Ask just about any stranger on the street who Felix Kjellberg is and you’ll likely get a blank stare. Identify him as PewDiePie, his name on YouTube—where he’s got almost 40 million subscribers—and you’ll get a few more positive responses.
The 25-year-old Swede is the top-earning YouTube star on the planet, pulling in $12 million pretax over the past year, all for providing expletive-heavy commentary as he plays videogames. Thanks to the millions of fans who make up his “bro army,” advertisers are willing to pay a pretty penny to have their products featured in his videos.
In our first-ever ranking of the top-paid YouTube stars, we have uncovered the 10 channels that have managed to earn the most from their Internet aspirations. The minimum to make the list? $2.5 million in pretax earnings in the year ending June 1, 2015.
The list measures earnings before subtracting management fees and taxes. Our figures are based on data from Nielsen, IMDB and other sources, as well as on interviews with agents, managers, lawyers, industry insiders and the stars themselves.
These 13 DIY filmmakers—directors, producers, actors all rolled into one—have made millions doing what members of older generations may consider more play than work. By commenting on videogames, serving up comedy, debriefing about beauty and dancing while playing the violin, they have attracted millions of fans—and the money in their (or their parents’) wallets.
One of the only commonalities of the group is their youth: Most are under 30, and thus only slightly older than their target audience members, many of whom are of the generation that prefers YouTube to old-fashioned television.
“I thought, if [YouTube] is going to be the global television of the future, I need to build my brand here,” said Michelle Phan, who uploaded her first video, a natural makeup tutorial, from a grainy webcam in 2007. “Within the first week, 40,000 people watched it and hundreds of comments came in and that’s when I realized I’d found my calling.”
Most of their earnings comes from advertisements—both sponsored, integrated content and the pesky, inescapable previews—but some of these stars are diversifying into the television, movie and music industries. The publishing industry has been especially welcoming to these stars: Four have books out or in the pipeline. A few have their own product lines, selling everything from beanies and underwear to eyeliner and lip-gloss.
Videogames seems to be one path to making it big on YouTube. Kjellberg is joined on the list by KSI, or Olajide Olatunji, a fellow gamer who made $4.5 million in the past year. The British commentator has become a sensation across the pond and has used his following to break into the music world, with his rap single “Lamborghini” debuting on the UK Top 40 charts.
Comedians have also found a way to make YouTube their own: Half of our top-earning channels primarily feature sketch comedy, stand-up routines or pranks. Their antics have earned both Smosh—made up of childhood best friends Ian Hecox and Anthony Padilla—and the Fine Brothers—Benny and Rafi Fine—$8.5 million, in addition to a movie deal for Smosh and a Nickelodeon show and Daytime Emmy for the Fines.
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SOURCE: Forbes, Madeline Berg