Photo by Michael Nowakowski

3.8 Million Hit Wonder
(And Counting)

Jun Sung Ahn's YouTube fame plays second fiddle to loftier ambitions.

By Tyler Daswick

"I‘m bad with people.”

What was that? Jun Sung Ahn, the Communication senior with the mad violin skills and 560,000 YouTube subscribers hadn’t said that, had he? I’m not sure what to say. I try to play it off.

Ahn releases a nervous laugh. “Not to be rude, but honestly, right now, this situation for me is kind of awkward.”

Yeesh. This isn’t how I expected the interview to go, but then again, Jun Sung Ahn is anything but what you might expect.

You probably think you know Jun Sung Ahn, or JuNCurryAhn, as he is referred to online. This story has been told before – you might say you’ve heard this song and dance – and at this point you might be thinking there isn’t much else to know about Northwestern’s resident YouTube star. Well, if you ask him, it’s not that simple. He’s not that simple.

“Most people on YouTube, they think I’m just this nice, quiet, nerdy Asian kid who plays violin. That’s their image,” Ahn says. “I don’t think I fit that image anymore.”

The misconceptions begin, perhaps, with Ahn’s level of talent. Indeed, he is a fine artist and a terrific musician, but comments like this one from his cover of A Great Big World’s “Say Something” tend to bother him, and they aren’t uncommon:


“Most people on YouTube, they don’t really know that much,” he says. “If they see me play violin they’ll be like, ‘Oh my God, he’s the best violinist in the world,’ because they don’t know anyone else.”

This man is more than just the violin. Even when he came to Northwestern as a budding Internet star, Ahn’s focus was never solely on YouTube. In fact, his RTVF major was his first priority.

“I have more passion for film,” he says. “In high school I would practice the violin like five hours every single day. It was a really big deal for me, but I decided to do film .... My dream, freshman year [at Northwestern], was to be a film director. That was it.”

Yet, even with YouTube securely on the secondhand shelf, Ahn saw how his filmmaking passions could be put on display via his violin playing. Today, his channel functions almost as a resume.

“Everything I do, every project I make, contributes to my film career,” he says. “Gaining more subscribers through my videos is like gaining more audience. If I didn’t have a YouTube channel, it would be hard to get a hundred people to watch it, but [now] it would be super easy for me to get a hundred people to watch it right away, so that’s a big advantage.”

Photo by Michael Nowakowski

Even with a thousands-strong audience ready to jump on everything he posts, however, Ahn is committed to making each upload unique and original.

“I want to build my YouTube channel as a portfolio,” he says. “Instead of pumping out videos every week, like setting up a tripod in my room and doing a really simple cover, I take every single video that I upload as a big project of mine, with a new style and stuff like that. Every video that I do has a cinematic quality to it.”

There’s evidence of that across his channel. His cover of Seoul-based boy band EXO’s “Growl” cuts together to look like one continuous shot. His “Shake It Off” cover brings in a multitude of Northwestern student groups. His rendition of PSY’s “Gangnam Style” is a clever split-screen onetake. Ahn indeed expands his repertoire with every upload, but the variety comes with a ton of work. He usually has to cram the entire process into one weekend.

“Most of my videos are kind of spontaneous,” he says. He describes how he often picks a song, practices and records it that same day, and then conceives of and records the video production the following day. “I never really plan that much. It just kind of comes, right?”

Communication senior Kevin Kim, who does videography for many of Ahn’s videos, says the whole process is very autonomous. “I’m there to help him create, but he’s doing most of it on his own,” he says. “It’s kind of cool. It’s almost a one-man process for him. It’s a lot to do. I respect him for that.”

This intense care seems to have paid off for the Internet star. Ahn’s channel is growing at a steady rate. He broke the 500,000-subscriber mark just a few weeks into this past Fall Quarter, and during his senior year he’s added more than 50,000 subscribers and racked up more than 7 million individual views. His most popular video, a cover of “Let It Go,” has more than 3.8 million views, and his videos garner an average of about 587,000 hits apiece. He’s crushing it.

But this success comes with a plan. It’s all preparation for the future. “After I graduate, I think I’m going to full-time work on YouTube,” he says. “Right now, because of school, I haven’t been able to really achieve what I’ve wanted to do on YouTube, videowise. I just didn’t have the time and resources. But once I graduate I’m definitely going to have more time.”

