Pop Singer and Producer Peter Hollens seemed poised for music business success.
He had inked a deal with a respected major label and made an appearance on NBC’s The Sing-Off Season Two. Yet, despite reaching so many major milestones in the music industry playbook, his career wasn’t taking off. But Hollens refused to take no for an answer.
Now, several years later, he makes a good living exclusively from creating music. He has worked with music legends like Brian Wilson and Gladys Knight, and contemporary heavy hitters like Lindsey Stirling, Jason Mraz, and Watsky. His videos are polished, Hollywood-quality productions with views in the millions.
He has a passionate fan base of supporters, which ranks around three million across his various social media channels. And he’s a niche artist, too; he performs a cappella covers of popular and classic songs.
How did Hollens find such astonishing success without any of the industry institutions so many people believe are necessary for an artist to “make it”? We spoke with the Oregon-based Singer to learn how he rewrote the rules and blazed his own path — and to get his advice on how unsigned artists can use social media, viral videos, and online fan relationships to build their own careers, outside of the label system. Here’s what we took away from our talk.
Sometimes the plan evolves along the way. Initially, Hollens says, “I went to school at the University of Oregon to become a Choral Director because I wanted to teach.
I ended up getting involved with a cappella music and took all the money I’d saved for my master’s and opened a home recording studio. I started recording groups all over the country. The girl I asked to marry me was doing cruise ship music and I joined her on the cruise ships for awhile.
I started recording more a cappella groups and had the opportunity to appear on the show The Sing-off. At the time I hadn’t really set up social media accounts and some people found my personal account; it kind of gave me the impetus to start recording my own music. That was at the end of 2010 and it was very apparent to me at the time the best place to distribute music was through YouTube.
I started teaching myself cinematography and editing and I started reverse engineering the people I saw being successful on YouTube. I had no delusions of grandeur to become a solo artist. That wasn’t the direction I was heading, although I never had a quote unquote huge grand vision, it just happened organically. I started creating videos part time and recording on the side. I went full time on YouTube in 2012, picking up steam and releasing more videos.”
“I think the ability to do anything is out there so learn how to do it, shut up and even if you fail at creating revenue for yourself the actual act of making your art will make you happy. The ones who succeed are the ones who love the journey.” — Peter Hollens
Thanks to his newly-minted cinematography and video editing skills, Hollens was able to take his career into his own hands. He says, “It was very handy to have the ability to create my music myself, so I didn’t have overhead. That’s part of what I preach to my peers. You do need to teach yourself every aspect of your business, from concept to execution.
When you start, it behooves you to communicate every aspect of creation, from concept to video editing to post, because when you start you no longer have the excuse. Take out the middleman and the overhead. Then it’s all blood, sweat, and tears and there’s no excuse that you can’t create something. It’s up to you.
If you know in your heart of hearts you’re going to be a creator, all this information is available on the internet to you for free, and there’s absolutely no excuse anymore beyond you saying ‘I can’t do it because of [something]’ — that’s just an excuse. I didn’t really have an excuse. I taught myself video like I did sound. [After that] I already had my infrastructure to go to the next level, which was creating content and putting it out there.”
Research, multitasking, community interaction, and careful planning all play an integral part in Hollens’ success. Music is his passion, but he’s also aware that it’s a business, and he treats his work accordingly. He spends a lot of time on the “conceptualization of the entire product itself.
Why am I doing this song? Is it because it’s already been requested over a thousand times by my fanbase? I keep an Excel sheet of how often songs are requested, and I crowdsource from my listeners. How am I going to create this video so it’s shareable? Why is this worth doing? Is this in the pocket for me as an artist or am I doing this for a different reason?”
A lot of hard work goes into making a single track. Here’s what happens behind-the-scenes.
After doing all this initial planning, Hollens says, “I get together with my Arranger I’ve been working with for over ten years and we’ll finish an idea. He comes up with an arrangement, I’ll import it into Pro Tools and start recording all the parts. It’s usually 80-200 tracks.
