When Rob Landes caught up with Jellysmack, he was sitting in a studio framed by a microphone and a studio light. A blue-and-black checkered wavy foam pad was hung on a wall behind him—a measure to finesse the acoustics of the room.
From the very beginning of his creator career, Rob Landes has been living at the intersection of classic and modern. He has a typical digital era musician’s “discovery” story in that a friend who saw him perform convinced him to start a YouTube channel. The performance that sparked the suggestion was a mashup of “Happy Birthday” and Beyonce’s “Single Ladies.”
Initially, Rob had some hesitations around uploading his recordings. What would his teachers think? What would his friends and family think?
“At some point, I said to myself, ‘I’m 30 years old. I don’t have a music teacher that’s going to get upset,” he tells us. “What do I have to lose?”
In March of 2015, Rob’s friend made good on the offer of helping him create a YouTube channel and uploaded the first video. In it, Landes played a cover of a song he was really into: “Radioactive” by Imagine Dragons.
“It got a couple of thousand views, which blew my mind,” Landes tells us. “I was like, ‘well, okay, this is fun. I’m going to make another video. I guess people like the first one.’”
For other content creators reading this, it’s important to understand that what happens next is not a normal trajectory for a YouTube creator. Fast forward three months: Landes posts his second video, a string cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” at his mother’s suggestion.
While getting several thousands of views on a first-ever upload is impressive on its own, getting several million views on a second is almost unheard of. Yet, that’s exactly what happened for Landes. The “Hallelujah” cover went viral, generating more than two million views within its first six weeks. To date, Landes’ second-ever upload has more than nine million views, and it’s hardly the most-viewed video on his channel.
While Rob’s rise as a YouTube creator may have arrived with exceptional swiftness, the craft that earned him audiences is the product of years’ worth of discipline and meticulous practice. Landes first picked up a violin at age three. It was a Christmas gift from his grandmother.
“I come from a musical family,” Landes tells us. “Music was just something that we had to do growing up, to learn how to do hard things.”
He grew up in a large family in Orem, Utah. His father is a violist, his mother a pianist. All the Landes siblings play an instrument—it was somewhat of an expectation in the family. His parents were heavily invested in his musical development. According to Rob, his mother told him “you only have to practice the days you want to eat” that Christmas morning.
“As a kid, I was doing a lot of practicing. By the time I was 11 years old, I was practicing three to four hours a day.”
The investment paid off, and Rob’s talent was recognized early on. At 12 years old, he played the Hollywood Bowl with the Disney Young Musicians Symphony Orchestra. His musical skills earned him full-ride scholarships for both a bachelor’s degree at Brigham Young University, (where he was the concertmaster of the university’s orchestra) and a master’s degree from Rice University. Both of his degrees are in music.
Despite the passion and the skills to match, Landes almost walked away from music as a career path after earning his degrees.
“After taking a few orchestra auditions that I didn’t do so well in, I realized I didn’t want to do orchestra,” Rob says. “I took a sales job in software…which I was not good at,” he adds.
Of course, that’s not to say he quit the violin all together. He still played as a pastime as well as with The Orchestra at Temple Square, a part of the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
With the tremendous success of his “Hallelujah” cover, Rob Landes continued to intermittently upload covers of popular songs such as Justin Bieber’s “Despacito,” Adele’s “Hello,” and Taylor Swift’s “Look What You Made Me Do.”
About two years after his first upload, he started exploring other forms of violin-related content. He found success in a series of videos in which he compares the sounds of mass-produced violins with ones that cost a quarter million dollars or more. He experimented with mixing up variables, like swapping out his bow for fidget spinners and coins, playing in slow motion, or playing a violin made of titanium.
In April 2018, Rob posted “Evolution of Meme Music.” In it, Rob plays five- to ten-second clips of songs associated with memes (think Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up”) in chronological order of the songs’ year of release. The clips are edited together, almost seamlessly back to back. From clip to clip, Landes wears complementary costume elements, from a curly powdered wig for Handel’s “Messiah” to aviators and a hobby horse for Psy’s “Gangnam Style.”
“The Evolution of Meme Music” has generated over five million views to date. It marked the beginning of a new content style. Rob has posted over 40 Evolution of… videos, chronicling the historical progression of music in categories from movie music, artists like Aretha Franklin and Queen’s career arcs, and video game music.
“The jokes and the props are such a blast,” Landes says of creating Evolution of… videos. “We just laugh like crazy when we’re brainstorming.”
Video game music in particular found a central role in Rob Landes’ channel. His upload “Evolution of Game Music” is the most viewed in his channel’s six-year history with an eye-popping 47 million views. His game-centric playlists have the most entries: Nearly 70 videos of Rob playing video game songs from Mario to Halo on his violin.
“The music that the composers are writing for games now is incredible. It’s film score worthy,” Landes says. “It’s the best out there.”
The connection between Landes’ passion for both violin and video games is rooted in his childhood.
“I only got to play as many video games as I had practiced on the violin. So if I did an hour on the violin, I got to play video games for an hour, so I have that connected to my reward memory,” Landes says of the connection.
More recently, Landes has branched into his own version of the tried-and-true YouTube genres of pranks and reactions. His prank videos feature violin teachers he hires for lessons under the pretext that he is a beginner; his reaction videos include playing sophisticated or popular songs on the street and capturing the reactions of passersby.
Over the last year, Landes has been hoping on Omegle to connect with strangers in the mixer chatroom forum and play their favorite songs for them, capturing their reactions. Omegle is a platform in which users can connect with strangers for a few minutes at random before moving on to someone else.
To that end, Landes recently teamed up with pianist Marcus Veltri for a Halloween-inspired Omegle session. The two dueted songs by requests while wearing slasher Mike Myers and Jason masks. The reactions to these unexpected, personal concerts from unsuspecting strangers was wide-eyed, open-mouthed shock and awe.
Rob has found creative ways to recontextualize an instrument that is often confined to very specific environments in modern and entertaining ways. At time of press, his YouTube channel is approaching four million subscribers, many of whom are part of the next generation of aspiring musicians.
“It’s actually not uncommon for parents to send me videos of their children playing the violin at home saying, you know, ‘she watches all of your videos. You inspired her to play,’” Rob says. “Those are some of my favorite messages to get. Playing the violin, or any musical instrument, is a very difficult thing to do. There’s a lot of frustration, and it takes a lot of patience. So the fact that somebody perhaps is inspired enough to want to push through those difficult moments is really cool. There’s so many valuable things you learn from picking up an instrument.”
A father of four himself, Landes encourages his kids to dedicate themselves to learning a craft, even when it gets challenging or frustrating.
“I’ve got a six year old that ice skates,” he says. “She just had her first ice skating performance. That’s the same vein…it’s doing a difficult thing. She’s got weekly lessons…as long as my children are pursuing something that’s hard for them, that can be valuable. That’s what I’m happy with—it doesn’t have to be music.”
With his incredible rise as a creator, Rob Landes joins the ranks of musicians raised in the Mormon church who have achieved critical and commercial success with their art. That includes the likes of Brandon Flowers of the Killers, Dan Reynolds of Imagine Dragons, Brendon Urie from Panic At the Disco, and all the band members of Neon Trees.
And for as long as he’s doing reaction videos and surprise performances, there’s a chance you’ll be in the right place at the right time to get a personal performance of your favorite song by a world-class violinist.