Twenty years ago, learning an instrument, music theory or how musicians work was extremely expensive. Finding a teacher, commuting, buying scorebooks or the few specialised magazines that would feature interviews with musicians were the only options.
It was also a rough time for professional musicians; whose only options to be able to live from music, other than their own gigs, were working as a hired gun (sort of mercenary musician) on tours, teaching or working on sessions in recording studios.
YouTube has appeared to be a new way for musicians to thrive, share their passion and sometimes just make someone else’s day a bit better.
In the past 10 years, a new trend has started to appear: online content by musicians, aimed at musicians or music-lovers in general. I remember, a bit over 8 years ago, picking up my father’s old guitar for the first time, searching online a way to learn Can’t Stop by the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Barely speaking any English, I clicked on the video and then he appeared: a friendly, enthusiastic, hat-wearing man, explaining in detail how to learn the song. I was ecstatic, it was the beginning of my love for the instrument, fed by this south-Californian guitar teacher living on the other side of the planet.
This guitar teacher, who has taught millions across the world to play the guitar over the past decade, is the one and only Marty Schwartz. His current solo channel, created in 2016, accumulates over 396 million views and more than 2.5 million subscribers.
If you ask any guitar player if they know about that guitar teacher with the hat that starts all his videos with “Hey what’s up you guys,” they will all at least nod, if not say that they obviously do.
When he joined the call I have to admit I was pretty nervous, but here he was, smiling as always, in his new studio. Legendary hat on and red Gibson ES-335, gifted to him by the company after he visited the factory, on his lap and smiling, we talked for nearly an hour.
Marty started teaching guitar in 1995, admiring his mentor and guitar teacher in college, he realised that it was a way to live of his passion. “I started teaching guitar because I enjoy it because it’s something I can use my skills for as a day job instead of a job I wouldn’t want to do.” He adds: “guitar teaching has been the most rewarding thing I mean, that was over 25 years ago that I started teaching guitar.”
But in 2008, everything suddenly changed. At the time, Marty was working as a music teacher in a school, had regular restaurant gigs and many private students as well. When the global economy crashed, he said, “I got laid off from the teaching job and I also lost some of the gigs because the bars and restaurants were losing money, so they had to cut off music and then I lost students because their parents, mums and dads were worried about financial stuff as well and couldn’t maybe afford guitar lessons for their kids anymore.”
At first, around 2008, YouTube was a tool for Marty to advertise his style of teaching and then check whether his students were practising enough. But it rapidly evolved in a way that he could have never predicted. During the call he reminisced of the first thousand views that were ‘the hardest to get’ and the first opportunity he got to go to the NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants) Show in Los Angeles and being recognised there by Kyle Gass from Tenacious D (Jack Black’s band), one of Marty’s favourite bands.
In 2016, after a year of hiatus from YouTube during which he taught Jason Statham guitar, Marty created Marty Music, effectively restarting from scratch, the channel he now uploads daily on. About this decision, he says that it is “Happiest I’ve ever been! Marty Music is the greatest thing that’s ever happened in my career, I’m so glad I did it, I’m so glad I went out and started it, I mean it’s nothing but the best thing ever.”
Even though music teachers were the first musical creators to emerge on YouTube (other than artists promoting their music), they would soon be followed by music students and professionals, explaining concepts which were usually obscure to those who hadn’t properly studied music at university.
More than a sort of music class, this type of video, that usually lasts from 6 to 45 minutes, falls under the recent label of “video essays”. They explain concepts: diving in the complexity of those who theorised them, sometimes centuries ago, and link them to modern and contemporary music so that anyone could understand something originally aimed at musical elites.
David Bennett is a British musician and YouTube creator specialising in music theory. For over two years (as of December 2020), David has been creating videos online explaining various concepts of music theory. He is a former student of the British Institute of Modern Music in Brighton. He answered a few questions via email.
David defines his content as “educational,” and when you see his videos, you truly understand the teaching capabilities that they have. One of the concepts studied in several of his videos is time signatures (a way to define the different types of rhythms). He explains, through examples picked in popular songs from the past 60 years, how artists such as The Beatles, Pink Floyd or Radiohead use these concepts and what these specific concepts mean. These videos explain in a very detailed, but also easy to understand way why and how music theory creates a certain effect.
I asked David if the goal of his videos were to be an entry point towards the world of music theory or a way to replace music studies for those who don’t have the time or cannot afford it, he answered: “Everyone who wants to properly understand and use music theory will need some sort of one to one tuition at some point. Otherwise, they will probably have some blind spots in their knowledge or some sort of misunderstanding. But music theory videos can be a great resource for absolute beginners, through to experts!”
To some that could have worried that these video-essays would replace proper musical education in a scholarly context, David reassures them that it is not the case.
YouTube gives creators a certain freedom and gives them many opportunities. David says: “I recently lectured for my old uni thanks to my channel which was a personal goal of mine for a long time. Beyond that, the support from sponsors and Patreon [platform allowing subscribers to pay regularly a creator and often access some extra content] has allowed me to make YouTube my main income which is amazing.”
