Over 400 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute, which means there’s a lot of competition to fight through if you want to get noticed — and making it into the Top 10 list of most popular channels is an incredible accomplishment.
And that kind of success has its perks: the privilege of bringing in millions of dollars per year in shared ad revenue. Here are the most popular channels on YouTube and how they got to be where they are now.
Note: All earnings figures only represent money made directly from YouTube prior to YouTube taking its cut. Without a doubt, these people also have other revenue streams such as endorsements, sponsorships, etc. Sourced from Try Modern.
Channel Overview: PewDiePie rose to fame as a gaming channel dedicated to Let’s Plays and video commentaries. In fact, it became the top subscribed channel way back in 2013 and has sat atop the throne ever since — PewDiePie has twice as many subscribers as the second most subscribed channel.
More recently, the channel has moved away from being gaming-focused and is now something of a variety show that centers on PewDiePie as a YouTube personality. He still produces gaming-related content, but his scope has expanded quite a bit.
Earnings in 2015: $12 million with 41 million subscribers.
Reason for Popularity: His general demeanor appeals to a huge portion of YouTube’s demographic, which mainly consists of adolescent males. So when he’s playing through a scary video game while screaming and laughing, for example, his fans can relate.
But PewDiePie’s surge in popularity is mostly attributed to the way he interacts with his fans, calling individuals “bros”, calling his collective fanbase his “Bro Army”, and using the “brofist” gesture to build a bond with his audience.
Channel Overview: Smosh has a long history, starting all the way back in 2003 as a creator of flash animations, and eventually shifting to YouTube in 2005. To be clear, Smosh is actually a two-person team that mostly produces sketch comedy videos on the Web, but also dabbles in other kinds of content from time to time.
Smosh was the top subscribed channel on YouTube up until it was overtaken by PewDiePie in 2013. These days, the Smosh brand is actually split up between 10 different YouTube channels, each one focusing on a different kind of content, with the core channel dedicated to skits.
Earnings in 2015: $8.5 million with 21 million subscribers.
Reason for Popularity: Smosh’s popularity is pretty simple to nail down: they make funny content and they put up videos on a regular schedule. Funny is subjective, obviously, but the importance of sticking to a schedule cannot be overemphasized.
That being said, the channel has also been criticized for some of its earlier videos that baited clicks with sexually provocative thumbnails. Sort its video archive by “Most Popular” and you’ll immediately understand. Deceptive and scummy, some might say.
Channel Overview: The Fine Brothers are two real-life brothers, Benny and Rafi, who have made millions with their React series of videos. The general idea of these videos? Film people — most notably kids — as they watch other videos in order to capture their reactions to said videos. Simple but entertaining.
They’ve also produced other kinds of content, like their Spoilers series (where they spoil all kinds of narrative-based media) and their more recent MyMusic series (a mockumentary sitcom about a music production company).
Earnings in 2015: $8.5 million with 14 million subscribers.
Reason for Popularity: Though the Fine Brothers didn’t invent the “reaction video”, they did capitalize on the trend before anyone else could. Viewers found the series funny and even enlightening at times, which explains how the channel found so much success with the concept.
But we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention the channel’s recent controversy: the brothers attempted to license and trademark the term “React”, which led to widespread outcry across the Internet, the loss of several hundred thousand subscribers, and the tarnishing of their reputation and credibility.
Channel Overview: Lindsey Stirling is a violinist who incorporates elements of dance and performance art into her act, but instead of specializing in classical music — as most violinists are prone to do — she produces music with twists of pop, rock, and electronic dance.
She has collaborated with several artists over her career, including Lzzy Hale, Tyler Ward, Pentatonix, and even Taylor Swift.
Earnings in 2015: $6 million with 7 million subscribers.
Reason for Popularity: Stirling’s first real break came after her quarter-finalist run on America’s Got Talent, introducing her to millions of viewers across the country. She then began putting up music videos on YouTube, which went viral and exploded in popularity.
Some critics have shamed her for tainting the sanctity of the violin, but that willingness to make her own kind of music — along with her on-screen energy and optimism — is likely why so many people love her. Not only is her music unique and instantly recognizable, but quite enjoyable.
5. Rhett & Link
Channel Overview: Rhett and Link are two ex-engineer friends who came together and formed an online entertainment duo known for their videos that combine comedic songs with live-action sketches. In light of this, they call themselves “Internetainers” (“Internet” + “entertainers”).
