Brian David Gilbert’s path to making “silly nonsense” videos for a living
A writer, actor, and video producer shares what he has learned on his path to creative independence.
In our Making the Leap series, creators who've turned a creative side project into a full-time business share a behind-the-scenes look at how they did it.
YouTuber Brian David Gilbert makes videos that are “funny and musical and scary” and sometimes all three at the same time. While making videos for a full-time day job, he slowly but surely realized he was well on the way to doing what he wanted to do — but he was doing it for someone else’s channel. So, Brian crunched some numbers and figured out what it would take to leave his day job and strike out on his own, and he put the wheels in motion. Since 2021, he’s been working on his Youtube channel, and the videos that populate it, full time. Now, his channel of “silly nonsense” videos, as he describes them, has more than a million subscribers.
In a wide-ranging conversation, we spoke to Brian about money, motivations, setting boundaries, and much more.
Let’s dig right in: How’d you decide to go full time?
I was working full-time making videos for Polygon, Vox’s publication about gaming. During the pandemic, I realized two things simultaneously. One: that I wanted to make more content that people could enjoy. And two: that I was already doing everything it would take to self-publish. So why not go all in?
I also realized I wanted to do work that wasn't referential, that, for example, didn’t require you to have an encyclopedic knowledge of Mario in order to pull it off. But I didn’t think I could make a living off it at that point. When I started working that job and got a little more notoriety and had a better handle on how things worked on the internet, it gave me the confidence to feel like I could go independent.
I was writing, then also filming the videos by myself in my house and editing them, then publishing them, just on someone else's channel...That was the thing that made it click for me: I could just be doing this on my own! I was also in a good enough position with a supportive partner that I felt I could flounder for a little bit and, hopefully, see if it worked.
Why did you decide to start a membership business?
The kind of stuff I make is not necessarily lucrative on its own, and I have a very low tolerance for sponsored deals. There are few things I would be willing to advertise in a video of mine, even though that tends to be the number one way people can make money as an independent creator. So I knew that if I was going to make this work, while also being able to survive on the money I'm making, while also not compromising on my ethics or content, I need people supporting me just for the content itself. I started working on that with Patreon because I knew enough people who’d been doing it really well, and I saw other people succeeding in that space. I came to learn that I have a very generous and supportive audience that wants me to do the weird things I do. They’re willing to support me no matter how strange the work gets.
"I came to learn that I have a very generous and supportive audience that wants me to do the weird things I do. They’re willing to support me no matter how strange the work gets."
Once you’d decided you were ready to work on your videos full time, how did you prepare?
One aspect was financial. I’m by no means a financial guru, but I had a concept of how much I needed to make to survive. I gave myself a basic budget. I need to make X amount of money from YouTube, X amount from Twitch, X from Patreon. It could fluctuate between the platforms, but if I can keep that balance, I’ll be able to live. That was also my first step in accepting I wanted to be independent: seeing what I needed to do to survive.
Another was more personal. Throughout the process of creating the Patreon, I’ve joked about switching from having one boss to hundreds of bosses. I want to know that I’m obligated to make good stuff for my audience, but be transparent about what I’m going to do and what I will not do. I made sure to make those boundaries clear from the very beginning because even if the audience didn't specifically ask for something more or something that I didn’t want to do, I felt like I would keep giving more and more, potentially to my own detriment.
I wrote down what I wanted, was capable of, and what was too much, especially around the parasocial aspect. I tried to be clear and concise. Because I don't want people paying me money to be my friend. The reason people are here is because of the work I create, not because of me specifically, and that’s been a huge part of wrapping my head around doing a subscription model. It’s really helped me the past year and half.
How did you feel when you first started out as a full-time creator?
I’m very anxious in general, and I knew that was going to be true throughout the process, but the first push after fully going independent and seeing how many folks had come to join my Patreon was very bolstering and reassuring about my choice: “Oh, this is the thing I should have done, it's not just me quitting a job on a whim.”
Just knowing there are folks who really care about the work I make has helped me keep going. Even if there are times when I personally am not as excited about a particular thing I’m doing, or I feel I could have done something better, as long as I can see some folks that are excited, that keeps me excited about making stuff as well.
