Robert Wallace is a freelance theatre journalist and podcast producer. He is also the founder of TheatreGB, an online editorial producing news, reviews, interviews and feature content on the thriving UK theatre scene. Here, Robert takes a look at the thriving theatre journalism scene on YouTube, and evaluates its place within the wider journalistic landscape.
This piece was commissioned by Fergus Morgan in his role as Guest Editor for the Mobius blog. You can read Fergus' first post on the future of theatre journalism here.
“Oh my god, hey!” Against an assortment of stagey pillows and theatre flyers hung on proud display, a YouTuber introduces himself. “My name is Mickey Jo and I am obsessed with all things theatre!”
Mickey Jo Boucher, alias MickeyJoTheatre, is a British theatre YouTuber and journalist with over 20,000 subscribers. Over the course of the next fifteen minutes, he breaks down and offers analysis to the reviews of the recent Broadway transfer of Funny Girl. It gets over 100,000 views.
“I've always had a theatre blog for as long as I've been going to the theatre” says Boucher when I interview him over the phone. “No one ever read it. It was just something to have. Then at some point, I started doing videos. It was when lockdown was happening and I really had nothing else to do with my time. It really took off from there.”
Boucher is at the forefront of what has been a quiet boom within British theatre journalism. As arts journalism in the legacy media continues to decline, new platforms are emerging to replace print, radio and television as the primary home of cultural coverage, and YouTube, along with newsletter platforms and podcasts, is one of them.
Theatre has been present on YouTube ever since the video-sharing platform launched in 2005. From extracts of shows and covers of musical theatre songs to practitioner videos and even a few Broadway bootlegs, YouTube provided a way for theatre audiences to engage with an artform that was increasingly underserved by traditional outlets.
During the 2010s, YouTube grew and grew as video technology and internet access became more widely available. This growth attracted advertising revenue and, eventually, being a YouTuber became a legitimate career aspiration for anyone with a smartphone and something to say – including those with something to say about theatre.
MickeyJoTheatre is just one of several British YouTubers to provide commentary and criticism on theatre, and to earn an income from doing so. Amy Lovatt and The Break A Leggers are two more. In America, audiences are even greater: Katherine Steele has grown a base of 200,000 subscribers with her videos covering Broadway and beyond.
Paul Seven Lewis launched his own channel One Minute Theatre Reviews in 2017. A prolific critic in the 1980s with bylines in The Guardian and The Stage, Lewis returned to journalism after a long spell in theatre marketing, and spotted YouTube as an undeveloped space within theatre coverage. “The market for people writing on blogs and websites was quite crowded, but there didn’t seem to be very many people doing it on YouTube,” Lewis says.
One of YouTube’s main attractions for Lewis and Boucher – beyond the potential to earn a decent income – is that YouTubers have control of their own content and are not limited to the constraints that come with covering theatre in traditional outlets – word-counts, house styles, editorial policies, and more. You can talk about what you want, how you want.
“When you’re writing for someone that only wants about 500 words, that can be quite restrictive” says Boucher. “There are definitely more elements of detail I can go into [on YouTube]. There is the ability to illustrate certain things, especially when talking about visual elements of a production. There is more freedom in the video format.”
“I thought no one will be interested in a 20-minute video of me explaining the intricacies of the direction of the new version of Oklahoma!, but the more into detail I go into in these videos, the more reception and feedback I receive in the comments section,” continues Boucher. “People are really pleased that I've evaluated it from that perspective.”
More freedom, growing audiences, creative license – but there are still questions about YouTube as a home for theatre coverage. Boucher, Lewis, and their fellow YouTubers’ content comprises everything from reviews to commentary to interviews and their videos frequently receive more views than most theatre-related articles in print publications – but there is still a reluctance within the theatre industry to treat their work as journalism.
“I think there's a division between the PRs who understand and value of coverage on social media platforms and the ones who are a little bit more traditional and would just like a write-up and a star rating” says Boucher. “It's whether I am considered to be a theatre journalist who happens to use a YouTube platform, or whether I'm considered to be an influencer because it's social-media-based.”
Another concern is whether YouTube can provide a sustainable financial model for Boucher, Lewis and their fellow content providers. Once a YouTuber meets certain criteria – 1000 subscribers, and 4000 hours of viewing over the past 12 months – they can become part of Youtube’s Partner Programme and start earning money with their videos.
While enticing, the Partner Programme does leave YouTubers exposed to the vulnerabilities of the platform as a whole. Lewis notes how he joined the Partner Program just before the notorious Adpocalypse of 2017, an event which saw advertisers boycott the site in response to allegations of the its inability to monitor extreme and hateful content. The repercussions meant that many creators saw their income disappear overnight.
For Lewis, who has just over 2000 subscribers, YouTubing is now more of a passion project than a serious attempt to generate an income stream. “Even with the money I earned, I would have to go a long, long way to cover the cost involved of travelling to and from the theatre and the associated expenses of that,” he says. “It’s a labour of love.”
To serious succeed financially on YouTube demands consistent upload schedules and large audience engagement. For creators who are able to meet those demands, though, the rewards can be high – and not just when it comes to earning money through the platform. Having a large presence on YouTube opens doors elsewhere, too. Boucher’s YouTube fame led to opportunities to contribute to established theatre news outlets, for example.
“YouTube is definitely the bigger money, though,” he says. “I have a lot of other friends who are very successful bloggers, and that is a lot harder to monetize. It can be a lot more per video than you would get as a fee for other publications.”
There remains uncertainty about whether the theatre content produced by YouTubers can be considered serious journalism and not social media influencing, and there remains uncertainty as to whether its leading practitioners will be able to earn enough money doing it to keep going long term, then.
There is certainty, though, that the audiences of Boucher, Lewis and others are growing, and that the performing arts’ attitude towards their work is changing. As Boucher puts it: “I think the mindset of the whole industry is evolving and waking up to YouTube’s power.”