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First Sony seized on the success of 2Cellos, the classically trained Croation Duo whose highly charged arrangement of Michael Jackson's Smooth Criminal garnered more than six million YouTube hits (and counting). Their ingenuity earned them a six-record deal. Then Decca came calling for YouTube piano star Valentina Lisitsa, noticing that her low-budget YouTube videos of classical repertoire accrued millions of viewers every week.
Now the latest DIY YouTubers to land a major classical record deal are gimmicky duo The Piano Guys, with a channel that watched regularly by more than 750,000 subscribers and music videos amounting to 130m views worldwide.
The Utah-based cellist Steven Sharp Nelson and pianist Jon Schmidt have signed to Sony Masterworks, with an album to be released in October. Fusing classical and rock elements, the popular videos include Cello Wars, a parody of Star Wars in which Nelson plays with a lightsaber bow; Rockelbel Canon based on the ubiquitous Pachelbel favourite; Code Name Vivaldi, a mash-up between Baroque and The Bourne Identity soundtrack, the two musicians playing on the flatcar of a high-speed train; and a cover of the Coldplay song Paradise, with a grand piano hoisted by helicopter to the top of a mountain.
Nelson told The Strad, "Musicians are making a lot more money on their own from YouTube than the record labels have ever been able to do with musicians. The overheads are so low, and you can sell tracks directly through your own website and through iTunes."
But YouTube is increasingly becoming a mine for record companies to cherry-pick tried-and-tested artists. In a video announcing the forthcoming Sony album to fans, Nelson conceded that "Sony Masterworks is going to be able to take our music to more places than we could have ever taken it".