This Forever Employable Story was a ton of fun to record. Peter Hollens has a huge following online that he’s cultivated over years of practice, trial and error and continuous improvement. His YouTube presence alone counts over 2.5 million (yes, million) subscribers. His talents speak for themselves but his entrepreneurial spirit has turned his singing skills into an adjacent set of opportunities that have turned into a highly successful business.
As you watch and listen to Peter share his story, notice how he continuously reinvents himself, tests new ideas, doubles down on the ones that resonate with his audience and, as tough as it is, lets the less successful ideas go. One thing that really struck me was how willing Peter was to share his learnings and how he’s using that generosity to teach others to do the same. It’s one thing to be successful on your own but when you open up your “trade secrets” and let others learn from you, everyone wins.
JEFF: Folks, super thrilled to be back here for yet another Forever Employable Story; the 9th in my accidental podcast. I never meant to start a podcast but here’s where we ended up. I’m super thrilled to be here with Peter Hollens, who doesn’t like to have a lot of titles but he’s got a lot of titles. YouTuber, musician, entrepreneur, founder of an educational company. Give us a summary about yourself and your career.
PETER: I was forced into choir in high school. Started singing even though I thought singing was not for males. My mom was correct. She was right. It was a good decision. I ended up going to the University of Oregon on a full scholarship to become a chorale director since my chorale director in high school changed my life. Ended up just getting my voice performance degree as an opera singer which doesn’t lend itself to making a living. My parents were freaked out. However, I fell in love with the recording studio during my college years; recording some acapella CD’s with my acapella group I started. I took all the money I had saved for my masters in teaching and I purchased my own home recording equipment. I started traveling around the nation recording acapella groups from Georgia up to Yale. I fell in love with being in a studio and male vocal harmony. Eventually, I found myself, after being married to the love of my life, on Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines traveling around the world for 4 or 5 years doing Broadway. When we got back from that, I started recording myself and I turned the mic on myself. I stopped recording other groups. I found myself on a reality TV show called The Sing-Off which is basically American Idol for dorky acapella guys. Even though I had 4 or 5 solos on national television, that did absolutely nothing for me as a career but it did provide the impetus to turn the mic on myself. I started recording my own music and just like I taught myself recording engineering, I taught myself video editing, and I started uploading videos to a little website called YouTube. About 15-16 months later, I was making a substantial income so that I could stop recording other groups entirely and just started focusing on releasing content on my channel on YouTube and started becoming more consistent and building a foundation for this digital media company that I’m running. Now to this day, 9 ½ years later, I have about a billion views across all my social media and 7-8 million followers, 10 full-time W-2’d employees, 30-40 subcontractors, and a small education company. I believe so much in teaching all the things that I’ve learned to my fellow peers so that they can do what they love for a living. I get to make music for a living and now I’m here talking to you, sir.
JEFF: That’s amazing. I aspired to be a musician briefly for about a decade and failed trying really hard. Why acapella?
PETER: The first time I listened to acapella music, I was an 8th grader and it was a cassette tape from a collegiate group from BYU, a men’s group called Vocal Point. Something struck a chord with me; no pun intended. It moved me to no end. I was drawn to it. I’ve had this little compass inside myself that I’ve always followed with this really long-term, this is where I’m heading in life. When I went to the University of Oregon and there was no acapella group, I started the acapella group that I wanted to join and I founded it myself. It was everything that I needed. I don’t think I would have actually graduated college if I wouldn’t have had those group of guys and that music to get me through all this classical mumbo jump. School of music’s in most colleges do not prepare you to A) succeed financially or B) in my opinion, give you the emotion back that you give to it. You can’t practice for three months to do an opera and have one performance and feel vindicated; at least not as an 18, 19, 20 year old who needs feedback from your peers so desperately. It was everything that was me. That male vocal harmony moves me emotionally so much.
I’ve done a lot of live performing. My wife and I were even on Broadway for two months, but I love the studio. I’m a studio rat. I love perfecting the music. You can take as many takes as you want and then you put them all together and you’re like, “Look mom, I can sing good.”
