The Piano Guys are about to hit a very high note — 500 million views on YouTube.
So how did four dads from Utah collect over 3.3 million subscribers and debut their fourth studio album, Wonders, at the twelfth spot on the Billboard Top 200 earlier this month — their highest debut and biggest opening sales week to date? With a little help from Batman, One Direction and Swedish House Mafia.
“If a song really grabs our attention or moves us for whatever reason, a classical melody will weave its way in pretty organically,” piano maestro Jon Schmidt tells The Hollywood Reporter of mashing classical tracks with pop songs just as they hit the height of the cultural zeitgeist. “And we have 16 kids between us — we’re Mormon dads, that’s what we do, we collect children! — so sometimes they’ll come to us with an idea.” Sometimes they’re inspired by a potential music video location or a commissioned project (as was the case for “Pictures at an Exhibition”). “The only consistency is inconsistency in our process, as long as it’s spontaneous, organic and enjoyable.”
Once a cover song is selected, the group takes approximately two to three to weeks to write Schmidt’s piano pages and fully layer with Steven Sharp Nelson’s twenty string instruments. Of their latest twelve-track release, the trickiest one to perform is a blend of Dave Matthews Band’s 1992 hit “Ants Marching” with Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” (which they ambitiously performed live on Today) and the most difficult arrangement was “Let It Go,” which juxtaposes the Idina Menzel song from Frozen with Antonio Vivaldi “Winter” sequence from “The Four Seasons” and has 25 million views to date.
“It was a really tough task because one is intensely minor, and the other is more like energetic major, and one connotes like an intense blizzard and another is an emancipation,” explains Nelson. “It was seriously schizophrenic, and you can hear that too, but then it was so cool because it was like her conflict. So the music ended up telling the story so well, but it was tough to get it that point.”
Unlike other viral online acts who hope to break out of the cover-flooded trenches of YouTube, The Piano Guys agree that they’re fine with their original tracks being inherently harder for fans to discover. “There’s a little stigma attached to ‘cover bands’ — it almost feels like you’re inferior in a way, so artists reach for original tunes as if it’s a golden goose in a way, or maybe it’s more like street credibility or validation,” says Nelson. “But we’re not afraid of that because when we take a cover tune, we’ve recreated it so much anyway, it becomes so original and so much fun for us that I would always want to keep doing them.” Still, their most popular originals, such as “All of Me” and “Michael Meets Mozart,” have garnered 14 million and 17 million views, respectively.
Schmidt compared their composition strategy to cooking: “You’ve got all the ingredients that you love and go to as a chef, and you create from those something new. I think our palate is really wide in the ingredients that we have in front of us — pop, classical, hip hop, any music,” he echoes. “Anything we’ve ever been exposed to, we’re gonna grab it. We never hesitate to mix that with that, we don’t care. We just throw it all in, especially the classical — I think people are afraid to use that ingredient, and we’re just like, ‘Why? It’s the most delicious thing to use!'”
Along with Paul Anderson and Al van der Beek, the group has upped the ante on their highly-produced music videos for Wonders, as they intend to film music videos at the Wonders of the World. “Putting a grand piano on the Great Wall of China or in Iguazu Falls, on a moving train or on a thousand-foot cliff with a helicopter, getting all the Batmobiles together for a video — I feel like I never get a chance to do the best I can because we’re always trying something new on the spot!” jokes Anderson. So what does it take to become a YouTube breakthrough? Says Nelson, “Do something unique. Be yourself, be authentic. Once you find what your authentic core is, you just have gotta have content quality and consistency.”