A Conversation with the Ukulele Teacher

I first met John Atkins  (AKA The Ukulele Teacher) in Los Angeles in 2016, when the UOGB toured the US. He is an interesting guy who earns his living from the internet and while he was over in the UK last year, he interviewed Will about the Ukes. This year, he was over again to visit his family and took the time to come over to spend a day with me chatting, fliming and talking about the ukulele.....it was fascinating finding out how he got to where he is now - a youtuber with over a million followers......

P: So, we talked a while ago about being on the ukulele treadmill, you in front of the camera, me on the road. How many videos do you put out a week?
J: At least two videos a week, sometimes more.
P: Do you stockpile videos ahead of time?
J: It depends how motivated I'm feeling. For example, at the moment I'm here on vacation for two weeks, so I've filmed about six or seven in the last week...
P: Wow.
J: .....which I'm still editing while I'm away. So, yeah, sometimes I'll stockpile them, sometimes it's like a race to get them out before the next one is due.
P: Okay. Now what is your demographic? You presumably look at your youtube stats?
J: I do look, although I try not to get too obsessed with them because they can drive you a bit stir-crazy. But weirdly, for my channel it's almost exactly 50/50 male and female, which is almost unheard of for most channels. In terms of the ages, I think it's skewed pretty young, I'm think about 13 to 35ish, so recently I've become older than all of my viewers [Laughs]
P: So, I was going to say, my daughter:- she became interested in the ukulele and I showed her a few things, you know, Kumbaya and a few chords and I left her to get on with it. I came back and within five minutes she´d found you on YouTube.
J: Oh great, yeah.
P: So why do you think that happens? What is it you've got that other people haven't got?
J: The boring answer is, search engine optimisation. I don't know if you've heard of it?
P: I'm not quite sure how it works.
J: I mean its partially accidental as well, but I just have the best name for a channel I believe. When I started, all I had was a good name, thats all. I did all the kind of things to be a good youtuber: all the metadata, all the tags etc. From what I understand, when I started doing youtube, the secret to showing up in search results, being found, is if there is any kind of field that you can fill in;- fill it in, so for example, always fill in the title, always fill in the description, always do the tags, always do whatever you can to kind of optimise it and get a good name.

P: Right okay. So if a song breaks online, something happens and suddenly it's a big song, how long does it take you to get it up?
J: I have done it the same morning, actually.
P: Oh really? Right.
J: I forget what song it was. It might have been a Grace Vanderwall one, it might have been maybe a Taylor Swift one, but there was something that I had an inkling would be huge and I thought, I´ve got to get this out immediately. And the cool thing about being my own boss, having my own hours, is that I can just do that. I can put everything aside and just sort of think, okay I´m going to work on this today and put it out immediately. However, I've often found that, despite what they say, that doesn't always work for me. Chasing the elusive trending topics just hasn't always worked in my favour. So now, occasionally I'll try and do a same-day song, but often it doesn't hurt to leave it a week or two, in my experience.
P: So can you tell me the story that you told earlier about Grace Vanderwall and how she name-checked you?
J: Yeah! it was kind of crazy. I was in Lithuania doing a little ukulele event and I just suddenly noticed on my phone that I was getting all these comments: “Oh, check out this new ukulele girl, Grace Vanderwall”. “Check out this America´s Got Talent girl.” She did this great song, I Don't Know My Name, and, normally if I notice I'm getting a lot of requests for a particular song, I'll make a note of it and, consider doing it shortly. But I was getting, I think literally hundreds of requests for this one song. So I thought, I'd better check this out. So I found out who she was, I found out what the song was. I figured it out, I filmed a little lesson for it. Once I posted it, I tweeted it out, like I always do, and within an hour she retweeted it and said…
P: Amazing.
J: .........she said, “I can't believe it. Just a few months ago I was watching his videos and now he's covering my songs. I'm so excited”. And then, I guess it was like three months later or five months later or whatever, she´d gone on to win the whole thing and become, even to this day, a huge star. She´s doing really well and still kind of out there.
P: Wow. Gosh. So what was it like meeting Mark Ronson  and how did that come about?
J: That was a peculiar arrangement. I mean I'll tell you because it was sort of for a commercial and I basically got an email a couple of days earlier from a film crew. They said, “We're making a film about youtubers who do covers of songs on youtube and we saw your lesson on Uptown Funk and we´d love to feature you in it. Would you be around on Wednesday or whatever to do it?” And often, because I'm just sort of a one-man band, I actually miss emails for days or weeks. But for some reason I said, “Yeah, that sounds fun, why not?”
I had to go in for a little interview and then they said, “Okay, if you're free tomorrow, we'll send a car round for you - bring your ukulele and we won't tell you where you're going but it'll be good. That's all we can tell you,” and they put me up in, I think it was The Hilton in Swiss Cottage, and they said, okay, the next morning we'll take you somewhere, so be ready at 8 am. And we drove around for about an hour or so while they interviewed us. It was me and a couple of other musicians and then after a while the car pulled into the car park of Abbey Road Studios.
It was amazing, really exciting. There was me and a couple of other youtube musicians and they said, “Okay guys, you've got the studio to yourself for a day. We want you to record a cover of Uptown Funk so get to work”. We were a little bit overwhelmed but we started putting something together and then after ten minutes or something this guy in a sharp suit walks in with a big quiff and I looked and went, I recognise that guy. It was Mark Ronson. He was like, “Oh, surprise. I'm here to help you guys make this and produce it and everything”. So he helped us put it all together and that's kind of the story, really.
P: So yeah, okay, so it was like a TV put-up job in a way?
J: Yeah and with all the artifice that that sort of thing involves I suppose. At the end of it all they said, “Oh by the way, this was an advert and it'll be shown during the Brit Awards next month; and so all through the Brit Awards, on every ad bumper, they played like a little clip of that day: - going in the bus, arriving at Abbey Road, meeting Mark Ronson. And we also got tickets to go to the Brits as well.

