Not long ago, I went to a gig at London’s Eventim Apollo—the iconic music venue famed for hosting David Bowie’s farewell appearance as Ziggy Stardust. But I wasn’t there to see a singer or a band. I was there to see DanTDM—the YouTube star and darling of the tween demographic—who was on the final leg of his first live tour.
DanTDM’s (aka The Diamond Minecart, real name Dan Middleton) London gigs sold out within minutes. Indeed, every gig on the 16-city U.K. tour sold out almost instantly. VIP meet-and-greet tickets went for more than £70 (about $85) each. Next stop: Australia.
Before the star of the show appeared, about 3,500 young people chorused, “We want Dan!” If you’ve ever wondered what more than 3,000 kids in full voice sound like, I can exclusively reveal that it is astonishingly loud and very high-pitched. Neighborhood dogs probably had to run away.
Middleton is a 25-year-old British YouTuber whose channel has more than 13 million subscribers, amassing more than 8 billion views since its launch in July 2012. Created out of his home studio, Middleton’s content mainly consists of Let’s Play videos about “Minecraft,” with occasional forays into other games. Stories set in the “Minecraft” world feature fictional characters such as scientist Dr. Trayaurus and Middleton’s pet dogs—now stars in their own right.
His empire now spans real life as well as the virtual world. Merchandise flies off the shelves. Toy shops and supermarkets sell DanTDM collectible figures. A graphic novel, Trayaurus and the Enchanted Crystal, was launched to coincide with the tour, and topped the best-seller lists on both sides of the Atlantic. At the end of the London gig, the audience was invited to stay behind to take part in the filming of Middleton’s music video.
The show felt very British: an enthusiastic mash-up of traditional pantomime and a slightly anarchic kids’ game show, with lots of lighthearted audience participation and a scripted plot based around the kidnapping of Middleton’s dogs by his nemesis, Evil Dan. It helps that Middleton, who studied music production at university, can play the guitar and carry a tune. He is obviously comfortable on stage. What’s the secret of Middleton’s success? How can he fill concert halls and spawn business opportunities in real life?
At the Apollo, there was considerable camaraderie between parents who, similar to me, were chaperoning overexcited offspring—who were, in many cases, attending their first ever gig. Probably, most of us had already checked out DanTDM online and been relieved to discover that his content is suitable for our kids—anarchic and funny, but no bad language or inappropriate material.
One of Middleton’s fellow tween-targeted YouTubers, Joseph Garrett (aka stampylonghead, with 8 million subscribers and counting), has spoken about his sense of responsibility toward his young viewers. Realizing early on that kids were his biggest audience, he consciously decided to cut out bad language and to develop family-friendly content.
It’s a fine line to walk. Most tweens aspire to consume the more edgy content that is aimed at teenagers. To capture their interest, tween-targeted content needs to keep that irreverent and anarchic authenticity, but crucially needs to stay on parents’ good sides too.
Tween eyeballs are, of course, valuable to creators who are looking to monetize their content. Tweens have disposable income of their own—estimated at more than $43 billion annually—hence, all those collectable figures and sticker books. But parents control much bigger budgets, not to mention the all-important credit cards. So staying on the good side of the responsible adults is vital if lucrative real-world crossover content is to succeed.
Both Middleton and Garrett have said they see YouTube stardom as an end in itself—and not a route to, say, TV stardom. That’s not surprising, really. Most of the tweens I know never watch linear TV, although they might watch a favorite TV show on YouTube. The appeal for YouTubers seems to be the unmediated and unrestricted communication with fans. They are masters of their own destiny, charting new content routes into the future and taking young content consumers with them.