Singer and digital branding expert Peter Hollens reveals how to build an online following and why signing a record deal was his biggest mistake.
Peter Hollens is a classically trained singer who has used his digital nous to build an almighty music empire.
Back in 2011 Hollens, who studied voice at the University of Oregon, started recording a cappella versions of hit songs and sharing them online.
He quickly recognised the digital world offered him an opportunity to turn his two loves – music and computers – into a successful business.
These days he has a legion of loyal followers including 2.2 million on YouTube, where his most popular video in 2018, a Disney villains medley, attracted 17 millions views. His Legendary Vocals Facebook page has three million followers.
The singer has also released more than 160 digital singles and nine albums, the latest of which is Legendary Covers Vol. 1. With plenty of friends in Silicon Valley, he also advises companies such as Patreon and YouTube and teaches digital entrepreneurship through his own online Creator Academy.
Later this year Hollens will release a series of new education courses in partnership with Patreon and he will also host his first solo event and concert on 24 August at the Elsinore Theatre in Salem, Oregon. He spoke to LINE HILTON.
Why did you get involved with music?
I found who I am through my voice. Early on, it was the one thing that gave me light and hope – I didn’t have a lot of that in other parts of my life. When I was younger, I was this poor little dude who was socially awkward and got picked on and beat up. Music was my everything back then.
When did you realise you could build a business from music?
I had always been into computers – when I was younger, I used to communicate with people on bulletin boards. Then I got into the studio and was enamoured with the fact that I could create something on the computer utilising my voice within the genre of a cappella.
I had saved all this money to become a choral director, so I used it to get myself a home recording studio and start recording a cappella groups.
I just went for it – with no preconceived notions. I would see something that was working [for other people] and then do it. I’d never taken a business class and I didn’t have anyone to copy – and that was very powerful.
What’s your advice for building a digital brand and a career as an independent artist?
It’s not for everyone. It’s for people who are self-starters and who are very motivated.
You don’t need the best voice in the world to succeed as a singer. But you do need to be able to find the thing that you do best and connect with the community of people who like your art. You need to establish a cyclical relationship with them and to show yourself as a person first and a product second.
How do you start that process?
Create content. You love to sing? Awesome, record it and get yourself out there. It doesn’t need to have a high production value to find an audience. It doesn’t need to be complex and rehearsed, it just needs to be real and motivate people to keep coming back.
I’m so embarrassed by the first video I released. But I’ll never take it down because it shows how far I’ve come.
At what point did you realise that you could make a living out of what you were doing online?
I released my first video in the February of 2011 and really understood that this could be a thing for me in May 2012. I did a collaboration with Lindsey Stirling on a video game theme and saw my first pay check from iTunes for that song alone. I thought: “This will cover my rent and insurance for the next three months. OK I get it.”
Can you explain your revenue streams?
I have four main sources of revenue: physical sales from my online store; digital sales such as Spotify, iTunes, Amazon and GooglePlay; Patreon; and ad revenue.
What drove you to Patreon, the crowdfunding platform that allows creators to provide subscription content?
In one day, I got three messages from three different people – an email, a Facebook message and a YouTube comment on my newest video – saying “hey I found this site and I want to support you on it”. I went there and immediately understood what they were doing. My mind was blown so I got started on my campaign right away.
I also bombarded Sam and Jack [Patreon founders, Sam Yam and Jack Conte] to let me work with them. I annoyed them until they let me be an adviser to the company. Without Patreon, I wouldn’t have made it through the worst decision of my life which was to sign major record deal.
After establishing such a strong digital brand, why did you sign with a major label?
I knew it was the wrong thing to do in my gut. But as musicians we are always told that once you get to place X then person Y will open the door and help you make it.
It wasn’t helpful that my wife was eight months pregnant. I was looking at this contract thinking “I’m 34 and this is a lot of money, who am I to turn this down?”. I got a lot of Silicon Valley CEOs that I know to look at the contract. I did my homework.
But it wasn’t for me. All my metrics, all my exponential growth, halted [after I signed] because they didn’t let me keep doing what I was doing. They tried to force me to be something that I’m not. The people who were working at the label didn’t understand digital marketing and how to grow your following online like I did.
The weird thing is I became a father while also losing control of the thing I had created. I’m not the kind of person who should have someone tell me what to do – other than my wife, she’s the boss. That was the most difficult time of my life. I was stuck in that deal for two and a half years.
Is there anything that could have helped you to make a different decision?
What most musicians don’t talk about is that for a label it’s not about art. It’s about numbers, marketing and money. If you can’t guarantee the label seven figures you will never be a priority and you will be shelved in some aspect. If I’d known the real accounting ahead of time, and how slowly they moved, then it might have been different.
If an emerging artist was offered a deal, what would your advice be?
If you’re a self-starter, you don’t need a label. You just need to build yourself a team. Why give anyone a percentage of your overall gross revenue?
Tell us what you love about your job?
There is nothing more rewarding than being able to create content that I view as positive and uplifting. If I can make people feel something, then what I’m doing is successful.