JEFF: You created the group you wanted at school. One of the things I talk about in the book Forever Employable is if you can’t find the community you’re looking for or for some reason you can’t join the community that you’re looking for, then create it. Make it yourself. Talk about how you did that.
PETER: Of course, it’s work no matter what but I was in choirs. It was a very organic conversation in regards to, “Have you guys heard of this thing? Listen to this music right here. Isn’t that awesome? Shouldn’t we do that? It would be so great.” I found one other person who had that passion and so by the end of my freshman year, I found that other person and me and my friend, Leonardo DeSilva, both just went on a torrent and put thousands of posters everywhere. We’re like, “We’re having acapella auditions for this acapella group. It really exists. You should try it.” There was no acapella group until they auditioned for it. Yeah, we created it. I feel that’s a very common theme in my life. I didn’t know how to record anything and then I bought all the equipment and taught myself. I didn’t know how to do video editing and then I taught myself. You can’t wait for it. You just got to do it. If you see it, you can copy it. If you just reverse engineer everything.
JEFF: I love that you put up these flyers, “This thing exists. Come join it” but it wasn’t there.
PETER: Oh no, it was not there.
JEFF: That’s the test of things. We talk a lot in the world that I come from about running experiments and tests. One of the things that we do is like, “Hey, this thing exists. Don’t you want to join it?” If you get enough people to say, “Yeah, I want to join it,” then you create the thing. It gives off this sense that I’m part of this amazing creation. There’s some qualities I talk about in the book that absolutely relate to the story you shared. The emphasis I want to focus on is entrepreneurialism. You clearly have the entrepreneurial spirit. Self-confidence, I’m going to ask you about first. One of the things I find with the folks that I’ve been talking to a lot, especially since the book has been out, is I say, “You’ve got a story. You’ve got expertise. You’ve got talent. You’ve got experience. Get out there and tell your story.” They say things like, “I can never get in front of people. I can never share that. I can never write that.” How have you found your self-confidence? Do you have a story that either drove that or developed it?
PETER: I had such an incredibly rough time growing up in terms of not having any self-confidence and being so sensitive that everyone would pick on me including the teachers until I found choir and music. It was like a three sport letter. I wasn’t like amazing but that never gave me the self-confidence until I found the thing and the passion that was able to make me feel I had self-worth. Finding my voice let me really find my voice. Without that, I wouldn’t have self-confidence. I didn’t have it growing up in a small town once you’re labeled that outcast. It’s pretty much impossible to grow out of it. When I was able to leave my small town in southern Oregon, I did gain self-confidence to some extent. I had self-confidence when I was in that choir room. Outside of that safety place and maybe my own house, I felt very much the opposite. I found my self-worth through my voice, through my singing, and through the confidence that I got from performing. I was petrified early on. It was all about experience of doing it, getting over it, and coming into my own. I couldn’t give you this one specific moment happened and then it was like a decade of learning and eventually getting to the point where I was like I’m a good person. I have good intentions. I have self-worth and I really just don’t care what you think about me because I believe in myself. That took so long from somebody who was just picked on to no end when I was younger.
JEFF: One of the things that I was hearing was this continuous reinvention. I was going into opera but then it became acapella and I graduated with a performance degree but then I started recording and then recording other people. Why this continuous reinvention?
