Bedroom Rockstars: How Peter Hollens Got A Major Record Deal Without Ever Leaving Home

“My fan base knows I’m a geeky guy,” YouTube star Peter Hollens joked to me over Skype.  With his quirky A cappella videos covering everything from Shenandoah to the musical Wicked, Hollens has amassed over 750,000 YouTube subscribers and just signed a deal with Sony Music Masterworks.

Hollens perfectly embodies what the new music industry is shaping up to look like. He did not get a lucky break. He was not “discovered” by a record company exec in night club or from a viral music video. He built a self-sustaining career on his own – making a fantastic living and supporting his family solely on his music.

+How 10 Musicians Make Good Livings In Today’s Music Industry

Like Marcus Grant, a manager at The Collective, said:
“You’re not going to get a record deal by asking for a record deal.”

And Hollens never asked for one. He was offered it only when he didn’t need it. And still doesn’t.

Why did he take a record deal? He is following in the footsteps of another Sony Masterworks artist, The Piano Guys. “It worked really well for them,” Hollens proclaimed. Their “5 Guys, 1 Piano” viral video of their One Direction cover has over 34 million views to date. Most of their videos feature the two founders, Jon Schmidt on the piano and Steven Sharp Nelson on the cello, and have views in the millions. The Piano Guys YouTube channel currently has over 3 million subscribers. Signing with Sony Masterworks enabled all three of their Sony releases to peak at #1 on the Billboard Classical charts and break the top 50 on the Billboard 200. They have also charted in Germany and Austria.

Hollens hopes for similar, chart topping success.

Not all record deals are created equally

It’s common knowledge that signing to a record deal with very little clout can leave the artist open to lots of dirty label tactics, screwing the artist out of lots of money. Unfortunately, this is not news. But what most people don’t realize, if you actually have clout and don’t need the deal, they’ll bend the f over backwards for you.

+How To Steal An Artist’s Streaming Money, In 3 Easy Steps

He can’t share many details of his deal, but he told me “this is a partnership. Sony Masterworks thinks it’s a partnership. The execs at Sony Masterworks are very intelligent and very progressive.” His deal is far from normal.

“I would straight up tell people not to try to be signed to a label. Build it yourself and have them come to you. Because then you have more power in the negotiations and you can walk at any point. If you no longer need them, then what they bring to you has significant value.” – Peter Hollens

Peter Hollens started off singing in an A cappella group he founded at the University of Oregon. He later went on to sing with them on the TV show, The Sing Off. Hollens admitted though, “The Sing Off did very little for me in terms of online influence.”

For years, Hollens built up a mobile studio business where he traveled around the country recording, producing and mixing other A cappella groups. He never thought to track his own music until his father asked him to.

“I started recording my own music because my father was on his death bed and was dying of brain cancer and he asked me to record music for him. He never heard me do my own stuff,” Hollens remembers. So he started a YouTube channel and began recording his own A cappella videos, by himself in his home studio. His father passed away 9 months after he started his channel.

To pay tribute to his father, Hollens and his wife Evynne (who was a singer in another A cappella group at the University of Oregon – where they met), recorded the classic, “The Prayer,” his father’s favorite song.

Peter Hollens was slowing building his channel and was at about 15,000 subscribers when the violin sensation, Lindsey Stirling, got in touch with Hollens to collaborate. “I owe everything to Lindsey,” Hollens explained. “She helped me go from part time to full time.” Hollens mentioned that their recording of “Skyrim” released in April 2012, which currently has over 38.7 million views, still helps pay for a large portion of his mortgage. He said he went from about 15,000 subscribers to nearly 80,000 almost overnight. “I can’t say enough good things about her. She handled her rise to fame so gracefully. I am where I am because of her. I would like to get to a point where I can evoke that kind of change.”

Hollens was one of the earliest adopters of the on-going crowd funding service, Patreon and the stand-alone store (and digital distribution company) Loudr. Through Patreon, with 938 “patrons,” Hollens makes a maximum $4,820 per video he releases. He usually releases about 2 videos a month. With Patreon, along with his iTunes and Loudr download sales, Hollens has been making a very comfortable living for the past couple years.

+Patreon Just Solved YouTube… And Music

Hollens is currently working on his debut album for Sony Masterworks. Most of the songs will be re-releases of his most popular songs.

Hollens attends the various YouTube fan conferences around the country, including the gargantuan VidCon each year, where he is greeted by hoards of screaming fans – something quite unfamiliar to someone who hasn’t performed live, outside of these conferences, in nearly 4 years.

