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This YouTube channel was super successful, garnering millions of views from one video. That was until the YouTube ad policy changes went live.

YouTube changed its ad policy and almost ruined this successful channel

This YouTube channel was super successful, garnering millions of views from one video. That was until the YouTube ad policy changes went live.
R

obbie Bagley and his family are pros at making art out of sour situations––cue their YouTube channel’s name, “Working with Lemons.”

“All of us love to sing, act, direct and perform,” Bagley says. “That passion runs through all of us.”

While he was in high school, his family wrote and filmed song parodies and other silly videos for a shared channel. But by the time he graduated from Utah Valley University with a degree in digital cinema productions, his family’s content had started to slow down. He even started looking for editing work.

“Then Frozen happened,” Bagley says.

They thought Mia, one of the younger daughters, looked a lot like Queen Anna of Arendelle. On a whim, the family decided to film a cover of “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” one of the hit songs from the first Frozen movie, with Mia as the star.

“It cost us about five dollars,” Bagley estimates. “My mom used Frodo’s cape from an old costume. We threw a belt on the outfit and pretty much called it good. I shot scenes on my iPhone, we edited it and just posted it.”

That was in March 2014—by the end of the month, it had two million views. Then 30 million. By December it hit 100 million views. Today, that cover has 600 million views––almost three times more than the clip posted by the actual DisneyVEVO channel.

Back then, 100 million views was an impossibly big number—so were the ad revenue checks.

“Our first deposit from YouTube was $7,000, and the idea of profiting from this work took over. ” Bagley says. “We just saw dollar signs. Becoming rich from doing something we all loved was suddenly a possibility.”

The family entered negotiations with the Walt Disney Company to avoid copyright claims on their content. When they got the go-ahead to keep making covers, Bagley says the dam broke.

"Filmmaking is the most fun when it involves problem-solving."

“We went headfirst into YouTube,” Bagley says. “It was a very basic strategy: ‘this blew up, what else can we do?’ We found an answer, and then we did that.”

The family covered two more Frozen songs and another from Disney’s Rapunzel, each reaching hundreds of millions of views. Their budget skyrocketed from $5 per video to $2,000 to $3,000—hitting a new high with their “Let It Go” cover. 

“We spent $10,000 on that video on VFX alone,” Bagley says. “We had a 10-person crew for five days. We used expensive equipment, filmed in high quality for YouTube. Looking back, it was pretty ridiculous.”

At the same time, the channel started new series: a talk show called “LemonReds” hosted by the little siblings that featured vlogs, Disney sing-a-longs, and bloopers of popular videos. They posted four times a week and saved the big, show-stopping covers for once a month.

To achieve a new level of quality and quantity, Working with Lemons started hiring.

“I brought a lot of friends on full-time,” Bagley says. “But it felt like the right thing. We were making the money back and more.”

Not every video made a profit, though. While the Frozen covers were raking in views, other uploads lost the team money––sometimes thousands of dollars.

“It was a little reckless and lots of the spending wasn’t productive, but when it would come back to bite us, it didn’t feel like much compared to how well we were doing,” Bagley remembers. “That’s why we just kept going at that pace.” 

In 2019, Bagley and his team were forced to learn money management the hard way. A year prior, the Federal Trade Commission brought a lawsuit against YouTube for violating children’s privacy. The government agency claimed that the streaming platform violated guidelines set forth under the Children’s Only Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) by collecting data on children under the age of 13 without explicit parental consent with targeted ads. YouTube settled the suit with $170 million and a new labeling system.

“We lost two-thirds of our views,” Bagley says. “With our views went a third of our income.”

While Bagley says the Working with Lemons channel isn’t a “kid’s channel,” they were still labeled that way by YouTube’s new regulations. Comments were turned off and ads were either removed or reduced. 

“‘Hamilton isn’t for children,” Bagley argues. “And we had a lot of videos about Hamilton and other Broadway shows. But with that Frozen content, all our Disney covers, YouTube was like ‘You’re for kids.’ At that point, nothing we said could change their minds.”

Overnight, Working with Lemons’ production budget plummeted to around $500 per video. Bagley had to fire the friends he’d hired, and everyone in his family had to start picking up the slack. 

“I normally didn’t record the audio,” he says. “But now that was my job.”

Working with Lemons went back to basics, relying on each other and their creativity to keep the channel alive. Bagley even went job hunting again, landing a contractor editor position, and editing commercials for a video production agency.

Despite the suffering channel and heightened financial stress, Bagley is ultimately grateful for the FTC’s ruling.

“It gave us a chance to practice what we preach,” he says. “Filmmaking is the most fun when it involves problem-solving, and when you can pay for everything you need and more, that’s lost. When we had our smaller team and our tiny budget, we got to brainstorm together and find creative solutions.”

Bagley remembers lighting a scene in one of their Hamilton covers using five tenuously attached iPhones and a hoop skirt. 

“Limitations make us better filmmakers,” he says. “I had no choice but to learn new skills––all of us had to. And our content improved because of it.” 

They also got more creative about money-making. Working with Lemons did a brand deal with the video game Genshin Impact and licensed their cover of “You Will Be Found” from Dear Evan Hansen for use on the Golden Buzzer on America’s Got Talent––twice.

As the years passed, the team kept their fingers crossed that one day, they’d get their ad revenue back. In 2021, their wish was granted. Three years after YouTube’s settlement, Bagley confirmed that some videos had comments and ads re-enabled. Not all, he says, but enough.

“We’re almost back to making the kind of money we used to from ads,” he says.

“We lost two-thirds of our views. With our views went a third of our income.”

That, Bagley says, is a total relief.

“YouTube is back to working in our sleep,” he says. “That’s the thing about ads and ad revenue––videos with millions of views attract more views on their own, which earns more ad money, which we continue to profit from.”

The “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” cover is a perfect illustration of that concept. Today, eight years after its posting, Bagley says that video brings in 50-60 percent of Working with Lemons’ monthly income.

With the ad revenue restored, Bagley says he was tempted to just stop creating.

“Part of me is like, ‘Why keep coming up with new ideas?’” he says. “With that kind of passive income, we don’t need to.”

But the last three scrappy years have changed Working with Lemons’ long-term perspective––Bagley went full-time at his editing job, making YouTube a side career again. He says the team got better at adapting to the ebbs and flows of both work and life, with every member following their own passions within the channel and outside of it. 

“We don’t want to forget why we started: we love making videos,” he says. “Even when things were tough, it rarely feels like work. If I don’t have an idea, one of my siblings does. If it’s not a book it’s a musical or a movie that one of us just needs to adapt, and we motivate and amp each other up to do it.”

Their slight structural change doesn’t mean the channel’s success is lagging. In fact, it’s quite the opposite––their most recent covers, songs from Encanto—have millions of views.

In the meantime, the team has also been working on taking their videography to bigger screens with a full-length, modern adaption of Sense and Sensibility. 

“We’re well-rounded,” Bagley says. “And we’re developing and honing new skills all the time. At the end of the day, we’re making movies and telling good stories. That’s all we’ve ever wanted, and to be able to still be at it after everything that’s happened…it’s incredible. As long as it’s fun, we’ll keep doing it.”

And, of course, the Frozen franchise still holds a place in all their hearts.

“When Frozen 14 comes out, you can count on us to do some covers,” Bagley says.

Jacqueline is a Master of Accounting graduate from the University of Utah. Specializing in tax, she's interested in business, government, and the intersection of the two. When she's not studying or writing, she loves to run, play Candy Crush, and read novels.