With the daily proliferation of channels in the YouTube universe, it’s more important than ever to find an angle to separate your channel from the flotsam and jetsam out there that exist through sheer numbers alone.
Online video director Tom Grey thinks he’s found his answer: He and Russian pianist, arranger and composer Sonya Belousova have created Player Piano, a YouTube channel devoted to the re-imagining of videogame, TV and film scores.
So far it’s been a success, with The Zelda Project, based on the popular videogame, gaining them more than 1.3 millon views, and Nintendo Themes Arranged On The Spot earning the duo another half-million views.
When Player Piano first formed as a project in 2013 (its YouTube channel was only launched three months ago), Grey was already somewhat of an expert in the field, running Marvel Comics legend Stan Lee’s Almost Heroes YouTube channel. He had created a YouTube show called Cosplay Piano, which included piano arrangements of the aforementioned scores, and later met Belousova.
“Around July of last year (2014), we decided to form our own channel, Player Piano,” Grey recently told StreamDaily. “We wanted to do our own thing, independently.”
The duo started an IndieGogo crowdfunding campaign to raise $60,000 to finance five videos that will be uploaded and finished throughout 2015. They ended up raising $71,255. Although higher goals of $100,000 to finance 10 videos and $500,000 to support live tour dates weren’t met, the Player Piano team isn’t abandoning its mandate for expansion into other forms of entertainment, namely albums and live concert tours.
Grey and Belousova, who recently bowed a reworked Doctor Who theme video (see below) that has registered more than 450,000 views so far and features Belousova donning the garb of 12 of the 13 doctors while performing on a grand piano, recently answered a few questions for StreamDaily.
How do you sustain this model?
Grey: There are a couple ways. We’re doing music videos usually created from pre-existing properties. A lot of those properties are film and TV video games, TV themes. We’re releasing content on YouTube, therefore we’re getting the YouTube ad revenue based off of that. There are other content distribution channels that we are looking into as well, in addition to YouTube, that in some ways have a higher payout. YouTube worked very well in the beginning because it’s a way to generate a fan base.
Beyond that, we monetize the fan base: We sell the music and downloads on iTunes and Loudr; we sell the sheet music — we just made a deal with MusicNotes.com. We also do live performances and as we build up, we’re going to start doing a lot more live performances.
The other way is sponsorship: Obviously, with the nature of what our concept is, it’s a very natural integration for brands. It’s not like we have to shoehorn anything in to sell a brand. So if you have an upcoming videogame, we can make an episode around that. We’ll make a really cool video and have the music without it seeming like, ‘Hey, buy this game!’ We’ll celebrate music from this game. Whether we’re being sponsored or not, it reads like a sponsorship.
But every new video we do reaches a new fan base.
What makes Player Piano unique?
Belousova: When I approach any project, the whole idea is that it’s not a note-by-note transcription of the piece. It’s more like taking a piece and transforming it into the way that I feel about it. The Doctor Who theme has lasted 50 years, so it was very interesting and challenging musically to create something that hasn’t been there before.
Grey: The Doctor Who theme has been around since 1964 – it was performed on theremin and a very spacey sort of theme, and that has gone through a number of iterations since then, but it always ends with the same underlying theme. It builds upon it as different doctors come and go.
Do you need to clear publishing and music rights for your videos?
Grey: For Doctor Who, we contacted Warner-Chappell Music. Obviously we reach out to the rights holders – whether it’s legal rights or music rights – and we make sure we cross our Ts and dot our Is. The music rights – we get, generally speaking – through a publisher, the sync rights and we do a revenue share with the underlying music publisher, and that’s how that works. The other stuff is marketing. But it’s the music rights that’s the complicated one to deal with.
Can you sustain a living?
Grey: It’s a big risk. I worked with Stan Lee channels back in the Google content initiative days when Google funded a bunch of channels, so I got to see how that business model works. Obviously they were funded by Google. They didn’t have the pressures. But when I was there, I was looking around, meeting a lot of YouTubers and seeing how their models worked, how to build and sustain it. So, when we talked about doing it independently, it was, “Okay, how do we monetize this? YouTube can’t be the only way to monetize this.”
We did a crowdfunding campaign because we had a certain amount and we had to generate an additional amount. The whole point of that was to help us fund content for awhile until things start to level off. The beginning of any business is that you’re working with a lot of debt, and then as you build that business, eventually that levels out. We ran a very successful crowdfunding campaign so it leveled out very quickly for us.
What does the future hold for Player Piano?
Grey: Sonya is a composer. I’m a filmmaker. We’re heading towards doing more film and TV projects. We plan to record an album of Nintendo themes and performing at San Diego ComicCon.
Sonya, my understanding is that you did two or three takes under the guise of each doctor?
Belousova: Yeah, by the end of the day my fingers were hurting.
Grey: She broke seven keys on the piano.