+Top YouTubers Reveal Their Secrets At VidCon

Hollens has proven that a self-sustaining, middle-class music career is possible in the new industry. He is still without a manager and continues to record all of his music and shoot all of his videos from his home studio.

While Hollens’ baby was crying during our Skype call, he excused himself to help his wife out the door, while calming their child.

The life of a rock star is quite different today than it was in the era of sex, drugs and free love. If Hollens has proven one thing, it’s that the old rules of the industry don’t apply anymore. He found a way to make a comfortable living creating the kind of music he does best without the help of any gatekeepers.

Hollens is not an anomaly. There is thriving musical universe outside of the Biebers, Swifts and Beyonces of the mainstream. If you dig deep enough, you’ll find that the working musician class of Millennials is paving the way for the true future of the music industry. And it isn’t found on the radio.

37 Responses

  1. Anonymous

    How is covering MAJOR LABEL ARTISTS videos and things like Disney as a claim to fame not asking for a fucking record deal? It’s begging for one.

    Show me on fucking person doing this kind of garbage on original music?

    Its just the old producers and old boys show ticking along like nobodies business! Wheres the MUSIC, id never ever sign to label, ever!

    They are honestly ruining music and deserve to be scuttled! Its disrespectful!

    Continual evidence that MUSIC and the music BUSINESS are two very mutually exclusive things. Do not work on your craft, do not master the artform, copycat famous people and huge corporations, building a name off the back of others work, and then have their producers whip them into original music shape only after awhile of satiating the fanbase that came around because they were searching for other artists.

    These guys giving advice like that! Look it works, im not saying what he did doesnt work, its one of the few ways to break anyone HOWEVER, from his first cover hes been knocking on major labels doors begging for a belly rub, so if he thinks he has any fucking leverage hes got another thing coming! haha

    I wouldn’t lose a second of sleep if each one of those corporations got taken down like the World trade..


    • soniquarium muzika

      Just be “Yourself”. This guy, is another “cog” in the wheel. Career will last a mili-second at most. Original Artist will live on forever through their creation. The Main Stream Music Business is a Joke, wouldn’t join it if they asked me to, and they have. Interscope approached, I told them to beat it. At one time, Mavrick to Sony were looking to bring EDM to the main stream. But they wanted a “Format” to follow, a “Pop” format, that they believe would sell. They didn’t want Original Music, they wanted plastic wrapped dog shit that they could Label EDM. Of course, they continued with their crap and I’m sure artist did well and are doing well for selling their souls and producing crap. Who cares. Make your music, gig, and have fun. If the money comes, so be it. The overall industry is a joke anyway. You could choose to get shot up, like the idiots in the Rap scene and make a name for your self, hanging around Chris Brown and Clowns. That is an option too!

    • kate

      Wow, have you listened to Peter at all? I love his voice and his ability to be creative completely without electronically changing his voice like some major artists. You are missing the point totally. He got the deal because he deserves it.

    • Peter Hollens

      Ouch! Sorry you think so, it’s been working well for me, and seems to be growing consistently. I’d like to write more originals like Ashland’s Song, but I just haven’t developed the skill. I just like to sing, that’s all :) But thanks for sharing.


  2. Anonymous

    Just another fame chaser…

    Where does someone have to go to find music out there these days?

  3. Anonymous



    The old rules of the industry?

    This is fucking MUSIC INDUSTRY 101 bullshit at its finest.

    The best part of this joke is that all yall think its some new model, some empowering artist thing.

    He has pretty much zero power or leverage regardless whether he believes he does or not!

    Its the same old wheel spinning around like it always has. Show me the original artists having success and penning deals, you dont see it much and when you do, most of them are snatched up pretty early by the labels anyways.

    The new model pfft like they out their in the field breaking new ground in their coveralls or something.

    Unbelievable bullshit! Hope it gets you a few more clicks on soundcloud or whatever.

    This lame PG 13 bullshit can fuck off anytime already cause it aint the god send helping tweeners that they claim or think it is…



  4. Anonymous

    Another comment from the 20th Century.

    Today, the trick is to avoid the majors!

    If you sign with a major today, you also sign with Google — and if you do that, you won’t ever sell a record again (you are forced to make your entire catalogue available on YouTube Music Key for free on release day…).

    Signing with a major label could be necessary in the past, but today it’s suicide.

