Music » Music Feature

Chicago’s most popular young metal guitarist plays on YouTube, not onstage

Rob Scallon’s frequently goofy videos—among them a banjo cover of Slayer’s ‘Raining Blood’—have earned him an audience of millions.

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Rob Scallon demonstrates an impractical way to hold his Chapman Guitars signature model eight-string. - DANIELLE A. SCRUGGS
  • Danielle A. Scruggs
  • Rob Scallon demonstrates an impractical way to hold his Chapman Guitars signature model eight-string.

Rob Scallon doesn't know how many musical instruments he owns. He has to walk around the Roscoe Village apartment he shares with his girlfriend, Tamara Chambers, to count them. They line the walls of his living room and fill part of his adjacent office: a double-­neck guitar, a purple cello, a white upright bass, a theremin, an electronic drum kit, a guitalele, a sitar, a berimbau, a rusty shovel outfitted with a single string and wired to play like an electric guitar. "I think I have 36," he finally says.

Scallon recently bought the berimbau, a bow-shaped single-string percussion instrument from Brazil, from Andy's Music in Avondale. But he doesn't often have to pay for new toys these days—nearly every new noisemaker arrives for free via an endorsement deal. Manufacturers compete to get their products into Scallon's hands—including Kala, which specializes in ukuleles, and Cecilio, which makes woodwind, brass, and stringed instruments. Chapman Guitars, a young UK-based company, has collaborated with Scallon on two signature guitars since 2016.

The reason for this is simple: Scallon is one of the most successful young rockers to emerge from Chicago in the past decade. He's not famous because of a band, though every now and then he drums in a couple. He hardly ever plays live, and his most recent local show was almost two years ago. He rarely appears in mainstream music publications, and he's not on a major label—in fact he's not on a traditional label at all, instead working with a company called DFTBA ("Don't Forget to Be Awesome") that mostly sells merchandise for vlogging stars. But Scallon has hundreds of thousands of fans, and he makes a living playing music. The one-sentence biography on his main YouTube channel says it all: "My name is Rob and I play guitar for the internet."

Scallon, 26, began uploading videos to YouTube in February 2007, and it's still his principal outlet. His main channel has almost 900,000 subscribers, some of whom no doubt also follow his second channel, RobScallon2 (which has more than 150,000 subscribers). He sometimes makes conventional music videos—for "We'll Be Fine," which has accumulated more than 330,000 views since he uploaded it on March 17, 2014, he was filmed on the lakefront playing a woebegone original instrumental tune on a 12-string guitar. But he also produces instructional clips, such as "Slap Guitar 101," which has racked up more than half a million views in less than three weeks. And some of his videos combine music and comedy: The tune on "Musical Mad Libs" is full of goofy non sequiturs that his fans supplied via YouTube comments when he asked for lyrics. As he and Chambers sing them, a screenshot of each comment appears in the corner of the frame—and when Scallon makes it to the lines "I lost my freaking cat / But then I found her eating pancakes," the couple's cat, Wendy, nibbles on a short stack.

Scallon's most popular videos have one thing in common: metal. At the top of the heap, with more than seven million views since May 2014, is his banjo cover of Slayer's 1986 thrash classic "Raining Blood." It's an instrumental version, with banjo tracks replacing the guitars; Scallon bangs his head and clowns around in the tall grass next to a boarded-up house, wearing denim overalls without a shirt. His cover of Metallica's "One" performed on a single guitar has reached almost four and a half million views since May 2016, despite its relatively austere visuals: the video is a simple static shot of a Scallon signature Chapman eight-string against a black background, with as many as five anonymous hands picking and fretting it. "Metal in Inappropriate Places," which has accumulated more than four million views since September 2014, shows Scallon tearing through acrobatic riffs while standing fully clothed in the shower, scooching awkwardly down playground slides, head-banging between bookcases at a library, and getting what looks like some serious dental work.

Scallon's viral success has attracted the attention of major music outlets that don't usually pay much attention to YouTubers. Billboard has written about him a few times, and even interviewed him in conjunction with the May 2014 premiere of his banjo cover of Slayer's "Angel of Death." (It's his fifth most popular video, with more than three million views.) He's also attracted the attention of a few metal sites, the largest of which is probably MetalSucks. It's covered his metal-related work pretty consistently, despite the occasionally salty reactions of commenters who think he's making fun of the music.

