By Sahil Patel
It’s a tale as old as time, a song as old as rhyme: A supremely talented violinist slash performance artist goes on “America’s Got Talent” and shows what she is capable of to millions of viewers, only to be told by a British hack named Piers Morgan that she isn’t “good enough” to do what she does.
OK, maybe the story’s not exactly the Grimm fairy tale you’re thinking of. But what Lindsey Stirling experienced as a quarter-finalist on “America’s Got Talent” in 2010 is definitely something anyone can relate to. There isn’t a single person in this world who hasn’t dreamt of doing something or being somebody, and then hasn’t come across a naysayer or roadblock along the way.
Granted, most people aren’t lucky enough to get a chance to pursue their dreams, and even fewer get as tantalizingly close to the achieving them as Stirling did in 2010. But an even smaller amount have to stand on the big stage and be told in front of millions of people that they just don’t cut it.
“I remember when I was preparing for the live round — this was when America finally got the chance to vote for you — I thought this would be my ‘make or break’ moment,” says Stirling, on a break between rehearsals for her scheduled performance at the YouTube Music Awards. “It wasn’t only that I didn’t continue on the show, but to be so harshly criticized on stage on live TV, when I put myself out there as a solo artist…”
It would make anyone want to crawl inside a hole and never come out. “I remember being so hurt,” she says. “I considered going back to being a backup person on a country band — maybe this dancing/violin thing of mine was a bad idea.”
Alright, fine, maybe in some ways Stirling’s story is a fairy tale or a movie. Because if anything, this sounds like that moment you see or read in every narrative arc — you know which one I’m referring to, that “night is darkest before the dawn” moment. This was that for Stirling. Because as she tells it, right after having those crushing doubts, she realized that this “dancing/violin” thing is what she truly loved. All she had to do was “work harder” and “find ways to continue developing this idea.”
Easy! Well, not quite. “After [‘America’s Got Talent’], I tried several ways to get my music heard. I auditioned for talent agencies and variety shows,” she says. “But it seemed like every time I would try, the door would close in my face, or I’d be ignored, or told that I needed to change.”
But, that’s life, right? It’s a Capital B that will beat you down, wait for you to make a motion to get back up, and then beat you down again. Not many choose to get back up.
Stirling joined YouTube on May 20, 2007 — well before “America’s Got Talent” — but she didn’t really get her “start” on YouTube until afterwards.
“I had a channel, but there was only one video on it, which I uploaded just for kicks,” says Stirling. “For a while, I wasn’t really doing anything with YouTube at all — I didn’t even understand what it was.”
It wasn’t until after “America’s Got Talent,” and after more doors continued to close, that Stirling decided to give YouTube a real shot — and finally had something go her way.
“It all started with Devin Graham,” says Stirling. “He offered to do a free music video for me, the only stipulation was that it would live on his channel. At the time, he had about 20,000 subscribers, which to me seemed like a ton — it was a big number of people who might hear my music.”
And they did. With that one video, Stirling says her music started to sell — people would flock to her “tiny channel” to watch her videos and tell her they loved her music. And these were “real people,” the people she wanted to make music for, not “business people.” “The light went on in my head,” she says. “I can control my career over here [YouTube]. I can be what I want to be, and I don’t have to wait for someone to tell me that I was good enough.”
With her “start” on YouTube secure, Stirling dove deep into the YouTube ecosystem. She consumed everything she could about building a fanbase. “I researched how to be the best YouTuber — I did collaborations, I learned that I had to stay true to myself, which is something my fans gravitate to.”
Her stock quickly rose, and within three years of her worst professional moment, she’s arguably one of the most famous YouTubers around. Want proof? Here are some stats:
- Her main LindseyStomp channel has more than 3.5 million subscribers.
- A music video for her original song, “Crystallize,” has been viewed close to 77 million times to date. It was also the eighth most-watched video on YouTube (that’s all of YouTube) in 2012.
- The music video for her cover of Imagine Dragons’ “Radioactive,” which she did with Pentatonix, has nearly 43 million views, and earned her a YouTube Music Award for “Response of the Year.”
- Four of her six most popular videos are original songs.
Oh, and she recently completed her first world tour. “A year-and-a-half ago, if you had told me that by now I would have toured the world, I would have said no way,” she says. “It’s crazy that it happened so quickly, sometimes I have to stop myself and remember how amazing this is.”
When I ask Stirling what drives her, she says it’s her passion for her craft. She’s chasing and remarkably succeeding at her One Big Dream. Which I get; if I was the starting goaltender for the New York Rangers, I probably wouldn’t need something to “drive” me — the fact that I was doing something I love would be enough to keep me going forever.
But for Stirling, I think it’s a little more than just her passion for her music. She’s one of a select group of musicians to come out of YouTube and be known for her own music. Her fans on YouTube validated her passion, after she was judged by countless people (including British hacks) as being not up to snuff. “To hear from people around the world; to get emails and letters about my shows; for people to say my music makes them happy; that my songs have helped them overcome things like depression — I believe in certain values and creating things that are uplifting,” she says. “It’s amazing that there are people who live all over this world, who speak different languages, but have chosen me to be a part of their day. To know that I in some way made a difference in their lives, it’s a real special feeling.”
It’s this connection with her fanbase that convinced her to launch a second channel, which serves more to provide a behind-the-scenes look into her life. “I did it kind of as an experiment because my fans kept on telling me to do vlogs,” she says. “I learned a lot doing it — at meet-and-greets, fans would talk more about how much they loved my pumpkin-carving video than the song I had released that week.” Though she’s quick to add: “Of course, music videos have more views because they’re more shareable, but behind-the-scenes stuff has a different purpose — it’s for fans who want to know more about my everyday life. In fact, my fans on that channel call me Lindsey. Not Lindsey Stirling. Just Lindsey.”
But as her profile in the music industry continues to grow, will she be able to keep up with the demands of having two channels? Stirling understands the conflict, and has tried to combat the slower release schedule (she went from one music video a month on her main channel to roughly one every two months) by releasing more behind-the-scenes content. “It’s going to get harder and harder, but I definitely always want to use YouTube as my platform.”
She’s not the only one, though. Forget “YouTube stars,” mainstream musicians are also looking to YouTube as a platform to build an audience for their songs and videos. “That line [between YouTube star and mainstream star] is going to get more blurred as time goes on,” says Stirling. “I was talking to some guy at Atlantic Records, and he was telling me how different things are now in the industry. Atlantic no longer has to comb high and low for new artists — artists are rising themselves on YouTube, and all Atlantic has to do is swoop in and pick them up.”
“That’s the new model,” she continues. “Eventually it’s not going to matter if you are ‘mainstream’ or are big on YouTube — at some point, it’s all going to be synonymous.”
Don’t be surprised if she’s the one who makes this Great Merger happen. “I hope to be nominated for a Grammy,” says Stirling. “I want to be the artist that bridges the gap.”
Three years ago, that might have sounded far-fetched; today, it doesn’t sound crazy at all.
Photo: Eric Ryan Anderson