    • Anonymous

      signing with a Major is about the only way to have any chance at a music career these days.

      Selling records is dodo bird business, just loss leader stuff.

      • Anonymous

        “signing with a Major is about the only way to have any chance at a music career these days”

        You could say that until June 2014, but everything changed with Google’s new contract.

    • Willis

      Avoiding the majors? C’mon, reality check time. Whether you like it or not, the majors are still a machine that fronts money for recording and touring, promotes the artist and album and gets physical and online retail space. Any artist that thinks they can DIY their career has never tried it. There’s more to it, it’s a lot harder and time-consuming than they originally assumed, and it takes away from being creative. There is something to be said for signing to a label – major or otherwise.

      • Anonymous

        “There is something to be said for signing to a label – major or otherwise”

        This doesn’t make sense. Today, you have to distinguish between major and indie labels:

        Signing with a major label now is suicide (you’re automatically signing with Google, too), while signing with indies still makes sense if

        1) you need financing, and
        2) the label is independent from Google/YouTube Music Key.

        • Wills

          For someone who has been signed to both majors and indies, it makes perfect sense.

  5. Seth Keller

    I hate to see you get trolled by Anonymous all the time, Ari, so I’d like to say keep on writing. Some of us appreciate the effort.

    While I don’t agree with the spirit of Anonymous’ comments, they do point out the irony of almost all independent musicians breaking because of covers of major label artists. The irony of this irony may be that Lindsey Stirling is one of the few (maybe the only one?) that broke because of her original music without the benefit of a corporate marketing machine (in the case of Psy or Baauer). Yes, Lindsey covered some songs from films and video games (and still may do that), but she broke out with an original song (“Crystallize”) co-written and produced by a local producer in Utah (Marko G) without any affiliation or help from major players or usual suspects.

    The reason YouTube acts do covers is to get attention and build a following. I suppose this model isn’t much different from the 1950’s and early 60s (pre-Beatles) when labels promoted acts doing covers of famous songs (lots of Rock N’ Roll royalty from that era are essentially cover artists).

    The reason YouTubers sign with labels, big time managers (Stirling) or work with corporate partners is because you can only get so far being YouTube famous as a musician. Some keep it going independently (Boyce Avenue, Watsky), but most realize that they will only be cute or novel for so long; and if they don’t try to break in the real world while they’re hot, they’ll get overtaken by the next clever, attractive young person or music nerd gathering a following of 10-17 year old girls.

    You can do quite a bit on your own today–that is the beauty of the Internet. But at some point you still need some sort of money and muscle to sustain and grow.

    • Anonymous

      There’s a method to the madness Seth.

      i got nothing against Ari, hes actually got some pretty good tunes and is just trying to make it through the World like anyone else.

      The thing you fail to realize is that what i do actually helps him! So please don’t get it twisted.

      Alls fair in love, war and business, and this is business!

      Dont hate the player hate the game!

      • Anonymous

        “i got nothing against Ari”

        Neither do I, he just lives in the past.

          • GGG

            Maybe I confused you with another anonymous. There was no smilie so didn’t think it was still you.

    • Anonymous

      “I hate to see you get trolled by Anonymous”

      Not sure which of the anonymous commenters you disagree with, but it makes zero sense when you and Ari discuss the old YouTube like it’s here to stay.

      It isn’t.

      The entire industry is changing right now because of YouTube Music Key.

    • Cmonbro

      Sorry Seth..

      Lindsey is signed to Atom Factory.. she has been for a while..

      I would say that she also lucked out on having a homey who produced ridiculously high quality videos for free..

      AND lets not forget “America’s got Talent”.

      Still.. she is an anomaly. I think only her and The Pentatonix are actually selling records ..

      • Seth Keller

        Hey Cmonbro:

        I noted her signing with the high powered manager in my post–which was my point that YouTube only takes artists so far. That happened a good two years after Crystallize took off. When Crystallize broke, she initially had no manager and then had a guy in Arizona for a minute, whom she realized quickly wasn’t the right choice.

        As far as a friend to produce high quality videos, that’s a great thing to have and certainly was a huge part of her YouTube success; but in and of itself didn’t guarantee any sort of success. And, again, that friend was not at a major label nor was he a traditional music industry player to my knowledge.

        She may have gotten a bit of a boost from AGT but she wasn’t a finalist nor close to it. And she was billed as “the hip-hop violinist” on that show. What made her popular was far from hip-hop.

