These entrepreneurial twentysomethings are riding a wave of marijuana legalization to online celebrity. Call them Cheech and Chong for the digital age
Josh Young smokes weed before he eats breakfast. He gets high before lunch, too, again before dinner, and usually one or two more times on top of that. Most days, on at least a few of those occasions, he’s filming it for his YouTube channel, StrainCentral, which has more than 373,000 subscribers. Millions watch him every month.
This is how Young pays his bills. And if that’s a hard idea to wrap your head around, Young said it’s even harder to answer the question of how he makes a living.
“It’s a pretty impossible conversation to have with just about anyone – Uber drivers, people in elevators,” Young said. “I’m like, ‘I smoke pot on the Internet, I guess?’”
Often, his devoted followers come to his channel to learn about marijuana and the many ways to use it. They want to know, for instance, whether blunts are more potent than joints or how to make edibles. Other times, they want to see feats of consumption they’d never dare try – smoking a gram of cannabis in one minute, for instance – and, of course, the grisly aftermaths. Frequently, they watch simply for the company of a charismatic fellow smoker as they light up wherever they are in the world.
“A lot of people on YouTube are just looking for a smoking buddy,” Young said.
Young, a 21-year-old medical cannabis patient in Washington who suffers from gastroparesis, is one of a group of popular weed-centric YouTubers – or WeedTubers, as they call themselves – riding a wave of marijuana legalization and its concurrent growth in mainstream visibility to online celebrity. They’re Cheech and Chong for the digital age.
But unlike the iconic stoner duo, which came to national fame through Hollywood films, WeedTubers are bootstrappers who’ve paved their own way creatively and financially in an arena that’s sometimes hostile to their “420-friendly” labor.
Google AdSense, a big money-maker for equally popular YouTubers operating in more family-friendly industries, is less lucrative for WeedTubers, since the video-sharing site doesn’t permit monetization for age-restricted videos. Instagram, meanwhile, sometimes shuts down accounts with marijuana content – a devastating blow for content producers who depend on large followings across multiple platforms for their livelihood.
They may not be millionaires like some YouTube stars, but the most successful WeedTubers have managed to build full-time careers through a combination of sponsorships, branded content deals, and merchandise sales. Young, for one, started StrainCentral shortly after getting his medical marijuana card in 2014, and by last February he was making enough money online to leave his job as a line cook and waiter. He makes about as much money online as he did in the restaurant industry.
The key to breaking out of the pack, he said, was consistency – that is, making sure his followers could rely on a steady stream of content to smoke along with throughout the week. Recently, as the WeedTube community has become more crowded, he said it’s also become important to heed his followers’ requests to participate in “challenges” involving increasingly extreme consumption.
“Things like that are going to be shared a lot more than educational videos a lot of the time,” he said.
That formula has proven especially effective for WeedTube’s irrefutable king, Joel Hradecky, whose channel, CustomGrow420, has amassed a following of more than 1.2 million since 2013. A video in which he tries to smoke a gram of THC oil has racked up more than 1.3m views. A subsequent video of him coughing for nearly seven minutes straight after the attempt has more than 1.5m views.
“People obviously like watching other people suffer,” said Bryan Gerber, the 25-year-old co-founder and CEO of Hemper, which sells monthly subscription boxes for smoking accessories.
I only urge people to get into this if they have a message. If they’re looking for fame or money, I suggest porn.
Coral Reefer, 28-year-old WeedTuber
Hradecky isn’t just an entertainer, Gerber said, he’s also a connoisseur –“like the Billy Mays of WeedTube” – and audiences take his recommendations for bongs, marijuana strains and other accessories to buy. That’s why Gerber pays Hradecky and other knowledgeable WeedTube stars, ideally those with more than 100,000 subscribers, between $300 and $1,000 per video to promote his product on their channels, plus money for every new customer they refer.
Gerber usually works with between 15 and 30 WeedTube channels at any given time, he said, finding them to be a relatively cheap and highly effective advertising platform. Other entrepreneurs in the burgeoning cannabis industry turn to YouTube influencers for that same reason, and to avoid stringent cannabis advertising regulations, which vary from one locality to the next.
Cannabis companies may have their sights set on WeedTubers, but the interest, for many WeedTubers, isn’t exactly reciprocal. Cody Miller, 20, who lives with his father in Connecticut, said he could probably sustain himself on earnings from his channel, xCodeh, if he were to move out, but focusing on business “ruins the fun” and takes away from YouTube’s appeal as “a creative outlet”.
Companies regularly get in touch looking to partner with him, but he usually turns them down, he said, mostly out of a desire to avoid losing “credibility” with his fan base.
Kimmy Tan, a 22-year-old tattoo artist, musician and model living between New York and LA, is best known on YouTube for taking 100 hits of weed in a row. She said she’s “really wary” about working with cannabis companies after a few bad experiences. She makes videos, she said, to “have a good time” and “connect people” rather than to make money.
Santa Cruz-based Coral Reefer, 28, said she makes about as much money through YouTube as she did as a waitress, and doesn’t recommend a career as a WeedTuber for those planning to get rich.
“I really can only urge people to get into this industry if they have a message they want to share. If they’re looking for fame or money, I suggest porn or waitressing,” she said.
For his part, Young’s ambition is to simply to keep doing what he’s doing as long as he can, and to help pave the way for a future in which a life like his won’t seem quite so unusual.
“I want my grandkids to be able to smoke weed without being looked down upon or being stereotyped as a stoner. If I can be a small part of the legacy of smart, responsible cannabis consumption, that’s the major long term goal,” he said.
Article By Jordan G Teicher