Kurt Hugo Schneider composes, arranges, produces, edits, films, directs, sings, acts, plays multiple instruments, introduced Sam Tsui to the world, appeared on “Oprah,” has a math degree from Yale and kicks ass at chess. Oh, and he made a video where he plays Justin Bieber’s “Baby” on the recorder. He also has superhuman healing power, retractable adamantium claws and is sometimes referred to as “Weapon X.” In short, Kurt Hugo Schneider is either just really, really talented or he is really, really, really talented. Take your pick. Either way, we’re all lucky he’s a good guy because he clearly has the ability to take over the world but decided instead to sit down with NMR to talk about his YouTube channel (which has over 424 million views), music, upcoming projects and how he beat the crap out of Magneto that one time.
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At what point in your life did you say, “This is my career. I’m a musician,” because I know you got started a little bit late as far as piano and guitar.
Kurt Hugo Schneider: Yeah, honestly I didn’t know exactly — I knew I wanted to do music certainly in college towards the end of high school, but as far as like knowing that this is what I was going to do for my career, probably the last year of college. That’s when the YouTube thing started taking off for me, and before then, I mean, I got my major in math, so I wasn’t sure if I was going to be a mathematician or go into something with that, but the Youtube thing started taking off my senior year, so I was like let’s do it, let’s go for it.
And so if you hadn’t of gotten into being an entertainer on YouTube, do you think you would have had a career in mathematics since that was what your degree was in?
No, because I didn’t really love that, so I think at some point, I think I would have done what I loved to do. But it certainly made it easier that before I got out of school I was already making a little bit of money online, so it made the job of deciding very simple.
So is there a relationship between math and music?
Yeah, there is, but it’s one of those things where, often, people who are good at one are good at the other, but they don’t really have any overlapping skills per se, like exactly. There’s no knowledge of mathematics that helps in sort of music, but they both sort of use the same sort of spatial reasoning and visualization skills, so there is like a lot of stuff that’s in common, but they seem to go hand in hand somehow, I don’t know.
When you first started your YouTube channel, what was your vision for it?
My vision was putting up stuff that I thought was good, that I liked, so it didn’t really go much further than that at first. I always wanted to do music, and I was interested in filmmaking — I still am, of course — but I mean, one of the first things I put up was this series called “College Musical,” and that was kind of one of the first things that got any traction online. But basically, I just wanted to put up stuff that I liked and that I thought was good.
So it started off really simply. When you started, you didn’t have this mindset of it being your route to becoming a musician, a producer, a filmmaker?
On some level that was like a dream in the back of my head, but I mean, I think if you’re starting on YouTube you have to do stuff you love, because it took us a year. In the first year that I was doing videos on YouTube, I got maybe 3,000 followers, which at the time I was like, “Oh my god, 3,000 people are subscribed to me! This is like incredible!” That’s like a drop in the pond in the grand scheme of things, but you can’t go in simply because you want to be big, because it’s got to be a lot of work and a lot of loving work that goes into it before that happens.
How often do you get recognized when you go out on the street — do you get mobbed by fans? Is there a difference between internet famous and famous famous?
There is, yeah. I don’t really get mobbed by fans. Also, I keep a pretty low profile, and I huddle up in my cave of a room for a lot of time. But when I go out with the singers I work with, they get recognized a lot more, and I think that’s inherently due to the nature of my channel where I started my channel basically as a music producer and a guy who plays a bunch of instruments and writes music and shoots a lot of stuff from behind the camera. And in most of my videos, like I’m in them, but I’m featuring other people — I’m featuring Sam or Max or Victoria or Tyler, Alex Goot, whoever it is in the video. So when I go out with literally any one of those guys, they definitely get more recognized than me.
You appeal to a lot of people online, so for a lot of people you’re a heart throb. What is it like being a crush to complete strangers?
Awesome [Laughs]. I’ll take it.
People come up right to you and tell you they love you, right? Is that weird?
Well, usually they are like 12 years old, so it’s not really.
