In Ep. 91 of Earned, Conor sits down with Peter Hollens, a powerhouse a cappella singer who has amassed a following of over 3M subscribers on YouTube and over a billion views across his various social channels.
To start the show, Peter explains why, despite being an incredibly successful creator, he has pursued other business ventures, including investing, consulting, and recently founding his own business (Inhouse Creators), and how these interests help him avoid burnout. We then learn how Peter leverages AI like ChatGPT to help him create his content, and Peter emphasizes the importance of engineering good prompts in order to yield good outcomes. Next, we unpack Peter’s journey as a creator over the last decade (he began creating full-time in 2011), and hear why signing with a major record label was one of his biggest regrets. Peter explains why singers and creators should always try to do things themselves, and learn by failing as early and often as they can. We then discuss the challenges of finding balance as both a content creator and a father, before Peter shares the story of losing his voice—and essentially, his identity—for 18 months due to a stubborn granuloma. We also learn how during that time, Peter was able to discover his passion and business acumen for consulting companies about the creator economy, an experience that later inspired his new business: Inhouse Creators. To close the show, Peter explains how Inhouse Creators works to connect businesses to experienced, savvy creators to produce their content, and why companies that don’t invest in the creator economy will get left behind.
The following interview has been lightly edited for concision.
“Do it yourself and learn from yourself and fail as early and often as you can”: Peter Hollens’ Journey as a Creator
Conor Begley: Let's talk a little bit about your journey as a creator. And I know a big part of that journey, which I think is fascinating, is that you’ve said the biggest mistake you made was signing with a major record label. So one, give us a quick overview of how you got here, because it's been over a decade; two, talk about that mistake; and then three, what is your advice to other creators that are considering signing with a record label?
Peter Hollens: I started doing the creator thing full-time in 2011. Similarly to how I taught myself recording engineering, I saw people on YouTube within the vertical of music, the Boyce Avenues of the world and Kurt Hugo Schneider. And I was like, that looks like a business. So I taught myself Final Cut Pro, and I started releasing content because I was already recording a cappella music. Within the a cappella genre, I'm a big fish in a small pond. The movie Pitch Perfect was made about my wife's group at the University of Oregon. The Bellas are the group that she started and we're like the Danny and Sandy of a cappella.
Anyway, I started releasing content and I never had a big viral sensation, but I had some really great collaborators early on that had larger distribution, and I was creating a very small niche. I was always providing a lot of unique value propositions to my collaborators, creating something that their fans had never seen, and I would always do all the work, pay for all the pre-production, and then split revenue 50/ 50 from the first penny. So within each and every collaboration, I always got rid of money from the equation, and it was always about knowledge and sharing and friendship, which was really quintessential, I think, to my success. Lindsey Stirling, this amazing electric violinist, really helped change my mindset that my peers in the creator space weren’t my competitors, they were my collaborators. I think the music world really forces the competition thing on you because of all the awards and all of the billboard rankings.
So fast forward to my second major label offering. My wife was eight months pregnant, and it was so much money, I was like, how can I turn this down? So I accepted it and it was very difficult. I definitely feel like I've lost multiple years of my life due to that struggle. They wanted to force a manager on me, and they would never take my calls and listen to what I wanted. And then even when I would go to the office and tell them what I wanted to do, they would have everybody come into the room, take notes and be like, great, we'll do that. Every time I did that, I was like, I just consulted them and they are going to do that for all their artists, and they're not paying me.
And even though I was able to do lots of things to make the contract look good, I was still stuck within the confines of this extraordinarily antiquated world where everyone else who worked there didn't understand digital as much as I did. So by the time I finally got myself bought out of the deal and recouped, if you and I were looking at my analytics and growth before and after I got basically decapitated by said label, it was rough.
What I would say to anyone else who’s even remotely considering [signing with a label] is that this is 2023. No one opens doors for you. You run through them with hopeless abandon and break down the walls. There are no rules. We assume that there are rules because we're stuck in this archaic education system that always puts us in our seats. You have to raise your hand. You have to be told that it's okay to go to the bathroom. We actually have complete and total control, and people keep wanting someone in the top office smoking a cigar who’s like, “you, sir, are good.” That's not the truth anymore. And so, dear Lord, just do it yourself and learn from yourself and fail as early and often as you can.
