It’s been exactly 518 days since I published my last video on Youtube.
In the world of YouTube, this is a long time. In two years, you can start a channel and gain millions of subscribers. In two years, you can go from no uploads to having a career making vlogs, video essays, or how-to videos. But in two years, you can also make no videos like I’ve done and you can watch your subscriber count slowly tick up whilst receiving comments like: ‘bro, where are you?’ and ‘man, hope you’re ok’. My audience is predominantly male — like most YouTubers — so comments like these are the rule, not the exception. I’m okay, by the way. Thanks for asking.
For those who don’t know who I am, I’m Barney, and for three years I made video essays on music for my YouTube channel Listening In. Before my career as a video-maker, I wrote music. Concert music, mainly, but things that lived — and died — within the world of classical music. It was my dream to be a composer. I imagined a life in which I would write operas, concertos, and song cycles, works for orchestras in America and Europe, and travel across the world listening to my music. But around 2018, I realised this dream wasn’t going to come true. I had been trying for about ten years to break into the world — applying to countless competitions, writing for free, going on courses — but nothing was sticking. There was a lot I could do myself, but everything apart from actually writing music needed money. To make a recording, you needed money, to put on a performance, you needed money, to be asked to write something for an ensemble or orchestra, they needed money, and most of the time you had to get it for them.
I wanted to create, but there was always some financial obstacle in the way. And that’s when I thought about YouTube. I had been watching a lot of YouTubers around that time — people like Adam Neely, Nerdwriter, and Polyphonic — and was amazed by the way they were telling their stories. These were proper ‘video essays’ — informative, but entertaining. Not just entertaining, engrossing. And I wanted in. I saw that there was a gap in the market for essays on film music, and contemporary classical music, so I set about making my first video on the use of Penderecki’s music in The Shining. My influences were obvious. It was Nerdwriter mixed with kaptainkristian. I hope I eventually found my own style — I think I did — but I am indebted to the pioneers of the form, all the way back to Orson Welles.
YouTube really is an astonishing place to make stuff. There are no gatekeepers, you can make videos on a tiny budget, and you have access to the biggest online audience in the world. I’ve met people via YouTube that I never would have met in the classical music world, I found viewers who are as passionated about film music as I am, and I’ve explored music that I never would have engaged with before. I got over my snobbery, I embraced new styles and forms, I thought about music deeply for three years and I loved it (mostly).
Ok, so why the title? Well, YouTubers might be called creators, but creativity is not what YouTube ‘likes’. Let me explain.
YouTube likes content. Our full title is content creators because YouTube is a social media platform that feeds off more, and everything — from the platform itself to the behind the scenes video manager called YouTube Studio — is set up to encourage you to keep making more, no matter what. When you upload a video to YouTube, you’re given an ‘out of 10’ ranking on the Studio Dashboard. If it’s performing well and getting more views in the same time period than your last nine videos, you’ll get a 1/10 and you’ll even see confetti thrown across the screen. And it feels great. Dopamine-inducing, fist-punchingly great. But if you’re video isn’t doing well and you get a 9/10, or even the dreaded 10/10, you feel terrible. This thing that you poured weeks or months of solid work into is tanking, and you’ve no real idea why. You redesign the thumbnail six times, you change the title twice, you go onto Twitter to ask people to share the video, all the while trying to avoid the ‘helpful’ comments offered in YouTube Studio:
‘This video isn’t performing as well due to lower engagement’ / ‘Fewer people are clicking on this video’ / ‘Have you considered making more interesting videos?’
Ok, I made up the last one, but the first two are genuine. Most of the things you do — making a new thumbnail etc… — have little to no effect. Occasionally a video can pick up a week or two later, but most will be lifted up or squashed down within the first twenty-four hours. So, the only thing you can do to pull yourself out of your depression is to make more. More videos. More content. Maybe the next one will do better? Or the next one? Or the one after that?
And this re-wired my brain.
I went into YouTube because I wanted a creative challenge, but after a while, the challenge wasn’t a creative one any more. I know there are a lot of YouTubers who love playing the game, but I didn’t. How can I be creative when there’s enormous pressure to keep uploading? How can I come up with new ideas when I have no time to reflect on my past videos and no time to plan for future ones? How can I do good work when I’m trying to appease an algorithm that I don’t fully understand? The answer, for me, was that I couldn’t.
So, I stopped.
And I thought about what creating means to me.
Every person creates things for different reasons, but I know that I do it because it brings me life. It keeps me living. And I know now that it doesn’t really matter what I create — music, videos, books, articles — I just know that every day I have to make things. It’s as important to me as breathing. But I also know now that I have to give it space. The way I like to think of it is that it’s like an infinitely-expandable balloon. You could fill it up with short bursts of air. It will grow quickly, but after a while you’ll keel over and the balloon will fly off. Or, instead, you could take several long breaths, taking your time to recharge your lungs before you go back to the balloon. It’ll take longer, but you won’t die of hyperventilation in the meantime.
Over the past (nearly) two years, I’ve been recharging my lungs. I’ve been working on a big project, but slowly, off-grid, taking my time. And it’s given me my spark back. I thought YouTube had taken it, but it hadn’t gone. It was just hiding.
I plan on making more videos in the future. I’ve got lots of ideas. But I know that when I make one, I won’t be doing it to chase that illusive 1/10 in YouTube Studio. I’ll be doing it because I want to. That’s the only reason you should create. It shouldn’t be for money, or fame, or for gratification from an all-seeing algorithm, it should be for you.
I will be sharing more details of what I’ve been working on soon, but for the time being I’m going to start putting my thoughts here on Medium. They will be a little more sporadic than on YouTube, and maybe less formal, but I hope you’ll come along for the ride.