Q&A with Michael Downie
Interview conducted by Sean Jackson & Transcribed by Francisco Torres
Michael Downie, also known as DownieLive, is a Canadian Youtuber who is best known for his travel vlogs and behind the scenes operations of everyday jobs. He prefers using a train as a means of travel to get to his destination, but when he arrives, he bestows a wealth of knowledge about each location he visits to his viewers.
Sean: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself your name what you do?
Michael: My name is Michael Downey and I’m a youtuber, also known as DownielLive, I am a travel vlogger and behind the scenes videographer.
Sean: How do you get into this profession?
Michael: I worked for an experiential marketing agency, loved the job, it involved a lot of travel and it involved a lot of experiences, hence experiential marketing, we created experiences for people, and I oversaw all of that. Then suddenly, one day we lost our biggest client, and I was laid off, so I was now left without a job but had plenty of time to travel. I had a little bit of money saved up, did some traveling, came back and I started editing the videos from those travels for every night the week I got back, you know, while looking for other jobs and planning the next trip, and I just realized that I really enjoyed doing this and I wasn’t too bad at it and there’s gotta be a way I can make some money. This is about five years ago now, at the same time that travel vloggers and youtubers were really becoming more of a thing and the average person was watching less television, traditional television, more Netflix, more YouTube and I started to see the shift, and one youtuber came out with a video called “I Quit” which inspired me to also quit and take this on. In that video he explained how he makes money, and I have a business degree in marketing, and once he explained where the money comes from to be able to continue this lifestyle, it clicked, I already had a personal YouTube channel where I was putting all these travel videos for myself, but once I started DownieLive it was a fresh channel where every single video was purposefully aimed towards the viewer so that I could build it as a business and everything I’ve done has been very strategic and to build a business to be brand friendly, ’cause I know that’s where the money is going to come in and if I want to continue to live this lifestyle, in this career, well I need to be able to bring in some money and so that’s been a conscious decision and it’s been slow growth over the last four and a half years.
Sean: Who inspires you in this field and made you the way you are you now?
Michael: Good question, I’m 33 years old turning 34 in a week, so I’m probably towards the older end of YouTube travel vloggers type, so I spent a lot more time on my childhood watching traditional television than some of these people did, so there are some television hosts Rick Mercer as an example, Mike Rowe, from Dirty Jobs, I get those affiliations a lot, but in terms of youtubers, Peter McKinnon is a great inspiration as a proud Canadian who’s very outspoken but super positive all the time and is very good at his craft, and also Lost LeBlanc, he was the one that I found first and really what I associated with him the most was, he’s also from Vancouver he also had a corporate job and left and there was just a lot of elements that I connected with, he’s from Vancouver, he’s doing this clearly, I can and of course he was the one who explained, had that explainer video on how he made money. Beyond that there are plenty of other videos that I found inspiration from and smaller creators that I’ve found inspiration from, but those are probably the biggest ones that people would know of.
Sean: For sure, I definitely see the Rick Mercer connection there as watching something like I don’t know where this reminds me of put it, I’m getting some Rick Mercer vibes here.
Michael: Yeah I have a little less political comedy, but we’ve actually done a lot of the same things, a lot of crossover stuff, so when I went to the top of the peace tower, parliament Hill, I actually signed my name inside the room kind of near his so hopefully there’s some other kid you know 10-15 years down the road from now that signing their name up there and they’re going oh wow there’s DownieLive, I don’t know who this Rick Mercer is but, you know it’ll just it’ll continue down the chain.
Sean: Let’s talk about a little bit about your content, so trains, they seem to be a big part of the channel can you tell me a little bit about how you got into the train content?
