Brett Barley will be the first to tell you he wasn't the first surfer to enter the recently en vogue YouTube Vlog world. But he has been a regular uploader for the last decade, and last year he decided to create a weekly vlog detailing basically everything in his life: from chasing swells to fishing, family vacations and everything in between.
Keeping up with the vlog–the planning, filming and editing of it himself (not to mention all the actual surfing)–each and every week is no small task. And so we called Barley to ask: Is it all worth it? Is YouTube a viable financial future? Is "vlogging" a passing fad for pro surfers or is this only the beginning?
Your first YouTube upload was 12 years ago. It's safe to say you've had skin in the game for a while.
[Laughs] Oh yeah. Back then, I just liked making videos. And I lived in the middle of nowhere. So it was like, "Cool, I can upload surf clips to send to my sponsors so they know what I'm doing."
You've been vlogging for about a year now. I counted 68 videos since you first announced a vlog series. What made you take that route?
Yeah, I started in March of last year. And really, I started it [a vlog series] because I was already spending so much time editing for Instagram and Facebook and one long YouTube video here and there. But I ended up with was a ton of clips that didn't go anywhere, because I wouldn't want to show them on Instagram if I was saving them for my video, so a lot of that stuff would never got used. I just decided I was wasting a lot of stuff, and that I should put something out weekly. At that point, I'd been following fishing and photography vlogs for a couple of years already and I just went, "Man, if they can pick up a camera, document life and get a giant following, maybe I can, too."
Was it uncomfortable speaking in front of a camera?
Not at all. If you dive into my YouTube, you'll see that I've been doing that stuff for a while. I think my first "vlog" was actually back in 2009, before they were really a thing, when I documented a trip to New Jersey for a surf contest and missed the best Lighthouse swell in forever. But I've always been more comfortable doing little interviews with myself than having someone else film me. That's when I actually think I'm the most relaxed and natural.
To me, your vlog almost feels like a curated version of the Truman Show, with how you bring us inside your daily life.
[Laughs] Yeah, it's pretty wild. I'm basically documenting my life, and at the end, I'll be able to go back and look at it week by week. It's pretty cool.
It was strange transitioning from the surf industry norm of going on trips and saving clips, to just filming everything and releasing it right away. Ben Gravy was the first one to really tell me how to do it. And it was kinda cool to see that someone like him–who wasn't in the surf scene before YouTube–grow a massive following, and now he's selling surfboards and clothes around the world. YouTube vlogging is more about character. You get to learn more about the person and since they're actually controlling everything, it's just more real. But it's definitely different. Before, you had to put out a banger edit or else you were a nobody in the surf world.
Do you plan each episode, with a content calendar and schedule?
No [laughs]. I just wing it. I go into a swell with an idea of how I think it'll pan out, but then it never happens that way. My plan is always to just be as real and natural as possible, because that's what makes a vlog, and that's why I follow the people I follow. In all honesty, once someone else does all the filming and editing, it turns into a web series, not a vlog. A vlog is meant to be filmed and edited from the users perspective. It's a video version of a blog. A video log.
That makes sense. But, by that definition, Koa Rothman and Jamie O'Brien's vlogs are really more of a web series.
Yeah, it's nothing against them. They're awesome. But they aren't filming and editing everything themselves. It's the same concept, it's just not the same. For me, I have Jeffrey [O'Neill] filming the surfing, but then I'm putting it all together,
I hear a lot about how profitable YouTube can be, with ads and views. Are you reaping those benefits yet?
It just depends on how many videos you're doing, and what your overhead is. Someone like Ben Gravy is filming and editing everything and putting out a video every single day, but he's doing it all himself. And he's doing well. He's at a point where tourism boards will reach out to him to travel to promote a place because he's so popular. So he's an example of someone with a fairly low overhead making a profit. But then, someone Like Jamie [O'Brien], he's got a huge following but he's got a much larger overhead. He's got 200,000 subscribers so he's making more per video. But Ben is making more videos.
And then it also depends on how many ads you allow on your video, and what sort of ads they are. I always try to leave the first 10 minutes without an ad because I don't want to bombard people, but that's also what will help the series grow. After a year, my vlog has shown financial worth, but it's far from being something to depend on.
Is there a formula you can at least depend on though? For instance, does 10,000 views equal X amount of dollars?
It's dependent on a bunch of factors: how long the video is, how many ads you allow on it, how quality the advertisers are, and how long into the video people actually watch. For example, YouTube favors videos that are 10 minutes or more. I recently did one that was 9 minutes and 45 seconds, and you can only put one ad on a video under 10 minutes. That video took off and has about 35,000 views, but it's not even making a third of the amount as some of my other videos that have less than 20,000 views. Then you also get paid more for ads during the holiday season, so it's hard to say how many views you need to get to make a certain dollar amount.
Ben Gravy is getting roughly 20 thousand views per video, but he's also doing a video everyday, which averages 600 thousand views every month, which seems pretty solid.
Definitely. That adds up. But man, he's working so hard. He surfs all day and edits all night and does that every single day. He's gnarly. But as far as surfing vlogs go, he was the one that really got it all started.
YouTube allows you to show tangible results to sponsors instantaneously. It used to be that you had to be a little more passive about your career as a freesurfer, waiting for a call to go on a trip, whereas now you can really control it.
Exactly. I used to feel a lot of pressure to get mag photos and featured in online articles and all of that. But now I can actually decide what I want my channel to look like. And I can do what I want to do, rather than try to play catch up with what everyone else is doing. But I'm still trying to wrap my head around it. I grew up packing closeouts for the magazines [laughs]. Video wasn't even important. So it's weird to see where things are now. But I've always loved doing it. I started my YouTube when I was 16. Now I basically dedicate Tuesday to Thursday to editing.
You're basically a pro surfer with a real job!
[Laughs] Yeah, it's wild. Seabass [Sebastian Zietz] did an interview with STAB recently where he said something like, "Growing up, all you had to do was surf good." And that's so true. It's kind of sad, but I think it's good for the generation coming up to have the option of creating a tangible product for others to follow along. And I really do think, in general, the YouTube audience is a lot more supportive than the people who are just double tapping and swiping through Instagram. That's what's been the most rad.