You started out with just an electric keyboard, GarageBand and outdated recording equipment years ago. Do you think if you were given now what you had then to start out with, that you could keep up your success?
Yeah, I mean, totally. I’m still working in my bedroom mostly, like I have a good vocal mic, good vocal chain and a nice keyboard and then just stuff on my computer. I mean, all my instruments, of course, but pretty much anyone, you can make stuff that sounds pretty good on Garage Band. You can go get Final Cut and get a DSLR which nowadays is very realistic for an average person to have that stuff, where like 10 years ago, it wasn’t really. But nowadays, you can get a DSLR, Final Cut and have a video that looks awesome, like looks great. So it’s definitely very attainable for the average person to produce great stuff now, which is why there is good stuff on YouTube. You don’t need to be paying a ton of money an hour for a studio and thousands and thousands for every single time you want to shoot anything.
As a music producer, what exactly goes into that for you?
I use Logic, which is a production software. It’s kind of like Final Cut is to video as Logic is to audio almost, and obviously there is a lot of technical know-how, but most of it is more — to get something to sound good, most of it is knowledge and skill rather than experiment. So if you have pretty minimal equipment, but you have a good set of ears, and you know what you want, and you’re a good musician and producer, you can get something to sound good. So, just like you can get something to sound bad with great equipment, it’s very easy to make things sound bad.
The music you’ve produced so far, the people you’ve worked with, it’s produced kind of this sound, a “Glee” type of sound. Why do think that sound has had a resurgence in the last couple of years?
I mean, obviously traditional media has shows like “Glee” that have sort of helped bring that sound out, but I mean, really for me when I’m producing music, it’s about a great arrangement and about a great vocal performance. And so, you know, a lot of stuff I did early on I did with Sam, along with other people, but a lot of stuff I did with Sam. Sam naturally has a very theatrical voice, so I think his voice sort of lends itself to that type of sound. I mean, one of the first big videos that we did was the Michael Jackson medley, and it was an acapella arrangement that I wrote for it, and Sam performed it. And simply the fact that it was a vocal arrangement — it was acapella — like just sort of the very vocal drivenness of obviously that video, but a lot of other videos sort of has that theatrical sound to it, you know, inherently.
In regard to that Michael Jackson medley, you’ve said before that you probably wouldn’t have done that if he hadn’t of died. So, in a way, it was opportunistic. Do you think that a large part of your success is also due to you being a really good strategist and marketer?
I mean, maybe. I think it’s a bunch of things. It’s a little bit of luck, it’s working with great performers, it’s making things sound what I think is good, but I think also something that’s a lot of times overlooked is — one thing that I think is so important for success on YouTube is making sure that things are visually appealing to people, because even for musicians, visuals are so important. If people just wanted to hear something, they would go on Spotify or they would turn on the radio or go to iTunes to their library and play something. People go on YouTube because they want to see it, so no matter whether you’re a musician or whatever you’re doing online, the visuals are trump, so you gotta focus on the visuals and find interesting ways of showing things. I think that’s a lot of the reason why the Michael Jackson medley did well. I think people like the arrangement and the audio, and Sam is of course awesome, and I love that guy, and obviously there is so much nostalgia because Michael Jackson died, but I think visually if it didn’t have the visual conceit of it being multiple Sams on screen the video wouldn’t have done nearly as well as it did.
And of course, you had a lot to do with that as a filmmaker. You do film production, music production, compose; you’re a jack of all trades. If you had to single out the one mastery you think helped catapult you most to your level of success, what would it be?
I really don’t know. I think it’s definitely a combination. I could honestly say anything from luck to the right people to collaborate with to the musical arrangements and the medleys to the visuals. It’s really any of those or all of them, you know, mashed in a ball.
Okay, so your ear for really catchy music, really good pop music — is that something that you think was innate to you or was that something that you developed over time?
I always loved pop music. I listened to boy bands and Britney Spears growing up and love that stuff. Friends made fun of me for it — didn’t care, and I still love pop music, and I just do stuff I love and stuff I like, and it just so happens that there are a lot of people out there, turns out, that like that sound too, so lucky for me.
