by Christophe Pauly
– Senior Photojournalist —
Guitarist and entrepreneur Andy Alt recently talked with Hardrock Haven about his music career, working with Steve Vai and gives advice on the music business.
CP: I’d like to talk first about your career. Could you tell our Readers how you succeeded that well with all those collaborations you did throught the years? And what was your motivation to do this job and not another kind of?
AA: Thank you for the opportunity to speak about my interests. To me, there is a great benefit to mixing two colors I know to make more; as a guitar player, I live to express feelings through tones and notes. That exercises a part of my soul that cannot be replaced but that alone will not give me the whole feeling I crave which is why I spent 4 years of college studying advertising & consumer behavior to then work at advertising agencies and eventually as an independent consultant. That mix of “right brain/left brain” provides me with so many more ideas than if I only chose to spend 100% of the time doing only one area of study. So that’s the background.
To answer your question, I moved to Los Angeles after graduating college and I suppose there was a bit of luck; I auditioned for band that was going to Interscope Records the following week to record demo material. The band quickly fell apart but while I was there, I made some connections, which led to meeting Barry Squire and eventually going on tour and recording with bands. I am currently playing with Drake Bell (of Nickelodeon’s “Drake and Josh”) and there’s a new record out called “Ready Steady Go!” exec. produced by Brian Setzer. This is the right gig for me and it’s a total blast to play music with raw instrumentation for younger fans who grew up watching that show.
Simultaneously, I work with brands as a television media planner (initially) then an interactive marketing planner, which led to co-founding an agency in Santa Monica—a startup ad agency for tech and entertainment startups. It worked great for about 18 months but then I had a once-in-a-lifetime chance to work with Steve Vai and I knew it would require much more focus. There’s a lot more after that but I am currently Vai’s Online Marketing Director and we were partners in launching GuitarTV.com. It’s the most fun I can have.
The combination of these two worlds light up my brain… around the clock. Life wouldn’t be balanced without that composition and it leads to new discoveries or pursuits.
CP: You worked with brands and musicians. What’s the difference for you about marketing a brand or a musician? Does a musician become a brand when he’s promoted?
AA: Every brand and artist has a unique quality that can be accentuated through creative collateral and media channels. Bands, as loose as they can be, each stand for something and ignite passion among their fans. It’s important to showcase what they do best on stage and when it comes to my input, online and in media. From high-energy to shoe-gazing, reverb-washed vibes; different characteristics of music can inspire and play a role in the visual creative that reaches fan. Steve’s music, show and art is very visual so it makes sense that his photographs, albums showcase that same virtuosity. So when it comes to my role, how about the writing and the copy? Is it factual? Yeah… but it wouldn’t be enough to say “Steve is coming to your city on tour, here’s the ticket link…” – it’s a special opportunity to take everything you feel about something great and put it into words. “A transformative event in the history of guitar and unclassifiable music is coming to Helsinki as Grammy Award winning virtuoso, Steve Vai, paints the town fuscia, desert yellow and loch ness green with his powerhouse band…” Which makes you feel something is about to go down that you don’t want to me? It’s my job to make that feeling happen while we’re breezing through our online lives through a hunk of text and a picture.
Drake’s audience and Steve’s are two very different ones so it helps understanding the artists, their fans and your place in all of it. Then you gotta connect dots, look for content opportunities and be on your web game.
CP: You have worked for Steve Vai for a long time now. How did this collaboration begin and what’s the best part of it for you? What do you prefer in it?
AA: I met Steve when I was 15 years old in Pittsburgh. My Dad, cousin and I went to see G3 and Steve’s performance struck me like a lightening bolt. I remember being an instant fan and it changed the way I felt about music. Fast-forward many years, after being in LA, I saw my old friend from Pittsburgh was opening for Steve (Zack Wiesinger). I congratulated him through email and long story short, we wound up playing music together and eventually splitting a house in Van Nuys, CA. One day, Zack and I skateboarded to downtown Los Angeles where we ran into Pia Vai (Steve’s wife) at this big Italian food and music festival. At the end of the night, I was the only one sober so I drove a car home, dropping off about 5 people along the way. The last stop was the Vai residence and seeing as it was 2 AM, Zack and I passed out on the couch in their living room.
