Interview With Jason Yang
Today we’re so fortunate to be able to get an interview with Jason Yang, a YouTuber and fantastic violinist who toured with Madonna during the MDNA World Tour, and has an impressive 32 million YouTube views, and almost 200.000 subscribers.
I remember discovering you on YouTube about 4 years ago, and you have been uploading videos ever since. How long have you been doing this, and what made you start out on Youtube?
I’ve been making YouTube videos since 2008 so it’s already been eight years! I think it was curiosity that made me begin making videos… I was having a lot of fun experimenting with my electric violin and effects pedals so I just set up a little point-and-shoot camera on top of a stack of cereal boxes as a makeshift tripod and shot some videos of myself jamming!
Right now your videos have been getting over 30 million views. How long did it take before you saw things happening and started getting more subscribers?
My views and subscribers were growing steadily with each new video I uploaded but the big push was when I made my ‘Game of Thrones Violin Cover’ in 2011, which immediately went viral. I think it accumulated over one million views in the first few days or something like that. I started getting contacted by news stations and getting featured on huge media websites… it was crazy! But all very exciting.
Tell us a bit about your backstory - when did you start playing the violin, and how did you start pursuing a professional career?
I grew up in East Brunswick, New Jersey. I started playing the violin when I was six years old and took private lessons with a couple of different teachers until I graduated high school. Everything was classical. I practiced solo violin works and performed chamber music with other musicians but the orchestra was where I had the most fun, and that’s also where I think I developed the most as a musician (particularly in the Philadelphia Youth Orchestra and at Boston University’s Tanglewood Institute). Then at 18 I left New Jersey and headed to Los Angeles to attend the University of Southern California as an International Relations and Violin Performance double major. Within one week, I dropped Violin as a major because I knew that I wouldn’t be able to handle the combined workload. I decided on the ‘safer’ option… but then certain things kept pushing me back towards music such as the continued growth of my YouTube channel. One day, my friend found an audition flyer calling specifically for “a guitarist or an electric violinist. Electric violinist must have serious rock chops.” I RSVP’d, practiced, and then went to the audition! I didn’t have a car yet so that same friend drove me to the audition and I got the job! That was my first gig ever as a professional musician - CES 2008 in Las Vegas for Panasonic.
Social media and internet has changed the music industry forever. How important do you think media like YouTube is today for musicians, and how crucial has it been for your career?
Social media has definitely changed the music industry forever. It is and has been the platform on which I built my entire professional career. I will say, though, that it’s very different right now in 2016 than it was several years ago in the earlier days of YouTube. I think it’s much more difficult for up and coming artists to get noticed because of how saturated the internet is with thousands of their peers trying to do the same thing at the same time. At this moment, Facebook is where most of the people whom I know watch videos - not YouTube anymore. It has shifted quite significantly in my opinion. There is now this model of building followings with un-monetizable videos on Facebook instead of developing and maintaining a YouTube channel with monetizable content, simply because of where audiences are spending more of their time. It’s very interesting. I’m still trying to predict what’s going to happen next.
On your channel one can see a wide range of music, from film and game scores, so pop hits from Coldplay and to medleys from Daft Punk. What's been your biggest influences as a musician?
I think I’ve been influenced by a large variety of music throughout my life so far, and yet, there’s so many different kinds of music that I haven’t even touched yet. I’m interested in everything. My favorite genre is funk. My favorite band is Rage Against the Machine. My favorite piece of music of all time is the Third Movement of Rachmaninov’s Symphony No. 2. But in terms of what has influenced my improvising style the most, I would say rock guitar solos like Joe Satriani, keyboard synths like Chromeo, and gypsy jazz violin riffs like Stephane Grappelli.
You've recently announced that you aspire to become a film and game composer, and you've already been commissioned to write a piece for a game designer. How did this passion arise?
