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Feature: The Rise Of Nik Nocturnal

2 April 2019 | 2:24 pm | Alex Sievers
Originally Appeared In

"The most important thing I learned is that you need to find something that people need but aren't getting."

From first picking up the guitar around the age of 10 and honing in on the instrument, to taking orchestra in high school whilst armed with decent music theory knowledge (and also wanting an easy grade) Canadian Nik Popovic has a real passion for music. Ever since his cousin first helped to pull him into the world of heavy music by showing Nik plenty of As I Lay Dying and Underoath back in the day (often times when Nik didn't want to hear such music), he soon found a burning love for metal of all kinds. 

Growing up in Toronto with his grandparents, cousins and a single mother that was super supportive of everything he did, making sure he he could have bright future, Nik's youth was full of: attending school, hating school, playing guitar, and plenty of video game playing with his cousin for hours on end. Especially Guitar Hero, a series that also helped to place deeper musical hooks into the then teenager's heart. Around that time, him seeing YouTubers doing their own thing on the site, and doing it well, is what inspired Nik to try it out for himself. 

His channel, Nik Nocturnal, is his creative outlet for not just guitar covers, but also for reactions and tutorials. Named Nik Nocturnal due to artist moniker he'd give his music when exporting tracks in his teens - as well as solid alliteration and because he disliked words like "death, evil, satanic" but wanted something dark - it's a steadily growing music channel on the platform. As of writing, he's just shy of 100K subscribers. While people like Jared Dines, Rick Beato, and Rob Scallon absolutely dominate this particular space of YouTube, strong new channels are really coming forward lately; Nik being one such creator. So I got in touch with the man himself. 

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Starting his channel back in 2014, Nik's very first publicly uploaded video being a cover of Romancing SaGa 3's 'The Last Battle'. Back then, it was all just covers and some original music that Nik was pumping out for anyone who'd watch and listen. But then he soon branched out into more various list-based videos, how-to tutorials, reaction videos (like this one) and more "Monday Metal Meme" videos too (often delivered via an ironic Slavic accent), with new covers coming out rapidly and with plans for future originals too. It's all paid off well for the young man over the last couple years, allowing YouTube and the ad revenue income it provides, to now become his full-time job more or less. The guitarist kindly reflects on those humble beginnings.

"Shades of Black, Angel Vivaldi, and KillrBuckeye where my biggest inspirations to really get on YouTube to share my music. They're all just amazing players and you could tell were just having the time of their lives in their videos", Nik informs me.

"My channel was originally only about me sharing my original music with the world, but at the time I also loved learning new songs and covering them for myself. I saw a bunch of other Youtubers upload covers and thought, "why not try it myself?" After three years of just covers and original music I wanted to expand my creativity with new types of content. I've always had fun ideas for tutorials and list-based videos but was too scared to act on it and change my content since what I was doing was working well enough for me at the time. But I finally just got fed up and wanted to try out new avenues of content to show that I can do more than just cover a song fast."

What personally drew me to Nik's channel are his "heaviest songs in X tuning" and "most used Y in metal" videos. These videos often highlight many common songwriting and production practises found within heavy music today. They can be great songwriting reference tools, but videos such as these can also a good learning device for those who have no or little musical theory understanding whatsoever; allowing them to potentially identify the sounds and techniques they hear in the music that they consume. This type of content can not only act as an entry-level hook for people wanting to learn more about guitar or music in general, but also community PSA of sorts for other viewers and listens. Nik sees it this way, but he also describes it as "infotainment".

"I more so think of it as "infotainment", he explains.

"I essentially just teach very important ideas and concepts of music in a very basic way but through a medium which is fun, funny and relatable. I think with many lessons or tutorials they're either a funny video that doesn't teach much, or a boring video that teaches a lot. I kinda wanted to mix the best of both worlds to really get these concepts to stick with people. Teaching my students has for sure helped me get better at making "infotainment" type videos because it really allows me to understand my audience, allowing me to get information to them in a way they will absorb best."

