On Sunday night, Kurt Schneider, CC ’10, sat on his friend Jake Bruene’s, CC ’09, couch to read through the script of College Musical. The two had just completed a final draft for the feature-length film, based on the “College Musical” YouTube series directed and produced by Schneider, that will begin shooting over the summer. The script was projected from Bruene’s laptop onto his television, which sat in a corner opposite an electric keyboard and a kitchen counter cluttered with cereal boxes. A few friends showed up to listen and give feedback, and they sprawled on couches facing the screen. As everyone took turns reading, Schneider listened intently and scribbled notes on the back of a playbill he found on the floor. He was hoping to convince the singer JoJo to play the lead in the movie, and he and Bruene were polishing the script in order to send a copy to her agent that night.
“You remember that girl who sang, ‘It’s just a little too late, a little too wrong—’” asked Schneider.
TJ Smith, ES ’10, a friend who was attending the read-through, broke in with the harmony: “And I can’t wa-a-a-it!”
“Kurt has a huge crush on her,” said Bruene. Schneider nodded. A few moments later, Bruene spoke again, thoughtfully: “If you took someone who hasn’t seen Kurt in a year and said that he was sending the script to JoJo tonight, they’d think we were joking.” From the couch, Smith continued to sing in a muted falsetto.
Schneider nodded again. “They’d be like, ‘Yeah, right.’”
Over the last several months, Schneider has transformed from a kid with a vision and a keyboard into a minor celebrity. His YouTube channel, KurtHugoSchneider, has nearly 90,000 subscribers—viewers asking to be notified of new uploads—and just under 19 million hits for all of the videos he has produced. He was a guest on The Bonnie Hunt Show this September, and his work has been picked up by Perez Hilton, CNN and Time magazine. Schneider recently scored an invitation to appear on The Today Show alongside longtime high-school friend Sam Tsui, DC ’11, the face of the Schneider YouTube brand.
It was just under a year ago that Schneider released the first episode of “College Musical” on YouTube. Schneider and Bruene were friends, both interested in music, and they often tossed project ideas back and forth while hanging out in Bruene’s apartment. When the inspiration for “College Musical” came to them, they decided to put it down on paper. “One night, we just busted out the first two episodes,” said Schneider. “We were like, ‘OK, let’s do it. Now that we wrote it, we have to do it.’”
Schneider and Bruene completed the script together, and Schneider composed the songs. He also took charge of casting, sending out emails to students he’d seen in performances around Yale asking them to join the project. “I was just a kid who had an idea, and it was like, ‘Who the fuck is this Kurt Schneider kid, and is this going to be anything real?’” he told me, in a recent interview.
He managed to gather a group of interested singers, and shot the video on Yale’s campus in the fall of 2008. When production finished in January, Schneider uploaded the video to YouTube, and he and the rest of the crew publicized the project by sending out Facebook messages to everyone they knew. “It was, like, people down the hall. A lot of Yalies, Facebook friends,” said Schneider. “Nowadays, it’s everyone.”
While the first installments of “College Musical” were popular among Yale students and people acquainted with the crew, Schneider’s online presence exploded after he produced a Michael Jackson medley, starring Tsui, following the singer’s death this summer. Schneider recorded Tsui performing the melody and five-part harmony on separate tracks, and combined them in a single video. The result is what looks like a group of talented sextuplets singing in peppy synchrony, as Schneider beatboxes on the side of the stage. The medley has attracted over four million viewers, among them celebrity blogger Perez Hilton, who placed a link to the video on his website.
The idea of having Tsui accompany himself came to Schneider last year, when he asked Tsui to sing a duet from High School Musical III alongside a female vocalist. “An hour or so before, [Schneider] called me and said that the girl couldn’t make it,” said Tsui. “He was like, ‘Well, you know, the girl part isn’t that high…’”
Schneider blended tracks of Tsui singing both parts of the duet, and finished product got almost 3,000 hits on the first day. “We thought, ‘This is a good formula!’” said Tsui. “In retrospect, that’s nothing, of course. But at the time, we were beside ourselves with how popular it was becoming.”
Besides the novelty of the medley, an acute sense of timing contributed to the video’s success. “If Michael Jackson didn’t die, I probably wouldn’t have written it, to be honest. That’s a little bit harsh, but that’s kind of the way it is,” said Schneider. He recognized that in the days and months following Jackson’s death, people would be rediscovering the singer’s music and putting a cover of his songs onto a searchable database was a guarantee for hits.