The silly grimaces Scallon makes in some of his metal videos—self-conscious parodies of "guitar face"—probably don't endear him to loyalists either. But he might win over a few skeptical metalheads with his newest solo album, The Scene Is Dead. Written and recorded over the past three years, it collects Scallon's explorations of "djent," a young subgenre whose onomatopoeic name comes from the distinctive guitar attack of progressive Swedish death-metal band Meshuggah. It's a technique-heavy style that relies heavily on drop-tuned guitars, tricky time signatures, and riffs that feel like they've been mapped out on a grid—just the thing for a musician who's already learned how to get paid for his chops.

Scallon's Bandcamp page includes three dozen releases, including a raft of singles sourced from his YouTube videos and six previous albums that date back to 2008. Those records are mostly emo or instrumental postrock, though—The Scene Is Dead isn't his first rodeo, but it's his first metal album.

Scallon genuinely loves metal, notwithstanding all the Internet blowhards who question his sincerity. Like many fans, though, he doesn't telegraph it in his appearance: he has no visible tattoos, his shaggy hair isn't long enough to make even a tiny ponytail, and he's more scruffy than actually bearded. In his videos, he's recently taken to wearing plain button-down shirts.

In a pattern familiar to metalheads, Scallon seems to change personalities entirely when he isn't stomping and thrashing around: he's gentle, affable, and quick to smile. For his Reader photo shoot, he puts on his signature gray beanie and cocks the brim to the right. He began wearing beanies in his videos more than four years ago, for a cover of Hanson's "MmmBop" that he performed on a recorder. (He'd asked his fans on Facebook how he could make the "worst thing ever.") "My hair was kind of a mess, and it was an easy way to solve that problem," he says. "I have less hair than I used to, so it helps out there. And then it just kind of became a thing."

Metal has been part of Scallon's life for ages. "I was really inspired by Metallica when I was young, and I just loved playing metal guitar," he says. As a musician, he started on drums—he got a kit for Christmas in elementary school, and while at Arlington Heights High in 2008 he began drumming for a death-metal group called Gas Mask Catalogue. "We actually had some pretty great songs, but we really weren't practiced," he says. "When we would play live, it was kind of a mess usually. But we had a lot of fun."

Even in his early teens, Scallon suspected that physical stages wouldn't be as important to him as Web platforms. "I knew that there was a tremendous amount of potential with doing music for the Internet, but I didn't quite know what it was yet," he says. He was inspired by the website Songs to Wear Pants To, founded in 2004 by musician and future Scallon collaborator Andrew Huang—for a small fee, users could commission Huang to write a song. "Being an Internet musician at the time, you needed to be making cool stuff all the time and have some savvy, innovative business sense to turn it into money," Scallon says. "I just really wanted to grow an audience and figure out ways to do it, but I didn't really know what that meant."

The first platform Scallon tried was MySpace—the remnants of his page still indicate that he had more than 22,000 connections. "In the MySpace days, I think the first regular revenue stream I had was iTunes sales—which is kinda weird, looking back now, that that was the only way that that MySpace page made money," he says.

Scallon moved to YouTube in 2007 after hearing that musicians could make a living there, but his first steps were wobbly. "I wrongly just went after numbers at that time—I just figured the bigger the audience I have, the better it will work," he says. "I was contacting everyone with a popular YouTube channel and saying, 'Hey, I'll make music for you, just shout out my channel.' I think that grew the channel a little bit, but I wasn't reaching people who were particularly interested in my stuff."

Scallon eventually discovered that building his own audience, though a much slower process, worked better than throwing himself in front of other YouTubers' fans. "It's really a long-tail business," he says. "You don't really look for the thing that's gonna make you 2,000 dollars in a day. You look for the thing that's gonna make you one dollar today and one dollar every other day for the foreseeable future." After graduating from high school in 2009, Scallon held down a series of odd jobs and pursued his music career in his spare time. But in June 2013, while working as a digital-­services assistant at Arlington Heights Memorial Library, he came to a crossroads.

Scallon experiments with his new berimbau, one of three dozen musical instruments he owns. - DANIELLE A. SCRUGGS
  • Danielle A. Scruggs
  • Scallon experiments with his new berimbau, one of three dozen musical instruments he owns.