It’s very time-consuming because of vocal fatigue, and I’ll send that out to my editing team. I used to do all this by myself but now I put every single person I can into my workflow to expedite it.”
“I send it to my Mixing Engineers and Mastering Engineers and I get feedback along the way. Usually, during the audio phase at some point I’ll start working with my video team on concepts and locations, sometimes I’ll bring a collaborator on a song just to get more eyeballs on it and we’ll shoot a video, edit, color, [do] post production.”
“Sometimes I’ll have up to twenty different projects at one point because I’m so busy and the people I’m working with are so busy that sometimes it’ll take time to just shoot the video. For example, Charlie Puth and I were working on two different projects simultaneously. Then he blew up and became a huge star and, you know, things change.”
“Marketing it is just as important as the time and effort you put into making it and pushing it out there. If there’s something a writer would like to share because of previous things they’ve written about or have similar content it behooves me to offer it up to those websites. I used to do exclusive content but that doesn’t really have value anymore.”
Artists need to understand why people click on certain things. Obviously, the internet is saturated with content. What draws people to certain videos, performers, and websites?
The answer: guaranteed entertainment.
To make artists are providing what people want, Hollens recommends anyone creating music videos to share online should ask themselves each of the following questions:
- Even before you do a song, [ask yourself] what is your thumbnail going to look like? Why is it going to be clickable?
- Why would someone want to initiate that click, whether it’s on Facebook or YouTube?
- Your goal is to get people who don’t know you to watch your content. What colors are most appealing to humans?
- Why would this get someone’s attention?
- Are you doing a song with an extremely beautiful man or woman? Frankly, it behooves you to do a closeup of that person’s face.
“Music saves lives. Music is the language of love. Music is what’s going to save us and truthfully, there’s no better time to say, ‘Screw it, I’m going to do what I love and I’m going to create art. There’s no reason to not try.” — Peter Hollens
“When you’re creating your content, [ask] what is Buzzfeed doing right now?” Hollens advises. “What are the distributors out there who are killing it at creating attention doing? Take those ideas and concepts and you’ll be succeeding. The people in your industry who are succeeding, [figure out] what are they doing and what are they creating. Copy them.”
High-profile collaborations with other artists can help expose your work to a whole new group of potential supporters. When we asked Hollens how he found people to work with, his answer was simple: “Research.” He added, “I’m a Producer and I create art in a genre that’s pretty niche so I’m able to offer a pretty interesting value proposal to an artist.
I say ‘I’m able to create this type of content for your fanbase at no cost to you; I just need three hours from you. Here are quotes from artists who’ve found value in working with me.’
Because I do create great content and have artists who will vouch for me and [because] I don’t really care about making money and just want to build a new audience base, it’s a no-brainer for a Manager or artist who truly understands ‘this person is going to create great content and offer it to his 3 million followers and I only need to spend three hours.”
Music saves lives,” Hollens says. “Music is the language of love. Music is what’s going to save us and truthfully, there’s no better time to say, ‘Screw it, I’m going to do what I love and I’m going to create art. There’s no reason to not try. The number one thing anyone should be scared of is regret and being an old person in a nursing home who says ‘I really wish I had taken the chance on myself to do what I love.’
I think the ability to do anything is out there so learn how to do it, shut up and even if you fail at creating revenue for yourself the actual act of making your art will make you happy. The ones who succeed are the ones who love the journey.
The thing I love more than anything is being here in front of my computer and my microphone and it’s so rewarding to see how it affects people. I love making music. It’s just in me.”
A note to readers: Peter Hollens had so much great advice we decided to share it twice. Stay tuned for part two of the interview, in which he discusses how services like Patreon help fans find and support artists, the mistakes he sees artists making and how to (easily) remedy them, and the smart way to use YouTube to get new fans.