How three musicians have cracked the code and made it big on YouTube.
The Internet was once the brave new hope of the leftfield, the trendy, and the creative. Those of you who were around in the early days will recall the idealism and optimism of everything being free; free to participate, freedom of expression, democracy for all, and a world without boundaries. That same equality also meant anyone could track mud all over the utopian carpet.
Fast forward 20 years and the Internet is blamed for most everything that has gone wrong in the 21st century: trolls, cyberwars, government’s spying on its own people, fake news, the demise of the fourth estate, even the erosion of society because we’re all suckling on social media feedlots. Phew, talk about a bad rap.
The Internet also decimated the music industry as we knew it. For many who were adept at navigating this old model, it felt ‘bad’, ‘wrong’, ‘so sad’. It required a new way of thinking, and new business models to provide artists with a living. For many, that meant retreating to the last line of defence, the road, to scrape an income off the highways.
However, an increasing amount of musicians are managing to make substantial money by using the very disruptor of the traditional music industry business model — and doing so without having to resort to life on the road. These musicians combine the Internet and social media outlets with cheap studio technology and an ear for viral hits to make livings that range from getting by to being rich and e-famous. Yet, even with millions of fans, their success largely flies under the radar of the mainstream media. Welcome to the brave new world of the YouTube musician.
Here are the stories of three YouTube musicians who have managed to carve out a sustainable online career. Each has done so in a very different way, but taken together their stories act as a blueprint of a more common future for artists.
*All figures from mid-April, 2017
Andrew Huang strictly adheres to a schedule of releasing a video through his YouTube channel every Monday and Thursday. His output is a mixture of vlogs — often about music production and music theory — and videos with musical content that could range from original songs, to feats like rapping 300 words in 60 seconds, and his breakthrough novelty children’s song Pink Fluffy Unicorns Dancing On Rainbows. His ‘Song Challenges’ are also wildly popular, where Huang reconstructs 99 Luftballons entirely from samples made using red balloons, or limits himself to using the notes in CABBAGE to write a metal song… about cabbage, or makes a beat using samples harvested from beets.
Hailing from Ottawa, Ontario in Canada, where he was born in 1984, Huang started playing piano as a teenager and also developed a keen interest in music technology. He went on to study composition at York University in Toronto, but switched to a Fine Arts degree because it allowed him to take courses on a far wider variety of different musical topics. While still in his last year at University he hit on his first Big Idea, which was to sell his songwriting skills on Ebay to the highest bidders. Just two years later, in 2004, when he was still only 20, he turned this idea into a website called Songs To Wear Pants To.
From his home studio in Toronto, Huang charted the trajectory from there to his current YouTube output. “The Ebay thing was my first foray into sharing music online, and yes, it did make me money. The Songs To Wear Pants To website streamlined how people could contact me. I was songwriting for hire and at the peak I was creating 15 songs a month; for weddings, friends, for all sorts of people, many of which were not even shared online. I also started creating pieces of music for free using the suggestions of site visitors that they really enjoyed and shared. It turned out to be a good business model, because I was reaching more and more people. Over time I expanded into more typical commercial music work. I started my YouTube channel alongside that, and it eventually took over.”
The shift to being YouTube-centric was largely due to the success of the Pink Fluffy Unicorn video, which Huang uploaded in November 2010 and says it, “changed my life.” Perhaps more important than the fluffy music, which is a one-off in his otherwise more adult repertoire, the videos galvanised his visual style. The latter, stresses Huang, is key. “In my early years on YouTube I created some music videos with a few film-making friends that were very much in the vein of MTV: telling a vague story with some very stylised performances. At the same time there were fans who were creating animated content to my Songs To Wear Pants To material. So in the beginning my YouTube output consisted of polished professional music videos and fan art. That took quite a few twists and turns to get where I am today; vlogs and music videos that aren’t made with a big team or tons of lights and special locations. Instead they are polished in a different way, and very much about me providing an experience for viewers from which they can take something musical and educational.”
STRIKE ON THE UPBEAT
An significant element that makes Huang’s videos fascinating to watch is his upbeat, easy-going online personality. An appealing online alter (or real) ego is common to all three interviewees in this article, and most likely pretty crucial. However, today Andrew Huang’s business model doesn’t solely rely on YouTube, but also on Patreon—a website allowing fans to act as patrons of the arts—and income from commercial work, both avenues that may also work for the less charismatically-inclined.
“Income from YouTube has never been predictable,” Huang explains. “You have spikes and dips in your views, which depend on what you are putting out and on whether YouTube’s algorithm is friendly to you, allowing your videos to show up in searches. Your income also depends on the kind of ads that appear next to your videos or whether there are ads at all. So YouTube is always there, but the money I receive from it fluctuates a lot.
