I find it strange that, as a blogger on atheism, philosophy, and the social sciences, I should spend so much time discussing a single YouTube channel, the NonSequitur show. None the less, here I stand. Again.
For anybody who’s been living under a rock for the last week, the show has once again undergone considerable controversy when one host, Kyle Curtis, unilaterally dismissed and locked out his cohost, Steve McRae.
To say that the result was a shitstorm would be an understatement. There have been wild claims, both professional and personal, levied by each side against the other, and old, long abandoned slights and gripes have been revived and used as weapons against each other.
There are only two questions at issue in this entire mess. The first is: Was dismissing Steve McRae from the show a wise or necessary choice on the part of Mr. Curtis? The second is: did Mr. Curtis even have the right to make the decision unilaterally?
There are several factors which are not in dispute… Mr. Curtis had the original idea for the show. He had wanted to start a podcast of debates and interviews, and went to Mr. McRae for assistance. McRae agreed to help, and to let Mr. Curtis maintain creative control over the show, in exchange for a 50/50 split. Curtis agreed, and NonSeq was born.
Over the next year and a half, the show evolved from a small podcast to a YouTube sensation with merch, a soundtrack, a Patreon, and over 30,000 subscribers.
While nobody seems to have a complete financial profile of the show, Google recently valued the channel at about $98,000. Estimates of its monthly intake, between streams and superchats, go as high as $2,000 a month from YouTube alone, and $1000 or more a month from the Patreon.
It’s clear that McRae had a large hand in the show in the beginning, scheduling guests and producing the show, as well as co-hosting. Curtis was doing outstanding original music and artwork which gave the channel a recognizable trademark
At some point McRae began appearing less frequently, and the dynamic for scheduling changed. Mr. Curtis began scheduling the shows on his own. According to McRae, shows would occur without his even knowing till the show had already aired. Boolenator, their producer, confirmed that sometimes he wouldn’t be told about a show until hours before air.
While it is undeniable that McRae began doing less and less work on the show, it would seem that this was not by choice. As he fell to less than one show a week, with four, five, six or more with other co-hosts, he began to confide in friends that Curtis might be trying to phase him out.
McRae, meanwhile, was getting into a number of high-profile disputes on Facebook and twitter. He developed a reputation as a “jerk”, and this spilled over into the show, with potential guests, including names like Matt Dillahunty, refusing to come on if Steve was going to host. Other show contributors, like GE and KC, also developed significant disputes with McRae.
Reds Rhetoric, Booleanenator, and McRae ultimately confronted Curtis over these concerns. In a video which would eventually be made public, Curtis acknowledged the 50/50 agreement, but argued it was to profit only, not ownership. Citing McRae’s dwindling contribution and public disputes, Curtis re-pledged himself to the profit-sharing agreement, and to sharing 50% of future shows in which McRae was a contributor, but not to 50% of the revenue going forward, or any ownership or management rights. McRae rejected that Curtis could unilaterally make the decision. At this point Curtis locked McRae out of the show. He also locked out their producer Booleanator to “maintain the integrity” of the program.
Booleanator, universally recognized as a consummate producer by all sides in the dispute, has yet to be formally compensated for his work.
Steve McRae has also yet to see a penny from the show. Merchandise, including the “Smug”, a mug with McRae’s face on it, continues to be sold at the NonSequitur shop. During the stream, Curtis appeared to suggest that, as the designer of the mug, he and not McRae, was entitled to the profits from it.
While it appears that Mr. Curtis had not intended to sever the relationship precisely how and when he did, this was none the less a catastrophically poor decision.
Yes, McRae was controversial. Yes, people would not come on because of him. But nothing buys bygones like success, and the show had built its success without Dillahunty. They could continue to grow, and land more guests like Dr. Laurence Krauss, even while relying on the bread and butter original and new voices on which the show had been built. And some guests, like Aron Ra, while having blocked Steve on social media, were none the less willing to come on the show with him, able to separate the host from the twitter personality.