What’s the goal with a cover? Is it to make it better or to make it different? Or a combination?
Usually different. You know, if we do it in exactly the same way, it isn’t really interesting to me. So if we take some dance song and strip it down or take something and change the instrumentation of it or turn something into a duet or do something visually interesting, I mean, any of those I think is cool. It depends on the song, and if it’s a cover that I like and the singer likes, it makes it a lot easier.
Charisma and on-camera talent — years ago you said that you felt like you weren’t star material. Is that what you’re talking about when you say “star material”?
I don’t think vocally I’m a good enough singer to be a pop singer. One thing I think that I’ve been good at is being objective about not only my abilities but also what are the right areas to collaborate with other people on and what other people’s abilities are. Like, me and Sam was a natural partnership to start out with: I played a bunch of instruments, I arranged stuff, I did production, I did film work, and Sam’s a great singer, but on top of being a great singer he’s also a great performer. I think he captures the songs well on camera and he’s also just a good guy — we were friends. Similarly with working, I’ve done a lot of stuff with Max recently, and I mean, with just people I’ve worked with I think finding the right collaborations that make sense to me and also bringing out the best of everyone has really helped me be successful. I’ve done a couple videos of me singing, and I’ll do a couple more every now and then, but it’s definitely not my focus.
You started working recently with Victoria Justice, and of course, she has a big show on Nickelodeon, “Victorious.” How did you end up collaborating with her? How do you assess her talent level? If she weren’t on Nickelodeon, would she still be someone that you would be interested in working with?
Yeah, Victoria’s awesome. Victoria’s a star. She’s a good singer, she is an amazing performer, she has a ton of charisma in front of the camera, and she is awesome to work with, which in my opinion goes a lot farther than people think. Like, someone who is just really great to work with, it’s like I want to do good work for them. Max knew Victoria because he’s opening for her on tour — their tour starts in just a few weeks — and so I met her through Max, had this Bruno Mars medley I was working on and she loved it. Sent her a demo of it with another girl just singing her parts so she could hear it, and she loved it, and we did a video, and it turned out great. And we just shot another video which is going up this weekend, which personally as just a filmmaker I’m even more proud of, so hope it does well.
This new video that you are proud of as a filmmaker — what elements does it have that makes you so proud?
It’s like the Bruno medley in that it’s one take, so they have to get the whole thing in one take while we’re moving around this house, and soon as the camera is off one person and I have to run and dash to the next location. But what really sets this video apart is it’s like a live lyric video, so every time someone sings a line you see it visually on the camera but none of it’s like graphics or CGI; it’s like there are lyrics written on T-shirts and posters on the wall and banners and letters on the refrigerator,and so as you go through the whole video and the camera is moving around this house, you keep on seeing the lyrics as they’re singing them too. So it was definitely really complicated to perform, like not only to get the camera to move but also just in terms of the amount of prep work. And as far as prep work goes, Dan Rosen was the real MVP in sort of assembling — we did this walkthrough of the location, and it’s like we need it to start on this pillow, and we need like a pillowcase that has the lyrics on it, and then we gotta see a picture frame and these posters on the wall, and then Max is going to be wearing a T-shirt that says the lyrics on them and all this stuff and all this clothing and materials and just things that had to be done before we got to the shooting day. And Dan, fortunately, was the magician that made that all work somehow.
And you shot that whole thing in a day?
Whole thing in a day, one take. I think it’s crazy because you just need three and a half minutes, you know? But it took us about seven hours on the day of filming, about four hours for set up and rehearsals and running it through with the cameraman and the actors, and then three hours of doing takes, and we got it.
Are there any YouTubers that you haven’t had the opportunity to collaborate with for whatever reason that you want to collaborate with?
There is so many talented people on YouTube, and I’ve had the pleasure of working with a bunch of them now, but the answer is definitely yes. I’m trying to think of who’s the most — I mean, as far as YouTube right now, I’d like to sort of break down a little bit of the walls between YouTube and other people who have the fan bases. Like, Victoria obviously doesn’t really have anything going on on YouTube. Obviously, she has music videos and stuff that are online on YouTube, but it’s not like she started on YouTube, you know. It’s very different worlds. I mean, I’d like to bridge those worlds a little more. When people think of their favorite artists, those are the people who I’d really love to work with.
