Valentina Lisitsa: My ten tips for how to become a viral YouTube star

In 2007 the brilliant Ukrainian pianist found her career was floundering. The concert bookings weren’t coming in and she didn’t have any recordings to speak of. And then, she started uploading videos of her performances to YouTube…

Now she can sell out concert halls, her recordings are best-sellers and she is indisputably one of the classical world's biggest stars. She spoke to us exclusively and shared her tips for making it on YouTube – and beyond.

1. Take all the chances that come your way

“When I started making videos, YouTube was basically nowhere – MySpace was the big thing for musicians. Now that’s gone the same way as the dinosaurs! The first video I posted was of Rachmaninov's 'Little Red Riding Hood' Etude (below) and it was made by a group of video students. It was basically a class project for them. It would be very nice to say that everything that came afterwards was planned, but actually it was just taking chances. Do you know that joke about a man who prays to God to win the lottery? God finally replies and says ‘At least buy a ticket.’ YouTube was a lucky lottery ticket for me. My biggest piece of advice would be: take any chances that come your way.”

2. Let your followers grow organically

“Things took off very slowly for me on YouTube. It started with a small group of people and then my faithful friends went out and recruited others. So it started as a trickle, turned into a river and eventually became a flood. I know there are companies now you can pay to get you followers but it’s better to have natural, organic growth. It’s about interacting with your audience and – as a musician – getting them into concert halls to listen to you.”

3. Only play pieces you love

“When I started making these videos I had no concerts to speak of, so I wanted to find an audience and play for those people. The important thing was just to play the pieces I liked. Because once you have the bug of love for a piece you want to share it – to infect other people with your love. For me it’s not about playing the most popular pieces – I have made a recording of Beethoven’s 'Moonlight' Sonata, and it has had millions of views. But for me, that’s not as much of an achievement as having a few hundred thousand views of an unknown Shostakovich sonata.”

4. Think about playing unknown pieces

“If you type ‘Moonlight Sonata’ into YouTube there are thousands of results. So ask yourself – what could you, as a young musician, bring to the music which nobody else has? You don’t have to play popular music, why not play some really unknown pieces of music – something that isn’t on YouTube at all?”

5. Find the best piano you can

“If you’re a pianist, the instrument is 80 per cent of the success of your video. Of course there’s a difference between the microphone in your video camera and a microphone that costs £3,000, but once the sound has been compressed by YouTube and people are listening through their phone or computer speakers, it’s the piano and the acoustic that become crucial.”

6. Please yourself first and foremost

“I don’t pay much attention to visuals – I only think about my taste, because everyone has such different tastes. Every time I do something differently, such as use different camera angles, I get comments saying ‘Oh Valentina, we hate it, it’s horrible, please switch back to using a single camera’. I recently filmed a video using a GoPro – the camera that people use for extreme sports – but because so many people objected I then put up three versions of the video using three different camera angles and invited my followers to make their own edits.”

7. Don’t do it to ‘get rich’

“Don’t think of YouTube in terms of ‘I’m going to get millions of users and get rich’. If you wanted to get rich via YouTube, it would be better to make silly cat videos! But as a free means of publicising yourself, YouTube is an invaluable tool. Before YouTube, if you wanted someone across the globe to know how you play, you'd have had to send a CD – which you would have had to produce yourself – and it would probably have ended up in the bin. Now, you can just send a link and it costs you nothing.”

8. Don’t make the set-up too elaborate

“The most common mistake musicians make on YouTube is having a too-elaborate set-up. People want to make it pretty – but after all it’s about the music. Sometimes it works – if you’re playing a Chopin Nocturne, a photograph or footage of an open landscape would be fine. But it’s a minefield, because I see so many people playing serious music with a Liberace-like set-up of candelabras. And it looks silly. I did one video with candles – it was Schwanengesang by Schubert [arranged by Liszt] – but that made sense, I think, because the piece is all about death. The idea was that as the piece went on, the candles would burn down.”

9. Talk to your followers

“YouTube is pretty good at letting people [who subscribe to your channel] know when there’s a new video up, and my followers know that once I put up a new video, I’m there on the page for them to talk to directly, in real time. It’s a basic thing but it ensures views and interactions.”

10. Hold your nerve when it comes to the music establishment

“I spent a few years trying to persuade the music establishment that having a YouTube channel was a valid way of reaching people and bringing them into the concert hall. In pop, new music is often released on YouTube first, but classical music is used to doing things the old-fashioned way. So it was a great challenge and experience both for me and the recording label at first – to keep reassuring people who are used to working in an old-fashioned way, that the new ways do work well.”

Valentina Lisitsa’s new recording of works by Philip Glass is out on Decca on 2 March. She also contributes to Decca’s forthcoming box-set of Scriabin’s complete works.