By Michael Aaron Gallagher of StayFamous.Net and StayPopular.com
When I first discovered Casey Neistat‘s YouTube channel I was immediately captivated by his daily vlogs. I was drawn in by the beauty of New York City, presented in a way I had never seen before. It suddenly seemed accessible, distilled down from a massive metropolis to a manageable hometown. I was in awe of the gadgets – a skateboard that propelled itself (called a Boosted Board), a flying drone (DJI Mavic Pro), an office with the tools to create just about anything a creative mind could conceive, and even a tiny refrigerator that held a few cold drinks to help make it through a busy work day. Like many of his fans, I was intrigued by his lifestyle, one day flying to distant cities to speak about the power of social media and another hanging out with supermodel Karlie Kloss. In his extraordinary journey from amateur filmmaker, to HBO star and eventually YouTube media mogul, he benefited from a seemingly boundless energy source and an admirable ambition to create and do more.
In the first video by Casey Neistat that I ever came across, he was customizing his iconic Ray Ban sunglasses. I was amazed by his polite irreverence for the product. In a world where brand names define social status, he was scratching off the Ray Ban logo on the lens and spray-painting over a brand new pair of shades in order to achieve something that was decidedly his own. He was appreciating the quality and craftsmanship of the original, while adding his own spin to the design.
It was a powerful concept, you could customize your life. You don’t have to be bound by what other people have decided for you. And in choosing your own destiny and blazing your own trail you could enjoy a more exciting adventure and live a happier, more fulfilled life.
So how did I go from watching every single Casey Neistat video I could, to unsubscribing to his channel? The answer is simple. His videos were losing the one element that was most important to capturing an audience’s attention and keeping them coming back for more.
I believe there is one major ingredient to success in both entertainment and the media. When you use it, you win. Every. Single. Time. Of course, knowing what it is and successfully using it are two different things. But Casey Neistat is one of the few content creators who gets it right… when he gets it right.
Former coworkers of mine, would probably be able to shout out the word without hesitation, because I repeatedly drilled it in every time there was a new story or a new project being launched. That one simple word isn’t a commonly talked about element in business or entertainment, which is why I don’t often share it with people anymore. It has become a sort of “secret ingredient” that I am sure if I were talking to Casey he would recognize as being present in his most successful videos (like “Bike Lanes”) and absent from the ones that seemed to be going through the motions (like “Feelings about the iPhone X”).
The beauty about that ingredient is that Casey knows how to use it, because I have seen it in his work. The problem is there are times when it is absent and as a result, the audience’s enthusiasm for his work fades. I’m willing to bet it was behind the disappointing results at his former company Beme and even his struggle to get his new company 368 to the place where it could be today. Essentially, that one word is the reason I left as a subscriber. As time went on, that element was there less and less. I would say what that word is, but it’s such an important piece of the puzzle that I’d like to someday share it in a speech or a book as a part of a recipe for success in business, if I ever have the opportunity. But I will share some of the pieces that are closely related to it, in order to explain some of the ideas behind why it is so important.
Why I Subscribed
There’s no question Casey Neistat is a powerful creative voice. A simple YouTube search will reveal some of the YouTubers who credit Neistat for changing how they make their videos. His impact on the platform has been enormous and largely understated, and yet Casey himself hasn’t been able to dominate the platform in a way that some other less talented creators have. Still, he has been quite successful. With nearly 11.2 Million YouTube subscribers and more than 2.5 Billion video views since 2010, Neistat has at times reached beyond his own audience to attract media attention and corporate sponsorships, working with companies like Mercedes-Benz, Samsung, Google and Nike.
What makes Neistat remarkable is that he is able to weave a story both visually and as a creative narrative. He can take the seemingly mundane and make it interesting through his choice of music, setting and timing. The importance of a good soundtrack first became apparent to me in my high school film class, as we watched an episode of Dawson’s Creek for the first time. I realized back then that music could influence the mood and draw out emotion from an audience. It was the impact of music videos and television shows that used music to evoke an emotional response that helped inspire my own journey into the world of entertainment.
Despite his YouTube channel’s apparent lack of direction, his inconsistent posting and his “brand’s” inability to clearly define an easily understandable mission statement and direction, his ship doesn’t sink because, like a cunning player in the classic game of Battleship who places his boat off the grid, he is sailing his own seas. He’s not cheating, he is simply acknowledging the norms, expected trajectories and expectations of others and pushing beyond the boundaries of the grid to chart his own course. He’s just demonstrating his understanding that as the FX Network tagline goes, “There is no box.”
And within the dual meaning of that tagline also exists the idea that “there is no box” can refer to the TV box itself. When you feel so much a part of what you are watching that there isn’t a screen that separates you, you begin to understand the power of entertainment. In some of life’s darkest moments entertainment can be there to distract, to inspire and to teach.
Which brings me to why I watch but don’t subscribe.