What’s your assessment of the whole YouTube industry right now, of the networks forming and all these different companies getting formed? I think you told me that you’re not part of a network yet.
I think overall it will be good for YouTube. It’s hard to say, to be honest. On some level, I feel like there has been a slight move away and focus from the YouTube standpoint from the YouTubers themselves, and you know, there has definitely been a shift in focus towards the people they are giving money to. I mean, it used to be someone just goes to Youtube.com, and they’re not signed in, you see the homepage of YouTube, and there were the top four most played music videos that were uploaded in the last day or two and comedy videos and like all their categories like film and animation and whatever. And you’d see the videos that have been uploaded that are very popular right now in all these categories, and now you go to YouTube homepage, and it’s some of that and it’s some videos that I don’t know if they’re just getting preferential placement from YouTube or not, but it definitely seems to me like there is a shift in focus. But overall, I think it’s going to be good for YouTube to have high quality content on the site. I mean, obviously they are trying to compete with television; I think their end goal is to shift people’s focus in thinking like, “Oh, to watch high quality content I have to go and see it on my TV, or I have to Tivo it and then watch it on my TV, or maybe I can catch it on Hulu or something.” And I think they definitely want to shift people’s mental states to be like, “Actually, I can go to YouTube, and I can watch high quality content too.”
With all of these mainstream celebrities going onto YouTube and getting all this funding and everything trying to make their mark, how do you plan to adapt as an independent artist?
Honestly, it’s really tough as an independent person, but I think the only thing I can really do is try to keep putting out good content, so I’m going to try and do that.
So do you feel YouTube has enabled you to be where you are today? Do you feel indebted to YouTube?
I mean, certainly I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now without YouTube. I’d like to think if YouTube didn’t exist, I would have found some other way to do this, but certainly, YouTube has opened up so many doors. I mean, I’m very thankful for the fact that people seem to like the stuff I put out and continue to watch it, so.
Do you think you’re going to do more projects like “College Musical” in the future?
Maybe. I would like to do something a little more narrative at some point in the future. It’s tough; there are so many things I want to do, and there is only a limited amount of time, so just try to do things I love and try to squeeze them all in.
You’ve done the “Pokemon” theme, you’ve done Mario and also videos with Husky. Would you consider yourself much of a gamer?
You know, I don’t play that many video games, but I played chess competitively for a very long time when I was young, and I think that basically is the trump of all games. Starcraft’s got nothing on chess.
Can you tell me about the album of original music that you are doing with Sam?
Yeah, we’ll probably have somewhere somewhere around 11 and 12 songs, and they’re awesome. We have most of them written already. In fact, we have more than enough written — we’ve got 16 or 17 songs written and obviously get the best of the best. And Sam’s an incredible singer, and he’s also a very talented songwriter, which is something that some people don’t know, but I think they’ll hopefully get a chance to learn when we realease it.
We have two Twitter questions for you. One user she says her favorite production collaboration was “The Hardest Thing” with Tyler Ward. What was yours?
My favorite collaboration…my favorite collaboration, I’d probably have to say “Just a Dream” with Christina and of course, Sam as well. They worked so well together vocally, and I’m really proud of how that production came out. Yeah, I think that was one of my favorites.
Another Twitter user asks: is :1 supposed to be a matter-of-fact face? Sorry, I’m just confused.
Colon, one is the smiley that means everything: it can be happy, it can be sad, it can be confused, it’s just the anything smiley.
Any secret projects coming up?
Well, there is one project, but there’s no release date, or it may be well down the line, so I don’t want to get people’s hopes up. But, we filmed “College Musical the Movie,” and we’re in the process of finishing it up. It’s definitely the biggest project that I’ve ever been involved with, and I’m very proud with how it turned out, and I just really hope that people can see it sometime soon.
Photography by Melly Lee