The next day, Pia made us eggplant and we were all laughing. Then she said something about “I gotta do this internet/web thing, it’s being a pain.” I jumped at the chance to help out and that little experience of setting up a few web accounts was fun and we had a blast. Over the course of a few months, Pia and I setup a blog where she posted photos and experience of her 25+ years traveling around the world. She knows EVERY SINGLE GREAT PLACE to stay and eat in virtually every city around the globe. The work sessions became so fun that she told Steve. When I saw Steve one day, I pitched him on a redesign of Favored Nations and also a Vai iPhone app (this was before there were a bazillion of them). Next thing I knew, I was running Vai.com and we had started talking about this thing Steve envisioned called “GuitarTV” – that’s a whole ‘nother story. So anyway, I was lucky to know all of these people but more importantly I proactively looked for opportunities where I’d be able to contribute where there was a need and make it a fun experience.
I have learned an enormous amount about business, musicianship, focus and dedication from Steve. The work is rewarding and to balance it out, the laughter from improvised jokes is completely uncontrollable. Yep, I’d say laughing from hilarious moments really is the best part because you realize you have no control and you’re talking about control freakdom here between sound, visual aesthetic, diet; everything…and here comes this random observation during a meeting that leaves tears of laughter in it’s trail.
CP: I saw you had done multiple projects with Steve like a tv channel … What’s next?
AA: I don’t know but you know… every email with the Vai team (management, booking, musicial instrument partners, other musicians, Vai.com web team) has something new and fun to work on. Steve’s Facebook page and Vai.com have the gamut of all of the neat things happening at any one time.
If the next question is, how does Steve “do it” –I’d be afraid I just don’t know how one person can be so incredibly focused and thorough in their work… but I am learning and seeing some early results from that kind of dedication.
CP: You’re an incredible musician too and you opened recently for Steve.
AA: Thank you. Well, as a member of the Vai team, we were posting announcements of the Sam Ash “Best in Shred” contest to fans. The winner of these in-store performances (judged by local musicians) got to open for Steve. Since I have a guitar invention, I thought “This is an amazing way to get the ball rolling on sharing it” and also, it would be a fun surprise to tell Steve that I’d be opening up his show, by myself, with my guitar invention. I feel honored to have received 1st place at the “Best in Shred” Sam Ash performance series in LA and I did open for Steve at The Ventura Theater. It was mind blowing, a fun surprise and so much fun! A video that was filmed by Carl King (sometimes known as “Sir Millard Mulch”) will surface soon. It’s all part of my product’s launch plan.
CP: Who were your influences?
AA: Jimi, Stevie, Jimmy, Steve, James, Stephen; Neil, Neal, Beck, Beck and Charles Altura.
CP: How did you get started playing guitar?
AA: My Dad played guitar around the house on special occasions. He had a 1964 Gibson B25N and he took such great care of it, even putting it away felt like a holy ritual. One day, my Dad played a little ditty, bluesy melody line and handed me the guitar. I don’t know what exactly happened next but I guess that because I had seen him do it so many times, I pretty much knew where to place my fingers. I think it scared him. At least enough to get me my own guitar. A year and a half later, I was on a Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin tear, trying to get 13 year old girls to pay attention to 12 year old me!
CP: Do you plan to do more work as a solo musician in the future?
