Why YouTube Ensemble — Yes Theory — Asked Fans to “Pay What’s Fair” For Their Last Documentary
There comes a point in every artist’s life, if not many points, where he or she must turn a good opportunity down to bet on something different, something bigger.
It’s the record deal that comes too early with those outrageous, sign-your-life-away terms. It’s that production contract that leaves you with a feeling that your book or movie will be destroyed by the stakeholders involved. When the world is telling you that you’d be crazy not to take the deal, you follow your gut (and test your guts) instead.
Our team at Yes Theory is no stranger to making these kind of creative bets. The founders have walked away from numerous lucrative production and brand deals, even risking the solvency of their business at times.
Most recently, we decided to independently release a documentary called The Lost Pyramid on our site with no brand dollars behind it. It was the biggest, most expensive, and riskiest production Yes Theory has ever done. It was also our first time asking our audience to pay for content.
This article unpacks the handful of the reasons why we chose to run this distribution experiment and explore a more personalized business model. In it, you’ll find some distinct truths about the state of the “influencer economy” and the future of content.
Meaningful Relationships, Meaningful Art
My first real introduction to YouTube and digital creators (as I think of them today) was like it was for many people. I’d written off YouTube as this little sketch comedy site, the home of Jenna Marbles’ webcam videos.
It wasn’t until a friend of mine showed me one of Casey Neistat’s daily vlogs in early-2015 that I became obsessed with trying to understand why people found YouTube so interesting. There was a certain cool factor to it, a measurable impact, too. Similar to MTV popular among teens in the mid-2000s.
At the same time I started to notice the impact YouTube was having on popular culture, I was teaching in an underserved community in New York City. Musical.ly had just hit the scene and DJ Khaled’s Snapchats were the basis for every kid’s jokes.
I came to believe that, for many young people, the bonds they had with the people they followed online were as strong (stronger, in some cases) than bonds they had with people in real life. Especially when it came to aspirational identities or authoritative figures, the lines had blurred completely.
I mean, there’s a reason someone coined the term “influencer.” As much as most of us hate the idea, influence is exactly what someone with a few hundred thousand followers yields. At any moment, they can throw a billboard up in front of their ready-made audience — to pitch an idea, lifestyle, product, service, philosophy, or belief.
But is that enough?
In Pursuit of “True Fans”
The financial success of modern creatives (artists, YouTubers, etc.) is largely hinged on their ability to get an audience to act. Beyond having a clear moral responsibility to do so, there’s also an economic incentive in doing it right.
While outwardly the industry is measuring metrics like followers and engagement, what we are really trying to measure is the quality of the emotional connection between an artist, creator, or actor and the end consumer of their content.
In other words, how many people love you?
The core idea is that — in order to be a successful creative — all you need is 1,000 true fans.
In a world where we are chasing millions of subscribers and billion dollar business ideas, 1,000 true fans feels truly insignificant. It feels like selling yourself short, like a third-degree ego burn. But when you actually look at the mechanics and economics behind it, that’s all you really need to make good stuff and live a comfortable lifestyle as an artist or entrepreneur.
The number of true fans you have is a far superior metric to subscribers or listeners. Based in practicality instead of vanity, it actually means something.
True fans are defined as the type of people that are willing to buy anything you sell. They are “raving” about you, telling all their friends. They evangelize on your behalf and ignite the power of “word of mouth” marketing. They don’t passively subscribe to your content. They are the true believers, the one’s that take action.
In our case, they are the audience for The Lost Pyramid while it’s behind a paywall.
Community First, Creative Integrity Always
Earlier this year, Yes Theory produced our very first long-form, documentary called Frozen Alive. By all accounts it was a success. Nearly 5.5 million people have tuned into watch this 45-minute long video on YouTube since it first aired. Insane.
The only problem? We lost money making that film. (Don’t even ask about ad revenue, it’s sooo painfully low.)
So when it came time to start pre-production for our second documentary, we had to make some hard choices. Faced with opportunities to sell it to a platform or to bring a big brand on, we thought critically about the impact we wanted this film to have. Platforms were asking us to involve more “celebrity talent.” Brands were asking us to infuse products into a film that is quite personal.
None of it felt right.
We founds ourselves at a crossroads. On the one hand, Yes Theory, like any content studio or team, is a business. We can’t spend exorbitant amounts of money to tell stories without consequences. You need money in this business to sustain a message. But on the other hand, let money become far too important and you threaten the very nature of creation itself.
Integrity and solvency must coexist for a movement like Yes Theory to work.
Our decision to distribute The Lost Pyramid independently wasn’t made in the name of creative freedom so much as it was made to maintain creative integrity. There’s a critical difference here.
While freedom is the liberation from coercion or constraint, integrity is an adherence to a set of predefined artistic values. Values that, in the case of Yes Theory, were solidified years ago.
Retaining our creative freedom was only a means to an end. Because we knew, every inch of creative control given up to someone with a different (or opposing) interest may contradict the predefined artistic values set forth by the team at Yes Theory. And those contradictions could add up quickly (and fatalistically).