Funny enough, I actually found one of my old college application’s questionnaires which asked the same thing and I had written, “My dream is to become a film and video game composer like John Williams or Nobuo Uematsu.” I was shocked when I read this because I didn’t even realize that this passion had started that long ago. Sure, I’ve always been interested in film and game music as a fan but I never really thought until recently that I could do that professionally. I did know, however, that it would take an immeasurable amount of hard work and dedication to learn, improve, learn, improve, etc. and finally, at the beginning of this year, I began the journey. I re-learned Logic Pro X, invested in Vienna Symphonic Library and spent a ton of hours studying tutorials and practicing. You have to start somewhere and I realized that the hardest part was just convincing myself to start. Now, half a year later, I’m very happy with how much knowledge and hands-on experience I’ve gained, and this is still just the very beginning.
What's been your biggest challenges so far, pursuing this dream?
Mixing and mastering. Of course, I wouldn’t ever place an expectation upon myself to become a professional-level mixing engineer but because I’m greedy for knowledge, I just want to be able to at least do a half-decent job at all aspects of music production. My current goal is to be able to create great-sounding demos completely by myself - using my own real and digital instruments, my own plug-ins, and my own mixing. But whereas I can watch a tutorial on how to use a certain plug-in and be fairly decent at it, mixing and mastering are art forms that require experience and real training. So as someone who is just now beginning to climb the hill of gaining mixing and mastering experience, I can definitely say that this is my biggest challenge so far. But like I said, the long term goal is to be able to just compose compose compose, and have a team of REAL mixing and mastering professionals do the mixing and mastering. In the meantime, though, I just want to not suck at doing it myself!
These days, what do you enjoy doing the most? Composing, or performing?
Jason: Composing. I’m still so new at it but I really love sitting in my home studio and just tinkering around on my plug-ins and brainstorming ideas. A pretty drastic difference from playing sold-out stadiums by Madonna’s side but there’s something so therapeutic about being in the studio that I never discovered until now. Maybe it’s the fact that with live performing, every note or riff that I play is immediately out there and thus requires me to be as immediately ‘perfect’ as possible… but with the magical Undo button when I’m composing, I can cycle through as many ideas or takes as I want until I’m satisfied. I love performing - it’s what I’m best at. But I never really wanted to just be a performing violinist forever. The real goal is to become a composer.
Your most popular video is by far the Game Of Thrones cover, with about 9 million views as we speak. You were commissioned by HBO to set up a live performance of 20 minutes of the music in New York. Please tell us about how it happened.
This was a really fun project for me. HBO asked me to first create and arrange a 20-minute medley from the Seasons 1 and 2 soundtracks, orchestrate it for about ten musicians, then select and hire the musicians, then meet in NYC to rehearse with my musicians, and then perform the piece twice as an ensemble at the Season 2 DVD/Blu-Ray Premiere at Union Square in NYC. So I was basically hired as an arranger, musical director, and performer all in one project. The performances were outdoors in 19-degree NYC winter, though, so that was kind of… cold. But it was great fun and really an honor to do some work for my favorite show!
In 2012, you toured the world with Madonna, as a part of the MDNA World Tour with a whopping 88 shows. Every show was sold out, and it grossed over 300 million - making it the 10th highest grossing tour of all time. What was it like to be a part of such a huge project?
It was such an incredible experience… aside from the joys and memories of performing with Madonna on the world’s biggest stages, I learned so much from her, from the other band members, and just from everyone, really. Life lessons, musicianship, everything. On top of that, I got to travel to 65 cities in 29 countries… and I explored every one of those cities as best I could within the time we spent in each one. I’ll take these memories with me forever.
We can imagine it's not the easiest task to get hired for such a project, how did you manage to get selected?
She and Kevin Antunes, the musical director, found me on YouTube! Crazy, right?? One day I just got an email from Kevin asking me to call him, then suddenly I was being invited by Madonna to her house to meet her and to play for her… and then suddenly I was packing two suitcases to last for one year, and then I headed to NYC to begin three months of rehearsals straight into seven straight months of touring. It’s still hard for me to even believe sometimes.
88 sold out shows on 4 continents. That's a lot of people... How was it to perform under such pressure? Were you nervous? Did you have any techniques to manage the pressure and stress?
