The Best Kept Secret on the Internet: A Conversation with the Mystery Guitar Man

Joe PennaYouTube is an enigma.  Try to describe what YouTube is to those that don't understand it and you fall into a kind of vortex that is the YouTube home page.  It's there that you realize that YouTube really is a paradox of featured ideologies, styles and even spotlight material that makes even the most severe cases of ADHD get lost in the sea of personalities.  At least that's how it appears on the surface. When you examine it further it starts to look more like the culture of something that resembles a real life "Truman Show." Deeper still, it's a pool of vaudevillian flavors that all add up to something complicatedly noisy...and without form.  But even as a noisy mess it is definitely something significant.  You can't have millions of subscribers without it being something significantly entertaining. In any case, in my search to find meaning in the YouTube universe, I had to find an "expert" to help answer some of my questions in order to help clarify what YouTube is and how it appeals to those that actually push that subscribe button.  So who better than one of the biggest stars on YouTube, Joe Penna aka Mystery Guitar Man.  Special thanks to Joe for agreeing to sit down and have a conversation with us and tell us about YouTube through his eyes...err rather how it looks behind the lenses of the cool Oakley wearing persona.  So if there was ever anything you wanted to know about YouTube, this is your chance to sit back, relax and eavesdrop for a while because the business of YouTube is huge and the opportunities are as eye opening the regimented life that every YouTube star must impose upon themselves...if they want to stay at the top. C6M: It seems to me that YouTube is to video very much like what music was (as a cultural movement). In some ways it feels like Youtube and social media sort of are defining the next generation as tech savvy and a very much media aware group.  Do you feel like those that create videos (whether it's a video blog or slightly more produced piece) and what they're doing is a response to the established industry (in all of its forms)?  Or do you think they're really just doing their own thing and what comes out of it is simply a byproduct that is independent of what already exists? Mystery Guitar Man: Definitely I feel like this is like filmmaking in the 20's.  You know, where there were no rules you can do whatever you want.  Like I can put up a video about parking meters or phone books.  And I can still get paid for it.  Which is why I moved on from shooting commercials and music videos.  Or editing commercials and music videos into doing Youtube.  Because I have 100% creativity.  So it feels like it's more me. C6M: So you don't feel like there's someone sitting over shoulder telling you what to do, you just come up with the material... MGM: No not at all, I can do whatever... C6M: So it's all on your shoulders at the same if it sucks... MGM: It is YES, so when it sucks, when you see all the bad comments saying ‘This is fake, this is gay...' you kind of have to take it know... C6M: So do you?  Do you sit down and say to yourself, "Oh my gosh I'm terrible?"  Or I'm terrible today? MGM: Well I try not to.  Because first of all on the internet, and because of the anonymity, people can say whatever they want.  And people WILL say whatever they want.  You know?  Which is why a lot of websites will make you do real names, like Facebook and sites like that to keep down the hate.  And you have to have a thick skin...but I take that as constructive criticism.  What can I fix, to make my videos better.  I try not to take it personally.  But every once in a while (laughing) there's that one jab, you know? C6M: Of course how can you not?  On a certain level because you're human. MGM: Yeah yeah yeah.... C6M: Sometimes it's hard because I would imagine that some of those comments are very personal.  Whether they might say that you're from Brazil, so what are you doing here...or whatever, you know? MGM: Yeah they might say "Go back to your jungle" or whatever...which is why I try go back to my role model in life, who is Soulja just kidding. C6M: Well while we're at it?  Who are your influences?  As Mystery Guitar Man... MGM: People who've influence me...well musically for instance I get a lot of my influence from classical music because I like the technicality of it.  My dad is an engineer.  And my mom is an artsy person.  So I think I get the technical stuff from my dad and the creativeness from my mom.  I think that's what happened to me.  That's why my videos tend to be really mathematical and all my edits tend to be... C6M: Well I noticed that with the classical pieces you have to be very precise because if you're off... MGM: Even if you're off by one note...and there is one note that is off on my video "Guitar Impossible"...every time I hear it I think, "Oh it's off!  That's wrong.  