By Nathaniel Nelson
Name: Brent Black
Occupation: YouTuber, Musician, Podcaster
Hometown: Irving, TX
Current Neighborhood/City: New York, NY
When Brent Black tells people what he does, he usually gets the same response: “Cool, but what’s, like, your job job?” He’s known mostly for his popular YouTube channel, where he produces videos that add comedic lyrics and music to video games, but he also hosts a pop culture podcast, has released albums expanding on his YouTube content, is creating an original video game, and has even dabbled in acting. Occupying (or perhaps forming) a niche between video games and show tunes, he’s built a cult following atop his quirky personality, talent for little ditties, and the river of nerd energy flowing through pop culture today. The RoomZoom member and fellow NYU grad told me a bit about YouTube, how to make the transfer from unemployed millennial to internet sensation, and video games… with lyrics.
How often do you floss?
A lot more since “Brentalfloss” became a thing!
How’d you find RoomZoom?
I think I googled something like “Find a roommate NYC.”
Could you tell me a bit about your trajectory from a musical theater student to a YouTuber?
I started out getting a bachelor’s in drama with an emphasis in acting from the University of Oklahoma, but I spent most of my free time in undergrad writing and directing original musicals. After that, I did one of NYU Tisch’s two-year programs [to earn my master’s in musical theater writing], following the “lyrics emphasis” track. Meanwhile, I had been trying different things on YouTube. People seemed to like when I would play old video game tunes on the piano and stuff like that. In 2008 (the summer after I graduated NYU), I was teaching a summer arts course called “Let’s Make a Musical” when some music from an old Mega Man game got stuck in my head. I didn’t have much to do between classes, so I just randomly started writing a lyric to go with the Mega Man tune. I slapped a little video together in iMovie, uploaded it to YouTube, and unlike the videos that I had made before that, it got a ton of views and fans of classic games really seemed to like it.
After a week, I realized that more people had seen that one video than all the people who had ever seen a theater piece I was involved in, and so I started carving out more and more time for YouTube. It was a fun hobby for the first year or two, but in 2010 I released an album of songs related to my YouTube work and the sales of that allowed me to stop temping and do YouTube full-time. I had been an obsessive gamer as a kid and an obsessive writer of musical comedies as a young adult, so, looking back, it was almost inevitable that those things would come together in my creative life.
Watching your video for Bioshock Infinite, I got the sense that while it did mimic the game’s aesthetic, it didn’t touch on its themes or gameplay as much. Instead it seemed to honor the gamer’s perspective. When you make your videos, do you feel more inspired by the games themselves, or game culture more generally?
Each “Brentalfloss” music video is an example of me playing with a different style of music and songwriting. In The Bioshock Infinite Song, I was trying to create a barbershop quartet song (a la The Buffalo Bills from The Music Man) while also trying to get jokes out of the quirks of the game. Other times, I focus on an overarching gag like the insanity of Scrooge McDuck going to the moon in search of treasure in the Nintendo game of Ducktales or the extreme irresponsibility of letting babies drive in dangerous tracks in Mario Kart 8. Sometimes, I love a game’s music but want to lampoon the game itself. Other times, I like a game so much I just want to give it a big musical high five. In general though, if I can find a way to get laughs (or occasionally just good storytelling) out of a video game, I’ll try it out. It’s different every time.
Do you have any advice for young people looking to turn their hobby to into a job like you did?
I have a TON advice about that (you’re really bringing out the teacher in me here):
* Don’t base your initial idea for a project on what you think people want. Make something you would want to experience. If you’re a YouTuber, make a video you would love to watch. If you’re a game designer, make a game you’d love to play. If you have an interest in it, it’s more likely that someone else will catch the fever because your enthusiasm and passion will be tangibly baked into the final product.
* Just because you’re “doing what you love” doesn’t mean it won’t be a pain in the butt sometimes. No one gets to eat dessert for every meal; you have to eat your vegetables, too.
