On one hand, you could call the four artists in The Piano Guys failures. The Salt Lake City-based YouTube sensations set out to make music videos to sell more pianos in St. George, Utah. But the piano store went out of business.
That’s hardly worth mentioning, though, since the unexpected happened when the quartet’s videos caught Internet fire a few years ago and have since racked up more than 800 million views; a resounding success that has changed the lives of four family men who were making a living in various, rather regular middle-class careers before The Piano Guys.
Rooted in classical music, but borrowing liberally from pop music and doused with a sense of humor, the group has found a worldwide audience that started with the videos and grew to a record deal with Sony.
The visual aspect takes its audience from the Great Wall of China to other stunningly beautiful locations around the world, many of them right in their home state. It was there from the beginning, in 2011 when the four — cellist Steven Sharp Nelson, pianist Jon Schmidt, videographer and producer Paul Anderson ,and producer-songwriter Al Van Der Beek — came together.
“It was sort of a meeting of the minds central to a piano store that was called The Piano Guys,” says Sharp Nelson, who spoke from home in Salt Lake City. “I brought cellos and songwriting and sort of a crazy way of playing cello; Jon brought piano and a local fanbase with him, Paul had a store and the cameras, and Al had a music studio.”
The group’s first runaway video was 2011’s “Michael Meets Mozart,” a mashup of classical and Michael Jackson that has since racked up more than 25 million views on YouTube and also appears on the 2012 album “The Piano Guys.”
“What happened is it just took off, so much more than we anticipated. We were the most surprised of anyone. We don’t look like rock stars, we don’t act like rock stars. We’re a bunch of middle-aged dads,” Sharp Nelson said.
Among the four dads are 16 children, and their families have become litmus tests for the group’s music, which ranges from pop covers of Coldplay, Taylor Swift and One Direction, to more traditional classical arrangements. All of it is family friendly.
“There’s very little on the Internet that a grandparent, parent and child could sit down together and enjoy, and that’s who you see in our audience,” Nelson said. “It’s not something we cooked up as a marketing theme, it’s a real-life application for us. Everything we are, we’re dads and husbands first. We’re creating content for our own families.
“We do a lot of original songs, parodies and modernizing classical tunes. Anytime we choose a tune that we’re arranging, it has to pass a test. Would we let our kids listen to and watch the video? Most of the time the answer is no.”
The group is careful to not just pluck the obvious songs from the charts or whatever happens to be hot at the moment.
“We’d be remiss if we didn’t (look at the charts),” he said. “That’s part of trying to introduce ourselves to new people.”
But they’re careful not to become a group that panders to its audience preying only on the hottest songs simply to get views.
“If you look at the history of The Piano Guys, it’s is evident we do not do that. We don’t always pick the hottest songs from the hottest artists. We pick songs that motivate us.”
They did, however, take a stab at Adele’s megahit “Hello,” and it had 100,000 views on YouTube last week (Jan. 28) within hours of posting it. That combination of song and video selection has fueled the near billion-views status of their YouTube channel, a lucrative part of their career in itself.
“You become a partner with YouTube and you share in the advertising revenue,” Nelson said of the business model. “For someone to actually live off that revenue, you have to be doing something substantial. One person that’s a flash in the pan that gets one viral video and is not able to sustain that would not be able to sustain a living either. If you were a single guy and putting up videos with millions of hits consistently, you could have a very comfortable lifestyle.”
The group has diversified its art beyond YouTube. Sony released the group’s second album in 2012, and only after The Piano Guys said no to a record deal many times.
“We said we don’t want a record label and a manager,” Sharp Nelson said. “We want to be masters of our own schedule. Our morals and our values are very important to us. We said no to Sony five or six times, until the deal made sense. The deal made sense when we could retain complete creative control and it was a partnership. They’ve gotten a lot more people than we ever could.”
On top of the records and videos is the touring, although Sharp Nelson said it’s a modest itinerary.
“We tour very little relative to most artists, and when we make videos, we try to keep as close to home as possible. A lot of people have no idea the ‘Lord of the Rings’ medley was (all) filmed within a 15-mile radius. We have lakes, trees, forest, snow, mountains, inactive volcanoes, golden meadows. It’s an amazing variety. (Utah) really is a blessed land; a beautiful place to film.”
Some of the scenes make it into the live shows, but fans can expect a different experience for the price of their ticket.
“We don’t saturate our live content with things you can see for free on YouTube. That sort of cheats the audience. There are lots of surprises. There are lots of candid moments.”
At the end of the day, they’re also faithful Mormons, and are open about their religion’s influence on their art.
“It was a miracle that brought us together; a collection of coincidences that have been too coincidental to call happenstance,” he said. “We pray before we write a song. We try to tap into inspiration and let the process lead out. We consider the edge of a knife we stand upon and consider it a miracle that we’re balancing. If we betray that miracle by betraying our morals or our families, then we betray who we are and we’re no longer The Piano Guys.”