PETER: First and foremost, once you go to college and you spend all that money and you end up getting a degree which in my opinion, is most degrees, that don’t necessarily lead to longevity in terms of supporting yourself or a family, you have to reinvent yourself in perpetuity no matter what. However, especially in my opinion, in this day in age, we all have to reinvent ourselves. I recommend to my students to do so paying attention to technology and the tools and platforms that provide the infrastructure for you to innovate. I had to innovate and continue to innovate nonstop because if I don’t, then I’m no longer relevant both in terms of fan acquisition, but also in terms of passion for actually creating the art itself whether or not that means I’m orchestrating different, working on different genres of music using different technology to create the music, to streamline my processes, to take myself out of my production funnel so I can create more of it, higher quality, more quantity. I think that it will be the only way to not only be successful moving forward in 2020 and beyond, especially within the confines of a pandemic, but also given the world global state, I think we all have to think that nothing is consistent anymore. We have to be able to really be open to all of the options out there and copy people and processes that you see others doing that look successful and utilizing reverse engineering to do so and not being afraid, especially as a musician and a creator, to copy. No matter what, it will be unique because you are unique. I feel it is the biggest way to flatter somebody is by copying what they do. I feel, as a musician, oh my gosh, you can’t copy them. But I mean, come on. You look back at Bach and Mozart and Beethoven, they all copied each other. That’s why humans, in general, are successful because we learn from each other and we copy and we copy and we recreate and reinvent ourselves.
JEFF: You said you continued to reinvent yourself partially for fan acquisition. Can you expand on that a little more?
PETER: I make two different types of content. You’d look at them without thinking and be like, “Well, that’s a music video and that’s a music video.” One is much more tactical in terms of doing a piece of IP that already had a fandom or has a specific timetable that you have tons and tons and millions and tens of millions of people searching and looking at so that all these different algorithms and platforms are providing my content on the backs of other people’s content. In terms of creating and recreating and recombining art that already exists, one of my pieces of content that I create, vertical wise, are very specific in terms of I’m creating this just to find new fans and new people to find me, my brand, and my art. The other one is more like I’m creating this because I’m passionate about this music. It moves me. It provides, if you’re a gamer, it gives me manna back. Whereas, the other thing is like it’s my homework. It’s what I’m doing because I need to be able to reinvent myself constantly to help the retention rate that’s only at 95% and you are always slowly losing fans whether that’s because of other people’s monetary issues or their changing tastes or whatever. It’s quintessential for every single creator to have, in my opinion, an acquisition type of content where you’re like, “I’m doing this for the reason to gain an audience and a community.” The other one is like, “I’m doing this to fulfill myself so I can keep on making this thing.” That’s the way I look at it. Obviously, there’s a sliding scale and a percentage of both of those two things. Nothing is ever a perfect science and there’s always a gray area. For me, I’m like the last four things I did, three of them got a million views in a month; so, I feel confident in myself. I’m going to do this folk song that nobody has ever heard of and I’m doing it because I love it and like here we go. Shenandoah, you’re not looking for it, but I’m going to put it in front of you. I feel in a lot of ways, many people do that with their careers. They’re like, “Well, this isn’t the most popular thing but I love it; so, I’m going to do it.”
JEFF: This is fascinating. I don’t think a lot of people think about it that way. I think a lot of folks, who are trying to build a platform around themselves, they don’t divide or segment their content in that way. For them, it’s I’m just making this for acquisition, for acquisition, for acquisition. Coming from somebody who does that certainly, there is a level of burnout after a while.
PETER: Creator burnout is rough and it’s real. The treadmill never ends and it continues to increase.
JEFF: It’s not just creator burnout. At some point, like you said, you’ve got to do something that is also for you. It’s fascinating to hear you divide that. What’s the overlap between the folks you acquire who love your acquisition content and the folks who love your personal fulfilment content?
PETER: It’s platform dependent. It’s demographic dependent. There isn’t just a pure answer I can give you. I’ll give you some examples, however. If I would have started my career on YouTube creating folk albums and folk songs, my songs like The Parting Glass and Loch Lomond and Shenandoah wouldn’t have millions and millions of views. They’d have 100. I’d say on YouTube, given the demographic predominantly being between 18 and 44 years old, I have a hybrid class of around 25-29% that view pretty much everything regardless of what I create but it’s completely and totally dependent upon – because that same Loch Lomond and Shenandoah and Parting Glass, I released that on Facebook where I have 65 and up as my main demographic and that is the only thing they want. The opposite is true, whereas, if I were to release some type of pop song or medley of Disney songs, they don’t really care because that’s not what they like. Not only is it very important to know who your audience is on the platform and create the content specific for that platform but then give those people what they want.
