Welcome to Creators Going Pro, where in partnership with Semaphore — a creator-focused family of companies providing business and financial services to social media professionals — we profile professional YouTube stars who have hit it big by doing what they love. Each week, we’ll chat with a creator about the business side of their channel, including identifying their Semaphore Moment — the moment they truly went pro.
There’s music in Noah Lefevre’s bones.
Music has shaped his life and his career, from a childhood spent in a house full of song to his days in college working as a music journalist to his very first stab at content creation, a chill podcast called Brews n’ Tunes that featured musicians from Lefevre’s Canadian hometown. While Brews n’ Tunes is now defunct, a bit of its DNA still lives on in Lefevre’s YouTube content.
When Lefevre, who’d been watching YouTube for years, decided to start his own channel in early 2017, he wasn’t 100% set on music as the content direction. But the more he whittled down the options, considering other passions like comics and hockey, the more he circled back to music. He already knew he had a skill for storytelling, and he’d become comfortable with narrating thanks to Brews n’ Tunes. It made sense to bundle those talents, his flair for graphic design, and his encyclopedic knowledge of music into an educational channel teaching viewers about the world’s top classic and contemporary artists.
Since then, Lefevre has consistently uploaded one video per week, covering topics like Queen frontman Freddie Mercury’s compelling, chameleon voice (below), party music royalty Kesha’s transformation, Nirvana’s perhaps surprisingly feminist undertones, and Twenty-One Pilots’ clever story-weaving. He’s amassed an audience of more than 533,000 subscribers, and nets between 2 and 3 million views per month.
But though he’s a member of the YouTube Partner Program and his channel runs ads, not all those views are monetized. Lefevre knew, going in, that monetization was likely to be a challenge, because to illustrate points made in his essays, he often includes short clips of songs. These short clips regularly result in his videos being flagged and demonetized. Most times, Lefevre — though he says his inclusion of the clips falls well within the allowances of fair use — doesn’t fight the content claims, wary of having copyright strikes issued against his channel. Still, thanks to the videos that do stay monetized, support from Patreon subscribers, and numerous partnerships resulting in sponsored videos, Lefevre has managed to make YouTube his full-time career.
And now, a new streaming service is giving him the opportunity to make the content he wants, without worrying about it being demonetized. He works with streamer community Standard, which just launched its own streamer, Nebula. Lefevre was among the first of Standard’s creators tapped to make an original series for the service. He went straight for an all-star, producing a three-episode special covering rock band Led Zeppelin’s greatest hits. (You can watch the first episode of that series below; the subsequent two episodes are exclusive to Nebula.) He also recently contributed an episode to Nebula’s multi-creator series Working Titles, which dissects the opening sequences of groundbreaking shows.
Producing content for Nebula doesn’t mean Lefevre’s leaving YouTube. But making something longer, more involved, and generally just a bit different from his YouTube content has been good for him — and it’s got him wondering what else he can explore as his career continues.
Check out our chat with him below.
Tubefilter: So first, tell us a little about you! Where are you from? What did you do in ye olde days before joining YouTube?
Noah Lefevre: I’m 25 years old and I grew up in Ottawa, Ontario. Before YouTube, I worked as a music journalist doing research for a music companion app, and before that, I was completing my undergrad in journalism at Carleton University. In my undergrad, I did writing for various independent music magazines, mostly album and concert reviews. I also had another foray into the digital realm before YouTube in the form of a podcast called Brews n’ Tunes. In my podcast, I would bring craft beers to local musicians and interview them as we shared the beers.
Tubefilter: What made you choose YouTube as the place to share your content? What do you think it offers you, as a content creator, to help you grow your platform and build your career?
NL: I think the biggest reason that I chose YouTube was because I was watching a lot of YouTube when I started out (and I still watch a lot of YouTube). I saw channels like The Idea Channel, Vox, and Nerdwriter, and they really inspired me and made me realize the potential of the platform — and, perhaps moreso, the medium of the video essay.
I think the biggest thing that YouTube offers me as a creator is simply the audience. There’s no other video platform that can reach as many eyes, and it’s incredibly convenient to upload, too. YouTube also has great analytic tools that I find really helpful in figuring out how to grow my channel.
Tubefilter: When did you develop a passion for music? Did you know, when you started your YouTube channel, that you wanted to focus on video essays about music?
NL: I grew up in a house where there was always music playing, so my passion for music started early, but then I really started to get deeper into music at the start of my adolescence. I got my first iPod (a black first gen iPod Nano) when I was 12, and around that time my older brother started showing me new music. Soon I found punk rock, and that really stoked the fires for my music passion throughout high school and onwards.
