YouTube sensation Lindsey Stirling on how the Internet can shape the music industry

WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 28:   Violinist Lindsey Stirling performs during the

Violinist Lindsey Stirling performs during the "YouTube OnStage Live from the Kennedy Center" concert Wednesday to celebrate the video site's ninth birthday. (Photo by Taylor Hill/FilmMagic)

YouTube threw itself a big birthday bash at the Kennedy Center on Wednesday to celebrate nine years of making crazy online videos. The show featured singer John Legend, as well as several successful dance and music artists who got their start on the video-sharing site.

Ahead of the show, violinist Lindsey Stirling chatted with The Switch's Hayley Tsukayama to talk about her career, her fans and how using YouTube gave her a way to break into a tough industry. Stirling, who first came onto the national stage in 2010 by reaching the quarter-finals of "America's Got Talent," now has 4.8 million subscribers on YouTube and just released a new album, "Shatter Me."

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Thanks for making time to chat with me today. ... Can you start by explaining all that you do and the unusual path you took to get there? Because you do a lot.

Well, I’m a dancing, electronic-style violinist. I’ve released two albums over the past two years. I’m a touring artist. I direct a lot of my own music videos. I come from the roots of a self-made artist.

And I’m very grateful to YouTube. I was told "no" by every other platform — I auditioned for talent agencies; I went to agents — and no one could capture the vision I saw in my head. Thankfully, I found YouTube. And I thought, "Wow, I can do this myself on this platform." I can be the kind of artist I want to be. It was amazing that by doing that, suddenly, while yeah, I was different...but that became the best thing possible. Because everyone was turning into my channel.

I know there's a lot of talk about how online video sites can do that, sort of provide a side door into the industry. 

YouTube really allows for artists to be leader of their careers. I’d been told "no" by so many people, and I was reading books on how to make it in the music industry. I remember at one point being so discouraged by hearing that it's likely going to take several hundred thousands of dollars, if not more, to make it.

I was a college student. I was working a job to pay my way through college, thinking, "How is this ever going to work?" So I put up my first video, and suddenly people were listening to my music, my music  that had just been sitting there on iTunes. And this lightbulb went on in my head. And I decided that I [was] going to work with all my might because I've come upon a gold nugget here.

I started to put all my energy into learning to market yourself on YouTube, and I talked to people. I learned from Devin Graham, other YouTubers, and really learned how to market myself. It was a very empowering feeling, because for the first time I could do what I wanted. And I could do it my own way.

Part of what makes your music so unique, particularly for a YouTube audience, are the visuals. I was just kind of wondering, when you sit down to make a song, do you think about the visuals first? Or the music? How does all that come together?

It works both ways. Sometimes I will think of a video idea and I'll specifically write a song to fit in with an idea that I fell in love with.

In high school, I was always making videos. First I'm a violinist, but I was also studied film, and I think about that a lot, too. So other times  I'll be writing a song in the studio and say, "This feels like a pirate song." So then I'll give it a temporary name that fits the pirate theme.

Sometimes the video idea comes first, sometimes it doesn't. For me, the music and videos feed off each other interchangeably.

Well, whatever you're doing is working. I probably should have kicked off by congratulating you — your most recent album debuted at #2 on the Billboard charts. Congratulations. That must feel great.

It's really exciting, because I think the music industry is changing, and one of my goals was that I want to be one of the artists that bridges the gap. There is a connotation to being a YouTuber: that you’re a cover artist, or you're not legit. I'm very proud that I came through YouTube. It's exciting to be a part of this wave and to say, "Hey, this is a legitimate platform."

When  [the album] came out and did better than I thought it would, I realized that this is really happening. And this little baby album of mine is one of the products of it.

And now you're going to be onstage at the Kennedy Center. What does that feel like? How did you react when YouTube asked you to be a part of this?

Of course it's exciting being able to play at the Kennedy Center, representing YouTube to our country. It shows that not only am I proud to be a YouTuber, it shows that YouTube is excited to have me as one of their representatives. Which is always nice. And it's such an important event that speaks directly to politicians.

Speaking of our unique Washington audience, are there any issues that face YouTube or artists that you'd like to see politicians pay more attention to?

Hmm. Let me think about that.

I think that the Internet is an amazing thing, because it's one of the best representations of freedom of speech that the world has.  And that's been lost in a lot of countries. I tour around a lot of places, and I was recently in China. You can see the effect that it's had -- the government controls so much. And if I lived there, I couldn’t get on YouTube, on Facebook, on Dropbox, anything. And the way that's affected the people there ... it was eye-opening.

I'm so grateful that I live in a place where freedom of speech is still expressed through the Internet.  I know some politicians are trying to gain more control over that, and they could pay more attention to what happens to culture when that freedom is taken away.

Shifting back to the music industry, you’ve already talked a bit about how YouTube is changing it. How do you see that continuing in the next three to five years? 

I think there's going to be a lot more artists that jump into this do-it-yourself platform. It is changing: The traditional methods of the record industry are crumbling away. And they will learn to adapt to this new program where people can kind of do it themselves. I think they will team up, with people building themselves and then creating themselves into the artists they want to be. But I see it as a fusion of the two, rather than one beating out the other.

Thanks so much for your time today. Is there anything else that you want to get out there before I let you go?

One of the things I love to stand for and to say is that you can't fake authenticity. People ask, "Why are people drawn to your music?" And I think it's because I genuinely love what I do. And I'm so grateful that I didn't let everyone else who wanted to change me.

I love to do motivational speaking and to point out that the reasons everyone told me that I would fail was because I'm different. I don't think anyone should be afraid to be different and to share it. It took me a while to learn that, but I'm so grateful. It's worth it.


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