It's an hour before showtime, and Kurt Schneider can't remember his own song. It's blaring from the speakers mounted nearby—"Shadow," a ballad he wrote and produced with his friend Sam Tsui a few years ago—but he hasn't played the song in a while, and can't remember the piano part. (When you've arranged, recorded, produced, written, directed, edited, and mixed more than 300 songs and videos, you tend to forget a few things.) Schneider hunches over his Yamaha keyboard, boxers sticking out the back of his jeans; after a minute of banging around, the muscle memory kicks in, and the part comes back. Then, just as suddenly, it's time to go. He slips on his shoes, runs his hands through his messy hair, and jumps in his car to head to tonight's shoot.
Over the next several hours, Schneider will direct, produce, and perform in a music video for a cover of the song "Roses" by the Chainsmokers. Schneider arranged, mixed, and recorded the audio on this one—but he's not the star of this video. That would be Tsui, his closest collaborator, who recorded the vocals yesterday in Schneider's home studio. Schneider's rarely the star of his videos, but he's without question the star of his channel. And like many of the platform's stars, YouTube has made him famous. Like, 7 million subscribers and more than a billion views famous.
One of Schneider's biggest fans is actually in town: Kayla, the 16-year-old whose only wish for Christmas vacation was to fly to LA to meet Schneider and Tsui. They both know who she is, because she's one of the super-duperfans who comments on and shares absolutely everything they do. Her mom reached out to Schneider months earlier, and Schneider and Tsui decided to surprise her. So they told Kayla no, sorry, too busy, but offered to have a friend give her a tour of "a studio they shoot in sometimes" that's owned by Alex Goot, another well-known YouTuber. As she enters an abandoned-looking building in an industrial neighborhood of downtown LA, Kayla has no idea what's waiting for her upstairs.