Kurt Hugo Schneider has massed a huge YouTube following by being creative on a number of different levels. We caught up with the busy artist to find out how he got started and how he keeps it going.
Kurt Hugo Schneider
Video Views: 2,059,766,168
Channel Type: Entertainment
Created: Oct. 16, 2007
As a child of the ’80s or the ’90s, you’re drawn to a video called “Michael Jackson Medley” with over 34 million hits. It starts with a group of guys walking out on stage who — wait, that’s all the same guy! He/they sing, in incredible harmony, a song that fits together lines from practically every Michael Jackson hit. Amazingly, it works together perfectly and you wonder, “Who could have edited something like this?” If you’re in production, you think, “Who could have shot this so it fits together so seamlessly?” If you look to the left side of the screen, there’s one singer who is different from the rest of the bunch. He’s the producer and creator, Kurt Hugo Schneider.
We caught up with the YouTube creator, who has not just a single multi-million hit song, but currently has dozens and just keeps producing. He even has two productions that have crossed the 100 million hit line. Kurt is sometime called KHS and goes by many titles: “Some people call me a producer, filmmaker, YouTuber. None of those titles is incorrect. I usually say musician.”
Kurt grew up in Blue Bell, PA and is the son of Laurie and Michael Schneider. He says music has always been an influence in his life, “When I was really little my parents, took me and my sister to ballet a lot, which obviously has a lot of amazing musical themes. I guess we used to listen to classical music growing up.” He continues, “I grew up in a very musical household, my sister, she’s older than me, is a professional pianist. My parents were never into music as a profession, but both are very musical people and did music when they were younger. Honestly, for a little bit when I was growing up, I was the only person in my family who didn’t play a musical instrument.”
That environment paid off because, although he was never formally trained, Kurt can play almost every instrument. On his videos, you’ll often see him behind a piano or playing guitar, but, because he just thinks musically, he often will often use non-musical objects as instruments. “I just recorded a track the other day where I used a hoodie zipper and scissors as part of the percussion. I like to just find music in things that you wouldn’t think of as a musical instrument.” You can a great example of this on his video called “CUPS!!”, which has more than 43 million hits, or on his amazing “Pass It On,” in which Kurt sits at a picnic table with five other people and the music is made by hand clapping and passing around Coke bottles. Kurt’s a master at untraditional concepts.
Growing up in the suburban Pennsylvania town, he met Sam Tsui. Sam is the primary singer on the “MJ Medley” and on many of his tracks. “I’ve known Sam forever. We grew up ogether. We lived down the street from each other. We went to the same middle school, high school and college. He was the next stop on the bus route.” Kurt remembers with a laugh. “We rode good old bus 21 at our local public school. I got on one stop, the bus drove down the road, and Sam got on the next stop. That’s how I met Sam. And we’re still working together to this day.”
Music surrounded Kurt, but he says that in junior high and high school music was just an aside. “When I was little, I was a nerdy, geeky math guy. I don’t know how many people know that.” He became a chess master at 15 and went to Yale for mathematics. “I’ve read that math and music are related; I guess so, in some way. I’ve always loved math and I’ve always loved music. It just so happens that the music won out.”
It’s also very helpful to have a supportive family. Kurt tells us that his parents have always encouraged him, “You hear some horror stories about people with musical aspirations whose parents don’t support them on their journey. They want them to become a doctor or whatever. That’s never been the case with my parents. My parents have always been very supportive, have always been encouraging me to do what I love.”
Yale to YouTube
In college, Kurt began to discover other talents, like video production. At Yale, he found his outlet for his music on YouTube. “When I started uploading, there weren’t people who were making a living from YouTube.” At first he had no idea that his songs would gain millions of viewers.
“There were no people who had YouTube as a central pillar for their business. YouTube was just a destination for videos that you wanted to share with your friends.” Kurt tells us, “I was watching a bunch of stuff, and a lot of music stuff was just people just singing in their bedroom or living room. Some videos were quite good. I watched it and thought that there was a chance to deliver something that was a little bit more professional and that’s what I tried to do.”
Kurt wrote and played music while Sam would sing, but his stuff never really caught on until he decided to clone his friend. “I was going to do a duet with Sam and this girl, but the girl backed out at the last minute. Instead of finding another one, I said to Sam, ‘We could have you do both the guy and the girl part.’ It turned out great!” Kurt edited the video together so it seamlessly worked in harmony. He says that the video got 1000 views in the first day. “Back then, to us, it was really encouraging, and a lot more than we had expected.”
The wheels started turning, and Kurt developed other video ideas, like the “Michael Jackson Medley” uploaded in the Fall of 2009. There were immediate results, he says: “There started to be more people who were subscribing to our channel and there were more people who were following it. We kept uploading stuff. The numbers started to build up, and I think that it was then when I realized that there was a real opportunity here.”