P: So can you take me through the time frame? You're here in England now because you've come over to see your family, but you live in the States, in Los Angeles?
J: Yeah.
P: How long has it been since you made your first video back here in England?
J: First video I ever made?
P: Tell me about that "journey" as it were.

J: The first video I ever made was, I think in October 2011.
P: Wow.
J: So I've been going for a full seven years. Initially, it was just something I did on a whim, it was a rainy Sunday afternoon in the winter. I was bored, just doing it for fun. I thought it´d be something interesting to do - plus there was a guy at my work who'd just bought a ukulele and I just thought it´d be fun…
P: Where were you working at the time?
J: For the council, just a local council office admin job. And he had a little ukulele and I thought it would be funny and fun to just make a video, “How to Play the Ukulele,” like a five-minute kind of jokey video. I made it and I think I posted it to him and then I think I put it on my own personal Facebook or something like that, but I didn´t make a big thing about it. But I checked it, I guess it must have been a little while later, maybe a few days or a few weeks later, and people had actually watched it and subscribed to the channel and left comments asking for me to make more videos.
P: Wow.
J: So, it went from being a one-off video to.......doing it as a sort of hobby, maybe like once a month, if I had time,  and from there it snowballed. After about a year, I don´t remember the numbers exactly, but I got an email from Google saying because you´ve got x number of subscribers or viewers, you're now eligible to monetise this channel if you want.
P: Wow. That was in 2012?
J: Yes, 2012.  At I first I was very reluctant to do it because I thought I don't think I'll make any money from it. I don't want to annoy the people who are watching these films. But I made a video and decided to test it.  One video per month as kind of experiment and I made a small amount of money. I think it was maybe ten bucks or… whatever the amount was, I figured (and this is not like me at all) - if I can do that with just ten videos, what if I made 600 videos, perhaps I could start to think about making my living off this. And so I decided, instead of making one video a month, which is like about ten or eleven videos a year, to make two a week, then after a year I'll have about a hundred and we can see where we are from there.
P: That's the treadmill, isn't it?
J: And I jumped on the treadmill! Like I say I was not really enjoying my office job at all. I think it was in December that I tried that experiment and I went back in to work after Christmas and I asked them if I could go down to part-time and just work three days a week. And so I would spend every Tuesday and Thursday at home making ukulele videos. And at the time I thought it'll be a sacrifice. I'm would have to tighten my belt a bit, but I thought it would be worth it if it meant eventually I could leave. But what happened, like I said, I thought I'd have to make 600 videos and then I might be okay, but what I didn't realise was that it would have a snowball effect, so at the end of the year, instead of having grown, you know, say ten times because I had ten videos to a hundred videos, it was actually a sort of exponential increase…
P: It was like a spike?
J: Yes, like a spike. It was just getting bigger and bigger and whilst I'd done the rough maths, that maybe in three or four years I'd be able to quit my job, I barely needed to stay on till the end of the year and I ended up giving my notice in after the following Christmas and leaving around March then.