I had various ideas for YouTube channels that I was toying around with before Polyphonic. I played with the idea of my other passions, reading (particularly comics), and ice hockey. But at the end of the day, music seemed like the natural approach. There was some music content, but most of it examined music more from a theoretical side than a cultural and historical side. I really wanted stuff that would explore the other parts of music, and I knew I could fill that void. Polyphonic was originally going to touch on some other parts of pop culture, but it took off immediately, and it became clear that people were thirsty for music-specific content. And I keep finding music topics to discuss, so I’m happy to indulge.
Tubefilter: When did you get your first check for online video revenue? How much was it for?
NL: My first cheque was at the end of August 2017, and it was $170. I had a video that really took off toward the end of August 2017, so that month caught a bit of it, and then September 2017 was my first big AdSense payout: $1,600.
Tubefilter: Have you had any partnerships or sponsorships for content on your channel?
NL: Yes, almost every one of my videos is sponsored, and I’ve also done some work with partners before. I partnered with Yamaha for a video about their DX7 synthesizer, and early on in my career I partnered with All Def Music to release some videos on their channel.
Tubefilter: You recently made a series about Led Zeppelin for Standard’s new streaming service, Nebula. Can you talk a little about the nitty-gritty, behind-the-scenes stuff there? How did producing that series differ from producing content for your channel?
NL: Honestly, producing Led Zeppelin’s Epics was pretty similar to my normal production. The big difference was that with a longer series, I had more time to develop and play around with an aesthetic. I create new aesthetics for every one of my videos, so it was interesting for me to do three videos that are aesthetically similar in their typography, motion graphics, etcetera. It let me play around with building themes throughout a little bit and molding a consistent aesthetic to different songs. I really enjoyed that aspect of it. It also just gave me a place to explore. It’s a pretty frequent occurrence that I come up with adjacent video ideas while researching my topics. This gave me a chance to jump into those adjacent videos and create a more thorough, fleshed-out concept.
Tubefilter: When was the first time you realized you were a professional creator?
NL: There were kind of two moments. The first came in September 2017. Polyphonic had really taken off when my John Bonham video went viral in August, and then at the end of the month I got laid off from my previous job. I clearly remember sitting down and looking into my options. I looked at doing some freelance work or applying for a few positions, but ultimately I saw that my channel was taking off, and I thought that I could take a leap of faith and really try to make it work. So I started pulling from my savings and treating Polyphonic like it was my real full-time job. I put in 50 to 60 hours a week into it, and treated it with the respect that I would any other gig.
And, evidently, this paid off. I was able to make more videos and increase my video quality, and soon it was actually a real full-time job. I think by November 2017, it was really sinking in that this was going to be my career path now. In terms of actually realizing it full-time, there was no clear moment, but I know that by Christmas 2017, when I was talking with family and such, I would refer to myself as a YouTuber.
Tubefilter: Have you run into monetization issues with YouTube, since your content is music-related? How have those impacted your career?
NL: Monetization issues are a daily struggle for me. Despite the fact that my videos fall well within the bounds of fair use, YouTube’s copyright system enables record labels to make claims on my content and leaves creators with very few avenues for dispute. Disputing my own completely legal use of these songs could end up with my channel being terminated and my livelihood thrown into question.
Honestly, defending fair use on YouTube feels like a Sisyphean task most days. Luckily, these days it’s less of a stress because more of my income is coming from outside sponsors. The place that it really bums me out is actually in the content of my videos. I generally have to limit song clips to around six or seven seconds, which can make it quite difficult to use examples of concepts that I’m explaining, particularly when it comes to lyrical passages and slower songs.
Tubefilter: What makes you passionate about content creation as a career? Why is this profession one that engages and excites you?
NL: I think it’s just the creation that I’m most passionate about. It’s really cool that I have this artistic outlet I get to do day in and day out. My videos are expressive of a lot of personal things in their aesthetic, and occasionally in their content, and it’s amazing to be able to do that as a career.
I also just love storytelling. It’s what drew me to journalism in the first place, so it’s cool to be able to tell stories for a living. I think it’s also a career that always keeps you on your toes (for better or worse). There’s always another video, and when you’re me, that means creating new aesthetics and learning new editing skills to convey what you want to. You get to see yourself evolve in real time, to the point that I can’t stand watching most videos I’ve released even a few months ago.
I think the last thing that I love is just that I get to share my passions with the world. I really love music, and I’m always that guy spouting obscure music trivia at parties, digging through record crates, or curating random playlists for myself. Now I get to do all of this on the stage, and I get to help other people find the things that I love about music, and the things that touch me so much about these songs and artists. I just love talking about music, and now I get to do it every day.
Tubefilter: How long does it take you, on average, to put together a video, from scripting to filming to uploading? Do you take days off?
