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How Peter Hollens Went From A Cappella Nerd To Internet Stardom

You might not recognize his name, but chances are, you’ve heard Peter Hollens before. No—you didn’t hear him on the radio. And he wasn’t on that Tiny Desk Concert you’re thinking of. Hollens was the guy in the purple tie and leather jacket, singing Mr. Mister’s “Kyrie” in Season 2 of NBC’s The Sing Off. Surrounding him in a dynamic V-like formation were other collegiate-looking young men, sporting a mix of striped rugby shirts, crew-cut sweaters, and letterman jackets. Think J. Crew meets Friday Night Lights, with LSU’s garish colors—and the uncanniest sound you’ve ever heard coming from a bunch of dudes.

That was On The Rocks, the group Hollens founded at the University of Oregon, and that crazy sound, that unique mix of vocal chords that makes you wonder where the instruments are—that’s a cappella.

Back in 2010, when Hollens and his group made their TV debut, the hype around a cappella was still fairly new. The same could be said of Hollens’ career at that point: his college group had been successful, performing at The Lincoln Center and on The Today Show, but ever since, he had been recording other artists and singing wherever he could to get by, on cruise ships, in the chorus of regional Broadway shows, oftentimes performing multiple shows a day. By the time The Sing Off came along, Hollens was almost 30. As he looked around at the other vocalists on the show, all of whom were his age or younger and trying to make music for a living, Hollens realized that he was just as good. Plus, with the thousands of hours he’d put into production, there was a chance, he thought, he could be even better.

Hollens’ father was on his deathbed at the time and had always been pushing his talented son to record his own music. So, in that moment, after The Sing Off had come to a close, it was decided: “I really had no more excuses,” Hollens told me. “I finally turned the mic on myself and started releasing content on YouTube.”

The welcome video on the homepage of Peter’s YouTube channel.

Today, Hollens produces at least one new music video every other week for his 2 million YouTube subscribers, his 2 million Facebook followers, and hundreds of thousands of other fans on Instagram and Twitter. Since he started his YouTube channel in 2011, he’s released close to 200 singles online and these videos have accrued more than 1 Billion views. Hollens even made his Broadway debut in, Home for the Holidays alongside his wife and fellow YouTuber, Evynne Hollens. He has performed with David Archuleta, Jason Mraz, Brian Wilson, and Gladys Knight, among others. Most would say Hollens has reached internet stardom. He would probably just tell you he’s a “music nerd.”  

Because that’s where he started.

“I was that dorky kid who was always the butt of the joke,” Hollens remembers. His peers—even some of his teachers—would pick on him, trying to get a reaction out of the poor kid, but Hollens lacked the social skills to respond in any sort of meaningful way. The constant ridicule had a serious effect on him: “I was constantly depressed.”

But that wasn’t the only reason. Hollens’ home life wasn’t exactly easy. His father was diagnosed with brain cancer before Hollens was born. “He went in for his first surgery and just came out a completely different person,” Hollens told me. Medicine wasn’t as advanced back then and to remove the tumors, his father lost significant chunks of his brain. “He had memory loss; he was blind; he suddenly had a temper,” Hollens says. “It was tough.”

The few friendships that Hollens did have growing up didn’t last very long. Hollens “strangled” any relationships he did have, smothering friends until they couldn’t bear to stick around longer.

“There was nothing in my life that was really bringing me confidence,” Hollens explained. That was until his mother signed him up for choir freshman year. “When I found music, my entire life changed. All of the sudden I had something to wake up for.”

Music gave Hollens the acceptance he was looking for—“and the feeling that I belonged for the first time in my life,” he says. “Music gave me solace and a light. It’s basically my everything.”

Hollens learned early on that he was pretty good at singing. The lack of competition for guys in choir—the ratio was 8:1—may have also helped. “When I wanted solos, I would get solos. When I wanted to be in the best choir, I got in the best choir,” Hollens said. Eventually, his talent and hard work got him a full scholarship to the University of Oregon, where he majored in voice performance, met his future wife—and started On The Rocks.