Michael: Yeah, so, when I started my YouTube channel, I personally as person, have a lot of different interests and just love to try anything once, you know, if you don’t like it, great, don’t try it again, but I don’t want to limit myself. Everyone tells you to “niche down” to blow-up on YouTube, you must find your niche and that’s where you’re going to find success on YouTube. I really pushed back against that and continue to have a big array of videos; I have everything from riding on a tugboat one day to go-karting the next to stuff that most viewers they find me on one video and maybe not watch the next one. That meant much slower growth, but it meant I was being true to my own personal brand, doing what I want to do, because at the end of the day I want to make videos that make me happy so that I’m inspired and motivated to keep doing it, if I keep making videos about the same topic I’m not as interested. So, I just happened to go down to a wedding for a friend of mine and we did a road trip down and instead of flying back from San Francisco, I opted “this is my job why don’t I take the train,” it will be something different I can just edit along the way it is a 24-hour ride but should be beautiful, I’ll make a video about it there we go. I put it out didn’t think anything of it, now on that note I’ll say sure I’ve ridden many trains in my life, I like them, they’re fun interesting way to get from point A to point B. There’s a sense of adventure you see a lot more but I would not consider myself a train nerd or anything to that degree, however, that train video took off and at the same time I was planning my next trip so I said “oh that train video did really well instead of flying direct to my next location, why don’t I fly to a different destination and take the train again”, and I’m going to follow the exact same format, the thumbnail is very similar the style of the video is in, the storytelling within it is pretty much the same and I said “if this video got 600,000 views over a three month period then I think this one should be even bigger even faster”, and sure enough second Amtrack video was my first video to hit a million views in under a month and I went “OK, I think there’s something here” and so from that point on I’ve always had this sense of adventure and wanting to travel, but now I look to incorporate trains into that travel. So, a good example of this is one of my last series, where I went to Churchill Manitoba, we took the train there that was part one of the series, Part two was up there viewing the polar bears and then part three was sort of exploring this northern town and how interesting it is. I find that the train videos perform very well so I can bring the audience into that, it’s very clickable, and then once I enroll them in the story, they get who I want to stick around and see Part two, so it has been an active decision to keep trains apart of the channel for that point.
Sean: We kind of discussed the trains as a hook leading into the rest of the series, how do you come up with the ideas?
Michael: With this being my job I am always looking for what’s the next idea, what’s the next thing, I’m watching other creators and getting inspired by what they’ve done, but don’t want to go to the same place because I kind of see that as that’s already been done. A lot of the ideas come from my childhood self, one example I had was driving across a bridge here in Vancouver going over this river, it’s very industrial, lot of log booms being pulled by tugboats. I just looked down saw a tugboat and said, “I wonder what it’s like on a tugboat.” Now I don’t want to change my entire career to become a tugboat captain to find out, but I have the ability that I have a YouTube channel, I can kind of leverage. So, I’m able to reach out to a few tugboat companies and sure enough one of them was like yeah, we’d love to have you on board and show you what we do, and you know the same thing driving past the construction site just down Broadway here in Vancouver, a tall construction crane, wonder what it’s like on a construction crane. So, it’s just seeing these things, something will trigger it, sometimes it’s an old memory in elementary school. We were always taught about Churchill Manitoba and the polar bears in northern Canada and that’s one part of Canada I had never seen and once COVID kind of closed down and locked off the borders and we weren’t able to travel internationally. So, what’s something I’ve always wanted to see in Canada that I haven’t been able to do, well polar bears. well great, hey they’ve got a train let’s connect that, now once a YouTube channel becomes your income, you start to look at it from a business perspective what is a more clickable title or thumbnail. There are a lot of things that I want to do personally but I’ve turned down because I just don’t think that it would make a great YouTube video and so one of the things, I’m trying to work on now is still doing the things I wanna do and either integrated into a video or not. Sometimes I just I don’t make a video because it’s tough when you’re so focused on what will be successful or what won’t because inevitably not all of them will be successful and then sometimes that’s disappointing and sometimes the video you just make ’cause it’s fun, sometimes that one takes off just as much. So, I would say general curiosity constantly being curious and wondering how that is done am I able to show it and then I do a little bit of research into titles and whatnot to see what performs well and how can I find a way to do that in a way that I would like to do it.
Sean: That’s a good strategy especially reaching out using your own brand as a way to get yourself into different positions.