NL: Generally, a video in its entirety takes me a little less than a work week to do. I usually do around eight to 10 hours of research and scriptwriting, and then editing a video really depends on the video. It can be anywhere as short as 25 hours of editing, or anywhere as long as 50 or more hours. It really just depends on what the aesthetic demands. Generally, the more motion graphics I have, the longer it takes. Videos where I animate music notes or phrases take the longest by far.
Right now, I’m working on a video where I have some animated musical sections. As I’m writing this, I spent about 2.5 hours yesterday on a nine-second clip animating music. Now, when it comes to putting the videos together, it’s not always a linear process. I tend to write scripts in batches. I’ll have a week where I’ll write three or four scripts and then start on whichever one speaks to me. As a result, I have dozens of complete scripts sitting untouched. Some days, when I need a new video I’ll look into this bank and pull from it, but often those scripts just collect dust. Some have been sitting as long as 18 months.
The other thing that I think is notable about my process is that most of the time, the thumbnail is the first thing I’ll make for a video. Creating the thumbnail helps me feel out the look of the video. I can figure out my color palette, my font set, and these things in Photoshop, and then reverse-engineer them into my video editing. Sometimes by the time I finish the video I’ll actually decide to create a new thumbnail based on a shot from the video, but often the thumbnails you see are the first thing that I ever created for the video.
My workdays are pretty consistent. I work from around when I wake up (usually 7:30 or 8) to 5 or 6 p.m. If I’m in the groove, sometimes I’ll keep going all day, or return to it for a few hours before bed, but I’ve made a point of giving myself leisure time so that I don’t burn out. It can be tough to step back and pull yourself away from editing when you’re in the middle of a video, but it’s better for your mental health in the long run. I try to take weekends off, but I usually end up doing at least a bit of work on weekends. I also have some hobbies that force me to step away from YouTube, which is really good for me. I’m a big skier, so in ski season, I’ll take a day each week to go to the hill, where I couldn’t edit even if I wanted to, and I’ll go on a few ski trips with my family that help me step away.
Tubefilter: Do you have anyone working behind the scenes with you?
NL: My production team basically consists of me, myself, and I. I do all my writing, research, video production, and admin stuff solo. My lovely fiancé edits a lot of my scripts, which is a big help, and often I’ll call on friends to edit my scripts if they’re tackling a song or artist I know that friend loves. Generally, though, it’s all me on that end.
I’ve considered bringing on help, but I also really genuinely love editing videos, which is where I know a lot of other YouTubers have help. It just doesn’t seem right to delegate one of my favorite parts of the job. On the business end of things, I’ve been working with Standard since the start of 2019. They negotiate all of my ads, and help secure a ton of other resources behind the scenes. Joining on with Standard has been a career-changing decision for me. It’s really helped me focus on creating the best videos I can while they do a lot of the business stuff around me.
Tubefilter: What do you think is the most vital skill you possess as a creator?
NL: Speaking with other creators, I’ve learned that I’m very efficient in my video making. I work ahead of schedule and have a backlog, which is a rarity, and I don’t know of many other one-man teams that put out videos weekly. Personally, I think my strongest suit might just be that I bore easily. If I do too many similar topics or do too many similar things editing, it sucks the fun out of it. This always drives me to try to innovate. I’m always looking for unexpected video topics, or new ways to express myself visually. My favorite comments are always when people say, “I never thought I’d see a Polyphonic video on this.” When I get those comments, it means I’m doing my job well and I’m pushing myself in unexpected directions. And I think that’s a real strength of my channel. Week to week, you don’t really know what you’re going to get.
Tubefilter: What’s next for you and your channel? What are you building toward?
NL: I’m reaching a point where I want to start to spread my wings a little and try some new stuff out. I recently released the first episode of a new Nebula Original called Working Titles. My episode is about the opening sequence to Game of Thrones, and while I mention music in it, it’s not exclusively about music, which is new ground for me.
I also launched a podcast about my favorite comic book, Saga, a few months ago. I’m really starting to enjoy opening up and experimenting outside of the musical realm, and outside of YouTube. Within music, though, I’ve got a podcast in the works with another music YouTuber, and I have a whole bunch of ideas for longer series.
I’m really fascinated in opening up my work into longer forms, or multi-part videos. In the long term, I’d like to eventually get into documentary filmmaking, but with a video essayist’s eye and angle. I have an idea for a documentary project that I’ve been brewing up in my head for years, and I think down the road, I’m going to try to secure some funding and resources to make it happen.
As for my channel, I just want to keep pushing Polyphonic towards being the best version of Polyphonic it can be. That means exploring new musics, experimenting with new video, and just finding new challenges to make each day and each new video unique.
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