“You can’t just write an original song, think it’s great, put it on the Internet, and expect it to blow up,” said Schneider. “That’s not going to work.” While Schneider chooses the songs for his videos partly out of pure love for pop music (“There’s sort of a teenage girl deep inside of him somewhere,” joked Tsui), his projects are also chosen with a keen business sense. “There’s a saying in Hollywood which is, ‘It’s not creative unless it sells,’” said Schneider. “And I kind of agree with that.”
The phenomenal success of the Jackson medley has repeated itself in other collaborations between Schneider and Tsui, including a Lady Gaga medley and covers of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” and Beyoncé’s “Halo,” all raking in over one million views each. Schneider and Tsui just announced the completion of a download-only album of covers to be marketed on iTunes. Gaining a large fan base has opened up the possibility for Schneider to do original songs, while attracting the attention and support of financial backers for larger independent projects like the College Musical movie.
“At the beginning, when we weren’t as popular, it was all about finding the right material,” said Tsui. “Now we’ve sort of built up this street cred, almost, and people aren’t just watching our videos because we’re doing a Beyoncé thing, or a Lady Gaga thing. People are actually starting to watch our videos because it’s just us, and they know us, and they like us.”
Andrew Johnson, ES ’06, who met Schneider through their mutual friend, Bruene, and provided the score for “College Musical,” attributes Schneider’s success to a combination of sonic intuition and creative ability—his knack for identifying what will be popular. “He can predict, before anyone else that I’ve ever met, when a song that he’s heard for the first time is going to go to number one. And it always does. He’s actually never been wrong, that I’ve ever heard,” said Johnson.
Schneider’s intuitive ability to recognize what sells was, in large part, the reason that Johnson, who works in the admissions office, selected him to produce the music for Yale’s own YouTube sensation, the new admissions musical, “That’s Why I Chose Yale.” The team behind the video wanted to create a product to capture and hold the attention of prospective students, and Schneider’s creative input was requested to shape the sound of the musical.
“Everything you hear in that video is Kurt,” said Johnson. In addition to Schneider’s musical sense, he was recruited for his knowledge of sound production, mastery of recording equipment, and technical skills that enable him to turn his vision into reality. He was in charge of gathering equipment; recording the singers, dialogue, and instrumentation; and dubbing the entire video. “He’s got the pop sensibility to know what sells and what’s catchy,” said Johnson. “On the other hand, he also knows how to produce that.”
Schneider’s high school math teacher, Stuart Schwartz, remembers his former student as a brilliant pupil and a quick study. “I’ve never met a student who can learn things so quickly,” he said. Schneider, now a math major at Yale, became close to Schwartz while working on his senior project. When Schneider started getting interested in recording, Schwartz, an amateur pianist, offered to let Schneider use his electric keyboard and recording equipment. “I sort of gave him the key to my house, and said, ‘Come over whenever you want,’” recalled Schwartz. “He practically lived here one summer.”
In no time, Schneider had mastered the equipment. He would come over to use the keyboard and work for hours on end, not letting his concentration be broken even when Schwartz’s cat wandered into the room and jumped on the keys. Schwartz marveled at the remarkable speed with which Schneider could transpose notes, seeing this talent as the intersection of mathematics and music. “The theories of mathematical transformation to be able to go from one to the other—but he does it so quickly, and then it translates to his fingers. It’s just amazing to me,” he gushed.
After seeing how much Schneider enjoyed using the keyboard, Schwartz offered to let him borrow it. “I meant to lend it to him for maybe a month or so, but it turns out that after four years, he still has it,” said Schwartz. “Whenever I see these videos that he has, I see my keyboard.”
It was Schwartz who facilitated the first collaboration between Schneider and Tsui. Both attended Wissahickon High School in Ambler, Penn., and rode the same bus. Schneider asked Tsui to sing the first song that he ever wrote. They borrowed Schwartz’s keyboard and his Mac, which had GarageBand, and recorded the song in their teacher’s living room.
Without all the equipment of a professional recording studio, the pair had to improvise. For a pop screen in front of the microphone, recalled Tsui, “We literally took a hanger and twisted it into a circle, and stretched pantyhose over it, and put it in front of the mic. It was sort of the classic ghetto recording system.”