I wish I would have fixed that!" C6M: Do you feel like YouTube can be something that can be "gotten" - because I will tell people to check out this video it's pretty interesting whether it was something that you created or someone else that I found on YouTube that was pretty humorous and it seems like people will watch it on one level and they would say that was funny or interesting... MGM: And then they move on to whatever is next... C6M: Yeah, those people don't turn into your subscribers.  They just turn into people that say that's interesting but "Yeah, but it's YouTube, so I don't get it."  So do you think it's something that can be gotten as a culture or do you think it's something that's always going to be a place where young people get it and old people don't? MGM: No.  I think there's definitely a learning curve to YouTube.  Definitely a majority of people on YouTube are passive.  Like on TV or any kind of medium where they'll only watch a video when  someone links it to them.  Or they go to YouTube whenever they hear that Kanye West screamed at some white girl. C6M: Or if someone gets thrown off a stage... MGM: Yeah, so they'll go to YouTube and check it for that.  So sure especially with younger people, but more and more older people [are getting it] as I look at my demographics - I have a sizable amount of people who are over 25, sure there's a large percentage over thirty-five even...10-20 percent.  So it's definitely something that can be gotten.  You can be enthralled into it.  If you stop watching passively and start following people.  It's kind of like a reality TV show, without the fakeness of the reality TV show... C6M: In some ways... MGM: In some ways... C6M: How much would you say is not real.  Because sometimes I will watch a show and it feels like they're just recording to record.  How much of that is done because they didn't have anything to say and got their buddy to get involved in a contrived conversation? MGM: Sure there's some of that.  Where there's a guy recording in the middle of the night because he didn't get anything up for his daily video...because they are daily.  But I feel like if you look past that you get real insightfulness into people...into who they are.  It's kind of tough to constantly be playing a character.  Especially when you're doing daily videos.  You really see people's strengths...and people's flaws too.  When they're constantly putting up videos.  Like I'm putting up two videos a week.  I'm sure people can see what I'm good and what I'm not so good at. C6M: So why did you decide on two? MGM: Well I was doing one video a week at first.  Because the growth of my channel kind of got stale.  So I started putting up a every Thursday.  And that made my channel blow up a lot.  So then I was like, why not put up two videos a week?  So then I won't be sitting around all weekend long watching Hulu.  So I haven't watched Hulu since...(laughs) C6M: Have you watched anything since? MGM: I have not watched anything since. (laughing)  I wake up, I edit my video.  I shoot it.  I go to sleep.  It's not only that.  You do your own video editing, your own sound mixing, your own color correction...your own marketing (which takes forever), you do your own business calls.  So it's a lot of work.  Especially since you're doing it yourself.  I need to hire somebody (laughs). C6M: So what do you classify  yourself as?  Are you an entertainer, a blogger are you somewhere in the middle? MGM: I see myself more as a filmmaker slash entertainer. C6M: Filmmaker first? MGM: Yeah, Yeah...filmmaker first. C6M: I noticed that you say things like "Color correction" or "Post" - that sometimes is lacking on some of the other videos...but the reason I say that is that it doesn't seem to affect them negatively as far as viewership goes. MGM: Well some people shoot on flips.  Like the number 7 show on YouTube.  I think on YouTube, people don't care as much about production quality and (care) more about the content of the production. C6M: Well would you say the appeal is that it's kind of like Vaudeville. It's kind of like equivalent of watching street performers in a way.  Because when you're out there and there are no tricks.  Either you're funny or not or talented or you're not.  The tricks are very secondary.  Would you agree with that? MGM: I agree. Sure, after you've built you audience you can coast on mediocre videos.  I try not to do that.  I try to keep my videos interesting.  Otherwise you're going to level out at some time and start falling.  I agree that if you don't have something that is truly appealing it's not going to go viral.  People are not going to send it to each other.  You're going to end up at a number you're at, unless you use boobs in your thumbnail. C6M: Is there is a direct correlation between the amount of material that you make and subscribers?  Or is that not at all correlated? MGM: Oh there's definitely a correlation. C6M: You're mentioning that you made two videos, so if you made three you would even get more... MGM: No, I think three would be a little too much...for me.  Especially where I'm trying to make two high quality videos a week, I would just burn myself out of ideas. I would start becoming mediocre which I don't want to do... C6M: But have you done the math on this though?  You're talking about two a week times 52 weeks.  