P: So have you been aware in the last few years of being treated like a celebrity? Have you attended events, or…?
J: Yeah, just after I quit my job in 2015, I was getting like a little bit depressed because I was enjoying not having a job and I was enjoying making youtube videos, but it suddenly occurred to me that actually most of my day from now on is just me in my bedroom on my own, not talking to people or getting out or anything. But I think someone must have said, what you're doing, you can do anywhere in the world. All you need is your camera, ukulele and a laptop.
So I had a friend from school who was living in Hollywood at the time, and he'd always sort of given me an open invitation to come and stay with him. So I booked a six-week round trip to LA to leave the next day and then I called and said, "You know you said I could stay with you any time? Well I'm coming for six weeks tomorrow afternoon. Hope that's okay. See you". But while I was out there, I actually got recognised a couple of times in Hollywood.
P: Oh!
J: Just randomly, by, like, there was some kid with a ukulele. He was on his way to a ukulele lesson with his mum and they were like, “Oh, you're the guy we watch on youtube”.
P: Terrific.
J: Yeah. I posted a few photos on Instagram and a guy said, “Oh, you must be in town for the Los Angeles International Ukulele Festival this Saturday,” and I said, actually I'm not but I'll definitely go to it. I'm very interested. So, I went there and even though I wasn't invited, I mean I wasn't uninvited, but I wasn't like a guest or anything, people were coming up to me and taking photos or getting me to sign things and that was really nice.
So, I decided I would put up a picture of me on Instagram just in front of the Santa Monica Pier, and said, “Hey guys, I'm in America for the next month. Anyone wants to meet me, I'll come and have lunch with you”. So I ended up flying to, I can't remember the order but it was like, I went to Vegas, DC, Orlando and Austin.
P: Wow.
J: And just, you know, stayed with like people I knew or airbnb or whatever, and I’d just go for lunch with different people each day who'd sort of said, “Hey, we watch your videos. We live in Florida. Come and hang out with us”.
P: Wow.
J: So in Florida I went to Disneyland with this couple who watch my videos.
P: Oh great.
J: When I went to DC, I watched a guy who'd learned how to play from my video, do his first ever live open mic night. And he was so excited for me to be there. So, I just had the best time, really the best time of my life. And that was when I kind of thought, yeah, this is really…
P: It´s got legs.
J: Yeah. And, well I guess your next question would lead into this but at the end of that trip, I ended up meeting Tiff, the woman who'd become my wife, and never looked back.
P: Wow. So, going from sort of, happy to sad, as someone who's got a million followers, we always hear about the sort of dark side of the industry. Have you ever been trolled or anything?
J: Oh! I mean, every day I get a comment telling me how bad I am at singing.
P: Oh, but I've had that…
J: Oh, really?
P: Well when we did our UOGB song Smells like Teen Spirit it was just when youtube was starting and the comments were just, “This guy can´t sing,” but in a way, what matters is the amount of people seeing it and the numbers were just phenomenal on that. And so, yeah, I´m sure everyone gets that, unless you, because you´re not deluded that you think you´re Andrea Bocelli…
J: No I don´t think I am. But all I was saying is, I get comments every day saying that and occasionally I´ll get comments about, personal appearance or whatever and I just delete them because it´s like a youtube thing and I´m the moderator or the admin so I just delete them. There´s just no point getting involved in an altercation or in an argument. I really don´t let them get me down. I mean, I think I´m lucky enough that I´m at the stage where I´m big enough that people watch me because they like me but not so big that they watch me because they hate me, which I think a lot of the sort of vlogger youtubers…
P: Maybe like PewDiePie?
J: Exactly, yeah. I´m sure every video he gets there´ll be a million people who watch it because they hate him…
P: Yeah, yeah and they´re waiting for him to trip up or something.
J: Yeah. So nothing too personal. Like I say, occasionally I´ll get like a mean comment or whatever and I really, honestly don´t take it personally.
P: We´ve been through everything I wanted to ask really. I mean, do you mind telling that story… we were talking about your dog and you were saying about having the collar exposed which had your wife's phone number on it?
J: Yeah, one of the things that I´ve realised is, I have to be really careful about my own private or personal information because, as a youtuber, even though I´m basically a music teacher, I feel like my success has been partly because I´m like a personality…
P: That is definitely one of your skills.

