If the video of your cats that you post on YouTube goes viral, it just might generate millions of views. But building and sustaining an audience while making a living is much, much harder. That's what makes the story of The Piano Guys, a Utah-based group of musicians and techies, so intriguing. All five members of the entrepreneurial band are doing well enough that they've quit their day jobs to focus full time on The Piano Guys project.
The Piano Guys phenomenon • The name first referred to a music store in St. George and then became the name for a YouTube channel that featured various performers who advertised the store.
When one of those videos, "Love Story Meets Viva La Vida" became an Internet sensation about three years ago, buzz began to coalesce around piano guy Jon Schmidt and cello guy Steven Sharp Nelson.
Since then, the performers' fame has grown virally, thanks to their musicianship and charisma plus the expert videography, sound production and social networking from three guys behind the scenes: videographer Tel Stewart, sound engineer/music arranger Al Van Der Beek and entrepreneur Paul Anderson.
From the name, you'd expect the whole project hangs on Schmidt, but that's not quite the case. It's just one of the many aspects of The Piano Guys phenomenon that are complicated to explain.
Simply, though, the frontmen for The Piano Guys are Schmidt, 44, and Nelson, 34.
Schmidt was an established musician who performed regular concerts around Utah. At one of the shows, he met Nelson, then a teenage fan, who begged for the opportunity to sit in with Schmidt's backup musicians.
"I was just a punk kid," said Nelson, who recalls how hesitant Schmidt was originally. But the pianist saw Nelson's creativity and fostered it.
What ADHD wrought • Schmidt, the son of German immigrants, grew up in Salt Lake City on a rich diet of classical music. He was playing Mozart sonatas and composing his own music by age 11, but made the practical choice of studying business when he got to college. He continued performing, though, and fans liked his work.
In the early 1990s, Schmidt took a chance on renting a Salt Lake City concert hall for a performance. The concert was a success, and music has been his business ever since.
Nelson grew up in Salt Lake City and studied cello with Utah Symphony principal cellist Ryan Selberg. He was obviously talented, but struggled to focus his attention through hours of practice. And though he loved classical music, he was interested in pop and rock, too.
Nelson has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and said his short attention span prompted him to vary his music studies by switching off among cello, drums, guitar and piano. His started experimenting with creating a sort of one-man band by creating new ways to play all four instruments.
"My cello seemed like the best candidate to absorb all the others," Nelson said. "I started strumming it, banging it and using pizzicato much more aggressively using my thumb, fist, fingernail and palm. There are so many ways of manipulating the strings. This fun exploration of the instrument got me even more interested in the cello."
"He's the only cellist in the world that plays with a kick drum," said Schmidt, who compliments his musical partner for his keen ability to provide a rhythmic foundation for Piano Guys songs.
During his piano concerts, Schmidt eventually granted Nelson brief onstage solos, and the two developed a Smothers Brothers-like comedic banter. YouTube audiences have little chance to see the entertaining interaction that goes on between Schmidt and Nelson, but live audiences love it.
Nelson is no second banana these days; his image appears in recent Piano Guys videos more often than Schmidt's. But he hasn't forgotten who boosted him into the limelight.
"If it wasn't for Jon's music and the concerts we've played, I'd be playing to a blank wall," Nelson said. "I'd be down in my basement messing around with my cello without that."
So why did the photogenic cellist get slighted by the duo's pianocentric name? "I came late," said Nelson, who joined the group after its brand was established. And he's OK with that.
The mashup that launched them • A chance meeting at The Piano Guys store in St. George between Schmidt and store owner Anderson three years ago led to an invitation for Schmidt and Nelson to star in videos for The Piano Guys youTube channel. They struck gold immediately with "Love Story Meets Living La Vida."
The next big hit came with "Michael Meets Mozart," which commemorated then recently-deceased Michael Jackson by mashing up Jackson's music with Mozartean techniques.
Every sound on the recording was played by Schmidt or Nelson, but 100 of Nelson's cello tracks were layered with Schmidt's piano playing by Van Der Beek for a full orchestral experience. Video images of the performers, by Stewart and others, were spliced together MTV-style for visual effect.
