Three years and 100 million or so views ago, Montgomery native and 2016 Auburn media studies grad Caleb Hyles decided to see what he could do—to test the limits and break through. So he started posting videos of himself singing cover songs from cartoons and Disney movies in the corner of his home office full-time. It worked.
Thank God for that “Frozen” song.
That’s still his biggest—”Let It Go.” It hasn’t made him a dime, not directly; you can’t earn anything from covers if you’re just singing along with the official soundtrack. But it definitely made his career.
He posted it on Jan. 24, 2014, halfway through what he thought would be his senior year of college. It’s just him and a mic in a darkened room somewhere in Auburn. It was Friday. By the end of the weekend, it was pushing 500,000 views.
Going viral was practically guaranteed, of course. Here was a dude—pitch perfectly, and without going falsetto—hitting the song’s impossibly high notes, something not even Broadway legend and “Frozen” songstress Idina Menzel could pull off that New Year’s Eve. Three weeks later, Time Magazine put it fifth on its list of the Best 11 “Let It Go” covers—the highest spot for a video that had someone actually singing the song rather than just playing it on the piano or something. Entertainment Weekly had it at 7th. People Magazine put it 13th on a list of the 35 best “Let It Go” parodies. (It’s not a parody. It’s amazing.)
A couple of months back, on its five-year anniversary, the view count for “Let It Go – Male Vocal Cover – Frozen (Soundtrack)” stood at 11.5 million. The thing has 22,000 comments. The one that Hyles pinned to the top of the column came fairly early on. It’s from 7-million subscriber YouTube superstar Tyler Oakley (and it has more than 4,000 likes of its own).
“HOLY FRICK FRACK GOOD LORD YES THIS IS EVERYTHING.”
“I’d been doing YouTube since 2006,” says Hyles, who now lives in Fort Worth, Texas. “I’d post videos with my brother of us singing songs. But when the whole ‘Let It Go’ thing happened, I started caring even more than I already did.”
He kept putting out videos. He took a break from school, but came back and eventually graduated. He kept putting out videos. He took a job with Auburn Athletics’ video production team, War Eagle Productions. He got married. He kept putting out videos. His stats kept climbing. More and more money kept coming and coming. He kept singing. He kept putting out videos. The big song from “Mulan,” Pokemon songs, Fall Out Boy tracks….
Pretty soon, it actually seemed possible.
“Back in Auburn, I was just keeping a keen eye on the finances,” Hyles says. “Just seeing, OK, do we (he and wife Kara) have enough to put aside to save money, are we outpacing our bills. I was working at War Eagle Productions all while still doing YouTube, but YouTube started outpacing all that and so we eventually just pulled the trigger.”
Not only was the money from YouTube going farther than his paycheck, he was actually outperforming his employer.
The only video with more than a million views on Auburn Athletics’ official YouTube channel is the Kick Six. Hyles, meanwhile, has a whopping 48 videos with more than a million views, four of them (including a “Prince of Egypt” cover, no less) more popular than Auburn’s official tribute to the greatest play in football history.
Auburn’s total view count is at 29,333,576.
Auburn Athletics’ official YouTube channel has 38,998 subscribers.
In the next few months—it’ll probably be sometime in May—the UPS truck will pull up with a plaque from YouTube celebrating his 1 millionth subscriber. (One of his current 968,175 recognized him at Wendy’s the other day; when he posted “Let It Go,” he’d just celebrated his 1 thousandth.)
He’ll be at least the third Auburn alum to receive the big golden play button. Over the past decade, several former Tigers have struck social media gold, most notably Ricky Dillion and Megan McCarthy, who between them have nearly 6 million YouTube subscribers.
Of course, following social celebrity best practices, Hyles quickly diversified his brand’s portfolio. YouTube remains the cash cow, but there’s plenty of cash calves out there.
His Spotify stats? 308,538 monthly listeners. Some songs have thousands of plays. Some have millions. Even with conservative streaming royalties–even with performing rights organizations taking their cut–that adds up fast. Ditto the download revenue from iTunes and such. Then there’s Apple Music, Google Play…
Companies also occasionally pay him to showcase their products for his 23,000 Instagram followers; he most recently did something for Kodiak pancake mix.
He also sells shirts and mugs and stuff, most bearing the slogan “Peace, Love and Metal.” Then there are the crowd-funding sites like Ko-fi and—the big one—Patreon. Ko-fi is good for sporadic $3 pick-me-ups throughout the day, but the yearly earnings from his Patreon patrons alone are probably pushing media studies major starting salary levels. He’s up to $499—not per month, per video. He puts out a video every week.
Let the storm rage on.
“This is pretty much our livelihood,” Hyles says. “It’s our main source of income. My wife helps me work on it as well, so pretty much our full-time job is YouTube. Job-wise, we don’t do anything else.”