YouTube is home to many anonymous, marginally talented strivers struggling to make a name for themselves on the platform. But one aspiring musician on YouTube has captured a great deal of attention as of late, though not for his artistic output: John Hinckley, Jr., the man perhaps best known for attempting to assassinate then-U.S. president Ronald Reagan in 1981 in an attempt to impress Jodie Foster.
Hinckley, who was released from three decades of institutional psychiatric care in 2016, went viral earlier this week for his YouTube channel, where he has garnered thousands of views and more than 8,000 subscribers for his original songs and covers of Bob Dylan and Elvis Presley tunes. And he’s won himself something of a morbid following, with hundreds of commenters expressing surprise at the quality of his voice. “You should get on Spotify! For real, I’ve been enjoying these songs I would love to listen in my car,” says one commenter; others snarkily put in requests for covers of assassination-themed songs, such as “I Shot the Sheriff.”
But even though Hinckley’s content is fairly innocuous, there’s undeniably something more than a little bit iffy about a convicted presidential assassin crooning plaintive love tunes on social media. That’s particularly true in light of the fact that, until Rolling Stone reached out to YouTube for comment, the platform was actively running ads on his content, due to a change in policy that allows YouTube to run ads on creators’ channels without their consent, while reaping 100% of the revenue.
Hinckley is best known for attempting to assassinate President Ronald Reagan in 1981, wounding the president, a police officer, and a Secret Service agent in the process, as well as permanently disabling press secretary James Brady, who died in 2014. Hinckley’s assassination attempt drew headlines when it was reported that he had orchestrated the shooting as a means of getting the attention of actor Jodie Foster, with whom he had become obsessed after seeing her in Taxi Driver, when she was just 12 years old (this event later played a pivotal role in the 1990 Stephen Sondheim musical Assassins, which features a character inspired by Hinckley).
Hinckley was ultimately found not guilty by reason of insanity and sentenced to institutional psychiatric care, where he remained for three decades. But since his release in 2016 has been trying to refashion his legacy to make a go of a legitimate music career under his own name, after years of exhibiting his art and sharing his music anonymously.
Last year, Hinckley, who also dabbles in landscape painting, filed a lawsuit requesting that a judge allow him to publicly exhibit and sell his art on Etsy and post on streaming services after years of being legally prevented from doing so. The judge granted his request following an assessment by the Department of Behavioral Health stating that Hinckley “posed a low risk for future violence under the proposed conditions.” Hinckley’s lawyer at the time, Barry Levine, told the AP that a prior civil settlement from 1995 barring Hinckley from profiting off his name or story would “not bar the sale of any” of his artworks.
“I create things I think are good and, like any other artist, I would like to profit from it and contribute more to my family,” Hinckley said at the time, according to the assessment. “I feel like I could help my mother and brother out if I could make money from my art.”
In response to questions from Rolling Stone, Hinckley’s attorney Barry Levine says Hinckley “has put his music on YouTube in order to put his music in the public sphere. He is grateful for the nice comments he has received. He is working on an album and will be looking for a label.” But even though Hinckley may be legally allowed to profit off his work, it’s certainly a legitimate question as to whether privately owned platforms should allow him to try to do so — and whether or not platforms like YouTube should directly profit off of his notoriety.
Prior to reaching out to YouTube, Rolling Stone found that various ads were running before Hinckley’s videos: an ad for Capital One’s new shopping app runs prior to the video for his original song, “Everything Is Gonna Be Alright,” while a Bob Dylan cover runs with an ad for the mobile app Hero Wars. When Rolling Stone reached out to YouTube for comment, a representative said that Hinckley is not directly profiting off the ads that run on his videos as he is not part of YouTube’s partner program, which allows YouTube creators to share revenue with the platform itself and profit off the ads that run on their videos provided they meet certain qualifications, such as subscriber count.
But YouTube did confirm that, thanks to a change in YouTube’s monetization policy last fall — in which YouTube announced it would start showing ads on videos made by smaller creators outside the program — YouTube is making money off Hinckley’s content. The policy explicitly states that YouTube reaps 100 percent of the profits of advertising revenue from creators outside the partner program, which, when it was initially announced, chagrined many of its smaller creators (not to mention advertisers, who likely would cringe at the thought of their content running alongside a video of a guy whose greatest claim to fame is an act of violence inspired by a preteen girl).
Given that Hinckley’s channel only has a little more than 8,000 subscribers, it’s unlikely that YouTube made a great deal of money from ads running on his channel. And after Rolling Stone reached out to YouTube for comment, a representative shared that the platform would be removing ads on his channel based on his past “offline” behavior. But the curious case of Hinckley’s second act as an aspiring YouTuber does raise questions about who should and shouldn’t be allowed on giant platforms, and whether the platforms themselves should be making money off of these grey areas, even if the individuals in question technically do not violate platform guidelines.
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