An in-depth, exclusive interview with guitarist Joe Satriani about his musical and entrepreneurial journey.
Put aside selling millions of critically acclaimed solo albums. Put aside touring with Mick Jagger, Deep Purple, and Chickenfoot. Put aside teaching legendary guitarists like Steve Vai, Kirk Hammett, Andy Timmons, and Alex Skolnick and creating signature guitar and equipment lines. Put aside founding the long-running G3 concert series.
World class musician? Absolutely--but inside 14-time Grammy nominated guitarist Joe Satriani also beats the heart of a true entrepreneur.
This month marks the release of Satriani's new book, Strange Beautiful Music: A Musical Memoir, as well as his career retrospective box set, The Complete Studio Recordings. It's the perfect time to talk to him about the business of Joe Satriani. (Spoiler alert: While you might think entrepreneurs have nothing in common with musicians, you're definitely wrong.)
So you're in a power-pop band, and one day you buy a book of business forms and overnight start a record company and a publishing company. Where did that come from?
It really is a funny story. I was in a band called the Squares in the early 1980s. We were a three-piece working extremely hard in Berkeley, California, and had a rehearsal space in the warehouse district of the Flats of Berkeley.
We shared part of the building with Nolo Press, a company that made how-to books with tear-out pages for all sorts of legal situations. Their dumpster was right outside the door where we would hang out and have a smoke and a drink in between practicing, and it was always overflowing with damaged books. So we're out there wondering how we're ever going to make it in the music business and start absentmindedly flipping through books. One of them showed how to start all kinds of businesses.
I took it home and was fascinated. I thought the upcoming vacation the band was taking was an opportunity for me to just "do the book."
And you had no business background?
Not really. I got a real copy of the book and decided I needed to start my own publishing company and my own record company and then make a record. I just followed the advice in the book, filled out the forms, went to the Oakland Courthouse and paid my $12, and suddenly I was a record company owner.
While it sounds like a joke, I realized that was actually how it works. It's not complicated.
I wound up recording a very unusual, avant-garde record with no bass drums or keyboards. When I got back to the band rehearsals weeks later, I presented everybody with what I'd done on my Christmas vacation. I said, "Look, I've got a record, and I've got Rubina Records, a record company named after my wife. And I've got a publishing company, and all the money goes to me." Even though, of course, at the time there was no money coming to me.
Few musicians did it that way, especially then. Most waited to get discovered, which for most was also an endless wait.
Exactly. I realized I didn't have to go out and chase the brick-and-mortar powers that be. Today, the music business is more equal access opportunity. Back then, you really had to know someone. There was no way to go viral. That challenge was what gave me the energy to pursue the future I glimpsed in that little misprint of a book, How to Start your Own Business.
What did you do with your first EP? Wasn't it actually reviewed by a mainstream publication?
A problem I had as a record company owner was that I had to order about 100 copies of the actual record, and after I did, I came face to face with the problem of not being able to find my audience.
"I don't think you can survive being just an artist or just a businessperson," says Satriani. "If you're only business, you will lack the flair that attracts an audience. If you're only flair, you'll be taken advantage of."
There was a magazine at the time called Sonic Option Network that basically listed all the independently owned record stores around the world. So I picked 40 or 50 stores and mailed an album to those stores with a letter saying, "You don't know me. I'm nobody. Sell these and keep the money. I don't care."
You weren't a particularly aggressive capitalist.
Well, no. Then I was in a band rehearsal one day and our bass player said, "Hey, I think they reviewed your record in Guitar Player magazine."
As I read the review I realized who I really was. The "Joe Satriani" they thought I was really appealed to me. That's when I realized that was who I wanted to be, not some guy stuck in a rehearsal flogging away at the industry standard. I realized I should chart my own course and continue in what you call the entrepreneurial spirit. I didn't know to call it that. But I just said, "I should just be this guy."
That's who I am. I just hadn't realized it. So I quit the band and I dove full time into taking more control of not only my creative experience but also the business. I had no training in business so I was just flailing away but still, it was mine,and I just felt so empowered.