“By contrast, Patreon is great for me. Though it takes a long time to build up your Patreon fanbase, it now provides me with regular income. I can set my Patreon page to receive contributions per month or per creation, and I have 600 Patreons who support the videos I put out, and this generates between US$4-5000 per month. The money I would make from 600 people in ad impressions would be just a fraction of that. But the last couple of years the majority of my revenue has been from larger commercial work for hire. That is usually the most lucrative. For example, I recently did a partnership with LG, promoting a fridge of theirs, and I composed the music for their campaign and shared about that with my audience in a YouTube video.”
YouTube-specific music content doesn’t seem to become part of a wider cultural discussion, and is often seen as not cool to talk about. This despite the fact that more people may view certain YouTube content than a popular TV show
Like most musicians, Huang writes his own music and is eager to promote it, calling himself a “noisemaker/shapeshifter.” He’s released an impressive 40 albums — mostly containing synth-based music and influences from rap and dubstep — which he sells independently on CD and vinyl, or via DFTBA Records (Don’t Forget To Be Awesome, a website specifically set up to allow YouTubers to sell merchandise), with downloads via the usual services. However, he seems quite content for it to be a minor aspect of his income.
“Selling my own music is not the main part of what I do,” he said. “The whole video and marketing has taken off in such a way that music sales can’t compete with that. I am lucky to have a sizeable audience and content that is friendly enough to regularly get requests for commercial partnerships. I know many YouTubers who have more subscribers to their channels and are reaching millions more people than me, but who are not able to connect with advertisers because their stuff is deemed offensive or in other ways controversial.”
One thing that Huang does have in common with almost all YouTubers is being extremely chuffed with his independence. Like the others interviewed here, he has no need or desire for a record contract. “It’s great to be independent. I’m in control of what I am making and when it comes out, how I am promoting and marketing it. There still is value in what labels provide, primarily in terms of promotion, but the traditional music industry and YouTube are still separate in many ways. As a YouTuber you’re in a different world than if you are a traditional artist. You put out different content, and you approach social platforms and live events in a different way.”
Like all artists who work professionally online, Huang’s YouTube page contains links to a whole swathe of social media sites (Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Instagram, Soundcloud, Snapchat, etc) and his videos all end with the equally mandatory bit of self-promotion; asking viewers to like and subscribe to his channel, pointing out his Patreon page, downloads and other content he provides. This inevitable commercial aspect of life on YouTube may contribute to the artistic credibility gap that distances the mainstream media. Moreover, Huang’s own videos, like most content provided by independent YouTubers, lean heavily on the side of entertaining the viewer for a few minutes.
Huang agrees that YouTube does not appear to be conducive to the creation of ‘high art’: “The environment you work in definitely shapes people’s perception and experience of it. Generally speaking, YouTube-specific music content doesn’t seem to become part of a wider cultural discussion, and is often seen as not cool to talk about. This despite the fact that more people may view certain YouTube content than a popular TV show. There’s a widely held view that an artist working on YouTube is not at the same level as, for example, someone signed to a record company. However, YouTube is slowly becoming more accepted as a legitimate outlet for artistic work. That’s a side I want to be part of. I’m 100% into moving YouTube forwards, not only in terms of the number of viewers but also in the quality of work that is available on it.”
As for the future, Huang’s main focus is on further developing his YouTube presence. “I definitely want to keep a lot of variety. I don’t want to settle into a format. I have a love of all things musical and want to continue to share that. I keep track of all the ideas I think of or that are suggested to me by others, and then it’s a juggling game between something I may want to promote — whether it’s my own music or something I’m hired for — or an idea that is exciting, or tagging onto something that is trending — the time to strike with that is as soon as possible.
“It’s also an issue of what I am physically able to produce while sticking to my release schedule of Monday and Thursday. My wife’s brother sometimes comes in a few days a week to help with editing, and occasionally some people come in to help with a shoot. But primarily it’s just me and a camera. Sometimes I will film myself while I am actually playing and singing, at other times I will lip sync. YouTube viewers appreciate that level of authenticity and extra bit of impressiveness that comes from seeing you’re doing everything live, but I don’t hold myself to that. I simply try to find the video concept that will best present the idea or the piece of music I’m presenting.”
Kawehi is not primarily a YouTube musician, but calls herself a “one woman band” who uses many different web sites, including YouTube, Vimeo, Soundcloud, Bandcamp and Kawehi.com to release her videos and music. Her YouTube stats are less stratospheric than those of the real high-flyers, but she’s nonetheless enjoying an impressive independent internet-fuelled music career.