Michael: That was one of my strategies to grow my channel, what was something that people aren’t doing, and I remember watching all those TV shows Rick Mercer, Mike Rowe but no other youtubers are doing that at all, all the youtubers were going to five-star resort or traveling to luxury location. Well, when I had 800 subscribers, no five-star resort is going to put me up for free to showcase their resort, so I had to think differently and my general interest and curiosity in these “behind the scenes” industries or whatnot was my window, no one else is offering them YouTube exposure, maybe I can. The tugboat is a great example, I had 800 subscribers and one of the companies said that they would take me on, and then I’m able to leverage that and reach out to Canada post to go see one of their facilities and they said well we can’t show you around there but we’re having a media release, we’re launching our new stamps, why don’t you come to that, and suddenly I’m a media person. You know great, Canada post is launching some stamps is not the coolest thing in the world but you’re able to leverage each step to the next company and say I worked with Canada post and they go “oh that’s a big Corporation, OK,” and kind of move along.
Sean: So, what you say there’s a level of taking a risk and asking someone who’s way bigger than you like Canada post, you were how many Subs?
Michael: Canada Post? Oh, I was probably maybe 1012 hundred Subscribers at the time.
Sean: So, there’s that risk that you have to take and sometimes it’s worth the risk you’d say, yeah?
Michael: Yeah, some great examples are, I reached out to Whistler, one of the biggest ski resorts in in Canada, we had the Olympics there, I reached out to them and they said sorry we only work with influencers of 50,000 followers or more, no problem, we have plenty of ski resorts. much smaller ski resorts, but they have the same equipment, and of course when you email them they want the exposure, so I emailed 3 local ski resorts, Cypress grouse and Seymour two of them got back to me and basically were like “well we’d love to show you ride along with our groomers and how bout with our snowmaking team and with our operators” and they want that exposure so they’re offering you more, so, I agree I definitely think you should reach out to any company that’s doing what you want to do, you know the Pepsi to the Coca Cola will offer you a lot more than the Coca Cola as a metaphor.
Sean: How has COVID and the pandemic impacted your creative process when determined videos?
Michael: Hugely, when COVID hit my creativity didn’t stop, I am still motivation to make videos, I had a list of videos that I wanted to make, places I wanted to travel, to trains I wanted to try etc., but you suddenly had physical restrictions that you could not travel outside the borders to go film those videos. SO, I decided to do Vancouver based videos, I’d love to work with all these Vancouver based companies and go behind the scenes and show people what they’re doing but of course Health Canada states that they can’t have any nonessential workers in the workplace, so they were unable to accommodate me they “Go Mike, we’d love to work with you but we actually can’t have you on site because we need to be as tight as possible for COVID” and of course I respect that and understand that but after a while being told no so many times, but even just not being told no but you just knowing that you won’t be able to do is just very difficult mentally, that you go what’s the point why am I even bothering to try, I know it’s not going to work. So, I shifted my videos, at the beginning we were all told it would be a 6 to 8 week lockdown and we’d be back to normal, so you go, fine I’ll just do a few things locally around my neighborhood that I can do, I had to film videos on my own because of course you can’t collaborate with anyone either anymore, so once that goes on and on and on you really reach the end of your ideas list of things that interest you, then you start making videos for the sake of it because I just need a video this week. At the beginning of COVID sponsors all pulled out, they didn’t know what would happen financially to the markets, so I need to put out a video to ensure that I have that financial stability and income still coming in but felt like im putting out the video for the sake of putting out a video because I’m not actually making what i want to be making, that’s really difficult mentally, but of course the subscribers were really appreciative, they really understood what I was doing, they appreciated the fact that I was being safe, staying close to home, not traveling like other youtubers and vloggers, they were very supportive but yeah there were a lot of times where I just kind of told myself, what’s the point of all of this, I why am I making these videos, this isn’t what I want to be doing, but Alas the whole world is under the same restrictions and you’re just doing what you can to get through and you know the vaccines are pretty close to being here for us Canadians ,so hopefully this will be over sooner than later.
