28-year-old David Choi is a singer-songwriter, producer, and YouTuber of all trades. Putting yourself out there in front of millions of people on the Internet might seem terrifying, but David didn’t know that’s what he was doing when he posted his first video, “YouTube (A Love Song),” in 2006. He was just trying something out. Sure, some people would watch. Then one of his friends broke the news: Hey man, you’re on the front page of YouTube.
But this success wasn’t totally random, he’d already been writing songs for four years. He’d won some songwriting contests (one judged by David Bowie) and got signed to write for Warner/Chappell. But YouTube was something else entirely. Built on that initial success, David’s since carved out a career singing, touring, acting in his own and his friends’ videos, and making a YouTube series about what it’s all like. We talked to him about living the songwriting dream while living with your parents, getting recognized at Panda Express, and why it’s important to have friends who tell you when you suck.
Did you always know that you were going to be a musician?
I actually never wanted to be a musician. My parents owned a music store and I grew up surrounded by instruments and music, but I didn’t want anything to do with it until I discovered songwriting when I was 16–and that’s when I decided that I wanted to do it for the rest of my life.
You were writing songs at Warner when you were pretty young. Was it a scary leap to go into songwriting on your own full-time?
I was signed, so my job was to write songs from home and go to the office every once in a while to co-write stuff, so it wasn’t a 9-to-5 job. I was there for two years, my contract ended, and I was looking for other publishing deals. It was a weird time in the industry where social media was blowing up–YouTube and iTunes emerged, physical sales were going down, everyone at labels was getting fired, the industry was in shambles. I wasn’t really scared that I wasn’t getting picked up again because I was still young and I still lived at home with my parents, but I definitely had a drive that kept me going. Maybe fear is what drove me–but I can’t say that it was only fear–there was always something that drove me to succeed and become better at whatever I was doing.
The video that started it all in 2006:
The first video you posted on YouTube was in 2006 and you had a lot of success right away. Was that an intense moment?
That video was life changing. Overnight, thousands and thousands of people saw my video. I remember the first time I ran into a fan–it was a couple days later–I was at Panda Express and this dude walks up to me and is like, “Hey, are you that guy on YouTube right now?” I was like, oh my gosh, this is crazy. It just kept snowballing. I found it really fascinating that the comments were coming in in real time and I could communicate right there. It’s been a great platform for me to express myself creatively–through acting or putting out music or just being silly.
Because of that instant reaction, did you have moments where you thought, “This is insane, what am I doing?” I’m sure you were getting some negative comments, too–because the Internet. What’s your advice to other people who are putting themselves out there when it’s kind of scary?
What I’ve learned is that if you already make fun of yourself and accept yourself for who you are, then those comments don’t really bother you as much. Also, when someone says something negative, just imagine them as a little kid, and if it is an adult, then that’s really sad. So that’s how I deal with the haters, but to be honest, I don’t really have that many haters.
“Rollercoaster,” from 2013: no longer singing in front of his laptop cam:
Your parents owned a music shop. Did you ever feel pressure to play? Do you think they ever imagined that you would get into music yourself?
As a kid I was forced to play violin and piano. At certain points my parents would ask, “What do you want to do when you grow up?” They didn’t ask me that too often, but I remember one or two occasions, and I told them I was going to be a doctor or a lawyer just to make them happy, but deep down inside I knew I wasn’t going to do that. I don’t think they expected me to become a musician–even when they were making me take those lessons–so when I decided to do the music thing I didn’t really ask for their approval because I didn’t think that they wanted me to pursue it. Most parents don’t want their kids to do that–it’s associated with eating ramen for the rest of your life [laughs]. It’s a very hard road, so I think they were supportive later on when they saw that I was making a living from it. My dad wanted to be a musician in Korea, but he wasn’t able to do it for various reasons–financial reasons, and just life circumstances. They had me, so I guess my dad feels…he tells me I’m living his dream. That makes me feel kind of weird because he didn’t really get to live his dream. It’s a bittersweet thing, for sure.
What’s your advice for someone who wants to do what you’re doing–or any kind of artistic pursuit, really, but especially music or acting?
Kids nowadays have so many resources online. Back when I was starting there were resources online as well, but this is when there was 56K Internet, so information was a little slower [laughs]–I’d be trying to read about how to record and it’d take five minutes to load a page. But now there’s YouTube; you can learn to do anything on there at a really fast rate. You can also get motivated and read articles about people who have succeeded. Kids today are bombarded by these kinds of things that drive you to succeed. I read about young entrepreneurs all the time. I see it in my newsfeed. I would say to everybody, just use the resources that are given to you for free. You can learn about something that someone else has had to struggle through and about people who have failed. You can read about their failure and learn from that, about how to not make those mistakes yourself. Some people are going to have to make mistakes on their own, but for me, I would rather read about someone’s failures and see what to avoid.
Is there anything else that you think has helped you get to where you are?
I think it helps to have a community around you that drives you–one that’s positive, that really supports you. I find value in that and I also find value in having people around me who are also a little mean. What I mean by that is that they’re honest with me and they give me good criticism. If I write a song and it’s bad, I want to hear someone say it’s bad. I don’t want everyone to tell me it’s good when it’s not because then I’ll never grow.
David’s new YouTube series, which captures what it’s like to be a singer-songwriter/YouTube star/touring musician/actor and also just a regular guy:
*Photo courtesy of David Choi.