“Listening to it now, I think, ‘My God, I can’t believe I ever did that,’” said Schneider, who now refuses to share the video with anyone. “It’s going to be infamous.”
After Schneider graduated from Wissahickon and left for college, he and Tsui stayed in touch, and when Tsui arrived at Yale a year later, Schneider asked Tsui to star in “College Musical.” After producing the first video and seeing the popularity of the HSM “duet,” Schneider proposed a partnership to Tsui.
“He basically sent me this email, like, it’s going to take a lot of hard work, and we’ll have to upload a ton of videos, but if you want to work together, I think we could make this a thing. I think we could get famous together,” remembered Tsui.
Schneider’s eye for success turned out to work for people as well as pop songs. His work with Tsui has earned both of them stacks of fan mail, requests for sheet music, and, increasingly, invitations to perform. The pair recently received an email from the President of the Michael Jackson fan club in the Czech Republic, offering to fly the two of them out in exchange for a concert, and they have also been invited to appear on a morning show in China. School sometimes gets in the way of accepting offers to perform all over the globe—on The Bonnie Hunt Show, Tsui joked about doing his homework on the plane. Still, both bask in the recognition of fans and media.
“I was in LA, across the country, just a week ago, and I got stopped like five times. Like, ‘Hey, you’re that YouTube guy!’” said Tsui. “While I can say 15 million, or however many views our videos have gotten, that just feels like a number that you see on a screen. It doesn’t really register until you’re walking down the street and someone actually recognizes you.”
Both Tsui and Schneider attribute much of their success to the spectacular power of YouTube. “It’s really revolutionizing the entertainment industry in some ways, in that you don’t need to know the right people, or to have all these connections already, or to have money, in order to get seen,” said Tsui. “That’s meant that unknown people from everywhere are getting insane amounts of exposure with just the click of a button. It’s definitely been the means by which we’ve gotten as popular as we have.”
The beauty of YouTube is the unknown helping the unknown—an individually powerless audience lifting artists from obscurity through the force of the masses. “People see the numbers, like, four million people watch this,” said Schneider. “Without that, we wouldn’t be on whatever show, we wouldn’t be shooting a movie this summer. They’re just ordinary people going around watching stuff, but that’s kind of what makes things happen.”
Not everyone gets famous on YouTube, of course, and one can’t chalk up Schneider’s success to his ability to click a button. “You can’t just be the director and the guy who wants to write a song. You also have to be a producer and a businessman. It’s a business, much more so than people realize,” said Schneider. “I think we’ve been smart about the way we’ve selected the things we do.” The number of subscribers on Schneider’s YouTube channel is testimony to the quality of his work—not only are people drawn to watch one of his videos, but they also show interest in watching more.
“He’s learned how to work the system of YouTube and viral marketing like no one else, maybe, in the world right now,” said his newest Youtube darling, Allison Williams, MC ’10, who has been working with Schneider since he asked her to play the part of Bianca in “College Musical.” In the past week, Schneider has produced two videos of Williams singing solo, performing covers of Ke$ha’s “Tik Tok” and Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” (a song which Justin Timberlake and Matt Morris covered on the Hope for Haiti album, and is now the number two single on iTunes). According to Williams, making the videos was Schneider’s idea, with the intention of expanding her YouTube presence and promoting the College Musical film.
Combined, the two videos already have over 200,000 hits, further proof that Schneider can recognize and capitalize on star power. While launching others into fame, he admitted that being stuck behind the scenes can sometimes be frustrating.
“In music, the focus is always on the singer. The audience needs someone who they can identify with, someone who’s the star,” said Schneider. “For every star, there’s an inordinate amount of work that goes on behind them. But no one is like, ‘I’m a huge fan of that songwriter.’ I mean, whatever your favorite song is nowadays, who knows who wrote it?”
Despite these frustrations, Schneider doesn’t plan to come out from behind the camera. While he provides backup for some of his videos, he keeps his voice mainly to himself. “I’m not star material,” he said—and if anyone is able to recognize a star, it’s Schneider. He‘s content to keep putting other people in the spotlight, beginning with College Musical this summer and continuing into a future that seems impossibly full.
When considering the reception of his work so far, Schneider is both cool and humble. “I always knew we had everything it took.” he said. “And then when it actually happens, it’s always a little bit of a surprise.”