JEFF: Why YouTube as a platform?
PETER: 2011, YouTube was the quintessential best place to build a community both in terms of their ability to allow us to push things offsite and also the way that their SEO worked. It was really easy to build there versus anywhere else, in my opinion, especially for music for me. I already had a few leaders in this space that were doing it and I was like, “Well, this looks like this makes sense.” I had no idea. I was just copying. Now I still think, to this day, even though YouTube is alphabet and they are very focused on their shareholders no matter what, they do provide value to their creators at large. I have found that, at least in the middlemen within YouTube, they really do care about their creators more so than any other acquisition companies, whether that’s Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram. It’s a lot easier to build a community on YouTube. I still believe that. They allow you to, at the end of your videos, push offsite, and that type of CTA or even call to engagement is quintessential to building your community. No matter where you build your first following, I really recommend all creators to create content and foster content on YouTube because of their track record and because of the value they provide back.
JEFF: Why start a company?
PETER: I accidentally started a company. I don’t even think it was on purpose. I think I just started creating processes that allowed me to be more and more consistent and to have higher and higher quality content and more quantity. The best way to do that wasn’t to hire a manager and give them 20% and it sure as heck wasn’t signing my major record deal that I thankfully got myself out of. It was hiring employees and putting time equity into teaching them what I do, how I do it, and teaching them my voice for community management or for audio editing or audio mixing. It was the only way to do it. I don’t think there is a better way to do it. You have to own your IP. You have to own your creative process. Like the old style of content creation where you say, “Please, sir, let my music or my podcast be heard,” that doesn’t exist anymore. That’s now how you do it. You don’t go sign an exclusive contract with anyone. You build it yourself. If you don’t, you’re making a huge mistake. I don’t care who you are. I know so many people in the music industry who have signed record deals. No one is happy with their label deal. No one. Even people that have won Grammy’s, they’re like, “Yeah, it’s okay.” I’m like, “But you’ve won Grammy’s. You’re like number one on Billboard.” “Yeah, but it’s just…” I’m like, “Okay, well, if you think that, then you should be screaming that at the rooftops.”
JEFF: The company that you built helps you scale you. Is that correct?
PETER: Yeah, and truthfully, almost 10 years later, I’m trying to take me out of it. You can’t do that forever. Plus, you look me up on the internet and it’s just me and my face and that’s out of need because I have to show multiplicity so people go, “Oh, acapella. How does this work? Oh, I see it. I think.” I hate it. I don’t want it to be all about me. If I could, I wish I had a band. Some of the brands I’m creating, I have a secondary brand that’s called Legendary Vocals, and I’m able to share other people to millions of people and I can help them start making a living. I’ve been able to do that and that’s so much more worth it and that’s also the same type of overall ethos of why I want to build a bigger education company, get to more and more people, and have as many touch points as possible because it’s so important for them to learn that the way that we were subconsciously fed on only one way to create, “You have to have this big company or this big wig tell us that it’s good enough,” that’s no longer relevant. This is 2020. The internet exists. We have free marketing almost worldwide.
JEFF: Surviving COVID; not the disease but the impact of the disease – how is what you’re doing faring during the pandemic? How has it helped you get through it?
PETER: Building a company that relies so heavily upon residual revenue has been more of a good decision than I could have ever assumed going into it. We did have a significant loss of revenue in terms of some of the live stuff that we were doing which was still a byproduct of all the stuff that we create online. You put yourself out there and all the opportunities, like you said earlier, come back to you. We were just offered to be on Broadway. We didn’t audition. Those types of things happen when you create your online brand. Thankfully, we’ve been able to succeed and accelerate because a lot of people have been losing their jobs. We’ve been able to hire on remote workers and provide value to them and double down on things that have worked in the past that are very digitally focused. I’m a digital brand. I’m somebody that creates digital content. Thankfully, I get to still hide out in my house and make music.
JEFF: Thanks so much, Peter. Your story is amazing. Tons of takeaways and tons of stuff to learn. I appreciate you being candid about everything. Best of luck with everything.