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What Did YouTube Stardom Cost India’s Most Famous Barber?

Baba Sen’s head-massage skills brought success to the white YouTubers who filmed him. Then he died in debt. What do we owe him?

The world’s most famous Indian barber died quietly, in the dawn light, at his home in Pushkar.

That sudden heart attack on October 19, 2018, took Baba Sen from a wife, son, daughter-in-law and grandchild. What he left behind were ashes and debt, largely via the loan he took to build that new house for the extended family.

Baba Sen has fans all over the world. His legend began with a grainy 2008 video titled “World’s Greatest Head Massage,” uploaded by a European traveler, and it became a critical step in the budding subculture around “ASMR.” All that tapping, squeezing and heavy breathing made for a perfect viral hit — culturally esoteric, hypnotic and weirdly satisfying. His videos have racked up more than 100 million views on YouTube now. And that original video brought upon his doorstep new travelers on a pilgrimage, ready and eager to hear him whisper “reeeelaaaax” while caressing their temples… and then rack up views with the footage afterward.

The numbers are astounding for such a niche thing. Italian YouTuber Massimo Tarantelli, aka “ASMR Barber,” has snagged more than 50 million views on his numerous clips with Baba (including 32 million on this one clip alone). Another channel, Nomad Barber, has logged 26 million views with one visit to Baba in Pushkar, making it by far his most popular upload. These videos propelled Baba into trips to London and Japan, as well as coverage from the BBC and New York Post. It’s not a stretch to suggest that Indian barbers are more of a tourist attraction than ever thanks to the internet-warping powers of Baba’s cosmic massaging.

But despite all that fame, Baba lived poor, becoming aware of his superstar potential only in the last few years before his sudden passing. Just a few months before his death, I wrote about how Indian content creators and Indian barbers were generating surprising new funds through YouTube fandom. Baba was about to taste that, thanks to a YouTube channel and PayPal that fans helped set up. But then he was gone, without a plan in place.

His son Rohit took his place in the marigold-hued barber shop, learning to imitate his father’s famous massages and earning plenty of new fans for it. But with COVID-19 still spreading in India, barbers have less work than ever — and so, the latest GoFundMe from Tarantelli, the ASMR Barber, looms large.

Over the last four months, fans have contributed nearly $6,300 to the $8,700 goal, which covers the remainder of the loan on the house. But even that would be a fraction of what the Extremely Online world owes Baba, given that so many others have profited handsomely by merely holding up an iPhone to capture his iconic handiwork. While he ultimately learned to raise prices on foreign visitors, his internet glory didn’t exactly lead to a kingdom of revenue streams like, say, Salt Bae. It’s also unclear how much his family received from his Patreon and PayPal funds, which have been promoted by Tarantelli in his videos as a way to give direct aid.

It all feels like an awkward referendum on the kind of appropriation that can happen even with the subject’s approval. It feels like someone should’ve stepped in, tapped Baba on the shoulder and showed him a better way. It feels like we ASMR fans are complicit in some dystopian digital-globalization scheme that pimps broke barbers for head tingles.

The online world is rightfully reckoning with what it means to pay content creators what they deserve. In that lens, India’s fascinating street-side barbers, and the online economy around them, demonstrate just how the internet can allow the world to witness one’s skills, yet disconnect them from the value of their labor at the exact same time.

It’s not just about money, either: Individual barbers have fans who affectionately name-check them in the comments. (“It does my heart good to see Sarwan in action again,” one wrote. “Love what that man can do to a forehead.”) But it’s possible many will simply never see those comments themselves, nor fully understand their reach.

That doesn’t mean YouTubers aren’t giving back to the people who generate their traffic. The brothers behind one pioneering channel told me in 2018 that they try to pay “10 times or more” the usual rate for a barber’s service if they’re filming for YouTube. Another hugely popular ASMR YouTuber, “Tez” of Indian Barber, famously helped fund a renovated shop space for an elderly street barber who looks like a man reborn in recent clips. It’s probably no coincidence that content creators in India can have a more consistent impact on the barbers they feature.

But despite the efforts, I can’t help but wish that the barbers could set up their own viral YouTube accounts and crowdfunding campaigns without a middleman that is, in every case, more privileged than the barber himself. The vast majority of these men are growing more broke every day, with COVID shutting down their livelihoods and no globe-trotting vloggers poking their heads into their shops.

At least Baba Sen’s family should be getting a shocking payout. The plan is for Tarantelli to work with his collaborator in India, Santosh Ojha (who runs the YouTube channel Indian Massage), to deliver the check when the goal is met. I’m surprised the goal hasn’t been met more quickly, given that ASMR nerds love Baba Sen as much as anyone can love an entertainer on the other side of the world. Sadly, a lot of viewers either aren’t coughing up or don’t trust the delivery method.

Or maybe they’re just wondering why the YouTubers themselves won’t cough up the couple grand needed to wrap the loan, given they’ve made much more than that on all those ad-supported views for Baba. “I respect that Massimo and Santosh want to help but then again, 7,000 dollars approx. should easily be within the range that both of them were able to gain from Baba’s appearance on their channels. I mean, it’s 3,500 for each of them,” as one critical voice notes. “I’m not criticizing or demanding anything, but it seems odd to ask the viewers for help.”

It’s a compelling point. I don’t know who ought to be helping India’s barbers stay afloat during an unprecedented global pandemic. But the questions around Baba’s debt does reveal the glaringly unequal way that the tourist economy rewards its players, and the seemingly simple barriers that stand in the way of a more legitimate connection to the people we love to watch.

As for that YouTube channel that was set up for Baba? It’s been quiet for more than a year now, stagnating as traffic flows to other channels who posted, essentially, the same thing. In the meantime, I’ll keep clicking on all of it, wondering who exactly is making what, and how much I oughta pay.