How have you built a support system around your journey?
Honestly, I should be working more on that side of things, but my partner is also a creator and independent. She does a lot of great work, and I think being able to speak with her and friends who are also in the media business, even if they aren’t independent creators, has been big. It’s a chance to realize we all go through the same things, we all have the same mental cycles. It’s: “This is the best thing I've ever done in my life and I never want to do anything else but this” one week, and “I should go into the woods and go off grid and never look at the internet” the next, and it swings back and forth on semi semi-regular basis. Knowing other people go through it has been helpful.
What has surprised you about the experience of being a full-time creator?
I’ve said that I need to unionize my brain! Often, it’ll be maybe 7:30pm, and I’ll realize something about a video I was editing earlier, and I’ll be like, “I'm going to do it right now, while I'm thinking about it.” I’ve had to have moments where I'm like, “Try to enjoy not being productive and try to not feel bad about not being productive.”
The blessing and curse of having a salary job is that sometimes you’re not doing your best work, but you’re still making that same amount of money and keeping your health insurance. As an independent creator, if I have something pop up and I'm not able to make the video I planned, I have to find ways around or I don't have the safety net that month. Of course, Patreon has given me more of a safety net than just ad revenue would, but that’s the hardest thing I'm still working through. I haven't perfected that side of things — the ability to continue making work while also recognizing that I need to take breaks.
On the positive side, just having a place, an outlet, where I can show my works in progress — even if they never become something that’s a finalized project — has been helpful for me.
What has been the most challenging aspect of going independent?
I haven't had a full break, even on the “vacations” I’ve taken. I always have thoughts like, “What if I bring my camera to take shots of a place I haven't been before so I can use them in something?” I haven't turned my brain off, and the constant churning piles up.
I’m figuring out how to be more aware of what’s happening to me; it’s something I need to work on. I don’t think I'll ever make a YouTube vid that’s the “I’m burnt out…” vlog, but again, something that helps me is having a space to talk about the work. It’s given me an outlet and a more public way to express those feelings. Often when I do, I have other creators and folks who enjoy my work reaching out being like, “I know that feeling.”
What’s been most satisfying about your journey?
I’ve been able to never turn down an idea just because it doesn't “fit” with what I do. This year I was able to make a weird puppet video. I've never done anything with that before and probably won't again, but that I could spend a month and dive in and just do that and just try to make it work was fun.
The more I do this work, the more I’m driven by getting to learn new stuff to make that work cooler or weirder or whatever. Having a chance to take moments where I will just spend a week on how to puppet something is really fun to me. I might never use that skill again, but having a chance to use that skill for even one project is fulfilling.
What advice would you give to other creators considering taking the leap?
My biggest advice is to know exactly what you want. Be as transparent as possible about what you're capable of doing. It’s so easy to want to do huge, amazing work, and some people are fully capable of doing that themselves, but be very upfront with your audience and yourself — maybe even more so with yourself! — about what you're able to do. If you start building yourself up to “Yes, I am going to be making a video a week, and on the weekends I will also do long streams and postcards to every single one of my fans,” you’re going to dig yourself in and forget what you became an independent creator for. Be very pragmatic about what you want to do and can actually manage to do in 24 hours.
Any last words of wisdom?
On taking it one step at a time: One thing I always think about is that there’s no way I would have gotten here without jobs as backup. For many months I was posting YouTube videos and getting hundreds of views and that was it. When I first started making those videos, I felt very much like: “I’m not doing well now and that means I never will do well.” The only way I was able to get past those feelings, was one: it wasn't the only thing I was doing in my life, and two: I wasn’t expecting it to become my main source of income.
On being kind to yourself: As an independent creator, it’s good to have lofty goals but not to put yourself down when you don’t reach them. You most likely won’t for that first however-long. Maybe it gets big or maybe it stays a fun hobby. Even if you have Patreon with a couple dozen folks supporting it, that’s great! It may not pay rent, it’s still a wonderful thing to have.
Thinking about making the leap yourself? Explore the Official Patreon Creator Community Discord server to connect with other independent creators.