In this interview, Danny Ross speaks with music industry success story Peter Hollens on his already impressive career, from staring in The Sing Off, to using Patreon as a way innovating the music business, to the popularity of his self-produced videos on social media.
Guest post by Danny Ross of Forbes
Peter Hollens didn’t plan for this. In fact, he never thought of it as a possibility. Yet, he's become a model for how to succeed in the modern music business as an independent artist. Hollens has accomplished a lot in his young career, whether starring in the NBC reality show The Sing Off, or innovating the music business on Patreon. He's also garnered millions of fans on social media, with over 400 million views of his self-produced videos. And he’s found a way to do it all without leaving his cul-de-sac in Eugene, Oregon. On a snowy day in New York, I was fortunate to get Peter on the phone:
Danny Ross: Let's start at the beginning. How did you fall in love with music?
Peter Hollens: My mom forced me into choir in high school. Thank god for mothers…. My choral director basically gave me my life. I was such a miserable kid, super depressed. I wanted to be able to do that for other kids. Quickly found out that classical music zapped the life out of me so I started an a cappella group to counterbalance Bach and Beethoven. Quickly fell in love with the recording studio after. Saved up to get my master’s degree and purchased myself a home studio.
Ross: You first made money in music by recording a cappella groups as a producer-engineer. How did that come about?
Hollens: Literally, I would fly out to New York and for $25 an hour, I’d record an a cappella group in a dorm room. Eighteen hours a day, an entire album in a week and a half. I did that at Yale, and I did that at Cornell, at Georgia. I loved it! I slept in a sleeping bag. After recording for tens of thousands of hours for all these groups, I started doing it for myself. I was already very proficient at it.
Ross: And this experience led to The Sing Off?
Hollens: I was at home recording my own group at the time when the producers of The Sing Off called, and they were trying to get more groups to audition for the second season. The producers go crazy trying to find contestants. I was helping put together a girls group for them, and I was convincing my guys' group at the time (“On The Rocks”) to audition. They had me come down and audition with them, and I ended up being the soloist on the show.
Before that I wasn’t performing as a solo artist, I was just completely and 100% content being a producer. I loved working with singers and getting the best out of them. I truthfully had no delusions of grandeur of any type of solo career whatsoever. I loved singing with all my heart. The only way I knew how to make money was either performing on cruise ships and then the recording stuff.
After the show, it gave me the impetus to start recording stuff myself. Not because I got thousands and thousands of fans–I probably got two hundred people that added me on Facebook. But my dad was actually dying of cancer at the time and he always asked me to record some of my own music. I thought, ‘Why don’t I just turn this mic on myself and stop recording these college kids?’
Ross: And what was the first step in launching a solo career?
Hollens: I started reverse-engineering what I saw succeeding online at the time. And it was pretty apparent to me in 2010-2011 that YouTube had a few success stories–Kurt Hugo Schneider, Boyce Avenue, Tyler Ward. I had seen my exact genre of music succeeding on there with a kid by the name of Mike Tompkins, a Canadian who was doing a cappella.
I thought ‘I could do that. I already know how to record a cappella music like that, and I can teach myself how to do video like that.’
Ross: So you produced tracks and created videos by yourself in a home studio?
Hollens: There’s truly no reason not to teach yourself every aspect, from concept to execution. Content is the king, music video is the queen and those two things need to be married. Otherwise, you don’t actually have a product. I don’t believe in an album anymore, everything needs to be a single.
I did it all myself because I wanted to have no overhead, because I didn’t have that much money, and I was living in someone else’s house eating ramen noodles with my wife. I was learning a lot in those first 18 months, I wasn’t gaining that much traction.
As I gathered steam, I took my gross revenue and started bringing people on because, in the end, it’s about making your product as good as possible. I’d bring on audio editors, mixing engineers and mastering engineers. So the only thing I was doing was recording myself and I’m the executive producer. I’m working on 15 to 20 projects at once.
Ross: Soon Lindsey Stirling took notice of you, and that collaboration quadrupled your fanbase. How did that come about?
Hollens: I started learning the basics of everything–business, marketing, social media. When you see something working, you can go back and say ‘How are they doing this? What metadata are they using?’ And researching what thought-leaders in the space are saying because they’re not that tight-lipped. Just like I’m not.
I started viewing artists on YouTube as peers, not as competitors. The second an artist can change their mind from looking at it about making money, to helping others and doing it because you love it, it’s insane how much more successful you’ll be. I always give more than I get. Always. From the first penny in gross revenue, I’ll usually split everything in perpetuity. So it’s not about money; it’s about relationship-building, transparency. The relationship you have for decades is much more important than a one-off where you try to siphon a few more dollars from somebody else.
Ross: Your success on YouTube led to a major record deal. What happened?
Hollens: I never wanted a record deal but because I was moving so many units I was able to negotiate terms. Everyone should realize that every contract is negotiable (Hello!). I quickly realized that someone like myself should never have anyone telling them what to do. I’m a digital brand. I can create an entire career never leaving my cul-de-sac in Eugene, Oregon.
I thought I knew better than they did, and they didn’t like artists acting that way. Once you have control of something and you build it yourself, it’s very hard to relinquish. I don’t want to be some famous millionaire -- that’s not my prerogative. I want to create something that’s meaningful to my fanbase, meaningful to me. Going on the road 200 days a year is not going to make me a good father and a good husband, and I don’t think musicians need to do that anymore. [It was] the biggest speed bump you could ever have in a career.
Ross: You’ve since managed to thrive as an independent artist through the site, Patreon. What is it?
Hollens: It’s a community management tool that actually pays you a salary. You can look at it like a Kickstarter that never ends. Why would you do an entire marketing campaign and bombard your entire fanbase to do something once, and make one lump of cash, which in the end is worthless?
A Kickstarter is a great tool to fund a CD. But do you want to fund a CD or do you want to have a great career doing what you love? And a company being built by creators for creators is the only way to succeed in perpetuity. Nothing exclusive from a contract perspective, something that never ends, and allows us to grow our own companies. As musicians, we are digitally media companies.
Ross: How has Patreon helped to develop your business model?
Hollens: Knowing that I had a few thousand people on Patreon giving me X amount of money per video guaranteed that I could have longevity to my career. The only thing that matters in a music career is your community. I believe that Patreon is the first company that has truly understood where we’re going in this 'Creator Revolution.'
When I joined the first week it came out, I was like, 'You want to give me money? I better check this out!' I quickly realized this was recurring at a 95/5 split, and I just flipped out. Now I’m an adviser for the company. It changed my life. It saved me.
Playing live just doesn’t pay. Even with millions of followers online, I would have lost $10,000-$15,000 on a 20-city tour. There’s just no reason to do that anymore.
This interview has been edited and condensed.