Lindsey Stirling's unlikely success story began with some harsh criticism from Piers Morgan.
It was six years ago, when Stirling, then a college student at Brigham Young University in Utah, stood onstage at the quarterfinals of America's Got Talent.
A video intro showed off Stirling's earnest, cheerful personality. "A lot of people are really surprised to hear that I'm Mormon and I do hip-hop violin," she said.
Onstage, Stirling's dance moves were on point but, because they were more difficult than usual, her violin playing was off. After a slightly atonal take on Kesha's "Tik Tok," she was eliminated.
Morgan, one of the judges, didn't mince words. It's still kind of hard to watch. "There were times when it sounded to me like a bunch of rats being strangled," Morgan said, looking at Stirling. "Seriously. That bad."
Stirling managed to keep a smile on her face, but she was crushed. On top of the humiliation, it felt as if the gates of the music industry had shut in her face. "[You] go from feeling like you're a million bucks," Stirling says now, "to the very next day, feeling like, 'Wow, no one cares.'"
One could be forgiven for not predicting that six years later, Stirling would have 8.7 million YouTube subscribers (more than Lady Gaga or Justin Timberlake) and a best-selling memoir. Her most recent album, Shatter Me, was the No. 2 dance/electronic release of 2015 according to Billboard, bigger than albums by Calvin Harris and Skrillex & Diplo.
It was largely YouTube that allowed Stirling, for the last few years based in L.A., to transform herself from a "hip-hop violinist" with an offbeat act into one of the platform's most popular homegrown brands. And she did it without a major record label — a true 2016 success story and a hint, perhaps, of the music industry's future.
But Stirling has her sights set further: With her new album, Brave Enough, out Aug. 19, she hopes finally to complete the transition from quirky YouTube personality to bona fide pop star.
Regrouping from the America's Got Talent disaster, Stirling refined her sound, keeping her music all-instrumental and settling on an idiosyncratic blend of EDM beats and mellifluous violin. She read books about breaking into the industry and sent her music to agents and labels but wasn't getting anywhere. That's when she met a videographer who, like Stirling, had studied at BYU.
"He introduced himself to me as a professional YouTuber," Stirling remembers. "And I thought, what the heck is that? He [said], 'Look at these people — I'm sure you've never heard of them, Lindsey, but these are huge celebrities on YouTube. They have millions of followers. If they post something, people will listen.'"
One of Stirling's first YouTube music videos is still her most-watched — a performance of her song "Crystallize," which she plays as a camera follows her inside an ice cavern. The song is composed of soaring violin arpeggios played over a stuttering dubstep beat. Stirling performs with her whole body, pirouetting, swaying dramatically, gazing longingly at the horizon. The video has been viewed more than 153.7 million times.
Stirling built her fan base steadily from there, racking up subscribers by the thousands. In 2012, she released her instrumental self-titled debut album, and then its follow-up, Shatter Me, in 2014, which featured her first two tracks with vocals, including the title track, sung by Lzzy Hale of Halestorm. That song opened up Stirling, now rechristened the "dubstep violinist," to pop radio and a broader audience.
What Stirling does behind the scenes is, in many ways, as unique as her combination of EDM, violin and modern dance. She largely operates independently of the industry that once turned her away. "Any artist is going to be better off if you grow yourself," she says. "Everybody wants to be shot to the moon right away. It's so much easier ... but it's not long-lasting."
Although she says it makes it harder to get Grammy nods and TV bookings, Stirling has never signed a deal with a major label. She releases her music herself through her own label, Lindseystomp Music (with international distribution via Universal), owns her masters and controls her licensing.
Last year, Forbes included Stirling in the No. 4 slot of its "world's top-earning YouTube stars" list (which made her the highest-paid woman), writing that she earns $6 million a year.
Stirling says Forbes missed a vital piece of context. "My fans know I don't have a record label, that there isn't someone funding my albums. No one's paying for my tours, no one's paying for my music videos. ... I pay for every light that's on the stage, every single flight of my crew members, all the buses. It all comes out of my pocket."
Like other big YouTube personalities, Stirling's growth has been driven by her ability to connect with fans. She often talks to the camera at the end of her music videos, publishes off-the-cuff skits and shares inspirational messages on Facebook, which garner thousands of responses.
"God has given me an amazing voice to be able to speak to millions of people through music, or through visuals and videos, or through what I type into an Instagram post," she says. "I really do try to share the hardships I've overcome that someone [else] might be dealing with." Earlier this year, Stirling published a memoir, The Only Pirate at the Party, which delves into her personal story, including discussion of an eating disorder she battled in college.
Ty Stiklorius runs Friends at Work, the agency that manages Stirling. Stiklorius set up Stirling's first management deal in 2013, and agrees that Stirling blows up the old model. "There was some debate initially — should she be more mysterious?" Stiklorius recalls. "Should she not talk to her fans at the end of her videos directly? Should she have higher budgets for music videos and fancier glam? Luckily, Lindsey already knew what works for her fans, and we followed her lead."
Brave Enough remains grounded in her DIY world. Stirling used direct-to-fan site PledgeMusic to drum up preorders for the album, and uploaded videos tracking her progress. And music videos are still her bread-and-butter — Disney-like cinema pieces that have cast her as everything from a video game hero to a ballerina trapped inside a snow globe.
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But Brave Enough also aims at the superstardom that has so far eluded Stirling. It's heavier on songs with vocal tracks — seven of 14, including "Don't Let This Feeling Fade," an uptempo dance track featuring Rivers Cuomo and Christian hip-hop artist Lecrae, and the Mumford-esque folk ballad "Something Wild," featuring Andrew McMahon, formerly of Something Corporate and Jack's Mannequin. At least half of Brave Enough would fit cozily on adult contemporary radio — or on mainstream motion picture soundtracks ("Something Wild" is featured in the new Disney film Pete's Dragon).
"I wanted to strike that nice line between staying true to the artist that I am," Stirling says, "and at the same time stretch and try some new things, and open myself up potentially to a new and much bigger audience."
That could be enough to get Stirling coveted TV slots and more spins on the radio. But if it doesn't — well, maybe she doesn't need TV or radio to achieve superstardom. After all, it was the rejection of a primetime TV show that started this whole thing in the first place.