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CDZA: The Road to Building a Brand and Going Viral with Musical Video Experiments

Matt McCorkle, Joe Sabia, and Michael Thurber are the three founders of cdza, a musical video experimental collaborative that has gone viral on YouTube with more than 1.5 million views in less than a year. Joe Sabia is the video guy and lead director; Michael Thurber is a Julliard graduate and the music guy; and Matt McCorkle is the audio guy and loves sounds more than anyone you know.

On July 10th, cdza released their largest collective yet: An Abridged History of Western Music in 16 Genres. We sat down with the boys of cdza to talk about their creative process, the road to going viral, the power of collaboration, and what makes the cdza brand so special.


Tell me the story behind cdza and its beginnings.

Michael Thurber: Two years ago, I began sending all of the music that I write through Matt [McCorkle], so that’s where the story begins. Matt is an audio engineer and a mixing engineer and runs a studio right over where we shoot our videos.

Then not even a year ago I was in Thompson Square Park playing music and Joe [Sabia] was making a video for another musician, one of my friends. A few weeks later, Joe needed someone to score music for one of his videos and called me. We worked on that video, wrote the music, and we became great friends.

Once I had Matt doing all of Joe’s voiceovers, we all started to work together on corporate videos. Joe would direct and create them, I would write the music, and Matt would handle the audio. After a few months, we really wanted to continue to collaborate and do more. Joe said he always had an idea of doing a video called The History of Lyrics That Aren’t Lyrics but he had never met the musicians that could do it. But once we started, it only took an hour and 45 minutes to complete.

That's surprising. One of the first things I thought is how many times it must have taken to get it right!

Joe Sabia: I was worried –this was my first time working on a project with these guys. But I just knew it was going to be a hit – and that was the catalyst for cdza. If The History of Lyrics That Aren’t Lyrics had only got 10,000 views we would not be here right now. That was the energy that made us all want to try something else. (The History of Lyrics That Aren’t Lyrics currently has 871,087 views as of July 2012)

Have you had any challenges along the way? What's it like working in the studio on the day of a shoot?

Matt McCorkle: Everything we do has its challenges. When we are shooting, I need to focus on doing the sound, Joe needs to focus on the video, and Michael needs to focus on the music. For NYC Phoneharmonic we had 10 musicians packed in the back of a small studio, so technical challenges were bound to come up. How do you even make that sound and look coherent?  At the end of the day, our challenges are easy to overcome because we get along so well and that is our glue. 

Michael Thurber: On a technical level, the shoots are pretty wild. We do two videos every time we shoot which is in itself pretty intense. All of our videos are completed in less than five takes and what goes along with that credo is that I never give any of the music to the musicians in advance. I always have it there for them on the day of the shoot, and we rehearse right there. We never rehearse for more than two hours.

Matt McCorkle: When we are working together in the studio, I can anticipate the moves of Joe and Michael down to a tee. I let them do their thing in the live room, while I am in the control room recording.

Michael Thurber: But it always works. We always pull it off and the top priority is creating a great vibe in the studio. We’re always goofing around. It’s never serious or intense, and that’s why everybody trusts it and understands it.

Michael, how has the founding of cdza and the explosion of YouTube changed your career path?

Michael Thurber: I come from this world of people that struggle in the commercial industry. My backgroundis playing classical music, playing jazz, and being in the conservatory. I lived in Lincoln Center for four years, and I was fed up with the highbrow attitude. I saw in a very real way how much that mentality did not work. When I met Joe, he was someone who wanted to work with musicians, who know how to think outside the box, and work with a different type of platform and a different type of visibility for musicians.

You are experimenting with classical music in so many ways and making it fun. You are engaging audiences through social media and technology.

Michael Thurber: I don’t look at this as trying to put classical music in a new light. Personally, I think that is the whole mistake. The more you tie yourself down or pigeonhole yourself, the more difficult it is to get people interested, but more importantly to grow and be truly creative, you must have fun and create magical moments. We play music, and this is just what we are doing with it, right now, in these videos.

How did the idea for Zuckerberg: The Musical! come about, and how does it help define your creative process? (Zuckerberg: The Musical! has 115,042 hits on YouTube as of July 2012)

Joe Sabia: Zuckerburg: The Musical! was cdza’s most strategic project. We knew from the start that we wanted to do something with those three talented ladies. We were watching the news at the time (it was shot in February 2012), and knew that the Facebook IPO was coming out in May 2012, and we also  knew that this particular  video would launch in May 2012.

Michael Thurber: This is a good example of how our work is part of the whole remix generation:  taking something that is a part of popular culture, or songs and topics everyone knows such as Facebook and putting them in a new context or spinning them in a way that you’ve never seen them before.

You guys have done quite well, with 11,366+ subscribers 1,638,261+ video views on your YouTube channel as of July 2012

Michael Thurber: We brainstorm so many ideas and so many are completely original but we consciously said at the beginning of this that we need to build an audience first and create things that are culturally relevant.

Matt McCorkle: It’s interesting because each video seems to feed one another. Someone who just saw and loved Aces of Bass will go back and look at our whole channel.

Do the three of you do anything together performance wise, or does it always involve other musicians and performers?

Matt McCorkle: Usually we work with a collective.

Michael Thurber: The collective is what this is all about. We created this together and the three of us are always at the forefront of it: making the music, the ideas, and making it all happen. In most of these videos, all the members of the collective are featured and these are all my friends, which is the best part- I cast people that I have known for so long. For example, Evan Schinners is the new voice of Bach right now (check out his New York Times review here), and Johnathan Batiste was the cover of the Jazz at Lincoln Center season program this year. These are all people who will go on to have monumental careers in their respective fields, and that’s what’s so magical about this. We are catching them all now, in our early 20’s, making these videos that are just ridiculous, hysterical, and goofy. That’s the beauty of it- that these are all very talented people we are catching in this split second, in this special slice of life, all in New York, all at the same time.

You’ve done a great job marketing yourselves and getting your message across. A lot of people in the arts think they need a huge budget and ability to engage a video production company to market themselves correctly. You don’t feel the need to.

Michael Thurber: You don’t need to do that. In our videos, some people say the “subscribe” ruins the video at the end, but people are subscribing! And people are ‘liking’ it. You just can’t take yourself too seriously. And I think that’s another big part of our brand or our identity. And I think that it is so relevant in this conservatory world - you can’t be afraid to let go. People will respond to that because it’s contagious.

If you want your audience to understand one thing about cdza, what is it?

Michael Thurber: I’ll be very open and say that this has been a hugely exciting collaboration. Joe could keep doing videos, Matt could keep doing sound, and I could just keep playing music - all in our respective realms.  But I have never seen a marriage of all of these skills on the internet.

Matt McCorkle: All of us really get to feel fulfilled - all of our abilities are truly utilized, which I think is the key to any great collaboration. Of course we all have our own careers outside of this (check out The Internet Portfolio of Joe Sabia, Michael Thurber's website, Equal Sonics, Matt's music and audio production company) and we are all working and doing things with all kinds of people, but I can count on one hand the people that I have met in my life so far that I have truly connected with and that I can make something bigger than the parts involved and this is definitely the biggest one that I’ve been involved with.

cdza will be joining us in Charlotte for the 2012 National Arts Marketing Project Conference on Saturday, November 10. During this special event with the collective’s founders Matt McCorkle, Joe Sabia, and Michael Thurber, they will share their stories, show some videos, and answer questions about going viral, embracing collaboration, and merging creativity with branding decisions.

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