Casey Neistat has developed his formula for movie making, like a recipe that has taken years, if not decades to perfect. In some of his recent videos, I have felt like he is sensing that his formula is no longer enough to “Stay Popular” on the platform. Some people on YouTube blame algorithms and others blame the exhausting daily grind that saps creativity and leaves creators feeling empty and spent.
But it isn’t the formula or the platform that is the problem. It is the missing ingredient. A great movie can be in black and white. It can flawed. It can be simple. It can be short. Its greatness is not a function of its packaging any more than it is of the equipment used to create it. Neistat has the technical skill and the creative genius to tell a great story and to change the world. But he isn’t.
The Moment I Unsubscribed
I hit the unsubscribe button at a time, when as a fan of his work you would think I would be the most supportive of his success – when he sold his company Beme to CNN. The reason I decided to unsubscribe was because I began to “notice the airbrushing” in his work.
There is sometimes a moment on Instagram when you see a photograph of a beautiful model and you suddenly notice the fake eyelashes and the heavy makeup, when the sky and the ocean are too blue and you realize that the picture has been heavily doctored. In that moment everything about it suddenly feels fake, even if most of it is real. It is the same for a small town band that suddenly signs a record deal. As they hit the big time, their wardrobe and personae become curated to fit what sells. You can no longer identify with the wildness, the beauty of chaos, the untamed imperfection. When Casey sold his company to CNN, it was the first time that I realized (as he has later explained in one of his videos) that his vlogs were also a promotional campaign for his app.
As someone with a marketing degree, I can definitely appreciate the ingenuity it takes to seamlessly blend the promotion of a brand within an entertaining “reality show.” But it made me begin to question the underlying motives for every creative decision. Metaphorically, it was the equivalent of seeing the boom mic in a shot. I couldn’t un-see it. It took me out of the story. I didn’t want to feel like I was part of an audience being manipulated with strategic product placements and empty celebrity cameos.
It is like the difference between a film director and a movie director. A film director lives and breathes the authenticity of the story, the expression of the script. They make sacrifices for the art. Sure, there are times when they are motivated by dreams of fame or fortune and sometimes they even make decisions based on the financial implications of their creative choices. But a movie director is there to make a blockbuster, to sell tickets at the expense of all else.
To me, Casey Neistat‘s YouTube Channel began to feel like a slick commercial. It didn’t have the realness of a person in front of the camera sharing their life, it was a person sharing a corner of their life to achieve something else entirely. There’s nothing wrong with using your skill to achieve your dreams, but for an audience to be engaged they have to care about wanting to see you achieve the outcome you desire, they have to be invested in the story.
I don’t know what it’s like to be famous, or have people recognize me on the street. I can’t imagine balancing the pressure to satisfy the selfie requests of adoring fans, but I couldn’t help but feel that some of his fans were dismissed with a wave as he flew by on a skateboard, like they were less important than the story he was telling. True, you have to maintain certain boundaries, and you can’t always stop to talk to every person who may want to talk to you but it felt like his fans were a side effect of his success rather than the driving force behind it.
In short, words like authenticity, suspense, excitement, comedy, drama, originality, and sometimes even “clickbait” can be related to the “secret ingredient” for YouTube success. It can overcome changing algorithms and lead to lasting success in the entertainment business. But without that element, there is no reason to come back for more.
When Casey’s videos began to feel like a means to an end, it was the point that I unsubscribed. I still watch his videos when they appear in my feed and if I haven’t seen them in there, I will occasionally visit his channel to see if he is up to anything new and interesting, but the magic is largely gone.
Will I Ever Subscribe Again?
Although I have a deep respect for his work, and I am sure it would be fun to sit down with him and share my vision for what 368 could be, I decided a couple of years ago not to reach out to Casey to request an interview with him for StayFamous.Net. Although, back then I wanted to feature him and a behind-the-scenes look at his work, I didn’t ask to interview him, because he is still immersed in the process of doing. I know that phrase seems a little confusing, but when I see a creative person that is bending the genre of their art, pushing the creative limits of what is possible and what can be imagined and creating original work, the last thing I want to do is to interfere with their work without being able to offer them something of value in return. It would be like visiting a painter’s studio. I would rather they use their time to paint something new than to reflect with me about their paintings. He doesn’t have his brand together entirely and it isn’t where it should be, but he is clearly working hard to get there.
There may come a point when I am once again entertained and engaged with Casey Neistat‘s work enough to hit that subscribe button – that is if he can rediscover the missing element in his work and use it. But for now I will take what lessons I learned from him over the past few years and hope that at some point he creates a video that commands my attention and holds it in a way that keeps me coming back for more.
To learn more about Casey Neistat and his work visit CaseyNeistat.com.
StayPopular.com is a brand-new addition to the StayFamous Media Network (www.StayFamous.Net), so I welcome your feedback, story ideas, or comments. Feel free to email me over at StayFamous.Net (StayFamous @ gmail.com, no spaces) and if you would like to read more about my work in the entertainment industry, you can visit my official website MichaelAaronGallagher.com.