Sam Tsui: From YouTube star to Pop Music Showman

One of the first independent musicians to harness YouTube and turn it into a career-making avenue was Sam Tsui. Since he started, he’s garnered millions of fans, opened for the biggest in the business and now he’s preparing to release an album of all new, all original, music.  As cool as he is talented, Sam talked to BLEEP about the current digital landscape and his new single, “Cameo.”

Tsui_Silver Jacket New

Photos by Elias Tahan

What made you fall in love with music?

I come from a somewhat musical family. My mom was a high school music teacher in Iowa. My dad was from Hong Kong and his mother was a Chinese opera singer. So on both sides, I had the musical threads. In high school, I did choir and musicals and the things that help teenagers fall in love with performing. I was lucky to get into this digital content when it was still early.

Yes, you were one of the first artists to truly harness YouTube and turn it into a viable place to reach an audience. Was there a moment when you realized this might not be something temporary – that it may be a career opening path?

There were a couple viral hits early on, specifically the Michael Jackson medley. That was the first video to hit a million views and then the press became interested. Moments like that were moments that said this platform has the potential to reach beyond my immediate family and friends circle. At that point, the content took on a life of its own.

The moment I viewed this as a career starter was when I released the first couple original songs and they got as much love and attention as the covers. That was a really exciting time when I realized the fan base I was growing wasn’t there just for the new versions of pop songs – they were there became of my vision for the music. It was an indicator for me to use the platform to launch what I really wanted to be doing, which was my own music.

Let’s be honest, the social media terrain has become infinitely more crowded since you started. How do you choose what to release in order to cut through the noise?

The whole landscape has changed. There’s more attention on it and there are more people creating. But I think that’s a positive thing. When I first started, there was a sense that artists creating stuff online was a novelty.  In the last couple years, the various industries that are represented online are taking a more serious eye to the digital space. It’s opened up more opportunities for us as a result.

When it comes to how I cut through the noise, I think it’s important not to forget what people crave from digital creators is something real and genuine. That’s the attraction. There aren’t middlemen between you and distributing your content. I continue putting out stuff that has a distinct voice. There’s a temptation to follow trends, but I’ve found the best stuff is the stuff I feel like only I could have made.

Talk to me about your new single, “Cameo.”

It’s the first single for my upcoming album. It’s been really different to work on something like this album, sitting on all this content and waiting to release it. I’m used to having a release schedule with my content every week so it’s been a very different process. The album represents the first step in a slightly new sound. I’m producing or co-producing the whole album and I wrote the whole album so it’s 100% me. That’s what people like from musicians who come from the digital space – we do it all. The music reflects that.

The video is pulsing and sensual and artistic and super cool. Where did the direction come from?

I worked with my friend Jade Ehlers who directed the video. Coming from the space of digital creation, we are some of the most annoying people to work with because we’re used to being super involved in every aspect of the process. I had a long list of imagery and conceptual stuff I wanted and we worked out the idea. I also get excited to throw dance stuff in there. I wanted to tell vignettes of fleeting, momentary cameos. It all represents the new direction and I’m so beyond proud of the result. I was interested in what some of the longtime fans would say about it and the overwhelming positive reaction they’ve shown is such a huge excitement for me.

Some videos garner millions of views, some land in the thousands. How do you gauge success for yourself?

I think every creator in this space grapples with that. There’s a balance. You want as many people as possible to see your work, but at some point you have to let the numbers go. When you’re putting out tons of content like I am, there are different measures for what I consider a success. I know my original stuff won’t get as many hits as the Michael Jackson stuff, but I’m gauging success with what the fans are saying about it. There’s the business side of things – the number of views or streams on Spotify or sales for tickets – all of that factors into me supporting a multi-faceted musical career.

So now that the single is out, what’s next?

There are a couple more singles I will be releasing in the coming months and the album will release at the end of the year. Then I plan on touring with the album next year. As much as I love YouTube, I come from a live performing background and I love doing that.

Interview by Ryan Brinson
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