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The Classical Pianist With 55 Million YouTube Hits

Pianist Valentina Lisitsa, who jump-started her stalled-out career by posting videos on YouTube.
courtesy of the artist
Pianist Valentina Lisitsa, who jump-started her stalled-out career by posting videos on YouTube.

How do classical artists grab attention these days? Simple — or, actually, not so simple at all. They build their fan bases on YouTube, one page hit at a time.

It's a model that's familiar in pop culture, from Justin Bieber to 50 Shades of Grey: Get the content out there any way you can, build a viral fanbase, and then start acquiring the traditional retinue that comes with a successful career, like management and a label or publisher. But just as it took the classical community a while to start looking to the DIY ethos and aesthetics of indie rock, so too has it taken a little more time to move into the kind of marketing savvy and people skills such a path requires.

Consider the case of Ukrainian pianist Valentina Lisitsa. Five years ago, living in North Carolina with her fellow pianist husband and with her career totally stalled out, she began uploading videos of herself to YouTube. It was a move that has paid off in spades. As of now, she's gleaned more than 55 million hits and counts some 77,000 subscribers to her channel.

Decca sat up and took notice. She was signed to the label in May, and they promptly released her London concert debut — at the Royal Albert Hall, no less — a month later. This week, the august label released her recording of the complete Rachmaninov piano concertos.

Measured by traditional standards, scoring a major label contract is, even in 2013, still a brass ring in a classical career. Moreover, she's now managed by IMG, the same outfit that handles the likes of Joshua Bell. And in the essay Decca included with the release of Lisitsa's "Live at Royal Albert Hall" last year, writer Harriet Smith takes a little dig at the erstwhile golden boy of Decca's owner, Universal Classics, who decamped from Deutsche Grammophon for Sony. Smith's opener: "Who's the most listened-to on YouTube? Not the ubiquitous Lang Lang, as you might expect."

As Decca's managing director, Paul Moseley, recently told the Wall Street Journal in a Lisitsa profile, almost all of the pianist's recordings are already available on YouTube — for free. And that little fact raises some big questions. It's entirely possible for YouTube success to translate to a built-in audience for live performances. But what exactly is the impetus for a music fan who's watched Lisitsa on YouTube to pay Decca for a previously recorded experience? Or is such a label betting on finding a new audience for the pianist — one that doesn't look to YouTube for their music discovery?

Speaking of Sony: They've run into something of the same issue, though with a much bigger pop-leaning payoff, after signing a Croatian bow-shredding duo that performs under the imaginative title of 2CELLOS. (Yes, they're cellists.)

Within a week of posting their sleek video featuring their arrangement of Michael Jackson's "Smooth Criminal" on YouTube, they were signed by Sony and invited to open for Elton John on tour. Since then, they've appeared on "Glee" playing their take on Jackson. Sony's bet paid off: the "Glee" version of the song debuted at No. 10 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, and their album landed on the Top 200 chart. And a point of interest: 2CELLOS' Luka Šulić and Stjepan Hauser were beat by nearly two years to a clever, YouTubed cello version of "Smooth Criminal" by cellist/beatboxer Kevin Olusola, whom we've featured before here on Deceptive Cadence, though Olusola's video is far less elaborate.

While it remains to be seen how widely this particular trajectory plays out, it seems likely musicians will be spending more and more of their time not at the piano, but at a computer keyboard.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Anastasia Tsioulcas is a reporter on NPR's Arts desk. She is intensely interested in the arts at the intersection of culture, politics, economics and identity, and primarily reports on music. Recently, she has extensively covered gender issues and #MeToo in the music industry, including backstage tumult and alleged secret deals in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against megastar singer Plácido Domingo; gender inequity issues at the Grammy Awards and the myriad accusations of sexual misconduct against singer R. Kelly.