He still wasn’t sure that YouTube could be the way for musicians to gain an audience. Most people thought of it as an outlet where an artist might get seen and discovered. “I think that for me, the lightbulb moment was when I thought YouTube itself could be just the outlet for us that we use to break into this industry.” So Kurt began to get even more creative. He did more cloning songs with Sam and other collaborations that included unique musical styles.
As the numbers went up, more opportunities came. For example, Kurt was asked to collaborate with Coca Cola in 2013 on a campaign called “The Sounds of Aahh”. In the videos, you’ll see Kurt and others, using Coke bottles as musical instruments.
But the most surprising thing for for him was being able to play music at live venues, on a month long tour of Asia, “I got to play some great shows, meet awesome fans. I’ve gotten to see the world. I never imaged that I’d be going, much less performing, in places like Thailand, Taiwan and India. Just tons of crazy places.”
Kurt tells us that his goal right after college was simply to see how far the music could go: “I figured that I would just take a year and just focus on YouTube and videos and see what happens. I’m still here doing it. I guess it worked out OK” He now makes a living through his work, and he loves what he’s doing. “I love that I get to wake up every day, and basically think of something new and creative to do, then go and do it.”
His current goal is to just keep on creating, “I’m producing like seven videos a month on YouTube, which is significantly more than I used to. A year ago, it was closer to a video a week. A couple years ago it was three videos a month. I’d love to keep on increasing the rate” But he says that it’s not just about numbers, “My motto has always been ‘quantity and quality’. You need both. You can’t sacrifice one.”
In order to get that quality, Kurt has had to get new and better equipment. “Back then, I was filming on little DV tape,” Kurt says of the “MJ Medley” days, “I didn’t even have a camera, I was borrowing stuff from our college.”
But eight years later, Kurt has moved to the West Coast and added to his creative toolset: “I use a bunch of different stuff,” he eplains, “My main camera is probably the [Blackmagic Design] Ursa Mini right now.”
He tells us that a lot of the audio work is done right at home. “I record people in my house. I have a dedicated recording space. I’ve got a little JVC mic that I record people on.” Kurt says that great audio is a key to what he does. “I used to primarily use Logic. Now, I’ve mostly switched over to a new program called Studio One.”
Post-production also happens at home. “I use Premiere Pro. I switched over from Final Cut three or four years ago, and I’ve never looked back.”
Because Kurt is all about innovation, he’s also been experimenting with new tools like spherical video. On the morning of our interview, he uploaded “Built To Love.” The production features Sam walking from the street to the stage singing while a troop of dancers performs all around him. Kurt tells us that they used a Jump rig with GoPros, but they had a challenge: “It’s very difficult to move the camera, because anyone moving it is obviously seen in the shot, as opposed to normal filming, where you can put the camera on a Stedicam rig or on a track or whatever.” So they devised a lower tech solution, “We had a little rover, it’s kind of like an RC car, holding this camera and moving around the space.” The rover was then masked out for the final edit.
Kurt tells us that this is just the beginning, “I love 360! I think it’s a really fun medium. I’m sure at some point we’ll be doing more 360 stuff, definitely.”
What kind of advice would Kurt have for aspiring musicians and YouTubers? “Keep at it. Do what you love!” But he would also throw in that, as he did, you have to find something that is unique in what you do. “There are so many talented musicians on YouTube. So many amazing singers. It’s so hard to get started. I think what’s really important is finding something that’s a little bit different.”
He uses his “Michael Jackson Medley” as an example. “We’d been uploading videos for a year. But the difference is that this video is — one, the arrangement is pretty cool. It’s a mash up of basically every Michael Jackson hit in three minutes. But on top of that, visually, it’s one guy cloned singing it with six or seven different parts. I think if I did that video with just Sam singing and me at a piano, it wouldn’t have been shared on the internet.” He says that you’ve got to find a way to stand out. That could mean using unique video tools or musical instruments like he does.
Kurt also is very much in tune with popular music. He wants to know what people are listening to: “I listen to a lot of pop music. Anything that is Top 40 on the charts, I want to listen to. On top of genuinely loving pop music, I also want to know what people are listening to, what’s popping up.” This is where he finds his inspiration.
Additionally, he tells us that collaboration is key, “Being primarily a producer, I’m always working with other artists and singers. Virtually every video I put up on YouTube is some sort of collaboration with some other artist.” And he says that he would love more collaboration from pop artists.
“Justin Timberlake, Bruno Mars, Taylor Swift, if you’re reading this then hit me up!”
So where is KHS going? Of course, you can always expect something unique and creative, but he’s looking forward to performing at more live events: “I’m headed to India again, and traveling all over Mumbai.” Plus, he tells us that he’s always making videos, even when he’s on the road. “I’ve made and shot videos in a lot of different parts. When I’m traveling I make videos with local musical artists and singers and performers and YouTubers in the area. So, I always find cool stuff.” You can expect to see videos with a more international flair.
As long as people keep watching, Kurt is going to keep creating. “This is like eight years later, and people are still watching. People are still commenting on stuff. I feel blessed. Hopefully, I’m here for another eight.”
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