That's a lot of material you have to come up with.  So does that scare you at any point? MGM: I still haven't done that math.  Well thanks a lot for mentioning that.  Because now I'm trying to...(thinking) 104?  What?!?  No, I still have a lot of ideas in me.  I try to keep evolving.  YouTube - if you want to stay on the site a long time you have to keep evolving.  You know, I can't just do stop motion videos forever.  I can't keep doing looping videos forever. I just posted a "Looping Adventures" video where I link everybody to my old looping adventures and I'm going to try to move on.  Where I'm going to come up with new ideas. C6M: So are you at the end of your looping ideas? MGM: Not my looping ideas, but just looping - the novelty of it you know?  When I first came out with the stop motion video - people were saying this is stop motion, this is music - this is awesome.  And it got six million hits because it was so innovative.  I'm not trying to toot my own horn here... C6M: No, no, kind of have to just to have it (the numbers) make sense. MGM: But after a while I did a whole bunch more of those and I changed it up.  I used cups of water and rubber bands and stuff like that and it made a difference.  But after a while it loses its novelty.  Kind of like ER, when you're watching season eleven... C6M: But that's what series TV does.  It's very much a formula, if you pay attention then you know every episode is really the same episode written over and over and over again... MGM: Yeah, so I try not to be formulaic.  You know?  Sure, you can never NOT be gimmicky - especially with what I'm doing.  Especially when I'm putting up so much content a week.  I have to keep evolving and keep new ideas flowing.  So I'm constantly thinking about new video ideas.  Like I've been thinking can I use this in my video?  Or this microphone you're using.  And I like that.  Because I'm not just sitting around passively watching Hulu.  I'm constantly thinking about new things that I want to do. Things that interest me.  Things that I would be doing anyway.  Because that's what happened with YouTube when I first started, I did it for two years without getting a penny.  I just do it because I loved doing it.  I was in college and about to get into med school... C6M: We'll get to that.  Getting back to other YouTubers, how important would you say collaboration is?  It seems like there is a lot. MGM: It's beneficial for both people, yeah. C6M: So do you go into it knowing that?  Let's say there are people in the top 100, do they start looking around and saying that that guy is starting to rocket up so should I... MGM: Should I collab with them?  Yeah, yeah yeah...sure there's lots of that, but it's not like when I work for brand, you know?  Every once in a while there's a brand that approaches me that and it's like "Hey can you do a video for us?"  If I can't you might say, "How am I supposed to do a video about purple chairs?"  Sure you can offer me money but I'm not going to take it.  Because it's not going to work for you and my audience isn't going to like it.  But if I can think of something that goes with my brand, something that I think my audience will like it's something creative and something different...then sure I'll do something with the person. C6M: What do you shoot on? MGM: I shoot on a Canon 7D C6M: Really?  A camera... MGM: DSLR, yeah.  It's HD, 1080P, super high quality...'cause I actually do care about quality.  Not to rag on people that don't.  If your show works and you shoot on a flip and it works and you're getting views, then why not shoot on a flip, you know? C6M: I think there is a difference between something that looks produced and has a concept versus someone that is driving their car or shooting in their bathroom or wherever they are. MGM: Well it helps me to shoot in a higher quality.  I feel better about putting stuff out there.  And I want to eventually move into the film industry, that's why I moved to L.A.  Because I know I'm not going to be 55 and saying "Hey guys Mystery Guitar Man here." C6M: Playing with rubber bands... MGM: Exactly playing with rubber bands when I'm 55.  So I do eventually want to start directing and stuff like that... C6M: Have you been approached yet? MGM: I have, I'm shooting my first national commercial in April. C6M: Congratulations.  I was just wondering if the industry pays attention. MGM: Now they do yeah.  They are starting to.  When I first started people would ask, "What do you do for a living."  And I would say, "I do YouTube."  And they would say, "No seriously what do you do for a living?"  Yeah that's what I do. "Oh so you work for the YouTube headquarters?"  "No, I just upload videos to YouTube."  But now people say, "Oh yeah...I've heard about that.  I heard you can make money doing that." C6M: Yeah, but do you really make a living or is this a way to subsidize? MGM: For some people it's a way to subsidize.  It's a cellphone bill.  But no, I'm making a full time living. C6M: So the Ryan Higas of the world are doing quite well? MGM: Oh yeah.  