Success story Internet? – Merton and PianoChatImprov

November sees the return of the interview series (Link is in German) I started in April, in which I talk to people, who were able to harness the power of the web to change their lives and careers. My aim is not to talk to huge celebrities and dotcom bosses (yet), but to portray those, who have remained relatively low key but whose lives have taken an online turn nevertheless. After four German interviews, the next two will be in English.

YouTube is still only five years old, but man has it changed the way we watch the world. Now, moving images of almost everything are only a click away, especially when it comes to music. Several people have managed to kickstart some sort of career from taping themselves. Merton is one of them.

If you haven’t come across Merton’s awesome piano improv sessions on Chatroulette, you’ve probably been living under a rock. Merton managed to merge his talent for improvisational piano playing with one of the web’s newest crazes and created something unique that sent ripples through the net and even all the way to Ben Folds. After being the first person, who answered my opening question with a definitive “Yes”, I spoke to him about his success, his online persona and his plans.

Do you consider yourself an internet success story?
Yes. I have a type of talent that would have been difficult to show to the world before the internet (and YouTube in particular) existed. Until five years ago, I would have had very little chance of gaining wide exposure, but now YouTube has made it possible for individuals to bypass the audition or jury process and just present ourselves directly to the public. That’s priceless, and I don’t take it for granted.

Tell me a bit about your background? What was the genesis of the Chatroulette-Piano-Improv?
I have played improvisational piano for my whole life. I’ve never written a piece of music, I only make it up. I’ve always liked performing in unorthodox situations, like in a public place where people are not expecting to see a pianist. When I saw ChatRoulette, I liked the possibility of playing for strangers in a low-pressure environment. I hadn’t been much of singer prior to that, but I didn’t think I could be very interactive with just piano-playing so I began to sing in order to connect with people more easily.

How did it feel when your YouTube videos got so successful? Did you expect it?
I thought that my first video was very funny, but no, I did not expect it to become that big. This is a cliché, but it was like a dream. The viewcount grew larger than any number of people I could rationally imagine, and it was very surreal.

Then, how did it feel when Ben Folds paid tribute to you? Did you feel exploited or honored at first?
I felt honored, simply because it was obvious that he was not really pretending to be me. That would be absurd, because I could just go out in public and show who I am and he would be disproven. He sent me an e-mail, explaining that it was just a tribute in good fun.

How did the whole story continue? Apparently you met up eventually.
He was playing in Colorado, near where I was going to be, so we decided to meet up. We only had about 15 minutes, but we had a nice talk about music and life and pianos.

Have you always been an internet person?
As a consumer, yes. As a performer, no. Prior to the ChatRoulette videos I had posted a few solo piano videos, which after 4 years on YouTube had about 200 views each.

Some people might now consider you one of the YouTube-15-Minutes-of-Fame Has-beens. How do you see yourself in this context?
I may have had my one big moment as a mass-media newsbite kind of phenomenon, but it has launched me into a career as a musical performer. My Subscribers currently number 346,000 and they increase every day, and I get increasingly larger offers for advertising and performance opportunities.

Did your YouTube fame lead to anything else? Did you make any money off it? (Did you even want to?)
I’m just starting to accept larger appearances, after spending the summer finding out if I could actually perform live and generate the same personal chemistry as on ChatRoulette. It works well in the right kinds of situations. Although I became well-known because of an internet tech gimmick, the basic format of what I do (a guy with a piano) can happen almost anywhere. If I make more money from it, I’d like it to be in the form of interesting performance opportunities, like being paid to play in an unusual public location.

You’ve built a brand around yourself, you are so recognizable that your outfit was even suggested as a Halloween costume by a webzine. Yet you prefer to remain a character with only a stage name. Why is that?
I’m a very private person, and it’s nice to have the advantage of taking off my celebrity costume and being unrecognizable. It’s the best of both worlds. It won’t last, but I really appreciate this little part of my life where I can perform for millions of people and yet remain anonymous.

What are your general thoughts about the social web? What does it do to music? To musicians? If you could, would you change anything?
I’m curious to see where we’ll find the balance between people’s desire for free music and the artists’ desire to make money. It seems to be moving towards some arrangement where the individual consumer doesn’t pay, but a company pays to advertise somewhere in relation to the product. I think it’s great that musicians can now get widespread public exposure without having to convince a record company that they’re worth the pressing of thousands of albums.

For more interviews with Merton, check out this one by Mashable and this one by reelSEO conducted in song.

Next week: Gavin Castleton and “Won over Frequency”.

This post is part 5 of the series Success Story Internet?
The series talks with people, in whose lives the internet has changed something, about the internet.

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