By Paul Anderson
Jon Schmidt and Steven Sharp Nelson are two of the five Piano Guys.
By Marco R. della Cava, USA TODAY
What do you get when five Mormons with a deep love of music discover the transformative power of YouTube?
That's the back story of The Piano Guys, a group of Utah dads who've just gone from pop-music Web sensations to the newest artists on the Sony Masterworks label.
"This is kind of freaky - miraculous, really," says pianist Jon Schmidt, 46, who anchors the group on keyboards. Another plays cello, while the remaining three work on video conceptualization and production. "People like instrumental music. Lyrics can be limiting and confining."
People apparently do. Sony signed the group, whose self-titled debut album is out Oct. 2, on the strength of The Piano Guys' staggering online popularity. There have 757,000 YouTube channel subscribers, and their more than 30 videos have racked up 134 million views.
The group's quirky yet virtuoso takes on pop hits include everything from One Direction's What Makes You Beautiful (in which all five members are seen banging on one piano) to an African twist on Coldplay's Paradise (for which a piano was hoisted to the top of an imposing Utah butte).
If you haven't heard of The Piano Guys yet, you will. Their PR blitz includes an appearance on Katie Couric's new daytime talk show Sept. 17; a PBS special, Live From Red Butte (taping Sept. 19 in Salt Lake City), airing in December; and a national tour next spring.
"We're five middle-aged guys with wives and kids who are desperately holding on to our hairlines," says cellist Steven Sharp Nelson, 35. "But we also love what we do, and our fans say it shows."
And while the Sony contract has the quintet excited, don't call them giddy.
"We're all older, so we're not dancing around because we signed a record deal," says Paul Anderson, 41, the group's creative director and videographer. (Tel Stewart, 27, helps with video production ,while Al Van Der Beek, 39, is in charge of song production.) "But it was an answer to a prayer, so to speak."
An unlikely one at that. Consider that the group began forming nearly a decade ago when Schmidt, who lives in Salt Lake City, was in St. George, Utah, to give a concert and needed a place to rehearse. He popped into Anderson's store, called The Piano Guys. A friendship blossomed as Anderson became convinced that his new pal had something special.
Schmidt decided to bring cellist friend Nelson into the musical fold, and also started soliciting advice from musically inclined neighbor Van Der Beek. Stewart, who worked for Anderson as a piano mover, was quickly drawn into the mix.
So creative lightning struck in the Utah desert and the world now has a fascinating new genre of music, avant-garde meets pop, John Cage meets John Tesh.
"There's a lot of this, music videos popping up that aren't maybe on the radar of labels or record executives, but they get traction with the public," says Ben Relles, head of content strategy at YouTube Next Lab, which coaches some of the site's top video talent. "As we've seen with (video-bred star duo) Karmin, the Web is a good place for personalities that might not have emerged from the mainstream."
Although the mainstream, ultimately, is still where artists want to be, says Steve Knopper, a contributing editor at Rolling Stone.
"You want to be on a label for one reason, to get on the radio," he says. "It's great to have a lot of followers on YouTube, but you can't just call up a big radio station and say, 'I have a lot of fans, play my song.' You need a label for that."
The Piano Guys certainly wouldn't turn down a taste of success; a little extra cash could help, considering they have 13 kids between them. But while making a top-selling record would be nice, what really motivates these friends is making a difference.
A fan wrote the band recently that "they were contemplating suicide, but after hearing one of our songs, they changed their mind," says Schmidt. "That's bigger than money or personal fame. That's everything."