Sean: On the topic of the start of the pandemic and the lockdowns, you mentioned you had a list of videos that you wanted to make, can you speak on any of them or how you’ve adapted those plans?
Michael: Yeah, I can speak on them, I mean from a business perspective once the train video started performing around February, I had just came back from a trip right before the pandemic hit, around March 15th 16th, everything closed down, I got back from a trip to Europe on March 5th, so week and a half before everything closed down, and once COVID hit, all of those videos were still performing well, so I said great, I want to do more of those videos. I had plenty of ideas for train videos, to travel on different trains and suddenly I was looking worldwide, what are some luxury trains I can do or some of the longest trains, and there were a number in Australia that I really wanted to do, as well as Asia, Africa there’s a high speed train, and yeah across Canada, the Canadian is one I wanted to do, so once the borders closed I wanted to focus on Canada but Via Rail shut down all their trains for 10 months, I think they just reopened, but now of course the provinces have a number of travel bans so I can’t really ride them anyhow. So, to answer your question, I had a list of trains and countries I wanted to visit, videos I wanted to make that all got put on hold, the list is still there and l I will ride them, I will make those videos at some point, but it’s essentially been put on hold.
Sean: what’s been like your favorite piece of content that you’ve used made during this whole situation?
Michael: Oh, that’s a good question, there was a brief time in the summer, when we were kind of allowed to travel within the province, I managed to do a road trip with my sister around the province of British Columbia and we went a little further North than the average person, so we got to swim in some amazing lakes and had the place to ourselves. I did a short motorcycle trip around Vancouver Island with a friend of mine staying in really unique Airbnb’s, but I have to say my favorite piece of content I made was my trip to Churchill Manitoba it’s, as I said earlier, sort of a childhood dream, we were taught about polar bears in northern Canada in elementary school and I’ve never experienced it and normally Churchill, it’s a small community with no road access, so it’s fly in or train only, and because it’s such a small community and so difficult to access their limited resources, very few hotels’ and restaurants etc. so it can only hold a certain number of tourists and access in and out is only every two or three days. Currently, when Via Rail stop running its trains, it did, however, continue to run a train once a week in and out of that town but, ordinarily, it’s an expensive place to visit and its predominantly international travelers with a lot of money that want to go see, essentially, a Canadian safari and see these polar bears. But once international borders closed all of those trips got cancelled and they suddenly had a lot of availability, and so prices came down a little bit and it was kind of that one moment where I was able to book a trip to go there without having to book two years in advance and put up a lot of money. So, I took my dad, we made a great one week trip out of it, 2 days on the train, 2 1/2 days exploring the northern Arctic and seeing the polar bears and Foxes and what life is like up there and then, you know, essentially a long trip back as well but as a Canadian that was a great experience to see, how, I guess, the typical Canadian, most Canadians we know live in cities, but we see those people living in northern communities as being kind of more of the typical Canadian, the stereotypical Canadians.
Sean: In terms of processing of coming up with the concepts of different ideas for videos, do you ever kind of reach a creative block where you’re struggling to come up with an idea?
Michael: yes, recently. As I come up with an idea, something will hit, I go, yes that’s a great idea, I keep a big whiteboard I put them down, I adjust them as titles you work through, basically, you look at the video from a viewer’s perspective because that’s who’s going to be watching your video, so the thumbnail and title have to come first before you even film the video, if you have a fantastic video and really bad thumbnail and title no one’s going to click your video and it’s all for nothing. So, the way I think is I cme up with an idea, whether it’s something I want to do and I think of a title that will be captivating and I try to picture the title and thumbnail first, that can be difficult, you don’t want to be too click baity, at least I don’t wanna be, I want to be true to myself, my brand, but you know it’s a balance of also getting someone to click, so that iteration, I mean constantly erasing the title, re-doing it on the whiteboard until it feels like something good, but then you have to reach out whether it’s to a company and sometimes they’re not interested in working with you or they are fully booked at the time you want to go or whatever the case may be, so sometimes that idea gets scrapped or pushed aside and put on hold but if it does go ahead then great, go film it. There are times though that you have to just remember that as a youtuber you’re not only the person holding the camera, you’re also in essence the director and producer, you have to know all the information, do some research beforehand, so you have interesting things to tell your viewers, you have to be reacting while also holding the camera steady and in the right direction, and being aware of lighting. So, there’s a lot going on in the moment and I sometimes struggle too not be thinking of what’s next and just react in the moment naturally, because I’m so aware of what other production elements I must do so it can take us to the next scene, if you will, or the next segment of the video. Then comes the postproduction, the editing, and the toughest part is the title and thumbnail and playing with the idea, what’s the best way to tell this story how do I do it without offending, maybe it’s the company or the person who runs whatever it is, what is it that my viewers really wanna see, there’s a lot that I’m interested in and I would love to make it a 30 minute video but my viewers want just a 10 minute video and what do I cut out or not show, how much time do I want to spend on this video, in terms of how well will it perform, is it worth me putting in an extra weeks’ worth of work into this, so yeah, I don’t know if that answers your question.