Did that take you to your first "real" album, Not of This Earth, or was there an intermediate stage?
It did. I realized I needed to make a record that would appeal to more people, which meant the obvious: drums, bass, keyboards, instruments a majority of the listening public relate to, because that first EP of mine was really odd.
In my book, I detail the comedy that went into trying to get that record funded. Long story short, I did eventually figure out a way to make that record and eventually wound up with a production and distribution deal through a company in New York.
Unless I'm wrong this is where the power of connections comes in.
One of my former students, Steve Vai, had recorded an album too and been rejected by everyone except the company that became Relativity Records. One day he said, "Can I send a cassette of your new record to this guy I know, because your record is far less weird than mine, and if they like mine...." That company started the ball rolling for both Steve and I.
It was great because the company was headed by and creatively managed by Cliff Cultreri. I hate to call him a "music industry executive" because it belittles his true talent. He was the kind of person an artist really needs because he was so supportive. He's what you dream of when you imagine what a great A&R [artists & repertoire] person should be.
I was extremely lucky. Business always requires personal relationships. I still count Cliff as one of my best friends.
It's almost a given in the music business that artists eventually regret the terms of their first contract. They're so happy to get signed that they will sign almost anything. Yet your experience was very different.
Success came to me in my late 20s. I had started touring when I was a teenager so I had already seen the good, the bad, and the ugly side of the music business. Plus setting up my own record company taught me a lot.
I walked into Relativity Records as a musician who could not be taken advantage of. That's why I wound up owning all my own publishing and making a deal that was quite advantageous for a new solo artist. But I really didn't think of myself as an entrepreneur. I thought of myself as an artist who felt strongly he should control every aspect of his art.
From a business and market opportunity point of view, instrumental rock was not exactly a happening genre. If your goal was to strike while the musical iron was hot your timing was way off.
What you just said is perfect. You encapsulated what I came to grips with when I looked for funding for my first record.
I remember getting turned down by everyone in my local community, and I was just looking for a few thousand dollars. If I had been starting a company to make plastic cups I could probably have gone to a bank and gotten a loan. But a guitar player getting a bank loan to record a record? That was just never going to happen.
After a week of being rejected by local studios and engineers I found this credit card offer in my mailbox. I was pre-approved because of, "My good standing in the community."
Hey, well done.
And it came with $5,000 worth of checks. I would never recommend this to anyone, but in a blind moment of enthusiasm I turned around and went back to John Cuniberti at Hyde Street Studios and said, "What if I pay you in advance? What kind of a deal could you cut me?"
Instantly I got more than 50 percent off on studio time and engineering costs. So, like an idiot, I wrote those checks and immediately went into debt to record my record.
Then of course I couldn't make payments on the credit card and was days away from entering collection. I was stuck and wondering what to do when the Greg Kihn Band called. Their guitarist was out and they were desperate. They were flush with cash, asked me to join the band, and paid me way too much money to solve their problem.
Within a week, I went from being deeply in debt to being completely debt free and on my way to having my first real record released by Relativity Records. It was a very unusual twist of fate.
I like to think that because I had the courage to take my shot, good fortune came my way, but it could have just as easily gone terribly wrong.
I would imagine you're a record company publicist's worst nightmare because you've taken your music in so many directions. Do they ever say, "Come on, Joe. Can you just write another "Summer Song"?
I've always had creative freedom. Instrumental rock wasn't really a genre but the success of Surfing With the Alien legitimized my approach. I think the record company thought, "Well, he dreamed this whole thing up himself and fought for creative control, all the way to refusing to have anything negative on his album covers...." And when the record sold, they started saying, "What do you want to do next?" And every time I opened my mouth they said, "Great. Go ahead."
That continued from Relativity all the way through my very long association with the Epic Records staff at Sony Music. They've always been very hands off when it comes to giving me direction, and very hands on when it comes to helping me.
That's definitely not always the case. Record companies are like venture capitalists--they're providing capital and taking a risk so it's natural to want a say.
