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When it comes to the subtle hierarchies of the world of online video stars, YouTubers are the cream of the crop. The site, with its nearly 2 billion monthly active users, is the largest online video platform in the world. Its top names generate tens of millions of dollars in revenue and wield enormous cultural capital. “YouTubers are today’s celebrities,” said Justin Cadelago, the senior vice president of partnerships at Studio 71, an agency that works with social-media stars. “Gen Z is not looking at your traditional celebrity as someone they look up to—they’re looking at these top YouTubers.”

But becoming one is harder than ever. The market is saturated, and for every big name like Logan Paul, PewDiePie, or Lele Pons, there are thousands of young wannabes competing for their big break. And while they wait, they still need to pay the bills. Some work day jobs to stay afloat, but more have begun to partner with small-scale video apps for supplemental income and a leg up on the competition.

It’s a mutually beneficial setup. By working with these mid-level creators, new apps struggling for market share can tap into new audiences, get higher-quality content, and theoretically attract new users. Meanwhile, the creators get the chance to get their name out to potentially millions of new people in a far less crowded market, and make some money from well-funded start-ups thirsty for content. The creators want to make it on YouTube, and the apps want to become YouTube. Together, they’ve created their own self-sustaining economy of strivers, with both groups using each other to tread water until their big break.

Brenden and Tyler LaTarte know these deals well. The 17-year-old twins got started on Instagram, where they collectively have almost 50,000 followers. Several months ago, they started a YouTube channel. While they wait for it to take off, they’re relying on a live-streaming app called UpLive to make money and build a following. They receive $500 for 30 hours of streaming within a 15-day time period. They stream their lives, chat with fans, and fill the hours with whatever they think followers will find interesting.

“It’s always good as a creator to have supportive parents and friends, but it’s even better when you have supportive apps behind you,” said Mario Ayuso, their manager. “When an app sees your potential and what you’re bringing to the table they’ll partner with you to get you to the next goal. Maybe that’s financial, maybe it’s connections, or an audience.”

Tristan Snell is the founder of Snakt, an app that lets you remix or reply to videos. This year, he made the trip out to VidCon, an annual YouTuber conference, in order to meet and court more creators to the app’s partner program, which allows them to get paid for using the app. When he got there, Snell was overwhelmed with the interest from small to mid-level creators.

One of them was Gabriel Stevens, who had 86,000 followers on Live.ly—a live-streaming video app that shut down this summer—and 42,000 on Instagram, yet only 3,500 on YouTube. He told me he’d be thrilled to partner with any video start-up that would pay him. “I probably made $40,000 on Live.ly,” he said, but he wasn’t too stressed about the app’s shuttering. “Mid-level people like me, we’re good at being on a bunch of different apps,” he said. “We never know which app might blow up or go away.”

Because video start-ups can shut down without warning if they run out of venture capital or get acquired, Stevens and other fledgling internet celebrities say they need to constantly hustle for new deals. Right now, he said, he’s trying to get a contract with Vego, another short-form video app.

Brendon Davis, a 20-year-old online video star, reads tech news sites to learn about new social networks or video apps, and has a running group chat where he trades tips about new companies with fellow social-media stars.

“You have to catch the wave early,” he said. “If the app does blow up then you’ll be one of the top influencers on it.” He told me he currently has partnerships with five apps total. “I’m on Cheez, Muscial.ly, Oevo, HypeWave. I’m beta testing an app that releases in two weeks; it’s going to be banging. Me and my network and friends, we are all social-media kids,” he said. “When I found out about HypeWave [a location-based social video app], we all downloaded the app and got verified on it right away. That way, if the app does get bigger we’re going to be the main influencers on the app.”

But of course, most apps don’t get bigger, and some people are finding themselves investing long hours into a platform that will ultimately fail. “Setting up dates, times, collabs with people. It takes time, you have to meet them, set up shoots,” said Brenden LaTarte. “A lot of people think it’s a golden blessing where people think it’s so easy to do all this stuff. There’s time you don’t get paid for stuff, there’s people who waste your time.”

Brenden said he and his brother recently missed out on a friend’s high-school graduation party because they had to stay home and meet a contractually obligated live-streaming quota they had negotiated with an app. “Sometimes we’re streaming for three to four hours per day. That’s hard with homework load,” he said. “Then you have to respond to people, comment. It gets stressful and you feel bad about it. You want to have this other life but then this is taking control of it, so you really have to balance it.”

For many people, the trade-off is worth it if it ultimately leads to YouTube fame. Joy Jefferson, a 21-year-old online video creator, spends hours every night editing videos and hosting live-streams on various platforms. “Everyone says, ‘you’re the next Logan Paul, you’re the next Jake Paul.’ You’re looking at the soon-to-be biggest YouTuber in the world,” he said. “You can take that to the bank and cash it.” So far, he has just over 1,100 subscribers on YouTube.

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