One of the biggest pop-music hits of the 1980s was, in fact, released in the final months of the ’70s. Video Killed the Radio Star, by British new-wave act Buggles, reflected upon how technological innovation triggered change in the music industry and the dawning of a new era.
Today, perhaps that Buggles track should be updated to reflect the digital age, and celebrate the rise of YouTube sensations like singer Sam Tsui and his collaborator Kurt Hugo Schneider, who are at the forefront of a revolution in how music is created and consumed.
By employing the video-sharing website as their window to the world, tech-savvy Tsui and Schneider enjoy a massive and truly global fanbase. At the time of writing, Schneider’s personal YouTube channel has an astonishing 4.4 million subscribers, and his music videos have been viewed more than 900 million times. Those mind-boggling numbers rise by the day.
“We’re both big fans of ’80s music,” says 25-year-old Schneider (who was born on 7 September 1988, sharing his birthday with Video Killed the Radio Star, which was released on that same date in 1979). “Big, epic, huge melodies and stuff…keeping it big.”
Self taught as a musician and video maker, multi-talented Schneider composes, arranges, produces, edits, films, directs, sings, acts and plays multiple instruments. He and Tsui, also 25, began collaborating musically while they were in high school in a suburb of Philadelphia, and continued when they attended Yale University (from which Schneider graduated in mathematics, and Tsui majored in classical Greek).
“In college, we were both doing a lot of musical things, even though neither us majored in music. I was spending nights in the studio, often with this guy right here,” says Schneider, nodding towards Tsui, “and this thing YouTube was starting right around that time. We were looking at stuff other people were putting up there, so it was like, ‘You know what, let’s give YouTube a shot.’”
Tsui and Schneider’s tastes lie at the youthful end of the musical spectrum, and their DIY video projects, posted on YouTube, have seen Tsui reinterpreting tracks by artists such as Britney Spears, Taylor Swift, Justin Timberlake and Bruno Mars. One of the duo’s first YouTube outings to gain widespread attention featured Tsui performing a medley of Michael Jackson songs, and soon they were attracting fans from New York to Hong Kong.
“When we first started, YouTube was a relatively new platform and the idea of creating a brand, in creating a following, on YouTube really didn't exist,” Tsui says. “So we have grown and learned the platform as it has grown.”
Though the pair also now record their own compositions, Tsui says cover versions are increasingly relevant in the digital era; the days when a singer recorded a track, and that recording was the definitive – sometimes only – version of that track, are history. What’s more, mainstream artists actively check out who is reworking their material online.
“They are definitely aware and will respond to what we're doing, and validate it,” says Tsui. In 2011, for instance, a video of Tsui covering Spears’ track Hold It Against Me was highlighted on her official website. “We have had retweets and reposts from the original artists. I did a cover of Talk Dirty by Jason Derulo and he retweeted it, and that gets our fans excited. It’s a cool part of the whole process.”
Schneider is delighted to report that Pharrell Williams (the prolific pop-polymath behind 2013 joyful mega-hit Happy) once tweeted about their rendition of Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines. “It's just the merging of the two worlds because the digital space is really becoming the music space in general,” Schneider says. “Everyone in traditional media is trying to get on the digital space with us.”
The digital arena, Tsui insists, offers huge benefits for fledgling artists. “It allows talent – young talent especially – to shine through and find an audience without the middlemen and gatekeepers that used to be needed for any kind of exposure,” he argues.
Schneider says that to exploit digital media, young artists must master new skills. “When you're starting out on YouTube, you do have to be a jack of all trades,” he says. “You have to be your own video guy, and you have to know the technical side, whether it's editing or cinematography, audio production, mixing, mastering, promotion…you have to learn all those things because when you're starting out, and you're just you a nobody online, no one's gonna help you.”
The pair, whose most recent release is a three-track EP called Wildfire, also benefited from the rapid reduction in technology costs in recent years, and Schneider says a passable YouTube video can now be made by anyone with an affordable DSLR camera, mass-market software and a laptop. Education is the key. “It’s really about knowledge and know-how,” he says, “…much more so than the actual equipment, because the price barrier for what you need to produce professional stuff has lowered so much.”
Tsui adds, rather neatly, that YouTube has become a one-stop-shop source for gaining the skills required to become an international star in the digital age. “If you wanna know how to record audio, how to mix vocals, all that stuff,” he says, “there are so many tutorials and so many resources online that are available to virtually anyone. If you really wanna learn, and put the time in to learn, it’s all out there.”