“I could never understand why anybody would get paid more than me for my work”: Steve Vai on his decision to “bypass” record labels
“I’ve always made sure that managers, agents, anybody… I get paid the most. The end.”
Credit: Medios y Media/Getty Images
Steve Vai has spoken about his decision to “bypass” record labels by starting his own, a move he now describes as “kind of outrageous” looking back.
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Speaking to Vintage Rock Pod about his 1984 debut album Flex-Able, the guitarist said that he had “no real expectations” of getting the record released initially as the music felt “too personal”.
“I just didn’t want to deal with it,” Vai recalls [via Killer Guitar Rigs]. “I just didn’t want to go out and [ask], ‘Would you release my record?’”
“I didn’t want to be subjected to anybody else’s decision about anything. I just felt in a position of vulnerability, if I had to depend on a record company.”
“I had no desperation to be famous or successful,” Vai says, adding that he “just wanted to play the guitar and record these great, crazy melodies and songs. The idea of writing music, recording it, and listening to it; that was enough.”
While Vai eventually managed to find a label named Enigma that was willing to release the album, he ended up turning down the deal because it just “wasn’t right”, he says, for someone else to be paid more than him for his music.
“When I read the deal, I was just stunned,” Vai explains. “It was like a $10,000 advance and they would own the record and they’d give me 25 cents a record. And I had had to recoup the $10,000 advance from my 25 cents, and I’m like, ‘What? This is what?’ They saw me come in, some stupid kid.”
“I took it to my attorney, and he said, ‘No, Steve, this is a conventional record deal. And this is a good one, they’re offering you an advance. Most people in your position, they wouldn’t offer an advance.’ I said, ‘Yeah, but then they own my record.’ ‘Yeah, because that’s what they do.’”
“And I said, ‘Fuck that, no.’ Because it didn’t feel right to me. Why should they get so much more? There’s always been another kind of stumbling block in me. And it was always at an economic level, I could never understand why anybody would get paid more than me for my work. And they never have. Not in my career. I’ve always made sure that managers, agents, anybody… I get paid the most. The end.”
He continues: “I did something kind of outrageous. I decided to bypass. I decided to start my own label as a 22-year-old. Because I just started to look behind the curtain, and I’m saying, ‘Well, how do labels work?’ The only thing we had to go by back then was like, the yellow pages, there was no Internet, there was no computers, nothing. But we figured it out.”
“I noticed that labels have a great function, they pay for everything. They give you the money to make the records, and then they take the record, and they it becomes part of their equity.”
“Because labels run great risks, and that’s how they build their equity by owning the masters. Then what they do is they sell, they manufacture the records. And these were all vinyl back then, and some cassettes. They manufacture the records, and then they sell the records to a distributor. The distributor puts it in the stores. The distributor goes around to all the stores. So that was something I learned, and I just thought, ‘Well, why don’t I go to distributors instead of labels?’ And I did.”
But as Vai explains, his lack of a record label made it difficult for distributors to accept his work: “Every distributor I called would say, ‘No, we don’t take product from artists,” he says. “We take product from labels.’ So I started a little label that cost me $12.50. I just went downtown, filed the paper and I had this little label. And that was nothing, it was an envelope.”
“I found a distributor that was willing to release it because he was a guitar head, Important Records. He offered me $4.10 a record, and I retain the rights to the record, nobody was taking it. He took a 1,000 and that was a lot of money to me, $4,000. Then he took another 1,000, and then another 1,000. Then The Attitude Song got into Guitar Player magazine. And that was it.”
“I mean, now he’s taking 10,000, and the record was distributed through their partner overseas. Then when CDs came out, I retain the same kind of distribution deal. So instead of getting a good conventional deal, 50 cents a record, I was getting $7.50.”