        She has a look, charisma and original music that connected, which is rare in the YouTube world. Didn’t know Pentatonix became popular because of their originals. Thanks for bringing that to my attention.

        • cmonbro

          Yea my homey and management partner were trying to scoop her up before Troy & Co.

          Nothing not even a label guarantees anything…

          She had a level of talent that is best served on TV and youtube… She figure out what Miri Ben Ari couldnt..

          I wasn’t taking anything away from her just saying that a great team.. at every level is so necessary.

          Pentatonix are popular because of covers, standards and remix/mash up things…

          I used them as an example because they actually sell records when an album comes out.. Just like Ms Sterling..

          the majority of these other “youtube stars” arentactually pulling numbers at the cash e/register

        • Anonymous

          But with something like AGT, it isnt always the winner that benefits!

          If she didnt have the pockets to pay to be a winner or runner up, which is obviously what happens obviously cause i know it is, then she would have likely made a lot of connections and a bunch of more behind the scenes people would have known about her, which honestly can sometimes help further a career more then being the one to pay for their wins and their fame.


  6. Fred

    Ari you have a strange understanding of the term “rock star”.

    Rock stars don’t do A capella versions of kindergarten kiddie songs. They also don’t write music biz columns about proper audience behavior at shows. Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy that people like Hollins can utilize YouTube to create a living for themselves — but it’s not “rock star” we’re talking about here. I’m also not sure how sustainable it is for the long term; novelty concepts are by definition short term. How’s Timberlake protege/YouTube sensation Esmée Denters doing these days?

    • indie dude

      right said Fred!
      Ari you may have your finger on the pulse of today..but it’s the wrong version of today…also get some original song titles..sorry man – cliche – good production but hardly original stuff..

  7. soniquarium muzika

    Just be “Yourself”. This guy, is another “cog” in the wheel. Career will last a mili-second at most. Original Artist will live on forever through their creation. The Main Stream Music Business is a Joke, wouldn’t join it if they asked me to, and they have. Interscope approached, I told them to beat it. At one time, Mavrick to Sony were looking to bring EDM to the main stream. But they wanted a “Format” to follow, a “Pop” format, that they believe would sell. They didn’t want Original Music, they wanted plastic wrapped dog shit that they could Label EDM. Of course, they continued with their crap and I’m sure artist did well and are doing well for selling their souls and producing crap. Who cares. Make your music, gig, and have fun. If the money comes, so be it. The overall industry is a joke anyway. You could choose to get shot up, like the idiots in the Rap scene and make a name for your self, hanging around Chris Brown and Clowns. That is an option too!

    • Peter Hollens

      Just to clarify the music that I enjoy the most making, so you can see what I love to make: – Parting Glass – Shenandoah – Poor Wayfaring Stranger – The Water is Wide

      I have a dozen PD works that I really love and believe in which have absolutely nothing to do with what most of you are calling me. Interesting that my entire approach and reason to be in the industry is to help others thus why I’m on the board of advisors for Patreon and Loudr and a few others. I really believe in helping my peers find a way to make a living doing what they love. There are many approaches to do this, one of which is using the youtube platform. I think the best thing to do is to respect everyone’s approach and learn from it versus name calling and attacking. I spend a large part of my day trying to educate my peers to help them find resources and allow them to succeed. I think that’s a large part of what Ari is trying to do as well. I have a little startup Q&A if anyone wants a bit of help: — Much love, and even if you won’t take the time to appreciate my music, at least understand that their is artistry and beauty in almost all music you just need to be open to it.

      – Peter

  8. Axel

    Hey Ari, I love your stuff and I read almost all of your writing, but I gotta say that this article, while inspiring, does have a flaw. I would argue that Hollens did get a major break in someone like Lindsey Sterling working/vouching for him. That overnight success with a massive subscriber burst doesn’t happen magically unless someone huge comes to your aid. I’d love to know more about how THAT came to be, though I’m pretty sure it was some combination of the guys work ethic AND some good ol fashioned luck.

    • Ari Herstand

      I wouldn’t call it overnight success. He’d been grinding away nonstop to get high quality content up and build his subscriber base. It’s no easy feat to get to 15,000 subscribers on your own. When Lindsey’s fans clicked over to Peter’s channel, they saw high quality content and that’s why they subscribed. Had Peter not had any previous videos of quality, most of them would not have subscribed. And Lindsey wouldn’t have found him.

      Similarly, 80,000 is great, but Lindsey didn’t get him to 750,000 where he’s at now. That he did all on his own.