J: You´re right. But with a social media presence, I think you have to constantly maintain it. So you´re really encouraged to tell people about yourself. Every day you post, hey guys, I´m eating a sandwich, playing a game of soccer, or whatever. You´ve got to stay visible, right, which is great for maintaining your presence and letting people know you´re alive, but also not so great for letting people know where you live and, what your wife does for a job or whatever, so you´ve got to be careful.
So anyway, there was a new feature on youtube called youtube Live or Live Streaming and I thought, oh I know what would be a great idea, I should do an unboxing video, live, with all these people watching and I had the package, I had my box cutters and on the front was my name and address so I got a marker pen and I scrawled it out because I didn´t want people to see where I lived. And, Tiff, my wife, was watching in the next room and I´m trying to be all upbeat and jolly, talking to the camera, and I said, “Hi, it´s me, the Ukulele Teacher and I´m doing my thing,” and she´s calling something out and I´m like, “Don´t worry, I´ve crossed it out, I´ve crossed it out!” But what I didn´t realise is that on the other side of the box, when they´d taken the parcel to the sorting office, the mail man had written, in massive marker pen, my home address, which I hadn´t seen and so what Tiff was trying to warn me about is that, while I thought I´d been really careful, actually I was broadcasting our home address to thousands of people on the internet, live, so I couldn´t even edit it out.
P: And what about the dog collar thing?
J: Ah the dog collar! We´ve got a little Chihuahua and he´s great on Instagram, people seem to love him and every now and again I´ll try and put him in a video or something. But again, I have to be really careful because his dog collar has my wife´s phone number on it, in case he gets lost. But it means every time I´m holding the camera or trying to take a photo, I have to make sure it's blurred out, or my thumb´s over it. So it´s just all these little things that you have to think about for your own protection.
P: God, amazing. So yeah, the concept of unboxing. I´m sixty now and that, to me, basically is people watching someone else open an envelope and there´s a joke, you know, that a celebrity will go to the opening of an envelope…
J: Of an envelope, yeah.
P: How did you discover it and has it been around for a long time?
J: I mean, I really feel, as well as I´m doing on YouTube, I feel that I´m constantly playing catch-up and trying to figure out what the current craze is or what the new craze is and at some point people were doing unboxing videos. I think it might have started with Kinder Eggs. People were unboxing or unwrapping Kinder Eggs on camera, and showing people what the toys were. And I don´t know the exact chronology but I think it expanded to make-up, so people were doing make-up unboxing videos and people were doing computer game unboxing videos and I guess I just sort of thought, I need, because we spoke about this briefly earlier, I need constant content. And making a lesson is quite hard because you have to do all the prep work, all the editing, all the lyrics, the chord charts and everything. And I thought, if I can just make an unboxing video, that´s like a whole extra video with hopefully not so much extra work involved. So I thought that would be a thing to do and that´s why I started doing it and now I´ve got like a deal with a ukulele brand. They send me a uke every month that I give away at the end of the month.
P: Is that Kala?
J: Yeah.
P: I mean if you´re in a position of power or something or, you know, influence… I suppose that´s what you are, an influencer, that you will get…...stuff
J: An influencer, yes.
P: And Kala is a very good ukulele actually…
J: Yeah, they sent me some decent ukes. Sorry, what was I saying…? Oh yeah, unboxing. So basically that was like a fad on YouTube and the short answer is I was trying to one; follow the craze and try and cash in on that wave of popularity of unboxing videos and, two; trying to make quick content that didn´t require so much extra editing and work. I guess that´s the shorter answer.

