Exclusive: Pioneering YouTube Collagist Kutiman, Millions of Views Later, Is Not In It for the Money

Kutiman. (Photo credit: Haim Yafim Barbalat)

In 2009, Israeli musician Ophir Kutiel was looking for YouTube tutorials he could watch to improve his own playing, when he stumbled across a clip of drummer Bernard Purdie (whose credits include session drumming for James Brown and musical direction for Aretha Franklin) performing the "16th Note Shuffle." "He was playing and explaining how to play this funky groove and I was like, 'I need to play these other instruments,'" says Kutiel, 32, who goes by Kutiman. "So I recorded myself playing bass and keyboards and guitar on top of it. I really liked the outcome and decided to do another one." He trolled YouTube to find other bass players he could layer on top of Purdie's signature "Purdie Shuffle" -- in doing so, he noticed that videos open in multiple tabs would sometimes to play at the same time, syncing for just one or two glorious seconds of perfect syncopation. 

"I didn't get up from my chair for two months," says Kutiman, laughing.

Thus was born ThruYou, Kutiman's project that layers clips of amateur YouTube musicians performing different, original songs that Kutiman assembles into his own innovative mashup. His first video, "Mother of All Funk Chords," has amassed 1.7 million views; "Give It Up," the first single from the project's second part, ThruYou Too, has been watched almost 1.2 million times in four days. And yet, Kutiman says this response is less intimidating than the outpouring that followed ThruYou. "The first time, I really wasn’t ready for that," he says. "It was really overwhelming. This time I’m taking it easy."

That's part of the reason Kutiman waited five years to put out ThruYou Too, taking the time to produce local artists and play on their albums, work on his video art, and write his own music (he also compiled another "Thru" series, this one shooting musicians' live performances in cities like Tokyo, Jerusalem, and Krakow). Despite his desire to stay off the radar, he couldn't avoid some encounters with fame: in 2011 he opened for one of his idols, DJ Shadow, in Tel Aviv. The year before, Maroon 5 emailed him to say they loved the project and sent him concert footage from their most recent tour to be assembled into a ThruYou-style mix

In the past year, Kutiman decided to start working on ThruYou Too, which he estimates took him about three or four months to put together."I open 20 tabs of bass players and see if something sounds like it works," he says. "It’s just searching for improvisation or whatever. If I have free time I just sit and watch YouTube. if I’m looking for a guitar player, eventually I’ll find myself watching people playing guitars for the rest of the night."

His quest for exclusively original material, prefereably with the fewest views, can sometimes be frustrating: "I spend all night searching for an a cappella, and I love it, and I send it to a friend and he says, 'This is a Beyonce song, you don’t know it?' I’m like, 'Ah, damn.'" Most of the time, however, Kutiman finds rare birds, like the six-year-old piano player or the woodsman trombone player in "Give It Up." The music he makes out of these finds (using video editing software Sony Vegas, though he tries to leave the recordings as pristine as possible, keeping the musicians in the original key) resembles his own, which he released as his self-titled debut LP in 2011. 

ThruYou Too, which sees online release on Oct. 1, is a labor of love: like the last one, Kutiman is putting it out there for free. "It’s not really about money," he says. "I do it in my spare time, socially and artistically. I get lots of offers. Companies want to put it on their website and share the clicks, but I’m not interested."

"There’s a website for it," he adds. "There’s nothing physical. It’s all going to be on the internet. It’s from the internet, and that’s where it belongs. You can link, you can dig in it and see the other musicians, read comments or something." Indeed, in the case where the original videos have gone missing, commenters on ThruYou Too have been unofficially crowd-sourced and combed through YouTube to find them. So far, none of the musicians Kutiman has incorporated into the project have objected; on the contrary, they're thrilled to be featured at all.

"It’s just a huge wave of positivity," says Kutiman. "People that really love it and go see the players, and they love the players and comment on them. Everybody’s really positive about the whole thing."