It's a way to make a good living for some people, but you have to be extremely lucky or extremely talented or extremely woman like... C6M: (laughs) So do you feel like a celebrity? MGM: No, not at all.  I get described as a weblebrity, cewebrity...I get described as celebrity sometimes.    But I don't feel like that.  I just feel like a guy. C6M: So since you do have that they recognize you without the glasses? MGM: Not nearly as many people as Tay Zonday, Dave Days or Ray (William Johnson), they have very distinct personas.  And a really distinct look to them.... C6M: Yeah, but there's nothing that they're hiding behind.  You have a character that you built up. MGM: I do get recognized on the street every once in a while...especially after I was on Breaking NYC and I wasn't wearing my glasses that much.  People have been approaching me on the street.  Coming up to me and saying "Oh Mystery Guitar Man, I like your videos!" Every once in a while, but not as much as Tay Zonday and saying "Oh you're that Chocolate Rain guy!" C6M: So are you still trying to make your "Chocolate Rain?" or you don't worry about that? MGM: You can't worry about trying to make a video that goes crazy viral.  Because you might have the best video in the world and it won't go viral.  Or you might have one of the crappiest videos in the world and it might get 160 million hits.  You never know with YouTube.  So I just try to do my best on every video or do my best in the allotted time that I have. C6M: So you can pretty much walk around and most people don't... MGM: Yeah yeah, people leave me alone.  Especially if I take my glasses off.  It's weird.  Most celebrities on the A list put glasses on to try to hide.  But I take my glasses off.  (laughs) For the five people that would recognize me that one day.... C6M: You have 500 thousand subscribers.  That's more than five people. MGM: (laughs uncomfortably) Thanks. C6M: So questions to you, JOE. MGM: Hold on... This is when Mystery Guitar Man quickly remembers he's in character and searches for his glasses.  He quickly puts them on his face.  We both laugh at the humor. Joe: And I take my glasses off.  Okay, now I'm Joe. C6M: So how much of you is in your character?  How much of that is you?  Is it a little bit or a lot? Joe: I don't know what you're talking about.  Because my legal name is Mystery Guitar Man.  I'm kidding.  I am a goofy guy.  I am a lot of my character.  Like I said, when you're producing so much you cannot not be yourself.  You know?  You can "try" to be yourself but people will see past it in a heartbeat and see the fakeness.  Like Lonelygirl15...people called her out immediately and said this is fake... C6M: But I thought that was brilliant...the brilliance of that was that it did suck people in. Joe: And for a while it kept people wondering whether or not it was real... C6M: But yeah I think eventually people will spot it.  But I think it was one of things that drew me in to YouTube in the first place.  It made me question a lot of times whether not what I was watching was real...not to be skeptical...not that I thought everything was... Joe: Everyone is fake on YouTube! C6M: (Doing my worst William Ray Johnson Impression) Fake and Gay. Joe: (laughing) C6M: So what did your family think at first about you doing YouTube? Joe: (Sarcastically)  They were THRILLED!  THRILLED! C6M: Because I read that you were about to be medical school and... Joe: Yeah...all through college when I was going to go on to take my MCATS and go to Med school and get a 5 year masters degree.  And the entire time I was making videos for YouTube and I was like maybe this video thing would work out.  So at first I was really skeptical about it myself.  But then once I convinced myself (I could do it).  Then I had to convince my parents who were REALLY REALLY skeptical about that.  Because at first my videos videos really sucked a lot.  Everybody's does... C6M: Well, it's like you can't write the great American novel on your first novel. That's the one that you don't show anyone. Joe: Those are the videos that are deleted from my channel.  At first it was hard to convince my parents but now my Dad knows more about YouTube (my YouTube) than I do.  Sometimes he'll call me up and say, "You're number 23 right now." C6M: That's great.  So what's the one thing that you would like to share that you haven't shared - I'm sure you've been asked a lot of questions several times. Joe: The question I never get asked is what my middle name is...(laughs)...when you're on YouTube you kind of divulge so much about yourself and people write articles about you that they never ask whether I'm afraid to divulge so much about myself. C6M: Is there a line you don't cross? Joe: I'm sure there's an internal mind.... C6M: For instance since you mentioned it earlier... Joe: The money... C6M: Not the money.  I understand why you wouldn't.  Since YouTube is promoted as a channel for everyone.  That as soon as people find out how much you might make they might feel like they can't connect with you or know you because you are making money doing this.... Joe: It disconnects you from your audience... C6M: Yeah... Joe: Yeah people start questioning your intentions.  