Kawehi made a name for herself by performing all the musical parts of her videos live through looping. It’s an impressive feat, but what helped her stand out and flagged as Vimeo Staff Picks were the moving images she and husband Paul Wight created. For example, in the video of her song Anthem she sings and beatboxes each musical part with different versions of her head in cardboard boxes. It is fascinating to watch and an apt illustration of what’s she’s doing. Many of Kawehi’s videos are closer in style to traditional music videos, and some are arty in a way few YouTube videos are. Because of this, and perhaps also because she’s a photogenic young woman, Kawehi gets more attention from the mainstream media than the average YouTuber.
Originally from Hawaii, and part Japanese, Kawehi started out playing ukulele (“everyone in first grade in Hawaii gets a ukelele to play”), piano and violin. She moved to LA in 2002, at the age of 19, because she wanted to pursue music for a living, and signed a seven-year, seven-album record contract as part of a band. Her ‘dream come true’ quickly turned into a nightmare lesson about the pitfalls of the traditional music industry.
“I 100% loathed the experience,” she rued, “and I left three months into the contract. It meant I could not make any creative content for another seven years that would not belong to someone else. That experience was a tough one. With my hands tied for seven years, I did everything to pay the bills: waiting tables, busking in the streets, writing radio spots. One positive was I met Paul during my time in LA and we got married. After the seven years I tried everything to get back into music. I had a band at one point, and that was a lot of fun, but it’s really difficult to get five knuckleheads in one room to cooperate with each other! I ended up doing the ‘solo singer/songwriter with a guitar’ thing, but I felt I wasn’t getting any better.”
TRICKLE TO REVENUE STREAM
Seven years of laying low and being forced into average day-jobs, followed by creative stagnation is not the stuff dreams are made of. However, being fully committed to their dream of cobbling together a living from making music, Kawehi and her husband began piecing the puzzle together. Eventually they found some aces in the pack; looping, creating videos, Kickstarter, and a leap into the unknown, or more specifically, a move to Kansas. Kawehi unravelled their trajectory: “Around 2011 I was getting into looping stuff live, which I found far more creative and interesting. I had to put my mind into being a bass player, and a violinist, and so on, and come at a piece of music from several different angles. Then one day Paul suggested we do videos. That definitely changed everything. I started off not having any videos, and when Paul mentioned that people were doing videos now I realised I needed to stay relevant. I needed to have enough content out there on the Internet and let people see what I was doing.”
Kawehi had tried funding the recording of a first album using Kickstarter, but was unsuccessful. Then, in April 2012, luck struck with her loop cover of Britney Spears’ Criminal, and Vimeo featured it as a Staff Pick. “I went from 800 fans to 3000 fans and after that I could fulfil my Kickstarter project. I’d never been able to do that before. But it was all still on a small scale. We needed to put out more content, so one night after too many shots of sake we decided to quit our jobs and work full-time on music. We lasted a year, after which we had to sell our house because we couldn’t afford it anymore. In 2013 we moved to Kansas, where we bought a studio from the leftover cash from selling our house. Moving from LA to Kansas was a big leap in our favour money-wise. Being able to create stuff without having to worry about paying your bills really was a game changer!”
Not long after moving to Kansas Kawehi and her husband enjoyed a second stroke of luck when her cover of Nirvana’s Heart-Shaped Box was also chosen as a Vimeo Staff Pick. This time interviews with Kawehi appeared in a wide variety of news outlets, both print and online, resulting in a huge boost in online views and fans. Kawehi has now been able to oversubscribe eight Kickstarter projects for seven EPs and a short sci-fi film, and Eve: A Sci-fi Visual Album is expected to be out by the end of the year.
COVERED FOR CONTENT
Kawehi’s modest 20-odd videos on YouTube and Vimeo are mostly covers of songs by acts like Crowded House, NIN, Sia, Garbage, Muse, and Led Zeppelin, but also contain several originals. In all cases, she puts her own stamp on these songs. She also regularly tours, and the majority of the music she releases as audio-only is her own material. Although Kawehi has the looks and personality to become a full-time YouTuber, she is instead a musician who happens to use YouTube as a way of promoting herself.
“What I do at the moment is a combination of everything,” says Kawehi. “If you’re not with a record label you need to do everything yourself, and you need to go down every possible avenue to stay relevant and keep your career alive. At the same time, I don’t want to release a video once a week, because it’s not conducive to me developing as an artist. It makes sense if your objective is to provide weekly entertainment for people, but that’s not what I’m interested in at all! It’s also why I stick to Kickstarter and haven’t tried Patreon. My Kickstarter campaigns have been really successful, and I would hate to have to deal with a monthly subscription and a commitment to regularly produce videos. Instead I like the idea of people getting excited about larger and not so time-bound projects.”