"I was in a position where I either needed to say 'no' to some big opportunities that were coming my way or quit the job," Scallon says. "I ended up quitting the job and really going for it." He had about 35,000 subscribers at the time, and he'd been saving money for a few years, which helped ease the transition. While his channel grew, he kept himself afloat by landing freelance gigs with other You­Tubers—including Craig Benzine, better known as singer and guitarist Wheezy Waiter, who lived in Chicago at the time. "For the first six months or so, I was definitely making a little bit less than what I needed to pay my bills," he says. "But I had that savings."

Focusing on music full-time allowed Scallon to travel more and find like-minded collaborators. He's not particularly active as a live musician, but in 2013 he started filling in on drums with Driftless Pony Club, an indie-­rock band fronted by Wheezy Waiter, who now lives in Austin. That same year he also took a spot behind the kit for Hank Green & the Perfect Strangers, an intermittently active supergroup of YouTubers led by vlogger and DFTBA cofounder Hank Green, who lives in Missoula, Montana. (Hank is the younger brother of YA novelist and Internet celebrity John Green.)

"We're all pretty busy, so we don't get together very often," Scallon says. "If I'm not playing with Hank Green & the Perfect Strangers, then I generally just don't play live." His most recent local solo set was at Metro two years ago: he was an opening act on a CIMMfest showcase that included Driftless Pony Club and Hank Green & the Perfect Strangers. Scallon also travels to make appearances at conventions, including two big events in the Los Angeles area: VidCon, a gathering of Web creators organized by the Green brothers, and the National Association of Music Merchants Show, a music-gear convention that draws roughly 100,000 participants.

The NAMM Show is only open to industry people, but Scallon didn't have to wonder if he counted as one—he was invited. After discovering Scallon's YouTube channel, NAMM director of professional development Zach Phillips reached out. "We knew Rob had a style that would be appealing to many NAMM Show attendees—he's a strong, charismatic player," Phillips says. "Plus he has an interesting story, being such a savvy marketer of his music."

Scallon has been attending NAMM since 2014. In 2016 he debuted his first signature guitar for Chapman, and a couple years before that he met Ryan "Fluff" Bruce from Puyallup, Washington, who'd become a consistent collaborator. Bruce runs a YouTube channel called Riffs & Beards, and he convinced Scallon to hire him as a mixing and mastering engineer, even though Scallon had no money for it at first. "I was a bit uncomfortable with hiring him for free, but I think we only did three videos where he did it for free—then the channel was at a point where I could pay him," Scallon says. "He's been my sound guy ever since."

Scallon has since assembled a small team, including a few videographers, a manager-­agent, and a video editor. The editor, Jake Jarvi, also performs in Scallon's satirical videos as Rick Riffson, the click-hungry CEO of "Super Metal Records," who has a penchant for djent. Riffson made his first appearance in November 2014, at which point Scallon had been making metal-­centric videos for roughly a year—he'd started slowly, with cello covers of System of a Down, then rolled out ukulele versions of Slayer and Cannibal Corpse.

"I wrongly assumed that there wasn't a market for metal on YouTube," Scallon says. "I held on to that for too long. But then I started doing more metal stuff, particularly in the last four years, just 'cause I'm into it. I'm fortunate enough [that] my audience who is there for guitar stuff were also into metal stuff."

Of course, not everyone who's into metal finds Scallon's take on the music worthwhile. MetalSucks published "The 25 Most Important People in Metal" in installments throughout November, and the list placed Scallon at number 23—a choice the site must have known would provoke its readers. Some of the criticism in the comments section was polite ("His output doesn't really reflect that he's all that prolific with regards to metal"), some of it less so ("He makes videos making stupid faces while covering 20-year-old metal songs on shovels. This man could not possibly be less important in metal").

Scallon and his sitar. It’s less satisfying but by no means impossible to bang your head while seated. - DANIELLE A. SCRUGGS
  • Danielle A. Scruggs
  • Scallon and his sitar. It’s less satisfying but by no means impossible to bang your head while seated.

MetalSucks cofounder and editor in chief Axl Rosenberg hasn't let the backlash change his mind. "I do think that there are a lot of metalheads who are humorless—or at least don't think it's OK to have a sense of humor about metal, and so they take anything that's funny as an affront," he says. "I also think that these so-called bedroom producers piss off a lot of traditionalists, most of whom are of a certain age."