AA: I do but it needs to be fully utilitarian. Like, “Do I need to spend time recording and writing music for an important end goal? …Or would that just be a fun thing to do but is not necessary at this time?” I answered a “yes” to that question last month and went into the recording studio at 4th Street Recording in LA (Muse, Incubus, The Neighbourhood) to record a complete song using my guitar invention. A demo video for a product launch is important but I wanted to answer the question, “What does it sound like in a real-world use context?” I think we really got something special that make my brain lightup in new ways and it gave me a workout between the guitar/bass, singing, misc instruments.
CP: You play with an incredible guitar, could you tell us about this model and its pickups?
Yes, I chose the James Trussart guitar because it is wonderfully resonant and James Trussart is familiar with experimentation and innovation.
He’s been a kind friend for some time and when I told him about my invention he gave me a guitar the very next day to experiment with. Incredibly generous!
The prototype of my special guitar pickup is housed in a James Trussart Custom Shop Deluxe Steelcaster. You can check those wonderful instruments at www.jamestrussart.com.
CP: Any good experiences on stage?
AA: I’ve had a number of moments where the guitar played itself and I was just there to enjoy my bandmates. I reached for a note and it was actually there or played a chord that sounded like the tones I had always wanted out of a ‘dimed’ tube amp. When it works, it feels so good. When it doesn’t work, I have to think quickly about what’s not feeling good and see if there’s something I can bring to the table to put us back at sea level. Number one complaint with live performances: bad monitor mix. You either can’t hear yourself, or can only hear yourself. Either way really stinks and it affects confidence. Some guys like Pete Thorn are probably so experienced it doesn’t impact them—I’m learning how to deal with those things and each time it’s a little better. I’m not afraid to ask the sound guy to turn up, turn down or turn off a monitor that is ruining the experience.
CP: What do you think of the evolution of music promotion on the internet?
AA: It’s a remarkable experience to have seen MySpace standardize music formats and give a baseline expectation for what streaming music would be into today’s multimedia and mult-channel presence an artist can have. There are so many tools out there to help promote your music to new audiences that one quick search will give you a week’s worth of work to set all of them up. Once you’ve got that, I think it’s a matter of creating and feeding those channels with content that represents your message. The internet unfolds and grows geometrically everyday – that also means, new fans can come along and start interacting with what you’re putting out. Everything from a “play along” video on YouTube to an Instagram photo posted to Facebook (and automatically shared on Twitter) can create interest and contribute to someone’s day.
The main issue with artists contributing online is cutting through the clutter. There’s no sure-fire way to do it but I believe creating unique content that makes you feel good about what you’re sharing is the best tactic. That and speaking with someone on the Vai team :!)
CP: Do you think it gave any musician the possibility to be seen? Or do you think that most of those musicians are unseen because there are too many today?
AA: Again, the clutter. Every artist is, by definition, unique. However, I always judge what I’m hearing and think thoughts like, “they sound good but they also sound like they’re trying to be John Mayer.” And that makes me want to tune out. If I play something that sounds like it belongs to someone else and is not a culmination of my interests or feelings, why would I make you listen to a substitute for the real thing. My signature Fender Stratocaster will not be that tri-tone vintage finish with “AJA” trucker stickers on the pickguard.
CP: Do you have any advice for someone who would like to start in the marketing buisiness?
AA: You don’t need to look further than your own Facebook feed. Is there someone you interact with online that you admire? Study how they write, how they communicate, how they carefully select their imagery. If it inspires you, let it fuel your own pursuits and help give you a baseline judgment for your own output. The right answer is probably to put together mockup ads (say you haven’t worked with Nike or Reebok, yet, but you have good ideas for ads for those brands). Taglines, headlines, copy and graphics are all skills to help you cut through. I try to keep my blades sharp by writing ideas down in a notebook. Once you have 10-12 strong pieces, it’s worth posting them to an online portfolio and sending it out to ad agencies, brands or artists so you can take it to the next level. That’s what I’ve been doing this lifetime, trying to exercise my mind and abilities to reach the highest (and most realistic) piece of the rock.
Visit Andy Alt online: http://andyalt.com/