It gave me the opportunity to just be like, I'm going to try this because this seems fun. And my wife was on board with me doing the dorky YouTube thing in 2011, which was not a cool thing at that point. So that's how I got to where I was. And along the way, I'm a very outspoken, unfiltered person, which attracted me to the companies that I was providing value to. So the ones that I was able to monetize and get money from, I actually would be their biggest power user. And they would eventually just ask me to join their advisory board or invest, and that usually worked out great. I loved every minute of it. And then when I found the companies that I knew worked, they had the right ethos, they were created by the right people, I would evangelize them to no end—which is truly the only way, in my opinion, that these companies can be successful: word-of-mouth. The creator economy is the most powerful thing.
“Any company in their right mind should be hiring creators for the in-house production side”: Why Peter Hollens Founded Inhouse Creators
Conor Begley: So I would imagine Inhouse Creators is the thing that you're most excited about right now. Tell me about that. What is it? Why are you doing it?
Peter Hollens: After experiencing the loss of my voice, I thought, I should be able to go out and work for a company in a senior level position and be able to provide value directly to the C-Suite. But that didn’t exist. I wanted this to exist. So that’s one of the reasons why I'm doing it.
I think the second reason is, I do truly believe that the creator economy is maturing to a place where you have these business-minded, senior-level creators that deserve to be there. I think it's a foregone conclusion that any company in their right mind should be hiring creators within the in-house production side. And I could totally do that and create an entire site for that, but I don't want to do that yet. I want to evangelize the upper echelon and the value of these creators. So I'm going through my long list of managers and agents and being like, “Hey, do you know anyone that fits these criteria?” I have a very specific set of criteria. And after they vet for that first filter, I get on the phone with them, and I'm like, “What are you passionate about? What are your weaknesses? What are your blind spots? What do you love? What do you not love? How much time do you actually have if you were to do this? Is this something that you would want? Do you want to, for probably the first time ever, build your resume?”
I believe that what we've done online is our resume. That's my resume. Do you see what I've done? I've built numerous companies. I've built them out of thin air, with no resources, all by myself.
Conor Begley: And imagine how many learnings you’ve had to go through to get to that point. You're 12 years into doing this.
Peter Hollens: Totally. I’ve had so many failures.
Conor Begley: Otherwise, if you hired somebody to do that in-house who had never done that, they’d have to start from ground zero. They’d have to learn that on the fly. It just doesn't make sense.
Peter Hollens: Yes, and with your history, you had an amazing out, and congratulations, you're a total badass. But I'm not looked at through the same lens just because I didn't have an acquisition, but I have had multiple SMBs that I built, so I should be able to go on LinkedIn and be like, “I'm a four-x founder of x multiples.” But I couldn't then go to Google and be like, “Hey, I am an expert prompt engineer. You should hire me as your senior level AI researcher who can immediately talk directly to creators as a creator, speak their verbiage, speak their language, and be able to help provide you an accelerated way to create your large language model that you are definitely building on your end with your very specific subset of data that you have.” That doesn't exist.
So I'm like, I want to build this out. What that is called is in-house creators. I'm going to build Inhouse Creators and I'm going to be a thought leader and I'm going to evangelize this, and that is worth my time. And getting to help these creators make X amount of money right now—because they were making six figures and now they're going back to Starbucks, or they're going back to their teaching job. I'm like, I know you would absolutely slay for this company, and being able to place some of these creators for 2x what they even want is such a good feeling. And yeah, that isn't getting millions of people to hear you sing, but there's value there, and I just want other people to take this idea and run with it. It needs to be a thing. We need to have an off-ramp. Just like professional athletes get to go and seamlessly integrate into the broadcasting world if they're well-spoken, why can't creators have something that's similar?
Conor Begley: 100%. It makes a ton of sense, and I think in a lot of ways it is a very validated and hard-to-get skill on your resume. “I built a really big audience. I know what I'm doing. I know how to engage the community. I know how to create interesting content that has a lot of value to businesses.” My expectation is that the companies that lean into it will be significantly more successful.
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