He goes on. “Short-term goals: I just want to continue my YouTube. Build it up a little more, build my audience more, and then start incorporating my own film work into the channel, because there’s already viewers. I think I’m going to cross over at some point.”

With this crossover, however, might come a cold reality: Jun Sung Ahn might have to leave YouTube. The website’s landscape is changing. Copyright restrictions are more stringent than ever, and the covers that have been Ahn’s bread and butter for the past four years are no longer bringing in money.

“YouTube’s not so free anymore,” he says. “It’s not for everyone anymore. The bar just keeps getting higher and higher. Five years ago, it was cell phone videos, but now it’s heavy production stuff.”

That means, of course, that the man who started with one camera and one take needs to go bigger. Ahn describes a video idea he has where he squares off in a violin duel against another musician. The two play back and forth, but instead of just a song emerging from their instruments, they’re able to fire lasers at each other. Graphics, visual effects – these are what Ahn wants to do now.

“If that’s done well, it’s going to go viral,” he says. “So I kind of want to start doing that, but at the same time I kind of want to stay at my roots. I’m in a dilemma right now. You caught me at a struggle-time.”

Hold on a second. A struggle-time? Is that a thing when you’re an Internet star? It seems to be so, but it also seems to go beyond the crossroads between YouTube and film. This struggle-time has extended into Ahn’s personal life, affecting his relationships at NU.

“One thing that I don’t really like about YouTube and this kind of ‘semi-fame’ status is meeting people that know me before [they meet me], and they have preconceived notions of me,” he says. “My junior year, the people that I met, most of them already knew me when I first got to meet them. A lot of them came up to me and told me, ‘Wow, you’re a lot different than what I thought you’d be.’ A lot of people thought I was super cocky, and they thought YouTube was my entire life. That’s something I struggled with a lot in college.”

Photos by Michael Nowakowski

This echoes the idea of Ahn carrying this image with him, one of the nice, quiet, nerdy Asian kid. The image conjures comments like Vesko Varbanov’s on his “I Dreamed A Dream” cover:

OMG I have a total crush on Jun Sung... he’s so sweeeet and so talented. AWESOME!!!” - Vesko Varbanov

Or this one from Meaghanne Mack on his rendition of Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball”:

Anyone else get the feels when he looks straight at the camera? Like he is sharing his emotions with us through the screen??” - Meaghanne Mack

This is the image that Jun Sung Ahn carries with him. This is the image that he’s trying to replace.

“I’m 10 times weirder than [people on YouTube] think I am,” he says. “There’s an expression in Korean, ‘You’re craziness.’ I’m just craziness.”

Ahn lists his fandoms as evidence of his craziness.

“I’m a huge [Lord of the Rings] fan. That’s the number-one movie in my life,” Ahn says. “I love Pillow Pets—have a crap ton of them at my house. I don’t know, I’m just weird.”

But that’s not all that troubles Jun Sung Ahn. Beyond his self-prescribed weirdness, the YouTube star claims that, well, he’s sort of awkward.

“Actually, though,” he says. “An awkward, sometimes nerdy, Korean Asian kid who can play the violin pretty well.”

He recalls an instance from one of his classes just a week earlier. “In my econ class last week, someone came up to me and asked me for a signature, and asked me for a picture, but that was pretty awkward,” he says. “That was in front of all my friends, and they were just laughing.”

Ahn’s world is one of constant recognition and catching up. Most encounters he has with peers put him at a disadvantage: He doesn’t know much about them, but they know a ton about him. He has to gain ground, reach that same level of familiarity and pull himself up to that social plane. The Northwestern RTVF community posed itself as a particularly challenging environment.

“Now, I look back. I look at my senior class. I know everyone – kind of – but I’m definitely not in the ‘in group’ with the film majors, when I wish I was,” Ahn says. “I’m either doing school, dancing or YouTube, and film didn’t have a place in there. It’s just so time-consuming. You decide to do one set and it’s two weekends out of your quarter.” He hesitates. “I know if I had spent more time with them I would’ve definitely learned a lot.”

Perhaps the situation was almost unfair to Ahn. When he came to Northwestern from New Jersey, his environment was one of extreme novelty. He wasn’t used to being independent. He wasn’t used to doing things alone.

“Coming here, I was just thrown,” he says. “At home, I think I depended on my family quite a lot. I think it’s just my personality. I didn’t know what to do. I had to struggle through everything on my own. Even film, I didn’t have time to build that community, so even going through my major it was kind of a struggle. I went to classes, I kind of knew people there, but I couldn’t really feel comfortable in that home, so I just had to crawl through everything.”

