When Paul Anderson was brainstorming ways to sell pianos for his now-shuttered music store The Piano Guys in Saint George, Utah, he came across a video featuring pianist Jon Schmidt and cellist Steven Sharp Nelson performing a mash-up of “Love Story” by Taylor Swift and “Viva La Vida” by Coldplay. Anderson was dumbstruck with inspiration and wanted to make them the centerpiece of a marketing campaign for the store.
Schmidt needed a place to practice for a local concert and chose Anderson’s store; the ideas was pitched, the deal was sealed, and the rest is history. Music producer Al Van Der Beek soon joined the duo, and what was once just a marketing campaign to sell pianos exploded into the YouTube sensation that is The Piano Guys.
In less than three years, The Piano Guys have put out four albums on the Sony Masterworks label (hitting their highest debut at No. 12 on the Billboard 200 with their latest album, “Wonders“), and surpassed 500 million YouTube views with 3 million subscribers.
Despite music sales on a steady decline and the potential for getting lost on a platform as big as YouTube, The Piano Guys are convinced they can maintain their growth–as long as they stick to what got them here in the first place.
The Piano Guys made their fame by fusing classical music with popular contemporary songs. But if you scroll through their catalogue, you may wonder why some of the hottest tracks today don’t make the cut. One thing that binds The Piano Guys and has served as a guide on their career path is their Mormon faith.
“When we’re choosing songs, they have to pass what we colloquially call ‘The Disney Test,'” Nelson says. “This song we’re covering, would we be comfortable with our children watching the original video on YouTube and singing the lyrics.? Unfortunately, we have to rule out a lot of songs that use salacious material in their music videos or their lyrics are offensive. Maybe it’s about our faith, but it’s also about family. It’s about our kids. We want our kids to enjoy our stuff too.”
Although The Piano Guys are leaving a trove of chart-toppers untapped, sometimes a niche you find may not be as small as you think.
“Rather than feeling the pressure of giving in and doing what they’re doing, I get more motivated to do the opposite because I feel there is a need,” Nelson goes on to say. “We found this wonderful niche of people from all walks of life. We get comments like, ‘I’m so grateful that I don’t have to be nervous when I let my kids go on your YouTube channel or listen to your album.’ That’s so gratifying from a parents’ standpoint because I can empathize with that concern.”
As The Piano Guys’s popularity on YouTube grew, music mogul David Simone took notice and offered to be the group’s manager–an offer Anderson says was declined numerous times.
“We wanted to make our own choices as to what the music was going to be,” Anderson says. “We’re Mormons so we have a strong faith in family and good values. We heard a lot of horror stories of record companies and management forcing you to do things you didn’t want to do.”
In the end, Simone gained the group’s trust and brokered a decidedly rare contract with Sony where the label has agreed to distribute The Piano Guys’ albums internationally, but has given the group creative control, as well as sharing profits as partners rather than paying royalties.
“It has blessed us so much having that creative control,” Anderson says. “There are things we could’ve done that would’ve been detrimental but, luckily, by staying with what we believe in, it’s really helped us to continue to be happy and love what we’re doing.”
Despite their values-guided business plan, The Piano Guys want to appeal to those outside their Mormon faith. Whether it’s their carefully selected mashups or original compositions, The Piano Guys’s music is blank canvas of sorts, allowing listeners to draw their own emotional connections.
“Our faith has never been the extent where it’s exclusionary,” Nelson says. “Once we played, ‘Nearer, My God, to Thee,’ which is a great Christian hymn, but we played it next to a waterfall. There’s nothing exclusively religious about enjoying a beautiful landscape, so that’s what we hope our music is. Yes, we do cross into the religious territory to some degree but I think we keep it spiritual and non-exclusionary.”
Van Der Beek adds that their music often serves as the start of larger questions of faith.
“I’ve had many opportunities where I’ll meet a fan at a show then we’ll start talking through Facebook or email and I’m able to open up more and naturally the conversation leads to my faith,” Van Der Beek. “They’ll say things like, ‘Why do my insides feel like they’re on the outside when I listen to your music?’ Opportunities like that are special to me because I can explain to them that it’s not because of me–it’s because of God, because of the love he has for them and for all of us. I could never take credit–none of us could.”
“You’re putting yourself out there, you’re feeling vulnerable–you feel very attached to something you’ve created,” Nelson says. “The greatest way to resolve creative differences is to find the higher middle ground. I’ve looked back and said, ‘Man, I can’t believe I was asserting that my way was the better way.’ When really in the end it was a way in the middle of us that was the best.”
Another effective way to get over creative differences for The Piano Guys calls upon their faith once more. “Our biggest lifesaver is we all share the same faith and we all believe very heavily in prayer,” Schmidt says. “Whenever we come to problems or differences in opinion we pray about it.” Nelson echoes Schmidt’s sentiment, advising prayer, or even just meditation, is the perfect opportunity to realize that it’s not all about you.
“As you pray together and pray for each other, this amazing thing happens: You get out of yourself,” Nelson says. “You express gratitude for what you have in your association with one another and it’s amazing to see the prideful part of creative attrition melt away and then you’re able to talk something out for the betterment of the music and the group.”