Before the days when anyone with a YouTube account and a copy of GarageBand could release an album, legendary guitarist Joe Satriani charted his own course in the music industry. Since launching a record company in 1984, Satriani has been nominated for 15 Grammys. In 1996, Satriani took another entrepreneurial leap by founding G3, a series of world tours with a revolving roster of top guitarists. He recently published his autobiography, Strange Beautiful Music.
I was in a band called the Squares in the early '80s. Our rehearsal space shared the building with Nolo, a company that makes how-to books with legal forms. Their dumpster was right outside the door where we would hang out and smoke in between practicing. The dumpster was always overflowing with damaged books. One day, we were out there wondering how we were ever going to make it in the music business, and we were flipping through books. One was about how to start your own business.
I took it home and was fascinated. I decided to start my own company and make a record. I just followed the book, filled out the forms, went to the courthouse and paid my $12, and suddenly I was a record-company owner. I named it Rubina Records, after my wife.
I wound up recording a very avant-garde record with no bass, drums, or keyboards. I had to order about 100 copies of the record, and after I did, I wasn't able to find an audience. I ended up mailing records to 40 or 50 independent stores with a letter saying, "Sell these and keep the money. I don't care."
One day, I was in rehearsal and our bass player said, "Hey, I think they reviewed your record in Guitar Player magazine." As I read the review, I realized that this was who I wanted to be. So I quit the band. I felt empowered.
I realized I needed to make a record that would appeal to more people. But when I looked for funding, I was turned down by everyone. After many rejections, I got a credit card offer in my mailbox. It came with $5,000 worth of checks. I don't recommend this, but in a blind moment of enthusiasm, I went to the recording studio and said, "What if I pay you in advance? What kind of a deal could you cut me?" Like an idiot, I wrote those checks and went into debt.
Then, of course, I couldn't make the payments. I was days away from entering collection when the Greg Kihn Band called. Their guitarist was out, and they were desperate. They paid me way too much money to solve the problem. Suddenly, I was debt free and on my way to my first real record. 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.
At the time, instrumental rock was not really a genre, but the success of my record Surfing With the Alien legitimized my approach. I had reached a level of success and was making records and touring. But I felt completely isolated. That's what gave me the idea for G3. I was convinced there would be an audience. If I had opened a newspaper and read, "Brian May, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page are coming to town for six nights of jamming together," I would have bought a ticket for every night.
G3 was a great idea, but like any idea, it's worth something only if you can sell it. Fifteen tours and four G3 albums later, promoters, guitarists, and fans are believers.
I'd love to say I had all that planned out. But I didn't. My only real plan was to make a living doing what I love.
As told to Inc. contributor Jeff Haden.