Each of the hosts has said repeatedly that he’d never dreamed that the show would be this successful. Indeed, that suggests that neither of them thought they could do it on their own. It was the team that made the show successful. All the distractions aside, 30,000 subs came to watch the two of them. Some loved both, some loved one more than another. And certainly, some were turned off by this thing or that. But their wildly different approaches worked well together, and allowed each to highlight the strengths of the other.
It’s lightning in a bottle, and most of us never see it once.
In this case, it would seem Mr. Curtis allowed perfection to be the enemy of progress. There was no evidence that the number of subscribers had petered out, or that they were anywhere near the apex of their appeal. And yet it would seem that in courting the small number McRae turned off, Curtis was willing to risk the dynamic that was bringing in more than 10,000 new subs a year.
Kicking McRae off because he did indeed have some liabilities was missing the forest for the trees. Whatever the arrangement, whoever owned what, he was Abbot’s Costello, he was Penn’s Teller, he was Ben’s Jerry. People who always agree and get along are too similar to benefit from the other. It’s the differences which make them stronger. But this causes a tension which is ever-present. It’s precisely for this reason that such pairs are so rare, and so valuable.
The success that had so surprised them both could not and will not be achieved by either one alone. And the friction caused by different styles, different choices for guests and material, is what made NonSeq have the appeal it did. You really never did know that you were going to get.
No. there is no show without McRae. It will take Curtis months to make up for the losses he’s suffered now, maybe even a year. Had he kept McRae they’d have hat 100k subs in that time… and most would swallow any dislike of McRae to be on a show with that kind of pull.
Even KC, no fan of McRae, said to the patreons that she had liked and would miss the interaction between him and Curtis,
While Curtis lamented being dragged into arguments on social media, tagged in by any with a gripe with McRae, and while booking had become harder, these are the growing pains of every show, and McRae no doubt had his complaints. That he had let Curtis run with such a free hand, rarely exerting his influence over the show directly, speaks to how good an arrangement this was for Curtis. It’s hard to imagine anything but a lack of appreciation for what he had and how he got it being the central problem here, or that there would be much short of serious legal issues that would necessitate this kind of confrontation
Which brings us to the next question… Did Curtis have a right to do this?
Since there was no written contract, all we have are emails, which clearly state that the profits are being split 50/50.
But what does that mean? According to Curtis, that was only for so long as McRae was on the show. It was always Curtis show, McRae was simply contributing, and that was his split so long as that was the case.
According to McRae, the 50/50 was an ownership stake in the show, and Curtis could neither remove McRae, or alter the ownership arrangement (or future equity) without McRae’s consent.
Since neither position is clarified in writing, we must ask: what is reasonable to assume?
First, would McRae have insisted on a 50% ownership stake in the show? That depends on how much work he intended to put in. If he was simply going to cohost, maybe advise a bit at will profits would make sense. If, however, he was going to dedicate himself to the show, act in the capacity of an investing partner, then ownership stake would be likely. McRae’s actions were far more consistent with the latter than the former: he let his other properties atrophy, stopped investing in other channels, and became a strong advocate and voice for NonSeq.
Curtis’ portrayal of the deal amounts to McRae saying “You know what, let me work my ass off helping you build this channel so that once it gets really popular, starts making lots of money, and is fully established, you can drop me and keep the benefit of that work all for yourself”. While possible, it’s doesn’t seem a reasonable interpretation or expectation. Indeed, it seems highly unlikely that anyone would take such a deal. It does seem, however, that Kyle, if promised creative control, would be willing to split ownership if he thought it was the best or only way to move forward, which was why he had come to McRae in the first place
There are other subtle clues as to the nature of the relationship. Despite Curtis’ claim that there were multiple co-hosts, the merchandise showed always and precisely two people, Curtis and McRae. Not just Curtis, and not Curtis with three or four others. Always Curtis and McRae.
Further, there was the LLC. Curtis faults McRae for them not having a contract. He wanted one, he said, and tried to get an LLC, but McRae was against it, and so they didn’t.
