For the past few years, the idea of record labels as sole judges of musical talent has been replaced by a much more democratic and participatory platform: YouTube. Justin Bieber, OK Go, Lady Gaga, and more recently Greyson Michael Chance are all examples of artists discovered by the public; with millions of views (in Gaga’s case, one billion), they all went on to reach stardom. It was only last year that 21-year-old New Jersey native Jason Yang started uploading his videos in which he covered big music hits such as Kanye’s “Heartless” or Coldplay’s “Viva la Vida”… on his electric violin! In just a year, the prodigy with a rock’n’roll attitude has refuted the common idea that the violin should be systematically associated with classical music. As one YouTube user says of his video: “Music has never been this alive.”
How old were you when you first started playing the violin?
I was six years old. That was classical acoustic violin and I took lessons all the way until the end of high school. While all the other kids were doing all these other things, I was kind of stuck at home practicing.
And when was your first introduction to electric violin?
I got my first one in high school. My dad had been showing me those clips of Vanessa Mae – another electric violinist who inspired me because of how she had branched out of the classical world. But as a teenager in New Jersey, there was nothing much to do with an electric violin. All the other kids were playing acoustic classical violin, so I just jammed with the electric one every now and then.
So you only really started to play seriously in college?
College really wasn’t the decisive factor. A couple of years ago, one of my good friends sent me an email saying that he found a flyer floating around the jazz studio in the art department. The flyer indicated that there was an audition for the Panasonic at the Consumer Electronic Show in Vegas in January for a “guitarist or electric violinist (violinist must be classically trained but have serious rock chops).” This was two or three days before the audition, so I called the number right away, got the last audition spot for that Saturday, and got the gig.
When did you start putting your videos on YouTube?
Once again, totally a matter of circumstances! It was only last year in the spring that I bought some new toys for the electric violin, like a loop station, some guitar effects, and pedals. I was mostly jamming around by myself and, since I had a small digital camera, I decided to have a friend film me. The audio was terrible; the camera was really shaky… Anyway, I posted the video on Facebook, and then all of a sudden I’m getting lots of comments and a ton of people responding to it. So I decided to do a second one and step it up!
Was the camera at least stable in that second video?
[laughs] Yeah, I put it on a tripod, cleaned up my room and actually thought about what it was that I would be playing this time. I put it up on Facebook once again and got even more responses. Then I decided to upload the following videos on YouTube. I did a Coldplay one, as well as MGMT and some others… Suddenly, I started getting interestingly high amount of views for, to be honest, not really well-made videos. People started kind of spreading my stuff around, and subscriber numbers went up along with views. By the time summer came around I was getting five- to six-digit views on each of these videos. Viewers started seeing me as “the creative musician,” adapting songs, improvising, and doing original stuff on my equipment. As of today I have over 30,000 subscribers and over two million total views.
And from what I’ve been reading, the comments are extremely positive! Do you have any personal stories involving one of your followers?
Yeah… I think recently someone sent me a message telling how much he respects and supports me. He had tried to start up a small business right when the recession hit and that ended up not working. He was saying that it was inspiring to him that even though the economy is not in a good shape, I’m still having fun and keeping a high morale. Lots of people also tell me that this encourages them to start learning the violin.
As I was watching your videos, it didn’t seem like you were following sheet music. Were you playing out of memory or was it improvisation?
I actually play it all by ear. My sister and I both have perfect pitch, which helps with transcribing music or if I’m just listening to something I want to play.
Can you talk a little bit about the electric violin field in general?
Sure… I’d say that the electric violin field is still very much unexplored. I mean, even with Vanessa Mae inspiring lots of people like me in the early 90s, it hasn’t become recognized… or as recognized in the overall broad society of music as much as I foresee it being. From my experience, a lot of people have a problem dissociating electric violin and electric guitar because they sound somewhat similar. Haters on YouTube will comment and say, “He plays his violin like an electric guitar,” or, “You’re not a guitarist. Stop trying to be one.” But from my perspective, I’m not playing electric guitar on an electric violin. I’m really playing electric violin on an electric violin! For some reason, this still hasn’t been successfully communicated. I see popular bands including violin in their songs, but most people still don’t consider it as a mainstream instrument. What I want to do is change that.
Do you even have any competitors?
There are a few. Most of them aren’t even in the U.S.! But the fact that I can tell you exactly who is doing the whole electric violin thing is a testimony as to how small that world is. Plus, I’m confident in my background and abilities that I’ve gathered since I’ve started. A lot of it is going to be my own creativity and entrepreneurial thinking, as well as connections and timing – just like I got my own corporate gig, which was about circumstances and luck. It’ll be a messed-up combination of all that which will determine where I end up.
Apart from the corporate gigs you’ve mentioned and your YouTube videos, have you had any other opportunities to perform in public?
I’m also the violinist in this rock Cirque du Soleil type of show called The Zodiac Show, in which I played with Adam Lambert from American Idol – I’m friends with him from there.
Where do you see yourself going in the future?
Ideally, I’d like to be able to write, produce, and sell my own music. And I’m putting a strong emphasis on the “sell” [laughs] because you and everybody know how small of a percentage of inspiring musicians make the cut and actually have that as their main source of income. My ideal would be to not have a day job and to do music performing, recording, and having sessions with other artists. Of course, I’m not really sure how plausible that’ll be. Part of me wants to go forward with electric violin and the other realistic side is like: “How is it possible? How are you going to pay for rent?”
How can our readers contribute to your success?
On top of everything, I need exposure; which is exactly what you guys are doing with Daily BR!NK… If more and more people are seeing my stuff, know my work, my style, my looks… that will fit into what I ultimately need: be hired and make music. It’ll be a sad, sad, day when I can’t make any money from playing music, in which case I would not be able to do it anymore. Also, I could definitely use an agent. Not necessarily a personal manager, since I’m not so much in demand that I would need one. I need someone who is well-connected within the industry, who knows bands, major artists, or labels who could use me or hire me.