Nik has become quite well-known for getting guitar cover videos up right after a song is released, often to the high praise of the guitarists themselves. Sometimes well within a couple hours of a band's new single or song hitting the internet. It's almost become a bit of an in-joke for his audience by now too. Again, this quickness can also help other players learn their way through these songs; nicely adding to this is the fact that Nik always shows his signal flow, tunings, and channel strip in the description of each video for his two Schecter models. But how does he upload those covers so goddamn fast? Is it having loads of free time? Insanely good ear skills? A real familiarity with the band in-question and and their tunings/tones/chord shapes? He lets me know.

"The free time part used to be true, but nowadays it's mainly understanding the core ideas of music theory (scales, modes) and looking for common patterns used among guitarists. Guitarists are creatures of habit, so a lot of the time when you're learning something from one band in a genre, you can see a lot of similarities with the shapes and patterns they use in many other bands from the same genre. Familiarity with band does help you get things done a bit faster, but a lot of the songs I've covered on my channel are actually from bands that I've never heard of before until I covered them."

This is another major part of running a growing channel: time. Some YouTubers get away fine with posting once or twice a month, whereas others do daily videos. Different strokes for different folks and all that; not every creator and their audience is the exact same. In Nik's case, he has a prolific output via his channel, with videos coming weekly, and the time taken between creating videos and editing them can fluctuate quite dramatically.

"It depends on the video. My covers can take a couple hours sometimes but my original "Monday" videos can take anywhere from 5-20 hours of pretty much straight work. My entire Sunday is dedicated to getting those videos done."

"My routine is kinda all over the place", he continues.

"Sometimes I work 15 hours non stop, sometimes it's just an hour one day. It all depends on what opportunities I have at the time and need to get done really. It definitely balances out to over 50-70 hours a week though."

Yikes, those are some pretty gnarly hours being racked up per-week. Which factors into another big discussion around YouTubers over the last 12 or so months: burnout. Some really big names on the platform such as Philip Defranco have been raising strong concerns about the work-load burnout that some creators can experience these days due to output and ensuring their income and livelihoods aren't affected through needing to take a break. And with Nik's current output for his own channel, he's also no exception to that tired shadow.

"I have felt periods of extreme burnout no doubt", the guitarist admits.

"For me, it's hard to say no to any cool opportunity and I'm lucky enough to be in the position where I get a bunch of amazing ones that I know four years ago I'd go crazy to have. I try to manage it just by taking each task as it comes and plan VERY well for everything, but sometimes it is just too much. Recently, it has been a bit easier for me to manage just from pure experience of always being in what I call, "GO-GO-GO" mode, but every time I think of complaining, I just try to instead be grateful for all I've been given and trek onward."

[caption id="attachment_1106713" align="aligncenter" width="600"] The header image for the Nik Nocturnal YouTube channel. "The hooded image [for the channel] comes from the artwork for my last album, 'Undying Shadow'. Since that album was very personal, I wanted that image to really portray what I imagine a shadow in that context to look like."[/caption]It's no secret that YouTube has a terrible problem with it's copyright system; often allowing other bigger creators or larger companies to strike other videos with copyright claims, whether falling under fair use or not, thus taking the ad revenue off those videos and smaller creators for up to 30 days (or permanently in some cases.) Channel owners can dispute these copyright hits, but the power sadly falls to those who issue the strikes first, not those on the receiving end. It sure isn't a fair or perfect system, as InfernoPlus really points out in this clip. In more egregious moments, full channel strikes can be issued. Rack up three of those and your channel is done for; wiped and shut down by YouTube.

As you can image, music can be one of the most common and trickiest areas to create videos on due to copyright claims, even when doing a cover or other trans-formative content on an original work. So with someone like Nik having brief instrumental snippets used in videos or even full songs that he's performed himself for cover or commented on via a reaction video, there can be real copyright issues when publishing videos. Nik even recently said that he wouldn't do an Alexisonfire cover of their latest single, 'Familiar Drugs', as he wasn't sure how the band and their label worked with YouTube copyright and covers.