This has two serious problems for Curtis’ argument.
First, he claims that McRae didn’t want the liability that came from formally putting his name on the show. But this is a tacit admission that that’s what was going to happen. If Curtis were not going to put McRae on as a formal part of the show, he’d have no liability. The only possible way this objection is salient is if both understood that McRae’s name would be on the LLC. This is a body blow to Curtis’ position.
Further, why ask McRae in the first place, or let his objection stop you? If he’s at will, then his opinion isn’t relevant. If Curtis wanted an LLC and was a full owner, McRae couldn’t stop him. Both the fact that McRae (by Curtis’ own admission)
Was concerned about his own liability on an LLC and was important enough an influence to put the kibosh on it, drastically undermines the position that McRae was nothing more than a co-host.
Early on both sides strongly advocated for reducing collateral damage as much as possible. There have been a lot of claims of sabotage and long con games to get rid of Steve. Most of these seem far-fetched (KC and GE may, for example, have not liked Steve, but neither seem to have argued for his ouster, and even if they had, Mr. Curtis is the one who made the decision. He is solely responsible). But as people come to the defense of their friends and their beliefs, blame mushrooms out, and previously off limit targets become fair game as old wounds are re-opened and the acrimony grows.
So invariably each side justifies harsher and harsher attacks on the other, and once things escalate, they can be very, very hard to stop.
Indeed, while it seems that Mr. Curtis has every intention of paying McRae 50% of the show’s gross to date (though how he will handle the $98,000 valuation of the channel which, ostensibly, McRae would be equally entitled to even by Curtis’ own accounting), even that kind of civility tends to disintegrate over time. How long before, with the personal attacks and escalation, Curtis feels he’s no longer obligated to do that?
That’s not because Curtis is a bad guy… It’s because this is a divorce, and no matter how reasonable each party in a divorce is, it’s almost always acrimonious.
There’s enough precedent for the notion that the show was a partnership and not at-will that if McRae feels he’s nothing left to loose, and files a formal complaint with YouTube and or Patreon, they would likely shut it down until such time that this is resolved in a court of law (and at an estimated $40,000 each to solve this, good luck).
Even if McRae did nothing, it seems to me extraordinarily unlikely that NonSeq will make any kind of meaningful recovery from this. Shannon Q, GE and KC, delightful people in their own right, are too similar to Curtis to give the dynamic of the original show. Shannon is the only one who can bring an audience herself to the show, and has the experience to build something, but she already has an audience on her own channel. NonSeq won’t bleed out, but she won’t be able to put the show back on the path it was on.
And if McRae truly loses his temper, they’re in real trouble, because while there isn’t enough evidence for McRae to prove his point beyond all doubt (nor does he need that. Needs only a preponderance, and he’s got it. He’s got it. That’s a low bar, and he can clear it… and courts don’t like people who look like they’re trying to take advantage of their partners). So, he files a C&D on YouTube and Patreon, maybe Teespring for the fact that his face is on a mug for which he isn’t being paid, and all of a sudden Curtis has a real problem.
Further, if Curtis spent most of that money, say by re-investing it into the show, buying sound, graphics, and video software for content creation, he’d be spending money that wasn’t his, and without McRae’s consent. That it’s to invest into the show would not be a defense, since McRae is, according to Curtis, not an owner of the show and not entitled to the dividends of those investments. This would leave Curtis much richer having cut Steve out. And with rapidly dwindling viewers, patreons, and show value, it would also leave him with no way to pay Steve back.
This was a disastrous move for all those involved. The show is left missing a central component, facing incredible animosity from a core group, and with no foreseeable way to make a meaningful recovery. There’s precious few days to make a meaningful attempt to pay McRae what he is owed, and not only do I not see that happening, but it wouldn’t end the legal liabilities for the show. Indeed it’s likely only days or weeks before legal wrangling ends it entirely.
It is impossible to view this as anything else but killing the golden goose. It was reckless, poorly thought out, grossly unfair, and will almost certainly end a show which both the hosts and the audience loved.