I was beyond nervous for the first show, which was at Ramat Gan Stadium in Tel Aviv, Israel. Even though we had just rehearsed for three straight months and even though I knew that I was ready, nothing can really prepare you for that first moment when you step out on stage in front of 40,000+ screaming fans, where all you see is the most beautiful display of flashing lights imaginable. For the first few shows, I didn’t have any techniques to manage the nerves and the pressure yet but that’s when I started to develop these techniques. In the show, my big solo was during “Like A Virgin”, which Madonna had rearranged into an intimate, slow waltz consisting of only her live local, a piano, and me.
I would always be the most nervous in the moment right before beginning my solo - I mean, how could you not be? One out-of-tune note or one botched bow transition echoes through an entire stadium for all to hear. But before each time I performed the solo, I would look out into the stadium and just breathe and take in the view, breathe, focus. Ironically, the exact scene that I would look out upon and the far away sounds I could hear in the quiet stadium in this moment… became very peaceful and calming. I could literally slow my heart rate down and refocus my mind, body and fingers and then play the solo. It’s a little difficult to describe the exact scene from my perspective but when I picture it in my head, it’s clear as day and it now calms me down in any situation. It’s very special to me.
What's the most embarrassing moment you've ever had on stage?
There was one show where I was in the middle of my “Like A Virgin” solo and this huge red curtain that hangs behind me on stage during this moment must have caught a sudden draft of wind and swept up into me while I was playing. I was sustaining this intimate note on an up-bow when suddenly the curtain hit my bow and pushed my bow back the other way. I wasn’t expecting this at all when it happened and it made my bow make a really awkward MREHHH sound across the strings and I just kind of listened as it amplified around the stadium. In my head I was like, “REALLY?!?” but I calmly wiggled around the grasps of the curtain and played the rest of my solo. I was pretty upset after getting off stage but I guess I can laugh about it now!
Now, over to a few tips for our readers….
What's your advice for people who wanna get started on YouTube?
In the past, I always advised to get on the YouTube train ASAP and to begin building a fanbase but now, it’s so oversaturated and so profit-driven that it’s really difficult for new content creators to get discovered. Don’t be discouraged or intimidated by the seemingly standard super hi-def, super produced, shoot-with-multiple-cameras-in-exotic-locations videos that you see everywhere. Content is always key. If you’re a musician, keep perfecting your craft and keep inventing new ways to showcase what you do. I built my career on simple one-shot videos of me playing my electric violin in the bedroom. And those are the kinds of videos that I personally still enjoy watching the most - just simple camera shots of people doing what they love to do!
What kind of setup do you use to record your audio and video, and for editing? What kind of equipment would you recommend to people who wanna get started making good looking videos?
I'm using a 2012 Retina MacBook Pro, Logic Pro X for audio, and Adobe Premiere Pro for video. PreSonus FireStudio Project interface for recording, Shure SM81 mic for my acoustic violins. I’m using a Canon 6D with a 24-105mm lens to shoot video. You definitely don’t need to use a DSLR to make great looking videos, though. There are several Canon point-and-shoot PowerShot cameras that shoot stunning video. Recording video and audio separately is extremely important for me, though, since onboard camera mics are usually not too great.
Do you have any general tips for people who wish to make a living doing what they love?
Realize what your long term goal is and learn, study, practice, learn, try, make mistakes, learn, improve, and stop at nothing until you reach your goal. Once you reach a goal, set new goals. There’s so much crazy shit happening all over the world these days, you just don’t know what tomorrow will be like. There’s no time to waste. Be financially responsible. Look to those who are more experienced in doing what you want to do and reach out to them, learn from them, and ask smart questions.
One last question; What is success to you?
I think success is being able to make a living by doing what you love. When you’re happy, you’re successful.
Check out Jason’s YouTube channel below, like his facebook page, and make sure to give his patreon page a visit! Oh, and if you’re looking for the world’s best Skype violin lessons - it’s definitely worth dropping him a message.
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Composer, producer, entrepreneur and digital nomad from Norway, and the co-founder of Evenant. Has a strong passion for traveling, exploring new cultures, learning new skills and creating new things.