Competition has shaped Lindsey Stirling’s music career, but unlike dozens of reality television winners and runners up, it has not defined her. Perhaps that’s because after the violinist, who combines elements of electronic dance music with pop and classical—all while performing choreographed dance routines—was humiliatingly eliminated from the 2010 quarterfinal round on America’s Got Talent, she had to restart from square one.
“I tried to work with a record label, I tried to work with a booking agency, variety shows, I went to Vegas,” Stirling says. “I just tried everything I could think of, and nothing took. No one thought there was a place for my style and my music; it was just too different.”
Stirling’s exit from the fifth season of AGT, on which she was labeled a “hip-hop violinist,” particularly the cynical remarks of judge Piers Morgan, nearly ended her career. But it was another competition that gave her the idea to combine her loves of the violin and dancing in the first place.
Growing up in suburban Phoenix, the 29-year-old would go with her parents and sisters to orchestra concerts and dance recitals as often as possible. Stirling’s parents also exposed her to classical records at home. She began to look up to first-chair violinists as rock stars.
Because her parents couldn’t afford both dance classes and violin lessons, she chose the violin—the dancing came later and was self-taught. In high school, she played violin in a Jimmy Eat World-style rock band.
Pop-punk band Yellowcard, which featured a violinist, was an early inspiration that she didn’t have to play strictly classical music; that she could make it what she wanted it to be.
And when it came time to find scholarship cash for college—she’d go on to BYU in Utah—she turned to a high-school girls’ pageant called the Junior Miss Scholarship Program.
“There were all these classical violinists that were just about the same level as me, and I thought, ‘How am I going to stand out?’ I wanted to be fun, not to just impress people,” she says. “I started to think of how I could make my music visually engaging to the audience.”
With her parents’ encouragement, Stirling began incorporating moves into her performances. Her hard work—for many it’s difficult to simply play the violin and move at the same time—paid off, and she won by performing an original rock piece.
“I will never forget that moment of performing [while dancing] on stage for the first time, the reaction of the audience,” she says.
In college she began to incorporate electronic dance music and hip-hop elements alongside classical, even though EDM was far from popular in her hometown. She had to strain her ears just to make out the staticky techno station that made its way through to her stereo. “I just loved EDM because I felt like it inspired dance and movement,” she says.
The violinist pursued music and posted a lone video to YouTube, which got the attention of AGT producers.
“I really did think it was going to change my life…[that] this was my big break, everything’s going to change,” she says. “Went on the show, got kicked off, nothing changed. It was actually really discouraging, and it was hard to take this intense criticism I got. If being in front of millions of viewers on a reality show didn’t make my career happen, what possibly could make my career happen?”
She continued her education at BYU, where she studied filmmaking and met director Devin Graham, who has gone on to direct the majority of her elaborate music videos. They began by making a video for an original song, “Spontaneous Me.” Graham taught her how to be successful on YouTube. The video went viral in 2011, with 22 million views.
To Stirling, the online platform is a haven for niche musicians and audiences. She credits it and others in the YouTube community—the filmmakers, comedians, animators and other musicians like a capella group Pentatonix, those who have made “YouTube-famous” a household term—for her making her career possible.
“It changed everything,” she says.
In 2012 Stirling released a self-titled debut album of original material. Since then, the video for YouTube single “Crystallize” has racked up over 131 million views. The album was certified platinum in Germany, and gold in Poland and Switzerland. In the U.S., nearly a half-million copies were sold, and it was nominated for a Billboard Music Award in the Top Dance/Electronic Album category. It also reached No. 23 on the Billboard Top 200 chart, and at one time was charting at the same time on Billboard’s Dance/Electronica and Classical Album charts.
“People don’t belong in categories and boxes; I love that my music exemplifies that,” Stirling says. “You can be whatever you want, you can make your own genre. I see it at my shows. I see little kids, I see grandparents there together…I see rave kids in the back with their colorful spinning hula-hoops. It’s this diverse crowd where everybody can feel accepted.”
Her upward trajectory continued with a collaboration with Pentatonix on a cover of Imagine Dragons’ “Radioactive,” which won a “Response of the Year” award at the inaugural YouTube Awards in 2013. Her covers of popular videogame themes have also made traction with a niche audience who might not otherwise listen to either dance or classical music. Stirling has also worked with a diverse group of musicians, from other YouTube-famous acts to John Legend, and most recently alongside Josh Groban and the Muppets for a video covering Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory’s “Pure Imagination,” in May.
YouTube’s collaborative, tightknit community has been a strong sharing ground for several years, but in recent years, mainstream artists have taken notice, Stirling says.
“Online is such an important platform…it’s all one giant melting pot of talents,” she says. “The times are changing. It’s just art now. You can share your audiences with everyone, and it’s exciting.”
Her second album, 2014’s Shatter Me, exceeded the lofty accomplishments of her debut. It reached the No. 2 spot on the Billboard 200, and won the award for which the first album was nominated. It also helped push Stirling’s YouTube subscribers above 6 million (over 7 million now), and above 1 billion total video views.
She also wrote a memoir, which will be released in January, called The Only Pirate at the Party, and she is about to get to work on a third album, on which she wants to prove she has grown as an artist. Stirling says she’d been inspired by playing the festival circuit and seeing how other musicians present themselves and perform, as well as seeing how her own music resonates with fans.
While she may not classify her music as EDM, she’s eager to inspire other electronic artists to include more live elements and movement. She hopes to see that happen, where DJs add technically skilled dancers rather than go-go girls. Or, even better, she wants to see more electronic artists with the ability to play instruments incorporate their talents into their sets. She views tourmate Robert DeLong as an example.
Stirling’s current live show includes a segment where she plays and dances through a graveyard. The most prominent grave belongs to Piers Morgan, who is now off the airwaves in the U.S., while Stirling is at a new height in her career.
“I remember being so devastated; literally, it took everything inside of me not just to burst into tears on that stage,” she says of her AGT elimination. “I’m over it, and actually being kicked off the show was probably the best thing that ever happened to me. It taught me a lot, it saved me from being stuck in some awful contract, and it made me really fight and dig deep for what I loved to do.”