The covers Kawehi creates are now a by-product of her Kickstarter campaigns, because one of the perks for backers who donate over a certain amount is that they can suggest three songs for her to cover. “I work my way through the suggestions and try them and go with the one that works the best,” she says. “I would never have thought of some of the suggested songs, but I ended up having a good time with them because figuring out a different angle is interesting. With a song like that Britney Spears one, I needed to approach it differently. My gripe with pop music is its repetitiveness, but I can find something to enjoy in any song.
“Arranging songs, so I can play them live with loops takes a lot of work. The arrangement needs to be interesting so people don’t get bored while watching me build it, and it can be a problem if a song has five different sections. Some songs are impossible to loop for that reason. And I can get really picky about the sounds I use. I may spend an entire day on just a bass sound! To be honest, I really enjoy that part of what I do. I prefer working in a studio, looking for sounds and building an arrangement over being in front of a camera or up on stage. I like the behind the scenes part.
“When I think I have the arrangement, Paul sets the camera up and says: ‘OK, let’s see it.’ It’s then that sometimes I realise I don’t have it. I’m doing it live, so if I mess a part up I need to start all over again. All videos are shot in one take. Sometimes, like with the Nirvana song, I get it on the first take, though with that video I keep thinking, ‘Oh, I wish I had done this or that.’ The video for my song Telescope was also done live. We recorded it in the fields off the road that runs between our studio and the local town. That was a lot of pressure, because we wanted to catch the sunset, so there was limited time to do it. I record the audio of the videos back into Ableton, but don’t really mix it after the event. The post-work is done by Paul, who colours the videos and touches everything up before it goes out.”
Leo Morachiolli’s path to YouTube fame was shorter and more straightforward than that of Huang and Kawehi. It’s taken him only three years to amass his impressive audience, once again, largely under the radar of the mainstream press. Before YouTube fame hit, Morachiolla was very much like millions of other aspiring musicians around the world. Born in Norway in 1978 to an Italian father and a Norwegian mother, he started playing guitar and singing at age 15, played in bands, one of which had a record contract with a small Norwegian label.
However, Morachiolla concedes, “unless you’re really big, you can’t make money from music in Norway, so I ended up having to do nine to five jobs. For years I worked mostly in kindergartens and did music as a hobby. But when we moved to Oltedal (a small town in south-west Norway) in 2011, I quit my job and built a studio just outside our house, called Frog Leap Studios, and recorded local bands there. Also, after having played in metal bands for years, I had gotten tired of that, and I started playing acoustic shows in the local area, just to do something different. In addition to all that, I began doing music and promotional videos for studio clients, as well as for myself and to promote the studio. I made an okay living from that.”
Totally unexpectedly, and for reasons that are still a mystery, fortune struck in 2014. Morachiolli had opened his YouTube channel far back in 2006, and once his studio was up and running he uploaded a number of acoustic covers, and the occasional metal cover, in which he slowly developed his visual approach. In October 2014 he posted a metal cover of Lady Gaga’s Pokerface, which bore most of the hallmarks of the metal covers series for which he’s become famous: his maniacal, wide-eyed persona; the hard-hitting, in-your-face metal style; and the switch from starting the song slightly understated to going full on with screaming vocals are all there to a large degree.
At the time, though, it was just another video for Morachiolli. “I had begun posting videos of my acoustic covers to promote myself in the local area,” he recalls, “and I did a metal version of Pokerface just for fun. After a while I noticed it was getting a lot of views, and within a year it had one million views. That’s when I decided to focus on doing metal covers. I checked out all the issues with licensing and doing everything to the letter of the law, and how you can make money from ad revenue. I really sat down and went for it, and decided to put out a video every Friday.”
You can trace Morachiolli’s route to Internet success and how he spent a year searching for the right formula on his Frog Leap Studios YouTube channel, where he’s kept all 500+ videos he’s ever posted. His pre-Pokerface videos have a few hundred to a few thousand views; typical of your regular local musician or studio. Today, presumably helped by Morachiolli’s post-Pokerface fame, the views of his acoustic covers are in the hundreds of thousands. Pokerface itself has 7.3 million views. However, the views of videos posted in the months after Pokerface are back in the thousands again.
