“Kickin’ Facts” is REVOLT’s sneaker column, written by sneaker expert Jazerai Allen-Lord, where she dives into the culture and discusses all things kicks with a special emphasis on Black people who are in the scene, but who the now very-gentrified sneaker industry often overlooks. Come here for the real from an absolute sneakerhead who truly is of the culture.
Within the walls of sneaker culture lies an offshoot village of creators who live, breathe, and eat off of unboxings on YouTube. These originators belong to Sneaker YouTube, a hodgepodge of sneaker enthusiasts, fashion influencers, and content creators looking to tell a sneaker story that, in turn, secures a bag.
Though YouTube has been around since 2005, its tone and use cases have significantly shifted over time. This is particularly noticeable in sneaker culture, which had a minimal presence on the platform prior to 2009. Jacques Slade, aka Kustoo, is one of the most well-known stars of Sneaker YouTube. He reflected on the sneaker content available on the platform before the subsect community was truly formed:
“I officially got into Sneaker YouTube in 2010, and people like Franalations, DJ Delz and SneakGeeks were already making videos on the platform. A couple of publishers were doing videos here and there, but there wasn’t a ton of content, and it wasn’t looked at through a professional lens, as in, this person is a professional YouTuber, in the way we know today. It was looked at more so like random people putting content out there.”
The early days of Sneaker YouTube were void of brand partnerships and monetization hacks. Instead, the content focused purely on the culture’s educational aspects: history lessons, storytelling, design details, and material overviews. The “random people” creating content were often real-life sneakerheads who were documenting their lived experiences. Outside of sneaker conventions and meetup coverage, you had the quintessential “unboxing video,” which gave the sneaker community a detailed, up-close, and personal look at the shoe.
In 2010, this video type was sought after because the images leaked of a forthcoming sneaker were often incorrect. Seeing the produced sneaker in 3D and up close can usually tip the scale on a decision to blow a bag. The unboxing video formula became an industry standard and is a practice that has held firm for the past 10 years. I asked the host of “SneakerPhetish,” David Daniels, to describe the average content seen today on Sneaker YouTube:
“There’s a thumbnail with someone with their eyes bugged out, wide open, looking very surprised, like they’ve never seen a sneaker before, or, the thumbnail is someone Photoshopping the sneaker into their hand because they don’t really have it. If they do have the sneaker, when you click on it, there’s some sort of introduction, they say that they’re excited, and then they start turning the shoe around and showing the shoe from different angles. They might give a little bit on the design’s inspiration, and then, they say the shoe is fire until the eight minutes is up because eight minutes is the new threshold to be able to monetize your videos.”
Monetization is critical for current and aspiring YouTube creators, who are often joining the platform to open up a new revenue stream. Furthermore, a study by The Sun revealed that 75% of Gen Z and Millennials chose “being a YouTuber” as their most desired career, increasing creator participation by scores. Growing up watching PewDiePie play video games on YouTube and rake in $12 million a year would be aspirational for anyone, so it’s no surprise that Sneaker YouTube creators are continually shifting their strategy to play in the YouTuber’s world. According to Forbes, over 50 million creators are on Youtube, Instagram, Twitch, TikTok, and other social media platforms. Two million of them are full-time, earning six-figure salaries and profiting off of clicks and views.
With the influx of creators and only so many product drops, today, the content native to sneaker culture, like unboxing videos, can be challenging to execute in a way that truly resonates. Mike the Compass, host of “A Sneaker Life,” a YouTube channel with half a million subscribers, commented on the volume of sneaker creators currently on YouTube:
“When I first started in 2013 and would go on YouTube and type in ‘sneakers,’ there were probably, like, ten channels. Now when you do the same thing, there’s close to 100,000.”
Everyone from collectors to comedians to big brands are using sneakers as a storytelling vehicle on YouTube, blending traditional sneaker content, YouTube’s best practices, and clickbait to monetize to the max. Due to this hybrid’s complex dynamics, Sneaker YouTube finds itself in its own class of sneaker culture. It is a community living between two vastly different neighborhoods; sneaker culture, grounded in authentic expression; and YouTube, centered on entertainment and monetization.
