The YouTube Marketplace: A Classical Musician’s Survival Guide

Throughout his 20’s, Marcin Dylla won just about every international guitar competition he entered, including first prize at the 2007 Guitar Foundation of America International Artist Competition, one of the most prestigious honors in the guitar world. In the last decade, the 39-year-old guitarist has established himself among the vanguard of young instrumentalists, maintaining a vigorous international concert schedule and appearing as a soloist with some of the best orchestras in the world.

20 years ago, Marcin’s career would have been unthinkable without the support of a major record label. But, if you look up Marcin Dylla on iTunes or Amazon, you’ll only find a handful of recordings. And that’s not because Marcin is some reclusive, arty guy that holes himself up in a recording studio. It’s because the way we consume digital music these days makes it nearly impossible for an artist like Marcin to earn any money:

“Because of the general situation of the business…of the recording business, I mean, something doesn’t really motivate me to do this. And nobody’s pushing me to do this, also, right? There is no label or recording company that is asking for recordings because they are all insecure about the business, right? And they don’t know what to do with it.”

The major labels have mostly blamed their lack of earnings on piracy, but streaming services that operate with major label consent still pay artists peanuts. You may have heard that story about Pharrell Williams’ song “Happy” earning the songwriter a reported $25,000 from Spotify, even though the song was played somewhere in the neighborhood of 43 million times on the service.

And of course, if we can stream music for free, there really isn’t any point in purchasing a CD or downloading an MP3.

In response to these changes, Pop acts from Jay Z to Wilco have made their latest offerings available to consumers at no cost, relying instead on live performances to bring home the bacon. These days, the free music model is so ubiquitous that Taylor Swift earns headlines by not making her music available for free.

Obviously, not making money is kind of a disincentive when it comes to the record business. And while top earners are just now coming to terms with this discovery, the recorded music disincentive has been affecting the classical music world for about a decade.

So what does all this mean for an independent classical musician? How do you build an audience, create new content, and generate income without the benefit of recoded music sales?

For Marcin Dylla, the answer was YouTube:

“I’ve met so many people, everywhere, who said “Oh, I know you from YouTube”, right? Or they say, “Congratulations” And I say where did you listen to me? “On YouTube”. So I realized that YouTube is very popular. If I’m not gonna make any money on a CD, why should I do this? So I record something for YouTube. I don’t make money, but I have a bigger audience.”

Rather than continuing along the well-trodden path of making new music available in audio form, Marcin opted to upload a steady stream of videos to YouTube, where his fans can keep up with the latest additions to his repertoire.

Marcin’s videos are recorded using high quality equipment in very nice performance spaces. Aside from the odd change in camera angle, the videos are essentially live performances. So you can make out little sounds like a shirt button tapping against the back of the guitar, or a creaky chair. But these little sounds provide a feeling of intimacy and immediacy to the performance that many listeners find lacking on a commercial sound recording that’s often made by piecing together multiple performances by using hundreds, even thousands of edits.

Of course, it’s way easier to share a YouTube video than it is to share a physical CD. And Marcin’s videos get passed around a lot on social media, which means that he’s been able to establish a reputation in pretty far-flung parts of the world. In one of Marcin’s latest videos, he plays the same piece of music on six different guitars. At last count, that video had over 120 thousand views. And, though it’s probable that many of those views are multiple clicks from a single person, that’s still a lot of engagement, especially by classical music standards.

Now partial credit for the success of Marcin’s Dylla’s YouTube strategy goes to his manager, Sean Samimi:

“The ideas with videos was a way for us to keep up with publicity and having some regular content out there that is up to date and people can actually see, live, if possible. So we’ve been going towards that because we realize that’s a source that’s accessible to many. The focus for the future will be to have it available digitally in whatever means everyone is going to use the most.”

For the record, Marcin Dylla isn’t ruling out the possibility of making a new commercial recording. But given the current market conditions and the success he’s had by uploading videos, I wouldn’t hold my breath.

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