“I LIKE THE SOUND OF THE LS16, BECAUSE I GRAVITATE TOWARD LOUD , BRIGHT ACOUSTIC GUITARS.”
David Choi may not be the first musician to build a career without the backing of a record label, but few artists have done it as successfully. Nearly a million fans subscribe to the 29-year-old singer/songwriter’s YouTube channel, and his videos have racked up an astonishing hundred million views. Choi’s online audience eagerly purchases his CDs and attends his shows, and his recently released fourth album, Stories of You’s and Me, promises to be his biggest yet.
Choi’s success isn’t a matter of luck. He has labored since high school to get where he is, studying the music business and honing his songwriting and production skills as a house writer/producer at a leading publishing house. Of course, it helps that he has a lovely, emotive voice, a fat songbook of catchy originals, and an unerring knack for choosing great cover material.
“In high school I was really into figuring out the business of music,” says Los Angeles-based Choi. “I started taking music business classes at community college, because I was very serious about making it in the industry.”
Meanwhile, the young musician interned at a recording studio. “I read that it was how most producers and songwriters made it,” David says. “I applied for a songwriting workshop sponsored by ASCAP, the performing rights organization, and I got in. They selected about 15 people from thousands of submissions, and we had a bunch of heavy-hitters come in to talk to us about their experiences.”
When the workshop ended, Judy Stakee, an executive at music publishing house Warner/Chappell, asked to hear more of Choi’s music. “I went into the office and played her my best material, and wound up getting signed as a Warner/Chappell writer for two years,” recalls David. “I wrote a hundred songs. I worked with hit songwriters. I had the opportunity to work on lots of demos—a huge learning experience that taught me about production.”
But Choi’s biggest break came in 2005, when some former PayPal employees launched a new-fangled video streaming service called YouTube. David instantly saw the promise of the new technology and became one of the site’s first popular musicians.
“That’s when everything got kick-started,” he says. “My path shifted. I started putting music up just to see if people liked it. I put out an album, and people actually bought it. I started touring in 2009. YouTube helped me build a worldwide audience that I could perform for and release albums to.”
Choi’s YouTube popularity landed him a leading booking agent, but to this day David handles most aspects of his career on his own. “I’m very hands-on,” he says. “I record and produce all my videos. I even package the CDs myself and take them to the post office.”
In Choi’s view, it’s often better for musicians to follow such a DIY route: “If you sell a CD as an independent musician, most of the profits go directly to you. You have control over every aspect of your career, which is not usually true when you’re signed to a label.”
While Choi has no shortage of original material, he learned early on the benefits of mixing cover tunes with his own songs. “Cover songs attract a different crowd,” he notes. “If they like you enough, they start exploring your originals. There’s nothing wrong with being a cover artist, but when you’re expressing yourself and putting out your own material, it feels even better.”
Another factor is Choi’s ability to write songs that connect with listeners worldwide. “I tend to write mid-tempo songs about relationships, because songs like that are relatable,” he says. “I usually write in the dark moments. I went through a few of those since my last album in 2012, so Stories of You’s and Me is a little darker than my other three albums, and more mature lyrically.”
Choi sometimes composes on keyboards, but his main instrument is guitar. His go-to instrument is a Yamaha LS16, a small-bodied steel-string acoustic with a solid rosewood body and a spruce top. “I liked its color,” he says, “and it just kind of fit me, because I’m a small guy. I like the sound of the LS16, because I gravitate toward loud, bright acoustic guitars. It feels and looks good when I perform, and it has a passive pickup, so I don’t have to worry about changing batteries.”
Choi and his guitar will be hitting the road again soon. “Right now I’m planning a European tour,” he says. “After that I’ll hit up Asia again, doing as many countries as possible. And as always, I’m writing songs. I don’t think I’ll ever stop.”