Newcomer Nicholas Giles, host of “Legendary Kicks,” talked about the corniness that comes with clickbait and how code-switching seems like the unspoken rule amongst Black Sneaker YouTubers:
“I look at some of the Black Sneaker YouTubers who have a lot of exposure, and a lot of them remind me of how I feel when I watch Tiffany Haddish. It feels like an appropriation of what white people think, Black people, think funny is. It feels ‘safe,’ like the Black guy you know from the skate shop. It’s either that, or it feels silly and wonky. There’s usually a layer of cheesiness.”
What appears corny to sneaker culture — a community that upholds raw grit and authentication — is considered solid entertainment in the YouTube world. In Sneaker YouTube, choosing not to code-switch and play the clickbait game could be the choice between making millions of dollars or absolutely none.
I have seen people do some wild things on Sneaker YouTube to get views, like eat ice cream out of their Ben & Jerry’s Nike SB Dunks or drink Slurpees out of their shoes. But, after researching the numbers, I now understand. For starters, you need a lot of views to be eligible to monetize your channel, a function that’s available after you have generated 4,000 watch hours and 1000 subscribers. After reaching this milestone, you can earn between $3 - $10 for every 1000 views. The more views your videos have, the more dollars you make, which would probably make you want to pour ketchup all over your Yeezys and take a bite.
Beyond ad revenue, the most elite Sneaker YouTubers thrive off of brand partnerships. Slade, often referred to as “the king of unboxing,” gave us some insight into the different ways that brands partner with content creators on YouTube.
“It could be something as simple as a brand seeding you product, and you give your thoughts on it. Or a brand paying you to give a first look at the product. You could help a brand design a shoe. It could be a brand working with you to host an event. You could be hired to photograph their latest collection. You could help a brand flush out their commercial idea. You could direct that commercial and star in it too. It could be an online ad. There are unlimited opportunities to work with brands if you have a great eye, a passion for sneakers, and know-how to present content in really cool and engaging ways. That’s going to get a brand to reach out to you to do the same for their products. All that comes from how you express yourself and how you let your creativity flow, as a creator.”
Sneaker YouTubers see brand partnerships as top tier status. Many of them talked about unspoken milestones that they previously hit or were looking to hit. The first step is product seeding also known as being gifted. If you read our Kickin’ Facts piece on influencer culture, you know that this is an unpaid brand engagement, but an engagement nonetheless. You can take the product you got for free and create some fire content around it, using it as an asset toward your next achievement.
Having a brand sponsor a video is the next milestone that Sneaker YouTubers aim to hit, meaning that the brand pays for the content creation and potentially for its usage rights.
The biggest bag comes with a brand campaign or a long-term partnership. At peak Sneaker YouTuber status, you aren’t chasing this anymore, they are coming to you. While the leads are inbound and the money is right, it’s important to remember that the hustle doesn’t stop. Mike the Compass often works with brands of all types on his Sneaker YouTube channel. He spoke a little bit about this:
“I’m at the point where I have brands regularly reaching out to me, but best believe that every single day, anything I see that’s dope, I’m contacting the brand, like: ‘Hey, this is my YouTube channel. I would love to work if there’s an opportunity there.’ It’s really a hustle, it’s not all going to be handed to you, but there are definitely ways to make money online these days.”
If you’ve been thinking about getting in the Sneaker YouTube game, now is the time. Influencer marketing is on the rise with the pandemic in full swing, and fresh faces are needed in the space. I consulted with creators who have been at it for over a decade and some who just got started, and they all had the same advice.
Don’t let the idea of needing all of the right equipment stop you from creating the content living inside of your heart. You can learn editing through YouTube or on iMovie and create content from your phone. David Daniels said that he reached his first 10,000 subscribers by shooting his videos on the iPhone because it’s more about character, consistency and showcasing who you really are.
J Cheyenne and Slade focused on finding a differentiator, the special sauce that sets you a part. Often, newcomers feel like they need to spend $1,000 a month to keep up with the sneaker purchases required to create content and spend unnecessary time emulating people who are successful in the space. Discovering your own voice and telling your own story are the keys to standing out amidst a sea of Sneaker YouTube content. Cheyenne does this by skipping the hype-driven unboxings and instead tells stories about her collection’s unique vintage pieces.
The need for commitment was echoed by everyone. While an eight-minute YouTube video might fly by when you’re watching it, the production and post-production of that content could’ve taken a week. The time commitment required to establish and grow a YouTube channel is not for the weak, but just like with anything we truly desire in life, you can go hard or go harder. But with millions of YouTube dollars potentially on the line, home is not an option.