At this point, it seems natural to recall how he stopped this interview, how he confessed that he’s struggling, how he says he’s bad with people.

This comment hangs briefly. But then something in Ahn’s face seems to shift. He reconsiders. He speaks again.

“But, freshman year, if this happened, I probably would’ve said about one-fourth of what I said today .... I think even though I wasn’t at the status I am right now, I think it got to my head a little more back then. I wasn’t being openly arrogant about something, but I would definitely watch what I say. I would be more careful – not myself – which is why I think it made it a little harder for me to really open up and have people get to know me.”

The truth is, Ahn feels like most of his encounters at Northwestern involved himself having to reach through a screen. That was challenging for him, but it also indicates a lack of effort from the other side. Most of his audience just holds him at arm’s length, but reaching who this man is requires delving past the glossy, silver-screened surface. For those who do, a different person emerges.

“When I first started working with him, he wasn’t too big, as he is now,” said Kim. “I feel like I’ve worked with him for so long that I don’t have the conceptions that most people have of him.”

Even Ahn notices when people treat him differently, when people treat him, well, normally.

“My friends back home, they love making fun of my YouTube channel,” he says. “On some of my videos, if you look closely, there’s usually a stream of comments at one point where it’s all my high school friends just saying crap about me.” He laughs.

Now, as a senior, the man who says he had to “crawl through everything” can look back and take it all in, from the very first video the summer before his freshman year, all the way to filming his “Shake It Off” cover with a range of NU student groups. Ahn sees that shy, uncomfortable person he was, and he considers his arc. He recalls something his parents told him when he was just a kid.

“You have to leave an impact, right? My parents always stressed this, that once I graduate, I can’t just be another person who graduated. They said that to me when I was pretty young,” he says. “That really hit me. That was my biggest stress and paranoia when I came to college was, ‘How am I going to leave my impact here?’ I just always want to know: Did I do a good job? Did I leave an impact? Did I leave a footprint at Northwestern? I don’t know. That’s just a theoretical question.”

There’s silence for a while.

“Do you know how you would answer it?” I ask.

“No. That’s the thing. That’s a question I just want to throw out there. I always ask myself that, and I don’t know if I did or not.”

Another stretch of silence. Ahn looks down and away.

“What would be your ideal answer?”

Jun Sung Ahn looks up again. This time, his gaze holds firm. This time, he speaks with confidence.

“I did enough. That would be my best answer, the answer I want to give.”


After opening a surprise gift, Ahn finds a treasure trove of personalized items.

“Well, surprisingly I haven’t gotten super weird, like creepy stuff. But, the best gift I’ve gotten was on my birthday.

“I got this giant box from Singapore, and I was like ‘What is this?’ but then I read the name, and I know that name because she posts on every single thing on my Facebook, right? Likes everything. Everything I tweet is retweeted in ten seconds. I could safely say she was my number one fan, right? And she sent me this box.

“First of all, there were two giant stuffed animals, really nice. A Pillow Pet because I like Pillow Pets. A couple t-shirts – custom-designed t-shirts – and there was an Armani watch.

“And then this photo book, that showed the life span of my YouTube, beginning to end. And it was so wellmade. The beginning was a play button, right? Like, ‘click play to begin,’ and flip over and it was the first video, and she just commented what she thought on that day. Almost every single video – all in that book. That was shocking.”


Ahn recounts the frigid shoot of the most popular video on his YouTube channel.

Ask Jun Sung Ahn what word would define his Northwestern experience, and he’d say, Frozen. Makes sense. It’s the most-viewed video on his YouTube channel, with over 3.8 million hits, but Ahn cites the filmmaking process as being particularly memorable.

“We wanted to film at the Lakefill for the entire video. That was the second-coldest day that winter. Kevin Kim – he filmed for me – he pretty much died. My violin cracked because it was too cold, and I actually got frostbite on my hand. We stopped halfway through, took refuge in Norris, and then took it in the ice rink afterwards. [Kim] was shaking so much with the camera, which is why there’s bits of Frozen cut into it. No one knows that! People think it was intentional.”

Kim calls the shoot a “pretty wack experience.”

“We couldn’t wear gloves. Our hands were freezing,” Kim says. “It was bitter cold. It was not a fun experience, I have to say.”