P: And you´ve also been through, it´s too boring to talk about ukulele acquisition syndrome. We´ve both been through that and…
J: Yeah. We´ve just moved and in our last place we had a little closet and I actually hung hooks up all around it. I had dozens of ukuleles up everywhere and now, since we´ve moved, I think they´re still in boxes somewhere. I´m not sure where half of them are, so…
P: Yeah, exactly. So how long do you think it´s all going to last? I mean you know about the three waves of ukulele, the twenties, the fifties…
J: Oh, right, okay. Sort of like, I don´t know, Hawaii, George Formby and something else?
P: Yeah. I suppose in the States it was really popular in the twenties, the instrument. It then became popular again in the fifties and then in the late nineties it started getting popular again and twenty years later it´s still popular. How long do you think it´s going to carry on this time?
J: [Sigh] Honestly, it´s something that keeps me up at night, to be honest with you. Like I have no idea and I´m just trying to ride it for as long as it will last though. I mean, I am worried that it´ll be a sort of fad that in… you know those kind of like, I LOVE 1984 programmes?
P: Yeah, yeah.
J: It could be like, “Oh, I can´t believe we were all still playing the ukulele in 2015!” or whatever. But I think, I think it´s got a bit more legs than before…
P: Yeah, it´s not like sort of Clackers or, Ra Ra skirts.
J: Right. Yeah, because it´s a genuine musical instrument and people are genuinely learning how to play it, to varying degrees, so they want to play and once you start playing it you find out, it´s not just educational, but it´s enjoyable, it´s sociable. It´s sort of enriching. It´s kind of good for you, I guess. There´s a lot of good things come from it so I hope it will last for a long time. But I have no idea.
P: Have you ever been in any bands?
J: Yeah. You mean with the ukulele?
P: Well, no, I mean in any band?
J: Yeah. When I was at school it was all I ever wanted to do and when I was in was sixth form I was in a band with three or four of my friends and it was all we could think about. Yeah, we loved it and we would gig at night after school, in the pubs we could get into anyway and, you know, half the time we had like our heads in the sky. We were like, “don´t worry about revising for these A levels cos we´ll be signed to Polydor in six months anyway”! But the thing is, when we went to university we ended up going into all different universities all over the country so we kind of fell apart.
P: What sort of music was it?
J: Well they all liked Britpop and Indie and I liked American rock, Blues Rock or whatever - so it was a kind of mix between… It was indie rock, I guess.  And yeah, it was some of the happiest days of my life.
P: So how did you get involved in commentating on wrestling matches?
J: Well that´s the other thing I always wanted to do, actually - apart from being in a band, I guess there were three things I was always interested in. There was music, wrestling and comedy and I´ve kind of done all three at some point in my life. And wrestling was why I ended up moving to London. I mean now it´s a bit more popular over here, but back in the day there were hardly any British wrestling companies, but I found one based in London and I went for an interview, if you can call it that, and they said “Oh, you know, you seem like a good fit….”
P: Was this American wrestling?
J: American style, but it was a British company and they said, we´d love to use you but, where you live, we don´t really run any shows, but if you ever come to London then give us a shout and we´ll get you involved. And I was sort of like, right, I´m going to move to London!
P: So that would have been around 2006 - did you do a lot of it?
J: Well I ended up doing a lot. What was interesting about it is, I mean it´s weird now that I´m out of it, wrestling seems to have gotten bigger than ever in England, but it really was a sort of, well, it seems to be rags to riches but I never really made any money out of it. Rags to whatever. In that, you work your way up so when I started off, literally my job was like helping them put posters up for the upcoming shows. Then I would have to help put the ring up and take the wrestlers up to the mic. And then eventually they said, hey, we need a ring announcer, can you do that? Like an MC. And then that became my sort of regular gig. And then around 2005/6 maybe, a channel started up on Sky called The Wrestling Channel and they wanted some British content and they got in touch with our company and I was, again, right place, right time. They wanted to make like a British TV show, so I became like the host of that show and from there got to do other wrestling stuff and then branched out into MMA (mixed martial arts) and more announcing, cage fighting and boxing, whether it´s MCing or commentary or whatever I´ll have a go at anything.
P: Wow, God. So you´ve got that showbiz thing where you´re not scared to get up on a stage…
J: In front of people, no not at all.

END  - Big thanks to John Atkins (AKA The Ukulele Teacher) you can follow him on Instagram Facebook and Twitter

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