Sean: So, adventure content and travel content has changed a lot, do you have any insight to how you think the genre or the types of videos are going to change in the future with what’s going on?
Michael: I think a lot of creators adapted throughout this, a lot of them became van-lifers and whatnot, still wanted that sort of nomad life but we’re no longer able to be crossing borders freely, so I wonder if that will continue, sure while they are in the US at the moment will they, once borders open, simply just crossed the border down in Mexico and continue all the way down through South America, will they attempt something like that in Europe, so there may be trends that change now that new habits have been formed. I think a lot of people who maybe would have done sort of a short one-off trip to come back home and edit and video, so they can spend time with family and friends and would go on the next trip and come back, they might have so much pent up adventure that they’re going to go for a significantly longer trip spending more time traveling, there may have also been several youtubers vloggers that have kind of taken this time to settle down and find other areas of creativity so maybe won’t go back to YouTubeing. I know a number of vloggers that were just on the cusp of making it a full time job and then once travel was shut down they weren’t really able to do it, they weren’t able to adapt, so they kind of took other content creation or social media management jobs in the US and yeah, we’ll see if they’re able to jump back on board of becoming a youtuber or restarting that business that they had, but there may have also been a lot of people that lost jobs through COVID and started some sort of social media side hustle and will take this opportunity to travel or start an adventure in a new way. So, I’m not sure, time will tell, I’m excited, I know how I plan to do it, I’m very happy that I’ve been able to continue growing my channel through the period that we’ve had.
Sean: You said you have some plans probably keeping them secret but is there anything you want to tease?
Michael: No need to keep anything secret, I know that the trains work in terms of bringing viewership to my channel and with viewership comes revenue, so I’ve been doing nothing but planning future trains, researching train trips, and adventures that I want to do. Now with that said, I won’t have my videos be from one train to the next train, to the next train, I want to do it like I did with that Churchill series where I had part one as the train adventure and Part 2 is what is at the destination and showcasing the people the culture and the adventure that you can have there, and then lead into perhaps the next train and I’d like to go for two weeks at a time on an adventure before coming back to Vancouver. I live with my girlfriend, my family lives here, a lot of friends that I need to catch up with because I haven’t been able to see them in the last year either, so it will be a balance between travel and adventure but also seeing the important community of people that I have here in Vancouver.
Sean: With the exploration and travel videos how has the audience been receptive to it during this time ’cause we have some people who are itching to travel, trying to get as much travel content in their life, but then you have the opposite end of the spectrum where people are very adamant about not leaving and staying in your little zone, so have you met been met with any backlash towards some of your trips like going to Manitoba?