Every artist needs funding to get a record off the ground. The record company comes in with money and experience and that's really great for artists that know where they want to go. A great A&R department can help with personnel, experience, locations. They've dealt with thousands of artists over the decades so they know how to make things happen.
But that's not so great if, in the process, you give up all control over your art.
Tell me about your G3 concert series. That's another contrarian move because most artists don't go out of their way to showcase other artists. For example, stories about headliners sabotaging their opening acts are a dime a dozen.
I had reached a level of success and was making records and touring. But one day I was sitting in the French countryside getting ready to play a show and realized my best friend Steve Vai was in Australia and all the rest of my buddies were spread around the world working. I was really happy that we all had gigs. But at the same time I thought, "Well, when do I actually get to play with my friends?"
I came back from the tour and I went to [legendary promoter] Bill Graham's management offices. I said, "Everything's great...except for the fact that I feel completely isolated. My agent and promoters want me to be in a certain town two months before or after my other friend who's playing that town."
I missed the camaraderie of being not famous. I missed the fun of friends who played music together just to play music.
In a weird way, success can be oddly isolating.
Certainly with the agenda of maintaining success came the negative artifact of being separated from other artists. So we sat down that afternoon to figure out how to formalize a way to interact with other musicians.
That started the idea of a tour combining three guitarists in one tour, which eventually became G3. We went through all sorts of crazy ideas and finally realized the only logical way to do it--and the best way to do it from an artistic point of view--was for me to get onstage with my buddies every night.
I was convinced the audience felt the same way I did. If I had opened a newspaper and read, "Brian May, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page are coming to The Warfield Theater for six nights of jamming together," I would have bought a ticket for every night. I would have been so happy to see them playing outside their normal gigs, not promoting their latest music, just playing together. To me, as a fan, that would have been the ultimate dream.
"Surround yourself with smart people, and be secure in the knowledge that you can control your own art and your own career--because if you don't, someone else definitely will."
I thought my fans would the same way. I was sure they would love to see Eric Johnson and Steve Vai together, the guys I wanted to be the first two guests.
I'm surprised it hadn't been done before.
As an owner of G3, it was a great idea, but like any idea it's only worth something if you can sell it. So our first task was to pitch it to local promoters so we could build a tour. That was very difficult because a promoter's business is based on never putting all their eggs in one basket.
They'd rather book the three of you separately because then they have three shows to sell.
And of course we came to them with a trio of headliners and they had to pay us the same amount. That took a lot of convincing. Then it took me quite a while, almost a year, to convince Steve and Eric it would not just be fun for us as players but would be good for us all to do.
I think the main sticking point was the idea of competition. I kept telling them the story that I just told you, that if I was sitting in the audience and it was Jimmy and Jeff and Brian, I wouldn't be thinking about who was better. I'd just be in heaven watching my favorite musicians.
I said to them, "It's not about that. The audience isn't going to compare us. They're not going to burn all my records and devote their life to yours."
Actors used to say, "Never work with animals or children." With guitar players it's, "Never work with other lead guitar players." I said, "Let's do the opposite. Let's stand next to each other and have fun blowing each other away. What could be bad about that? One night I might be better, the next night you probably will."
I think what I had to do was just say it out loud. Once they heard me say it, they thought, "Well, if Joe feels that way...I can feel that way. And maybe that's the way everyone feels."
Say I'm a young musician hoping to make a living. What advice would you give me?
Take control of as much as you can. Educate yourself not just about music but also the music business. On a musical level and on a business level, admit what you don't know and get to work solving those problems. Be voracious when it comes to uncovering the secrets of the music business and how people outside the music business behave as entrepreneurs.
Then, somehow, learn to turn off all those practical, real-world voices in your head and go back to being the crazy artist.
I know those two things seem diametrically opposed, but I don't think you can survive being just an artist or just a businessperson. If you're only business, you will lack the flair that attracts an audience. If you're only flair, you'll be taken advantage of.
You have to be both. Then you can surround yourself with smart people, secure in the knowledge you can control your own art and your own career--because if you don't, someone else definitely will.