      A celebrity bump can be great for anyone – and happens all the time. Will you be ready when it happens? Will you have the quality content to back it up when people want to dig into your project? Will you be able to leverage that bump and increase it 10 fold – like Peter did?

  9. David

    I checked out one of his videos, expecting it to be terrible. Slightly annoyed to find it was really good. But it’s depressing when ‘the true future of the music industry’ consists of novelty cover versions, no matter how nicely done.

    • Cmonbro

      C’mon you KNOW that isn’t the case…

      Dude will drop an album.. maybe his YT fanbase will buy it and no one else will notice…

      These people are just the youtube version/response to the reality show music business (Idol, X Factor etc..)..

      • Anonymous

        Pretty much, it’s about the cheapest way to break someone…

        Thing is, he will put out an album, produced and written mostly by other people, so whats the difference?

        Cover artists should stick to covers and those ballin boys should start investing in real fucking music! Is what it is though, they got their employees and circles they need to spread the money around in, just more evidence the music BUSINESS dont got anything to do with the fucking MUSIC…


  10. Kyle Williams

    I can see some musicians are annoyed by this, but then again it’s just an example of one path that you can take.

    I know of examples of artists who have a following of their original music, not as huge as this guy, but make their living solely from original music.

    And that’s just from their email list of fans, not even including an awesome platform like Patreon.

  11. Maverick

    Personally it’s not my kind of music, schmaltzy covers of PD songs, as some else said “just the youtube version/response to the reality show music business (Idol, X Factor etc..)..”

    But….One of the major issues with Google’s YouTube is that many are promoting themselves using unlicensed covers of non-PD songs. As we know Google, where it can get away with it, does not give a rats ass about non-legal content as long as they make money. All these unlicensed covers enable Google to make money, the up-loaders make money and the original writer makes nada and the songs become devalued. Encouraged by Google, aspiring artists ripping off established artists and songwriters. I personally know a number of songwriters who have found numerous copies of unlicensed covers, with views in the 100,000’s and had hell getting the up loader to license them or getting taken down….What a state things are in…..

  12. kate gleissner

    This is great! Peter is an honest, humble man who makes beautiful music! Sure he has done covers – but is that bad? Some of his covers are better than the original. When he sings, it is his voice we listen to, not just the song itself. Beautiful songs redone by someone with the voice of an angel – who can lose? He has a huge fan base and we will keep supporting him either through this label or directly from other sources. Peter, we LOVE you!

  13. Josh

    It’s funny to me how little you all know about the specifics of a signing and what went into this deal specifically. You can talk all you want about records destroying music, but sitting from an outsiders perspecting (which every single one of you are) and trolling comments about how he is a sellout is so sad to me. All the haters talk a BIG game but don’t have the drive or talent to be where Peter is. “I would never sell out to a label, EVER.” Well I am 100% sure the label wouldn’t have you because you are talentless and have nothing better to do than to get on these forums and hate on things you know nothing about.
    I am proud of Peter and all he has accomplished, and the worst part is, a lot of people can love him for all the wonderful music he makes, but it’s the trolls that get all the attention. I guess when you have nothing better to do in life than to call people out on things you know nothing of, life becomes pretty small and meaningless. Keep on hating, cause Peter is the one with the singing career, and you are the ones sitting at home reading about everything he has accomplished, which reflects on all the things that you have not.

  14. Martin

    I’m amused by the commentary.

    Check your history, people. Covers promote artists, and don’t diminish the music like had been stated. Artists sing each others’ songs all the time. How many artists today have done ‘remakes’ of older songs, or even modern ones?

    *Elvis* did covers, people. The Beatles, The Stones… Even Johnny Cash ‘covered’ songs by Metallica and Disturbed. How many people have covered Queen? Michael Jackson? Elvis? Yeah, and I suppose those artists were ‘diminished’ by that.

    Try USING Google. Look up ‘Simply Mad About The Mouse’, THEN tell me about ‘silly kiddie songs’.

    I may know little about the music industry’s inner workings, but I do know music. I’ve discovered original artists AFTER hearing a cover of one of their songs. Saying the music is diminished is like saying Lord of the Rings was diminished by Harry Potter, or vice versa.

    These negative comments sound like they came from a cheerleader who got passed over for squad captain. What do you consider ‘real f**king music’ anyway? Like the aforementioned cheerleader, you all just sound whiny.

    Give it a rest.