But more than theory and guitar lessons, one of the most important sub-categories of music-related content is advice from professionals whether it is musicians or producers.
Rhett Shull is an American guitar player and YouTube creator. In early 2018, under the influence of his friend, renowned producer, Rick Beato, Rhett opened a YouTube channel focusing on concepts of tone and taking the viewer with him while he toured the world for concerts. His YouTube channel, as of late November 2020, has over 290,000 subscribers. He is part of a growing community of musician that use the platform as a place to educate anyone on concepts of music-making, but also as a way to share his music and a source of income. He defined his content in this way: “I make videos for people who are interested in the world of guitar and interested in learning as much about just the culture and the mechanics of guitar and music from a guitarist’s perspective.”
His life as a musician has totally changed thanks to YouTube as he tells me: “*chuckles* [Before] Honestly it was great, I was travelling a lot, I was working in music, I was fortunate to be able to have the opportunity to play music full time. With that said, there was a lot of struggles associated with that, I mean, I was barely making any money, you know it was literally working paycheck to paycheck, my wife and I, you know, she was working full time, I was travelling, you know, full time, basically gone, out of a four-week month, basically three and a half weeks. So it was a lot of work, very very busy, and not a lot of financial reward for the time spent. After YouTube, things have shifted, up until this year, I’ve been able to play and still tour full time, but the channel has allowed me to only focus on the gigs that I really want to play and not have to focus on, you know, things like the megachurch gig which thankfully I don’t have to do anymore, teaching and all that kind of stuff. And financially, it’s completely changed my life, it took a long time and a ton of work to get to the point where I was earning enough, but yes, from that respect I mean, it’s completely changed how we work and during this pandemic, it’s allowed me to continue to work and grow and, do everything that I’ve been doing pretty much uninterrupted.”
In April 2020 in the heart of the global pandemic, when gigs were all cancelled, Rhett, while listening to the recommendations of the CDC (Centre for Disease Control in the U.S), formed his dream band. Since then they have live-streamed several concerts on his channel, giving a sort of continuity to live music in 2020. Rhett says: “We stay masked up, pretty much the whole time, even rehearsals and things like that, every time we’re around each other we’re wearing masks, Jamie sings through a mask which has posed some challenges from a mix perspective and an EQ (different levels and pitches equalised by the sound engineer) perspective but, we’ve decided to do that because that’s what our CDC guidelines have recommended. You know, we all believe in science, we all believe in medical professionals and do what they tell us to do, we have gotten some backlash, honestly, I’ve gotten quite a bit of backlash and hate online for the masks, people seem to think it’s some kind of political statement, they think we’re trying to — which is utterly ridiculous.”
There is also a vein of outsiders such as comedians who are also musicians who produce music-related sketches.
Daniel Thrasher is an American comedian and pianist known for his short sketches mostly centred around piano and musicians. His channel, created in 2007, counts over 298 million views and more than 2.3 million subscribers. He has been playing the piano for over 20 years and gained fame thanks to the video How I accidentally wrote “The Office” Theme song, released 8 years ago and now counting over 19 million views.
This year, Daniel was supposed to be touring in the United States, the events of 2020 (the plague as it is referred to in several of his sketches), completely changed his plans, he says ‘I think it’s opened my eyes to all the different things you can do on the internet, you know, there’s merchandising, there’s virtual shows I think that’s a thing. I can film a thing that’s one hour long and get it out somehow.’
Daniel explained to me what he has been aiming to do this year saying: “We’re [he and his team] trying to make people feel a little better and there’s so much trash going on, that’s why I came up with Micro-songs [eg. 13 micro-songs to boost your mood] when all the protests were happening when all the election stuff was going on and I felt so much, personally I felt so much anger and pain […] I would have felt so silly to do a video that, you know that was at the height of it, you know in California, when they were deploying armed forces to shoot people in the street here you know, I would have felt so dumb to do a video about like my key is not working, it just wouldn’t have worked so that’s where I came up with this concept of I’m just gonna do songs that boost your mood and that’s why the first micro-songs video came from and the response to that was so great.”
The pandemic created a thirst for content from the general public. Everywhere across the world people were stuck, bored at home, left with a massive amount of free time and the whole internet as an opportunity of distraction. What these musicians have been doing for the past few years, teaching, entertaining, informing, became closer to public service than the distraction it could have been considered as in the past. These creators have seen their audience skyrocket during the past year, whether it was Marty Schwartz and his guitar lessons which reached over 3 times the number of viewers they usually reach (from 10 to 30 million views in a month) or David Bennett who gained nearly 10 times as many subscribers in only April 2020 than what he did in October 2019 (from 3,900 to 35,000).
Talking to these creators that I have watched over the years, it was obvious that they aimed to share their passions more than anything. As Marty told me: “I’m like, introducing guitar to people and saying, hey this is some fun thing that you could do that makes your life better.”