“A cappella back then, in the early 2000s, wasn't a cool thing at all,” Hollens tells me. “I was the big fish in the smallest of tiny little ponds. It wasn't even a pond, it was a puddle of water on the floor.” Still, it was what he loved and therefore his entire college experience. On The Rocks traveled for international competitions and performed for audiences around the country. Hollens started recording CDs for the group to sell on these trips, and when other groups around the nation heard, they employed him to make CDs for them too. Eventually, Hollens was recording for a cappella groups around the nation. “The only thing I could figure out that wouldn't kill my will to live was recording music,” Hollens said. After college, Hollens had no idea that he could make a living as a solo artist. “That wasn't something anyone had ever heard of when I graduated in '05.”

Little did he know, he’d be one of the biggest names in a cappella in a matter of years.

The beauty of Hollens’ music is that it’s entirely self-produced. “Everything you’re about to hear is made by the human voice and mouth,” he often starts his singles. That’s a difficult job, to begin with, considering he’s mimicking the sounds of multiple instruments. Yet, somehow, Hollens manages to produce covers that are both clever and inspiring—and often garner much more internet attention than the original song itself. Some of his most successful singles include “Skyrim” which got 74 million views, “Mary Did You Know,” 53 million, and “Amazing Grace,” 42 million.

Peter Hollens & Lindsey Sterling’s video for Skyrim, which has over 74 million views.

Every single piece of Hollens’ music is also video content. In his words, “content is king, distribution is queen and those two must be married. Otherwise, you don’t actually have a product.” Hollens doesn’t believe in albums either—to make music travel on the internet, he says, “it needs to be a single” and he needs to be at the center of it.  

Hollens makes his sound unique by weaving multiple tracks of his own together—sometimes as many as 180—giving the effect of a much larger ensemble. Layering his voice in different tones and pitches allows him to harmonize the song, transforming his solo voice into that of a full-fledged a cappella band. Hollens layers the videos of himself performing these different tracks, too, putting each of the many aspects of the song on display—and giving an intimate window into Hollens’ exhaustive production process. It has a startling effect—generating headlines like “He Sings Alone in An Empty Church—But Who Joins Him Left Me Completely Awestruck.” Yet audiences love it: “My mom actually thought you were being joined by identical siblings and singing together…LOL,” said one Facebook fan. “I had to explain that it was just you and only you.”

All of this extensive production work—from video editing to audio production—Hollens taught himself. “I found one individual who was doing similar content and I literally copied him verbatim,” Hollens told me. “I wasn't making any money at all in the beginning, and I sure as heck wasn't getting very many people to watch it, but I was sticking with it.” After about 18 months, Hollens was approached by another YouTube singer named Savannah Outen, who wanted to collaborate on a song together. “We did a Maroon 5 Moves Like Jagger cover, and I just acted like the complete doofus that I really am instead of acting like something I wasn't,” Hollens explained. “In the beginning, I was trying to be what I thought people wanted me to be,” Hollens told me. “But I'm really just a freaking dork, so I was like, screw it, I'm going to just have fun.”

Peter Hollens & Savannah Outen cover Moves Like Jagger, one of Peter’s first viral video hits on YouTube

The Moves Like Jaggervideo quickly amassed a million views and garnered the attention of another YouTube singer, Lindsey Stirling, to whom Hollens owes much of his success. When she asked to collaborate, Hollens proposed the theme song for Skyrim, a popular, action role-playing video game. Little did he know, that video would change his life. It went viral within a few hours and now, years later, has been watched 74 million times—and counting.

Skyrim’s overwhelming success compelled Hollens to give up everything else he was doing. This was his turning point. Instead of seeing fellow artists as competitors, Lindsey taught Hollens to look at them as peers—a radical shift in his thought process. This new outlook completely changed Hollens’ game. He started collaborating more and more with the artists he once viewed as nemeses. With each collaboration, he garnered more listeners.