Michael: The only slight backlash I received when I went to Manitoba was because I went the last week of October, and the first week of November was when the travel ban was put in place in Manitoba, but of course, I didn’t put the video out until mid-November. So, once the video came out people, a few people, honestly it was maybe a handful of comments, said “oh wow how inappropriate of you to travel during the travel ban” I was like well this was all done appropriately with the provincial exemptions before the travel ban went into place. Besides going to Churchill I have stayed put in Vancouver and while at first, since I was born and raised in Vancouver, I’m just used to my surroundings and so none of it is new or exciting to me, but I do realize that Vancouver is a tourist destination in the world and so I started making these Vancouver based videos, safely in my own area, always wearing a mask and not only did the locals appreciate it, basically, by making Vancouver based videos I thought I was really reducing my audience size, from global to only people who live in Vancouver, but it turns out there’s a number of people that have visited Vancouver in the past and really appreciated watching it and seeing how it’s changed or people that are planning to come to Vancouver or have relatives that live here. So, I have grown my audience here in Vancouver, but I’ve maintained that global audience who really enjoyed learning about this part of the world and several people said Canada wasn’t really on my travel list before but after watching my videos weekly there like “it’s top of my list for when the pandemic is over,”. So, I appreciated it and at the same time I have been watching what other creators have been doing, those who have been able to travel or have sort of skirted the rules a little bit and traveled, I have been happy to see that my Vancouver based videos have been able to manage the same number of views as theirs video, I feel like I haven’t actually really been restricted in the growth of my channel, other than purely by my creativity and the physical restrictions of which companies I could work with, which in a way forced me to be more creative with my titles and the content of the videos to keep it interesting for a full year from one single city.
Sean: You mentioned companies that you work with I’ve noticed you do a lot of features in of hotels and hostels and what seems like you might be working with some boards at some point?
Michael: I would like to
Michael: I don’t have any at the moment, I’m potentially working with a city that, as you know, the combination of travel that I do but also the behind the scenes videos are one of the things I thought I would like to do, so I thought to myself, well if I’m stuck in the city of Vancouver, why don’t I reach out to the city of Vancouver to showcase the hard working people that maintain and build the city, so everything from water treatment plant, general operations, construction to the snow clearing procedures that they have here, anything that’s interesting and behind the scenes, that we kind of know how they work but we’ve never really seen. I reached out to the city of Vancouver and well they didn’t get back to me but we have several surrounding cities and one of them got back to me so that should be an upcoming series while we still can’t travel for the next foreseeable future, I want to put out a lot of behind-the-scenes content on how a city works.
Sean: that’s where I was going with that question, basically how you get in contact with them?
Michael: I just find the email address, I generally go through a media team or the media and marketing Department, PR, essentially, and they will then reach out to the department’s that I would be required to work with, you know, the operations Department or the engineering Department. They would sort of delegate and tell them “OK you’re going to have Michael coming through to ride along with you for the day”. I will do the same thing with the hotels I work with, I always to the marketing PR team and then they sort of go, “great we’d love to work with you, which hotels do you want to stay at” and then they let the GM’s at those hotels know of course, they get approvals and all that. It’s different now, it’s a lot easier to find the media team as a social media person, now that is 2021, they are very used to working with social media people, social media influences fits into their media bill now, so you get one contact there and they work everything on the back end rather than trying to find the right person in a particular Department in each location will save you a lot of time.
Sean: Great, my last question is in terms of creativity during the pandemic what are some pieces of advice you have to creators who feel trapped or blocked and seem to have lost their creativity?
Michael: First thing I would say is don’t beat yourself up over this, we’re all in the same scenario, everyone is being just as restricted as you are so it’s really easy to feel like you’re not able to do what you want to do, it’s just unfortunately the case that the world is in at the moment. It’s important to know that you’re not the only one and the only way you can get out of this is to either keep trudging along, keep doing what you’re doing as best you can do, do whatever brings you joy at this point because we all need just to be kind to each other and find some happiness from being stuck in our houses all the time, keep doing that and you will be noticed, don’t try and break the rules or do something that’s illegal, because on social media that also gets noticed. Stick to yourself people will appreciate you for supporting them because everyone is in this same situation even if they’re not creators, they’re stuck at home looking for any sort of inspiration or motivation as well, so if you can bring any sort of light to them even if it’s not what you’d normally like to be making, it is appreciated. So, keep doing whatever brings a smile to your face and eventually the restrictions will be lifted, and you’ll be able to do more of what you really want to be doing.