Michael Jackson landed Sam Tsui on Oprah, but now Tsui must rely on someone else’s music – his own.
A 24-year-old Pennsylvania native, Tsui blossomed into one of the most popular cover artists on YouTube while at Yale, covering everyone from Jackson to Britney Spears to Adele. His channel amassed more than 500,000 subscribers with the help of childhood friend and producer Kurt Schneider, who helped deliver Tsui’s covers and mash-ups to millions of fans.
Last week, Tsui released his first album, "Make It Up," challenging his fans to embrace him as they have his covers. TheWrap spoke with Tsui about his decision to go the Kickstarter route and retain creative control.
You built a fan base through covers. When did you decide you were ready to release an album of your own work?
A large part of why I waited is a lot of YouTubers start mixing in their own original content once they get success. I knew I wanted to do original eventually but I really wanted to wait until I had a clear, focused album I was comfortable with that represented who I am as an artists. If you have music that sounds like what you cover, people won’t be able to differentiate who you are.
What differentiates you as an artist from those covers?
I wrote the whole album; it’s 100% mine. Even in preliminary talks with labels, they said we’d set you up with all these writers and great producers. I’m not opposed to working with other writers in the future, but what has drawn people to me is that when they watch a video, whether it’s a cover or an original, they know there is no middle man. It’s a direct to audience king of thing.
So what makes your songs unique?
My writing voice is a little quirkier, more singer-songwriter-y than the Top 40 stuff I cover. It was still heavily influenced by the fact that I’ve spent three years doing covers; it gave me exposure to songs from diverse genres and I learned what worked for me in songs.
Did you start off singing original songs or doing covers?
Up until I started on YouTube, my first love was musical theater. I was going to go to college and graduate and move to New York and do the Broadway thing. That’s where a lot of my influences vocally and writing come from. Then I did some covers and towards the end of college I saw it was a path I could take. I wrote more pop music.
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What made you realize the covers were working well enough you could make a career out of it?
The fact that we started to build a subscriber base and a loyal fan base. Getting a single viral video is one thing. There are a lot of people whose cat can play the keyboard. I had a couple of viral videos, the Michael Jackson medley and a cover of "Don't Stop Believin.” Once it went beyond that I saw that not only were people interested in one-off videos but they were coming back and being consistent followers.
So you talked with labels once you got out to L.A.?
I knew upon moving out to L.A. that would be the next step, building up a canon of original works people can attach to me. With that in mind when I first got out here I was talking to some labels.
There are certainly things labels can still provide that indie artists can’t. They can pave the way to radio and pay big bucks for promotion. At the same time a lot of what they normally offer indie artists can now get. We can connect with fans and distribute on YouTube. We have 100% creative control.
So how do you build momentum without the backing of a label?
The first thing was to get upfront capital. We did a Kickstarter campaign. I had never done one before and had no idea if people would support the project. We exceeded the goal [$30,000] in the first two days and more than doubled it. It was the first indication that people are excited about us doing this album.
How have your fans responded to your original work?
It’s been incredible. You never know with original material; you hope people have the same kind of response. The first several days we were No. 19 on the iTunes pop charts for albums between Maroon 5 and Rihanna or whatever it was. To see my album cover up there with legit acts…