He also started to realized how crucial his authenticity was to his audience: “They like me for who I am as a person so I keep on being as real and genuine as possible.” Which meant dressing up like characters from Disney movies or Star Warsor Game of Thrones and letting himself be the goofball Hollens truly is. As he gathered momentum, Hollens brought on mixing engineers and audio editors to make his product even better. “I started being an executive producer of my own craft instead of an artist who needed to have creative control over everything,” he said.

Hollens has perfected his product to the point that he now easily garners a million plus views per Facebook or YouTube video—most attract even more. The key to his digital success? The ceaseless attention he gives to his digital community, his Hollensfamily.

When fans write comments like, “Peter's vocal cords were divinely blessed by a benevolent all-god and nobody can convince me otherwise!” Hollens makes a point to respond with a like or emoji. “I do everything I possibly can to show how much I care about them,” Hollens says. Whether that means crowdsourcing ideas for new songs—The Greatest Showmanand Moana covers for example—or just being super transparent about the decisions he makes—like which songs to put on his Christmas and Folk album—Hollens builds his audience into every song and video he creates. “You gain so much by just listening to the people who love what you do,” he says. “They are my HollensFamily.”

Hollens’ biggest regret was letting a record company come between him and that family. A few years ago, when Hollens was offered a huge deal, he thought, “How can a 35-year-old turn down this much money?” But he quickly learned that ANY exclusive deal was a mistake. “Someone who has no idea what being a digital musician means should never tell somebody with a digital entrepreneur mindset how to run their digital business,” Hollens explained. When Hollens presented the record label with his digital strategy, they had nothing to add. “It never felt right,” Hollens told me. Even though everyone around him was telling him to do it, Hollens said his “gut was always telling me it was the wrong decision.” He eventually cut ties with the label and went back to going it on his own, where he was much more successful anyway.  

Someone who has no idea what being a digital musician means should never tell somebody with a digital entrepreneur mindset how to run their digital business.

His crutch since then—the way he’s been able to make a six-figure salary off his craft—has not been YouTube or Facebook, where he’s published his viral videos, but Patreon.

“Patreon is the number one company that is truly supporting the creator revolution,” Hollens says. “It is the most consistent—if not the best—source of revenue for me and it has been for at least two years now. It’s also the reason I feel confident in hiring full-time employees and contractors —because of my patrons, I know I will have a salary for them.”

Patreon is the reason I feel confident in hiring full-time employees and contractors —because of my patrons, I know I will have a salary for them.

Patreon works for Hollens because it gives him an opportunity to connect on a deeper level with his core audience: “the evangelists, the people who truly care the most and are willing to support the art.” Every time he releases a video, which is often twice a month, his 4,200 patrons give him more than $14,000. The platform has easily become his number one generator of income in the four-plus years since he joined.

But Hollens doesn’t just use Patreon to make money—“it allows me a chance to reciprocate the love that those people give me in a much better way,” he says. He makes personally signed gifts like t-shirts, pins, and stickers for his patrons, gives them karaoke versions of songs, personal video messages, access to online hangouts, and other exclusive rewards that give his biggest fans a unique look into his process. “And Patreon is why I can actually make money doing what I love,” Hollens told me. “The people who I’ve been able to touch the most want to give back to me. If it weren’t for them, I wouldn’t be able to continue doing this. I am in debt to them for life, and I truly will never forget what they’ve done for me.”

Hollens likes to say that Patreon saved his life. “I was able to re-establish my independence after the biggest failure of my entire life—signing that record deal,” he told me. “Having a newborn baby and making your biggest business mistake simultaneously almost killed me‚ and Patreon was the ONLY safety net.”  

Hollens isn’t trying to be Taylor Swift or Ed Sheeran. He’s just trying to be happy and provide shelter for his family and food on the table. To him, that’s being successful. And Patreon—by way of his HollensFamily—is what makes it all happen: “I know my team and I are going to do amazing things in this world and it’s because of Patreon and the people who support me there.”

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