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Artists or Influencers?

Shay Carl Butler, widely known as ShayCarl, describes himself first as a father & husband, and secondly as a “YouTuber.” One of the most successful video creators on YouTube, ShayCarl has three YouTube channels, two of which ("shaycarl" and "SHAYTARDS") have over three million subscribers. He was one of few creators that co-founded Maker Studios. Recently acquired by The Walt Disney Company. We sat down with Mr. Butler at the Stein Eriksen Lodge during the Sundance Film Festival 2016, turned on the camera and let him do his thing. And, his “thing” is pure ShayCarl; storyteller, business man, social media star, comedian, entrepreneur, and digital media pioneer. Surely, ShayCarl has tremendous influence amongst his millions of subscribers. So much influence that all sorts of brands want to work with him to get their products and mentions in his wildly popular videos. But, when a credit card company approached him, he declined the offer. Having spoken badly about credit companies in the past, he knew his following would not take that sort of promotion lightly. Butler knows that his influence is real, but it will only endure and grow if he remains true to his character and subscribers. To sell out would put an end to his lucrative career. I don’t think anyone had to tell Butler that, it’s just who he is.

-- Social media has liberated a new breed of artists that have embraced the digital platforms; YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, SnapChat, Vine, etc. There is an overwhelming amount of content crashing across the media landscape, and to rise above that torrential flow is not easy and requires a special talent. Those artists are proving their talent by amassing millions of followers and fans. But, to call them influencers, in my opinion, serves to diminish their artistry and accomplishment. If a person aspires to become an influencer rather than an artist, they may have a rough time building an audience. The Kardashians did it, but that’s another story. My point here is that digital media has liberated all sorts of creativity and artistry. When artists attract followers, then they become influencers. But, influencers don’t necessarily become artists. Wait a minute, who’s on first? It may be time for these artists and their agents to reconsider using the moniker “influencer.” If commercial influence is what defines a creator, then the content they produce, the stories they tell, and the characters they build are secondary. What defines them is their ability to sell shit (to borrow a Bob Garfield term). A Google search of “influencer marketing” turns up thousands of results; influencer agencies, influencer platforms, influencer data technology, etc. And, a search result this morning turned up the title on this Forbes article: “The Influencer Marketing Gold Rush is Coming; Are You Prepared?” And then, there are companies racing to attach themselves to the word;TapInfluence, WebFluential, and Influence & Co. I’ll age myself here, but when I was in the 18-24 year old demographic, I was a Johnny Carson fan. There was no means to record the Tonight Show then, so fans really had to be fans, and watch the show when NBC wanted us to. (Carson would have killed it on social media!) And, every night, there was a product he promoted; cereal, detergent, razor blades and every sort of kitchen gadget. It was unabashed influencer marketing. But, to attach him to that term would diminish his artistry. Maybe before this influencer marketing train gets too much further down the track, it’s time to redefine and reimagine how we refer to the new breed of artists that digital platforms are giving rise to. The ShayCarls and Johnny Carsons deserve that. --

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