The video became a sensation soon after its posting in May 2011, and has now amassed over 6 million views. It encapsulates much of what The Piano Guys are about creating inspiring covers of pop tunes underlaid with expert classical musicianship, and produced with first-rate sound recording and videography. The result is a multimedia art form whose appeal crosses genre boundaries and spans generation gaps.
It was at that point that the five men who now constitute The Piano Guys coalesced as an entity.
Another big hit followed in December 2011 with "Cello Wars," a mammoth production that parodies the "Star Wars" film series. In it, Nelson and a video clone pose as a Jedi knight and Sith lord, each armed with electric cellos bowed by light sabers. The storyline is hilarious, the acting over-the-top. The musical elements and videography are spectacular.
The next big hit, posted in January, was another audio-visual stunner. It begins with footage of a grand piano dangling from a helicopter, then landing on a mesa in the Sand Hollow Cliffs area outside St. George. Coldplay's "Paradise" is served up in a video cover called "Peponi" that features guest vocalist Alex Boyé (singing in Swahili and Yoruba) and eye-popping aerial videography of Southern Utah scenery. It has garnered almost 6 million views.
Besides these monster hits, The Piano Guys have posted numerous other videos whose popularity continues to grow.
You gotta have friends • So how does a fledgling company create videos that look and sound so expensive? And how do videos that can be viewed for free generate a livelihood for their producers? "There have been lots of miracles," Schmidt said.
It helps that Nelson, Schmidt and their collaborators are likable guys with a host of friends and fans many cultivated through social media who want to be part of creating the successful videos.
The helicopter for the "Peponi" video was provided at a tremendous discount by the friend of a friend. Access to a private ranch in Hawaii, the top of a silo at a Salt Lake City's Mountain Cement plant, a moving train and a sky-diving plane came through similar opportunities.
Sky diving, you ask? There's an amazing moment in Nelson's "Me and My Cello" when the cellist takes his instrument on a date and goes bowling, all of this corniness topped by a duo skydiving jump with his cello.
Fans are eager to be part of the phenomenon, and business people are impressed by the number of Internet hits The Piano Guys videos generate. Businesses receive mentions in the video credits, as well as visual recognition product placement within the productions. And the YouTube videos are preceded by paid advertisements, another revenue stream.
Fans who subscribe to The Piano Guys YouTube Channel receive a link by email each time a new video is posted. As soon as the links are posted, subscribers who like the song start paying to download it on Apple and Amazon. "It's a really great push," Schmidt said.
Subscribers are encouraged to become "founders," much as PBS viewers are asked to donate to help pay the costs of programming. Founders receive premiums: the typical T-shirts and CDs, and some more remarkable offerings, such as piano lessons, via Skype, from Schmidt.
"It's an opportunity for people to get involved at the ground level in something that is inspirational and helps youth get excited about classical music and real instruments," Nelson said. "It's amazing how many people do it. More than we anticipated."
What's next • Cast and crew have given up their day jobs and are working full time to produce new videos for their subscribers. "It is sustainable, but you have to do it right," said Stewart, the videographer. "If we stop now, it will go away, but if we keep doing videos, it will keep growing."
Schmidt doesn't worry about running out of ideas. He and Nelson have been arranging pop tunes since they were kids, just for the fun of it. He can't imagine the well running dry.
"That would be like saying you are worried that you'll never hear a song you like again," he said. "I don't think that's possible. There's always going to be something that causes inspiration to flow."
Now that The Piano Guys' fame is growing exponentially, interest is developing outside the Internet's virtual world. The group has an agent and manager based in New York City. PBS is working with The Piano Guys to produce a television special. "Good Morning America" wants to feature them. A CD will be released this summer.
Meanwhile, the members of The Piano Guys are working hard at their craft, but doing most of their work from home. "We don't like being away from our families," Nelson said. "We can tour the world from the comfort of our armchairs at home."
Schmidt compares the new landscape for performing artists to the 1950s when radio stations were making stars of performers such as Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly.
"You had to be in the right place at the right time, and then it could happen," Schmidt said. "Now there is a new platform for the whole world, and we just happened to be poised to get onto that platform in a big way. We had the video and music-producing ability, and a fan base that helped us launch and get noticed."
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