So, does Nik get demonetized often?

"Oh, all the time!" he exclaims.

"When all I did was covers for three years. I think I made maybe $50 of ad revenue over that time. If you cover or react to a song then 95% of the time it will be demonetized since you of course don't own the song and YouTube's algorithm picks up copies of the original WAV file just by scanning automatically. So demonetization is nothing new but it gets really back when you're video gets blocked world-wide. It's still the same idea of normal copyright but the label usually gets the choice to just take ad revenue from covers or to fully block them so no one can see them. You never know what they'll do so it can get very frustrating which is why I've also slowed down on covers over the years."

Speaking of finances, Nik doesn't do any other work outside of YouTube; YouTube is his work! It's become a somewhat steady source of income that allows him to get by. And that's more than enough for Nik right now.

"As of this year, I'm actually doing YouTube full time. I'm pretty much JUST able to cover my basic expenses for living so I couldn't be more happy with that. If not for music I honestly don't know what I'd be doing with my life. I do actually have a bachelors degree for commerce, so I assume I'd have some job in marketing or management, but that was never really my passion. I mainly got that degree as a "safety net" if music doesn't work out, but I couldn't imagine myself doing anything I love more than what I currently have the opportunity to do."

When it comes to music based channels like Nik's, there's obviously no shortage right now. From bigger creators like Rob Scallon, Rick Beato, Jared Dines, and Rick Graham to djent/core lovers like Andrew Baena and commentary, doco-style channels like The Punk Rock MBA. On his end, Nik is slowly but surely really coming up behind those creators, growing views and subs nicely. For him, from the inside looking out, there are quite a few factors that attribute to this rise.

"There are so many different things you learn over the years and need to take into account when trying to grow a channel. The most important thing I learned is that you need to find something that people need but aren't getting. Even when I only did covers, my channel was still a place for people to look for how to learn songs faster than any other site or tabs showing them. So my niche is really just about showing people common guitar or genre patterns that'll help you play that type of music in quick and fun ways, which is something that's oddly hard to find not just on YouTube, but online in general when it comes to metal music."

"Another thing is to absolutely respect every single person you talk to and build networks. Reach out to people and treat them like people, not just a means to an end; take almost every opportunity you can and that'll help you reach your ultimate goal. Even if it's just a small opportunity for a fun collaboration that might get a few views, but that's how you build towards the bigger opportunities in the future."

Nik clearly has the right mind-set for his channel and his road-map to future content and channel growth. Even when setting up this interview with him, he was quick to respond to my messages, and equally polite and courteous throughout. And that goes a long way.

There's definitely still plenty of of push back against YouTubers these days from others within the digital space; your role as a content creator on the platform can still get a pretty bad rep these days, warranted or not. Yet the paradigm is shifting towards people and the mainstream being far more accepting of these kinds of creators, big and small. Nik's noticed this trend lately too, but he does point out the irony in how metal musicians on YouTube can be perceived and how brands are taking notice.

"I think slowly but surely it's starting to shift. I know there has always been a stigma of: "oh they're a YouTube musician, they can't actually write or play". And that's always been funny to me since some of the most talented musicians in our modern scene have started on social media and then joined big bands after and live the life."

"Brands are for sure starting to notice that if they want to market their product, then they need to go to social media and YouTube to market those products and who better than a YouTuber to do it for them. Of course, some brands still won't even talk to you unless you're in some band touring full time, which is fine but it's kinda the way of the past, not the present."

Which is the core thing in Nik's mind: the present and how it leads to the future. In that sense, one can expect plenty more covers!

"Most of my covers are kind of on the spot decisions based on what new music comes out: if I like it and if it comes out during a time I can actually cover it. There's a lot of weird variables, so I'm not sure yet what I'll cover but you can bet that if people are loving a new popular metal song that's fire, I'll probably be on it. [New] Slipknot is one I'm super stoked to hear, as well as the new Northlane. Those are both bands I'll for sure be covering!"

Check out Nik Nocturnal's full channel here.