If we’d sold the rights to this documentary to someone else, you would be watching an altogether different movie. More importantly, the essence, or that very subtle quality that makes it what it is, likely would have been erased.
Instead, this film is precisely what Yes Theory wanted to say to their community about this particular story. Nothing more, nothing less. From the initial ideation down to the final musical score, this is a film by Yes Theory for the Yes Theory community. Art, delivered straight from the team’s hearts to yours. And what a gift that is.
Using “Pay What’s Fair”
All in the cost of The Lost Pyramid production was about $70,000. So of course, there was a substantial financial downside to running a distribution experiment like this one. There’s no one to blame or safety net to fall into if the film falls short, if we alienate the audience, if no one pays to support, if we were in the red.
But oddly enough, the potential financial downside was easier for us to stomach than the possibility of having to create someone else’s version of this film. Perhaps this is because, the people who matter to us most, those True Fans, the community that makes Yes Theory what it is, is always our first priority.
So, the decision was simple. If we wanted to make this documentary (and future documentaries) as true, accessible, and financially viable as possible, we needed to release it behind a paywall.
Yet, despite knowing our intentions were good, we were still pretty nervous about asking people to pay to stream a Yes Theory film. We didn’t want to be coupled with YouTubers who charge $50 for a livestream of their fake weddings. We sought a more tasteful way to charge for content.
Which is why Yes Theory’s manager, Zack Honarvar, suggested using a “Pay What’s Fair” pricing structure. And immediately and unanimously, we decided:
To watch the The Lost Pyramid, you could pay as little as $1 or as much as you think is fair.
Popularized in creative industries when Radiohead released their album “In Rainbows” back in 2007, “Pay What’s Fair” is a model designed for True Fans. Instead of asking people to pay a standard price for the album or piece of content, you ask people to pay whatever they feel is right.
This may sound kind of crazy to you. Classical thinking would make you believe that, by implementing such a payment structure, you are minimizing the amount of revenue that you can capture. It’s easy to believe that people are always going to pay the absolute minimum. Whether that’s $1 or 1 cent.
But on the contrary, it’s quite clear that people transact based on their emotional connection to something, not a purely logical assessment of it.
This “Pay What’s Fair” model allows someone to put a dollar value on the transformational impact Yes Theory has had in their life, while also maintaining a relatively low barrier of entry for those who aren’t so sure.
As it turns out, some long-time, True Fans were craving to support Yes Theory content in this way. One young woman even contributed $1,000. (Don’t worry, it was intentional. We checked.)
Perhaps what’s more baffling than her chosen price tag was the fact that she willingly paid that much before watching the film. This made us realize, people aren’t transacting based on the inherent or perceived value of the documentary itself, but rather for the value the existing relationship they have with Yes Theory.
Because when you know who you are and what you stand for, when you say “no” to the wrong opportunities, when you say “yes” to integrity, the right people come to support your vision.
And when you have the right people working with you, for you, and on your behalf, you have cracked the code. You’ve realized success on your own terms. You’ve made something with purpose. You’ve realized Kevin Kelly’s True Fan utopia.
Prioritizing Global Accessibility
As I’ve already mentioned a handful of times, community is our number one priority at Yes Theory. Which is why keeping this film behind a paywall forever was never an option. This was an “early and exclusive” release for people who are in a position to support the film financially.
Anyone else, without a credit card or without the funds to contribute a dollar to this film, will still get access to this film when it goes up on YouTube in the very near future. It will live there in perpetuity for anyone to watch.
The reasoning for that is simple. We didn’t implement this experiment as a cash grab; we did it so that we can keep telling stories that have an impact on people.
We believe so deeply in the philosophy behind Yes Theory that we want it to reach every single person on this planet, regardless of where they are located or how much money they have. We believe in the democratization of life-changing ideas and the equitable distribution of them. Period.
And while we are, at this time, still confined by how many people have access to the internet and can understand English (or the handful of languages we support translations for), someday we hope not to be.
Always The Student, Never The Master
This wasn’t anything close to a perfect film or the perfect launch. But as the founders Thomas Brag, Matt Dajer, and Ammar Kandil like to say, “Yes Theory is a thousand year project.” So, I guess that means we have plenty of time to figure it out.
We hope to eventually (create and) live in a world where your country code, first language, gender, race, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, or religious beliefs don’t prevent you from chasing your wildest dreams, going after what scares you, or getting way outside of your comfort zone.
To accomplish this mission, we have to think differently about how to generate money without compromising our integrity. This is the only way to scale Yes Theory’s impact.
This doesn’t mean we won’t ever enter into a big production deal or work with massive brands. Of course we will. We have to experiment with different forms of monetization to figure out what works. We have to risk failing epicly so that we can (hopefully) have a broader impact.
We are creating something so much bigger than ourselves. And there’s no blueprint for how to do it right.
But we are committed to carving the path and figuring this out.
To testing these kinds crazy ideas.
And I mean seriously, Yes Theory creates by the motto Seek Discomfort.
Who would we be if we didn’t live by it?