Rosenberg likes Scallon's jokey metal videos, but he also sees the YouTuber as extending some of the genre's traditions toward the future. "For there to be this guy who is making these great videos and now making this amazing album, and doing it all DIY—which is very important in the metal community—that kind of work ethic, it's mind-blowing," he says. "He really represents a culmination of metal history and technological history up to this point."

Scallon's approach may be alien to fans weaned on stories of bands in vans, but he's willing to speak freely about how he's made it work. His major revenue streams are YouTube ads, licensing deals, and Patreon, a subscription service for Web creators that Scallon began using shortly after its launch in May 2013. Right now he has 899 subscribers, who receive different perks based on what they pay per month.

Each of Scallon's video descriptions also includes information on his gear and where to buy it. If he collaborated with another You­Tuber, he adds details about their work as well. Bob Clagett of the channel I Like to Make Stuff built Scallon his one-string shovel guitar, and Scallon gave him a shout-out in the "Shovel Metal" video (which has more than 1.7 million views since February 2016).

Scallon's approach to collaboration, which often looks like simply trading favors, has helped him out in other contexts too: because he needed access to a dentist's office for the "Metal in Inappropriate Places" video, he recorded a free jingle for Lincoln Park Smiles. "The owner let me shoot and have staff there to make it look like I was actually getting a filling or something," he says. "He gave me a free cleaning before I left."

Scallon's affability and approachability manifest themselves in the descriptions he writes for his YouTube videos. He likes people to feel included in his process, and he's transparent about how he does things. He might add an inside joke, but he'll also probably explain it. In the November video "Most Brutal Breakdown Ever," which he made with Dave Brown of the channel Boy in a Band, Brown says "get rowdy" and "get pissed." In the description, Scallon explains that those phrases are homages to north-suburban deathcore group Oceano, who came from the same scene he did—their singer would shout them before a breakdown.

Chicago artists have influenced Scallon's music in other directions as well. On his Bandcamp page, he's posted a couple covers of Mike Kinsella's solo project, Owen. "You can probably say that my first four albums are just a bad Owen impression," he says. Kinsella's influence remains strong on Scallon's later material too: his most popular song for solo guitar, 2013's "Anchor," uses the same tuning as "Never Meant," by Kinsella's 90s emo band American Football.

The Scene Is Dead, on the other hand, pays tribute to the metal community he grew up in. "All those songs are named after bands from the Chicagoland area that I would see in high school," Scallon says. The album opens with "Gas Mask Catalogue," and though Scallon insists his old group was a mess, the track is clean, complex, and efficient in its aggression. He uses extended-range guitars, with seven strings or more, on the whole record—the nervy "Envy" arose from his desire to write a metal song for nine-string guitar and use all the strings in "a creative way." Scallon is a gifted player, but he never disrupts the flow of his songs with showboating. That's obvious in his videos too, and it's helped make fans of metal musicians with much higher profiles on traditional stages: The Scene Is Dead includes two guitar solos from Jeff Loomis, formerly of long-­running Seattle group Nevermore and now a member of Swedish melodeath band Arch Enemy.

Since its digital release in January, The Scene Is Dead has remained among the best-selling Chicago albums available on Bandcamp, occasionally outperforming critics' darlings such as Whitney and Russian Circles—but Scallon has barely had time to notice. "Working on so many videos all the time, I haven't given this album that much thought since it came out," he says. "Something comes out, and then you're on to the next thing right away. All your focus is on the next video." Right now he and fellow YouTuber Sarah Longfield are finishing a pilot for MTV that repackages their online content into a 30-minute show—the channel reached out to him about six months ago. "I was like, 'I would love to have the experience of even just filming a pilot for MTV,'" he says.

But Scallon's focus remains on the Internet. In February, ten years to the day after he launched his YouTube page, he published a video in which he re-creates a snippet of the best-­trafficked clip from each year. Its 11 segments include two takes on Metallica—"One" on a single guitar and "Enter Sandman" played backward and then reversed to sound "normal" (posted in 2015, it's accumulated more than 3.8 million views). About a month later, Mexican YouTuber Luisito Rey uploaded a video where he interviews Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett, asking him to watch 11 covers of his band's songs and rate them from one to five. Up first: Scallon's 2016 banjo cover of "Master of Puppets" (more than 2.5 million views), where he's joined by a buddy wielding an upright bass. With an amused smile, Hammett says, "I have to give them credit, because they put a lot of work into it—a lot of effort. And you know what, they're playing it right." He gives Scallon a five. v

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