* And finally, I’ve come up with a little metaphor about creativity that I tell aspiring creators: Every artist is an incomplete kitchen. Maybe I’ve got a cookie sheet and a spatula whereas you’ve got a mixing bowl and a measuring cup. Maybe I’ve got cumin and eggs and you’ve got sugar and flour. No one has all of the ingredients and all of the cookware. If you try to make something in your kitchen like what some other artist makes, you might just end up making a less-good version of what they made. Try to figure out what it is that could only be made in your kitchen. Something that could only be done the way you do it. Once you figure that out, it doesn’t matter if it’s entirely original (the concept of “originality” is a trap). What matters is that it’s done in a way that only you could do it. Whatever that thing is will likely be a good avenue for you to explore creatively.
As far as YouTube specifically, what tools and traits might one need to build a rep there?
Building a YouTube brand takes two important ingredients: Personality and work ethic. Even if you never physically appear in your videos, your personality (or the collective “personality” of your team) will shine through. Early on, it’s important to pay attention to which style and personality elements are resonating with viewers and which are not. But arguably more important than the “personality” piece is the “work ethic” piece. It would be nice to go viral on your first try, but it’s highly unlikely and would pigeonhole you like the “Chocolate Rain” guy or the “Gangnam Style” guy. In all likelihood, you’ll need to invest a lot of time and energy into a brand before it really gets traction with a wide audience. That’s where discipline comes in: Upload videos on a regular basis. Once a week is a good start, and releasing on the same day each week will train your viewers–even subconsciously–to check back around the same time each week. The more consistent you are with your style and your uploads, the better chance you have of growing an audience.
Has your own experience on YouTube opened any other doors elsewhere, outside of the internet?
I think it’s currently one of the best ways to open doors to other career paths and types of media. My YouTube videos have led to gigs recording audiobooks, composing music for video games, and an acting gig on a narrative web series, My Life as a Video Game. If there’s a better gateway to other media in 2016, I have yet to see it.
It seems like video game culture is infiltrating the mainstream more and more (I’m thinking of examples like Clueless Gamer, or even songs like Cha Cha by D.R.A.M. and Run/Running by Lil Yachty, which sample Super Mario). Are you seeing this pattern as well, and do you think it’s a good thing?
I think nerd culture in general is being integrated more and more into the mainstream. Part of that is the fact that many of the kids who grew up playing Atari and Nintendo are now in their 30s or 40s. They’re calling the shots more in general. Also, the TV series as a form has splintered off from network and cable to now include Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, YouTube, and plenty of other platforms. You’ve got people born in the 2000s getting into Deep Space Nine, know what I’m sayin’? So not only are there more proud nerds creating media, but it’s easier to access material pertaining to video games, comics, sci-fi, anime, and other nerdy stuff than ever before.
Given that there’s (arguably) not much historical precedent for your specific line of work, where do you see yourself 10 years or so into the future? What artists and creatives do you look up to?
I’m never satisfied doing the same thing day in and day out for very long, so I definitely see myself trying out different types of projects with my skill set. Writing a musical for the nerd crowd. Developing a video game that is a musical. Maybe an additional podcast? There are lots of ideas on my bucket list. Most of the artists and creatives I look up to are people who succeed creating multiple flavors and formats of what they do best: Hank and John Green, Steve Martin, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Tina Fey just to name a few.
What projects are you currently working on, or have planned for the future, that you’re particularly excited about?
My main focus right now is a digital party game called “Use Your Words.” It takes the idea of “Apples to Apples” or “Cards Against Humanity” and adds in smartphone support so you can fill in the blank your own way instead of waiting for a good card. That will be released soon, and I’m also planning on a new album of my YouTube music in 2017.
Do you have any good/bad/fun/terrible roommate stories?
My first college roommate was literally, empirically, the most attractive man on campus. I pretty quickly learned not to bring dates over because up next to him, I looked like a “before” picture. But as for a good roommate story, my second college roommate and I ended up becoming great friends, and now, 10 years after graduating, we co-host a podcast, Trends Like These, together.
What if this interview had lyrics?
♫ Theeeennn I would have to charge you for iiiiit ♫
Keep up with Brent’s many projects here.
Nathaniel Nelson (N8) is a filmmaker and writer.
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