Earnings in 2015: $4.5 million with 4 million subscribers.
Reason for Popularity: Perhaps the most charming thing about this duo is their combination of charisma and screen presence. Whether or not you actually like their style of humor, it’s hard not to keep watching once you’ve started. That alone could explain how they have so many fans.
They also have a separate series called Good Mythical Morning, which is a morning talk show that provides them a platform to share their thoughts on all kinds of topics ranging from “The Worst Inventions of All Time” to “The Science of Selfies“.
Channel Overview: KSI, which is a shortened version of his YouTube username (“KSIOlajideBT”), mainly produces gameplay commentaries for FIFA but also dabbles in rapping and acting from time to time. His channel has been open and ongoing since 2009.
Note: His videos often contain mature content and/or language.
Earnings in 2015: $4.5 million with 11 million subscribers.
Reason for Popularity: KSI’s main draw is his attitude and personality, which is a captivating mixture of edgy and energetic. He screams, he rags on his opponents, he jumps around in fits, and sometimes even injures himself in the process.
Channel Overview: Whenever there’s any kind of discussion on make-up artists or make-up instructional videos, you can bet that Michelle Phan will be mentioned. Her name is highly recognizable, even by people who have never cared for make-up or anything else related to cosmetics.
Earnings in 2015: $3 million with 8 million subscribers.
Reason for Popularity: In an interview, she once said that she modeled her production approach after Bob Ross’s The Joy of Painting — and apparently it worked. One of her videos went viral when it was featured on BuzzFeed in 2009, and thus began her climb to fame.
She was one of the first to deliver high-quality, easy-to-follow beauty instructional video on YouTube, but it was her commitment to posting regularly and engaging with her fans that really helped her develop such a strong and lasting following.
8. Lilly Singh
Channel Overview: Lilly Singh, who you might better recognize as Superwoman, is a comedian and motivational speaker who has one main goal for her channel: everyone who visits one of her videos should leave happier than they were when they arrived.
Earnings in 2015: $2.5 million with 7 million subscribers.
Reason for Popularity: Much of her personality revolves around the concept of “Unicorn Island”, which is what she calls her “happy place”, and she calls her fans “Unicorns” in reference to this. You can learn more about this in her YouTube Red feature documentary, A Trip to Unicorn Island.
It’s this bond that she has with her fans that makes her such a beloved figure, especially among the preteen and teen girls demographic.
9. Roman Atwood
Channel Overview: Roman Atwood took the idea behind Just For Laughs and ran with it, producing a “hidden prank” video every month or two and garnering millions of views each. Note that while most are harmless, some do come off as rude, stupid, or downright offensive.
Earnings in 2015: $2.5 million with 8 million subscribers.
Reason for Popularity: People love pranks. Shows like Candid Camera have been around for a long time, but even before television was even invented practical jokes have been one of the cornerstones of humor, so it’s no surprise why Roman Atwood’s prank-focused channel has taken off.
10. Rosanna Pansino
Channel Overview: Rosanna Pansino is a baker who has carved out a niche for herself by focusing on nerd-themed creations, including Angry Bird cupcakes, Captain America cakes, and emoji cookies. Her videos are easy to follow and pleasant to watch — perfect for learning how to bake.
Earnings in 2015: $2.5 million with 5 million subscribers.
Reason for Popularity: People love food porn, and that’s the essence of Rosanna Pansino’s channel. Not only does the food look delicious, but it’s unique and has personality. She makes food that you won’t be able to find anywhere else, and that’s why viewers love to watch her.
YouTube: More Serious Than You Think
Of all the interesting social media facts and statistics, here’s one about YouTube that will blow your mind: among the 18-49 demographic, YouTube actually has more reach than any television cable network. Chew on that for a moment and think about the implications.
Indeed, it appears that YouTube stars are more popular than mainstream celebrities among teens in the U.S. The truth in all of this is that YouTube shouldn’t be underestimated as a “serious” form of entertainment. Any media publisher that ignores it will come to regret it in a few years.
We’ve already explored how YouTube is producing original content through YouTube Red, and that’s still in its infancy. It’s possible that YouTube Red may become the Netflix of adolescents, and that’s a massive community with a lot of untapped potential.
Do you follow any of these YouTube celebrities? Who else do you think deserves to be in the Top 10? What’s your favorite YouTube channel? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below!