It's finally happened: PewDiePie no longer has the channel with the most subscribers on YouTube. That title will now belong to T-Series, a channel owned by the largest music production company in India. Each channel has around 92 million subscribers, and they've been neck and neck for the past few months, sometimes surpassing each other by just a few hundred subscribers. Last week T-Series finally pulled decisively ahead. As I'm writing this, it has about 61,000 more subscribers than PewDiePie, who's catching up for the moment, probably due to an extra boost from his concession video. (You can see a live stream of subscriber numbers here.)
By the time you read this, that gap may well have widened again--it was around 100,000 earlier today. Or, PewDiePie's fans might have rallied, as they have in the past, to push him ahead for just a little while longer. But the question was never whether T-Series would overtake PewDiePie, a Swede who lives in Britain, and whose real name is Felix Kjellberg. The only question was when. This helpful article from Business Insider explains why--scroll down to see the "Total Subscribes" chart and the steeper angle of T-Series' growth trajectory will tell you everything you need to know.
It's very easy to see this as a David-vs.-Goliath story in which a lone YouTuber is finally taken down by a giant corporation after a courageous battle. And that's exactly how Kjellberg and his many millions of fans would like you to think of it. He's done a lot of trash talking aimed at T-Series (notably in a video called "Bitch Lasagna"). Although some might question his taste in humor, it seems clear that these are mainly intended to be funny. But when asked in a YouTube Q&A to say seriously how he felt about T-Series, he answered this way: "I don't really care about T-Series, I genuinely don't, but I think if YouTube does shift in a way where it does feel more corporate...something else will take its place."
In his brand new mock-congratulatory video concession "Congratulations," he also calls T-Series "a massive corporation with every song in Bollywood."
Hmm. It's good that he used the phrase "feels more corporate" because, while watching home-made PewDiePie videos might indeed feel less corporate than watching highly polished T-Series videos, the truth about which is more corporate is something else again. Kjellberg's estimated income in 2016 was $15 million, which simply would not have happened without corporate support. Back before he had even 1 million subscribers, he had a deal with multi-channel company Machinima. He soon switched to Maker Studios, and stayed there through its acquisition by Disney. T-Series was started in 1983 by Gulshan Kumar, who once sold fruit juice on the streets of Delhi. He was murdered by the local mob in 1997, and his son and younger brother have run T-Series since then. It's a private company with annual revenues that are likely less than $200 million. For comparison, Disney's 2018 revenue was over $59 billion. Which feels more corporate to you?
Kjellberg's relationship with Disney ended in 2017, but not by his choice. The media giant dumped him because of controversy over antisemitic commentary and imagery in his videos (which, again, appeared to be humorous in their intent). However, his videos continue to carry ads, he still has sponsorships, and he still managed to make $12 million that year. In 2018, his estimated revenue was up again, to $15.5 million.
Some fans view Kjellberg as a symbol of the internet the way it used to be--wild, irreverent, and under no one's control. They're nostalgic about those old days and I suppose that makes sense. But the wild and free internet of old was also a much narrower place that seemed to only welcome geeky white males, especially gamers like Kjellberg and his fans, who call themselves the "Bro Army." And, it went without saying, that internet of yesteryear was English-only.
Today's internet is bigger and more inclusive. It took a while for T-Series to overtake PewDiePie in part because most of India's 1.3 billion people still don't have internet access. About a quarter of the population has a smartphone, and most of those--245 million--reportedly access YouTube every month. According to YouTube, 95 percent of them are looking for content in their own local language as opposed to English. That's what T-Series serves up, and that's why it's growing fast.
Less all-male. Less all-white. More multicultural. More global. I don't know about you, but that's how I want the internet to be. Sorry, PewDiePie. As you put it in "Bitch Lasagna," it's nothing personal.