Type the words “Peter Hollens and Evynne Hollens” into YouTube’s search engine and one of the first videos that pops up is the two of them singing an a cappella version of Céline Dion’s “The Prayer.” Multiple shots of their faces appear on split screens, emphasizing the fact that they are using only their voices to create the melody, the harmonies, and even the sounds of the instruments. The sound is so full it’s hard to believe they are singing without any musical accompaniment.
If Peter and Evynne’s names don’t immediately ring any bells, you may have heard of the groups they helped create—On the Rocks, the UO’s first modern a cappella group (all male) started in 1999, and Divisi, the female a cappella group, followed in 2002. On the Rocks, led by Peter, received national attention when they appeared on NBC’s The Sing-Off in 2010. Evynne’s group, Divisi, was featured in the book Pitch Perfect: The Quest for Collegiate A Cappella Glory. It’s the true story of a dramatic moment in Divisi’s history when the group was allegedly blackballed by one of the judges at the International Collegiate A Cappella Championships in New York, dropping them to second place and stunning the audience. The book inspired the movie Pitch Perfect, a musical comedy loosely based on that episode. The popularity of the movie and TV shows like The Sing-Off and Gleeintroduced a new audience to the a cappella genre.
And that audience is overwhelmingly online.
For Peter and Evynne, those online fans offer new revenue opportunities for their music. Now, as self-described “YouTubers,” they’ve posted hundreds of videos, with millions of views between them. Peter’s YouTube channel alone has almost a million subscribers. Their YouTube videos don’t provide much income through ad revenue, they say, but the videos attract an audience that can be directed to purchase their music on iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, and Loudr, and which supports them directly through a unique patronage-based crowdfunding platform called Patreon. The financial support they receive on Patreon.com provides an ongoing salary and a way for Peter and Evynne to keep the music videos coming.
With more than a billion unique visitors each month, YouTube offers a huge potential audience. And the bigger the audience, the more influence an artist can have. As an “influencer,” an artist can attract collaborations with others who have even bigger audiences. That’s how Peter’s collaboration with Lindsey Stirling, a hip-hop violinist whose YouTube channel has almost six million subscribers, changed the trajectory of his career. Their cover of the theme song for the video game Skyrim has more than 40 million views. That has led a lot more people to buy Peter’s music. “Ever since then,” he says, “I have been able to do this full time and support my family.”
Peter and Evynne met at the Erb Memorial Union during one of Divisi’s weekly outdoor performances. Evynne was working on a degree in Spanish and a minor in music. Peter focused on voice performance for his degree. “It was great to have proper voice training and I got to work with a bunch of great teachers,” Peter says. But he believes every school of music also should teach an element of business to prepare graduates for the real world. “It should be mandatory,” he says, “that you learn how to brand yourself, learn to use social media, and learn multiple aspects of music so you can go into a recording studio and record any genre—because it’s so difficult to make a living.”
After graduation, Peter sang with an a cappella group on the East Coast and began recording music. When he came home, he took the money he had saved for graduate school and bought studio equipment instead. He set up a studio in his garage and learned to record, edit, and mix. “You just teach it to yourself,” he says, “when you’re a geek, and you like being around computers.”
Around the same time, Evynne was offered a job with Royal Caribbean, singing on cruise ships. Just before she shipped out, Peter proposed. In 2007 they were married on the balcony of the EMU, overlooking the outdoor stage where they had first met. After the wedding, Peter joined Evynne on the cruises, and for the next four years, they performed together and traveled the world.
Now, they work mostly independently, but sing similar music, everything from classical to folk, and occasionally pop. “I have this whole other side of things that I do that Peter’s not involved in,” Evynne says. She is a performer, voice teacher, artistic director with a local children’s theater, and would eventually like to run a high school theater program.
Peter, on the other hand, is a one-man vocal band. He occasionally writes his own music, but mostly sings and records covers “using only the human voice and mouth.” For each song, he records up to 200 individual tracks, blending them together to create his unique sound. “Basically, any genre of music you’ve ever heard,” he says, “can be recreated by the human voice in a pretty great way.”
Recently, Peter experienced success in a more traditional way as well. His self-titled album, Peter Hollens, released by Sony Music Masterworks last October, hit number five on the Billboard Classical charts in its debut week. The album features a duet with music legend Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, an a cappella cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” with America’s Got Talent winner Jackie Evancho, and a song with Evynne. But one of the most moving recordings on the album is the one he wrote about the day his son was born, “Ashland’s Song.”
Since becoming parents, the Hollenses have only deepened their connection with their online community. The week after Ashland was born, they introduced him to their fans via Evynne’s weekly video blog. In the end, Peter believes, the only thing that really matters is having a community that cares about you as an artist. “Because,” he says, “who in the hell would have ever thought a kid in his garage, singing crazy syllables in his underwear, could make a living, work from home, and sing music? And that’s only because of what technology has allowed.”
—By LeeAnn Dakers