Oh he's only doing this for the money.  And you start hearing crazy rumors.  That's not why I'm doing this.  It's like that for everyone who is at the top of YouTube now.  Sure they put a lot more effort into this because of the money.  Because they have to pay the bills.  But everyone who is there did this for free for years and put a whole lot of work into this. C6M: So lets take it back a little.  So you don't talk about your personal life as much.  You sort of separate that. Joe: I try to separate my personal life from the internet just because of things that I've seen.  People finding out where people live...(laughs) no that's not what I'm talking about. C6M: Well I would be, because I've seen comments from people that say, "Hey, you've showed your license plate." Joe: Yeah that's why I changed my license plate to say "subscribe" on my last video.  I don't want to divulge too much about myself.  Also because I have "Mystery" in my name.  So I want to keep some kind of pseudo mystery in there. I want to present my work out there.  And I want you to take my work for what it is. I want to focus on getting my work out there and the opportunities that it may lead to in the future like this opportunity the direct this commercial coming up.  For me, though, there really isn't a cult of personality on YouTube.  I'm mostly a character...sure a character that is an exaggeration of who I am.  But still a character. C6M: So were you a little apprehensive (and we'll close with this) but where you apprehensive doing a video of you without the glasses?  Were you afraid to do that? Joe: It was scary to put that up.  Because it is kind of a branding thing.  I did feel like I was giving up a little too much.  But it worked for the concept of the video. C6M: The Dragonforce parody... Joe: Where I can't play stop motion without my glasses.  There's stop motion happening around me.  But I can't play stop motion.  And then my part is about to come up and I'm just going to try to play it...and I play it badly.  But that video ended up doing quite well.  It ended up getting 1.2 million hits.  So I think people would be okay if I started divulging a bit more about myself.  Which is why I just did a video telling people where I get my ideas from...and people are really liking it. C6M: Of course they're liking it!  The brilliance of what you do is that you appeal to almost any age.  For instance you appeal to my two and four year olds as much as you appeal to adults. Joe: Yeah I did that on purpose.  I wanted to do something that appealed to as many people as possible and to the point where even language didn't matter that much. C6M: Well for the record.  I think that's what makes what you do so appealing. Joe: Thanks.  Thanks. By this point Joe was back in his car, more than generous we had talked for nearly an hour and really there were no questions that he shied away from. But it was getting late and he had to go home and fight the Los Angeles traffic, which we both joked about before the interview started, and make his Thursday deadline.  He gave me a lot to think about. As an advocate for YouTube I'm often trying to convince people that I know that they can, in fact, spare 3 minutes of their time to watch a video.  But will they?  Will they allow themselves as Joe mentioned, to be enthralled by the content?  That, I can't answer.  I have no way of knowing.  But I do know that over the past couple of years, YouTube has made serious strides not just into the and otherwise, but into the consciousness of the general public.  And for this reason, I believe that the lines will only get grayer between our personalities on the web and the celebrity status that they hold in popular culture. Mystery Guitar Man was the perfect example of this fusion of talent and personality. As I finished this epic stream of consciousness, I for one was grateful to have the opportunity and insight that I gained from Joe's frankness.  It won't be long before you'll be seeing Joe Penna's work in a life beyond YouTube.  After all, talent this good and a person this genuine can't stay a mystery forever.

If you haven't yet, check out Mystery Guitar Man @ and tell him Paul sent ya.

by Paul Stamat


7 comments on “The Best Kept Secret on the Internet: A Conversation with the Mystery Guitar Man
  1. MGM Fan - March 22, 2010 at 2:01 pm

    What a fun and interesting interview….I love the Mystery Guitar Man!

  2. Charles - March 22, 2010 at 5:05 pm

    Nice! I like MGM’s attitude: he’s cool, friendly, sincere, creative, innovative and not blown off as “a celebrity”. He’s a dude!

  3. Schubes17 - March 22, 2010 at 9:56 pm

    This was awesome! I love hearing about MysteryGuitarMan because I am so incredibly intrigued by all his vids. Love him. Great interview.

  4. Yo13ie - March 23, 2010 at 1:43 am

    LOVE JOE!!! i wish the interview never ended

  5. Carlos Pena - March 26, 2010 at 7:58 pm

    Proud to be his father.

  6. Pete Kosednar - March 29, 2010 at 10:03 am

    Great interview! This guy — MGM has talent.

  7. mystery guitar man fan - October 28, 2010 at 2:15 pm

    Awesome, thank you for doing this! MGM is my fav YouYuber.