnered YouTubers interviewed. Many YouTubers who didn’t take advantage of Maker’s brand relations felt that Maker was basically making money off them for nothing. Sources also told me that, while Maker boosted YouTubers’ revenue through ads, they skimmed off at least a quarter of their earnings. And because of Maker contracts’ arcane auto-renewal system, some Maker YouTubers were stuck with them for years longer than they’d have liked. Maker is, they say, doing them a favor by firing them.
Cultural critic and YouTuber Dan Olson, who has about 90,000 subscribers, is thrilled to be released from his Maker Studios partnership. He says Maker reached out to him years ago about cultivating his education channel under their rapidly growing network. Their guidance and direction would expand his fanbase, he recalled them saying, and their brand relations and premium ads would increase his revenue. But he alleges that, after he signed his contract, he could barely get responses to e-mails. When Maker reps did get back, it was to say that they’d forwarded his request along some distant chain of command. After a few months, the mere idea of hands-on support was, for him, laughable.
“Over the span of a year, I accepted that it was never gonna happen,” Olson told me.
Olson isn’t one for product placement, so Maker’s brand deals didn’t do him much good. He received a premium ad rate, but since Maker skimmed about 25 percent of his revenue, the numbers didn’t weigh in his favor. Also, like several other sources interviewed, Olson reported regular late payments and backpay. “If anything, I stand to gain,” Olson said of his upcoming lay-off.
YouTubers interviewed said that, aside from better ads or brand deals, they were left alone to grow their channels. Little Jay Berry, another YouTuber excited to leave Maker’s network, said “I thought having a partnership meant being partners, not doing everything alone or feeling isolated like I do with Maker.”
Dissatisfied Maker partners seeking freedom had a series of hoops to jump through before they could terminate their contract. The contract auto-renews unless creators inform Maker of their desire to leave a month in advance. To know the exact date of renewal, partners must have a copy of their contract saved locally, because if they request one, it will allegedly take several days to land in their inbox. Many YouTubers attempted to leave multiple times, but they were eluded by Maker’s terms for contract severance.
“A lot of people just stay with them because it’s hard to leave,” Olson said.
Mason, whose film criticism YouTube channel NYX Fears has nearly 45,000 subscribers, wanted to end his contract because, in exchange for a third of his earnings, he says, Maker didn’t deliver on their offer to promote his content or advocate for him when copyright issues came up. He says he received a community guidelines strike from YouTube, which he considered unwarranted, and received little support from Maker. As a result, his channel lost vital features for six months. A year in, he requested to have his contract dropped, which he says was denied. A year after that, he requested the drop again, citing the poor percentage split. Then, a representative was allegedly quite responsive, negotiating his rate down.
“The only time I ever got good tech service was when my contract was about to expire,” Mason told me, a claim I’ve heard echoed from several Maker partners. “I thought I was the only one, but just about everyone I know from Maker is saying they’re excited that it’s over.”
When I bounced sources’ allegations off Maker, Maker’s EVP of Publishing and Digital Media issued a somewhat oblique statement, explaining that they’re “building a digital media network of Disney and non-Disney content for kids and millennials on the platforms they use every day.”
When multi-channel network (MCNs) were all the rage four years ago, content creators hoping to carve out a business on YouTube flocked over to networks like Maker. Maker would guide millennials with little business experience through the wild west of digital content creation and monetization. Over-inflated, Maker over time lost its ability to manage 60,000 clients. A source close to Maker told me that, now, they’re “paring down the network” so they can “offer better services to a smaller set.” But in the process, Maker partners are feeling used and exploited in the process of building Maker’s reputation.
“It’s disillusionment with the system as a whole,” Olson told me. “We expected we’d be getting a lot more hands-on development, but that never materialized.” He added, “A best-case scenario is a passive bureaucracy.”
Last week, Digiday published an investigation into Maker’s “internal dysfunction,” which, they report, includes “multiple leadership changes, an inability to meet admittedly aggressive growth targets and difficulties in creating original content.” After interviews with five former Maker executives, Digiday paints a picture of a company with high ambitions but hollow means: “‘It’s the epitome of the colossal failure of the MCN business,’ said one former Maker employee. ‘Every all-hands meeting was led off with the number of views we were doing — 10 billion views, 11 billion views, 12 billion views — that was the outward-facing success story. But the reason the views were growing was because the network kept growing and we were just adding more and more channels.’”
And yet, still holding out hope for Maker is Bailey Beattie, a humor YouTuber who believes that Maker wants to stay partnered with him. The e-mail he received explains that their new, targeted approach will “provide enhanced support for creators like you.” It’s not a strong assurance of his continued Maker partnership, but Beattie is optimistic. When he first joined two years ago, Maker had brand deals and was responsive via e-mail, but after amassing several thousand more creators, Beattie says, Maker fell out of touch with him.
“I was originally going to leave Maker because they were really just taking my money and not helping me at all,” he told me. “Now that they are decreasing the amount of creators, I believe they will be able to create a closer relationship.”
YouTubers dismissed from Maker’s ranks will flock to smaller networks or stake it out on their own. Little Jay Berry is excited to move to an MCN with a bit more faith in smaller channels. Noah will research and find the best offer for him, hopeful knowing that a friend of his got a 95/5 split from another network. Olson, for his part, may simply go without a network. His frustrations with Maker reinforce his belief that, for YouTubers whose schtick isn’t product placement, MCNs are losing their relevance.