Just before Christmas 2014, Morachiolli uploaded a metal cover of Santa Claus Is Coming To Town, and in May 2015 a tutorial on how to play Pokerface, and then in July a cover of Deep Purple’s Black Night. The number of views ran into the tens and hundreds of thousands, good but not staggering. Finally, on September 29, 2014 Morachiolli posted a metal cover of Sia’s Chandeliers (5.4 million views), and suddenly his winning formula became crystal clear. A metal cover of Taylor Swift’s Shake It Off followed a fortnight later (3.6 million views) and from that point onwards he’s released a metal cover every week. The pattern is obvious: metal covers of well-known songs, preferably pop songs, get millions of hits, with the highlight the 30 million hits for his metal cover of Adele’s Hello. Acoustic covers, tutorials, and vlogs are far less popular.
“I now put out maybe two or three videos a week,” comments Morachiolli,” and they can be a vlog, or a tutorial, or just anything I feel like, and then there are the music videos. Deciding on what to do comes down to what I am feeling in the moment, and what is interesting to me. I don’t really speculate on what people want, as long as I’m happy with what I do, that seems to work. Of course, the metal videos get millions of views, but I like to mix it up. It can get tiring to do the same thing over and over. Recently I had a video about going up the mountain close to our house, and I have videos with drone perspectives of the local area, and so on. People like nature here in Norway, so they love these things.”
Morachiolla lives in the middle of some truly stunning scenery, so if his metal covers ever were to flop, there’d always be a job for him at the local tourist office. For now he’s making a handsome living from YouTube, and associated revenue streams. “YouTube’s ad revenue is an important source of income,” he says. “But honestly, I don’t really understand how it works. YouTube takes care of it all. In addition I have a crowdfunding page on Patreon, and supporters give me between $1-5 per video, and they get all 180 songs I’ve done, and other stuff. Then there’s the money I make from selling my covers on iTunes, Google Play and Amazon. It’s the biggest compliment that people are buying my music, both as individual songs and as albums. I also sell some merchandise, but the track sales are now my main source of income.
“The licensing was taken care of via Loudr, and now by SoundDrop. I upload the song I cover to SoundDrop every week, and they contact the record companies and secure the licence so the songwriter gets a percentage of each sale. SoundDrop also takes care of distributing my tracks to iTunes and Amazon and Google Play. Things like Facebook and Instagram and so on are just promotional tools in all this. I also put my videos on Facebook, but I link them to YouTube so I still get the views. I’m now averaging between 15 and 18 million views per month on YouTube, and that’s more than enough.”
I’ve been getting offers from big record labels, which is crazy, because I don’t need a record company taking a big piece
THE HEAVY METAL GRIND
Like Huang, Morachialli agrees that sticking to a regular release schedule can be hard work and requires focus and discipline. The music videos, says the Norwegian, “usually take me three to four days, with one day for the video, so the audio recording takes the longest. When I choose a song I have to hear something clear and strong in it that gives me a main guitar riff to play. The song also needs to have a strong chorus. I like staccato, chugging guitar riffs, and I don’t really analyse the chords from the original. I may instead create different chord structures that fit me singing the melody. I tend to record the guitars in sections — the verse, then the chorus — and overdub rhythm guitars four times to get that massive metal sound. After that, I add the drums, the bass, and then the vocals, and finally any other instruments I may use.
Once the track is arranged and recorded, Morachiolli turns his attention to recording the video. His gear consists of a Canon 70D camera, which he says was a “real epiphany, because when you use a DSLR camera suddenly it doesn’t look like a home movie anymore.” His main rig is supplemented by a couple of GoPros and a drone. His video editing software is Adobe’s Premiere Pro. With all that gear in hand, Morachiolli explains that, “most often I’m just winging what I’m going to do. Sometimes I use things that I’ve only thought of while shooting. I don’t plan too much for the videos, I’m really spontaneous.
“I think my visual style has been there since the first metal video. It evolved further with all the costumes, but I’ve always been really crazy when I play live. In the metal bands I was always the guy who gave 120% on stage, even though I’m a really calm person when I’m not playing. I started experimenting with the weird angles you can get with GoPros and in general the videos have become more crazy, perhaps because I’m more relaxed. I think it’s just fun. There are so many musicians on YouTube just sitting on their bed, looking down at their guitar, it’s interesting to see something else.
“There are better guitarists and vocalists than me, but my strength is that I can do a bit of everything; I know how to play, record and mix, and how to film and edit, so it’s the whole package. I’m really content with how things are at the moment. I get my own creativity out in the metal arrangements and by adding original parts to the songs. I’m kind of spoiled now because I have total control over what I do and don’t have to work with someone else unless I want to. I’ve been getting offers from big record labels, which is crazy, because I don’t need a record company taking a big piece. I have my own audience and I reach the entire world through YouTube!”
It seems that some of the original brave new promises of the Internet have come through after all.