Steve Vai Reveals How Much More He Earned by Bypassing Record Labels: ’Why Would Anybody Get Paid More Than Me for My Work?’

Since Steve Vai didn’t feel like giving away most of the income from his original music, he came up with a very simple solution — he started his own record label back in the 1980s. In an interview with Vintage Rock Pod, Vai looked back at the time when he was fresh out of Frank Zappa’s band and was still in his early 20s and how this decision came to be.

When asked about his debut solo album “Flex-Able” from 1984 and how it was released through his own label, Steve explained that, initially, he just wanted to make his own music and didn’t really think of doing an official release (transcribed by Killer Guitar Rigs):

“I had no real expectations. The idea of recording a record — I knew I wanted to record. I was recording tons of… Non-stop recording. But the idea of releasing it, trying to get a record deal and release, I just didn’t want to deal with it. I just didn’t want to go out and, ‘Would you release my record?'”

Steve Vai Performance - Throwback Thursday From the MI Library | Musicians Institute

“The music seemed too personal to… 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 wasn’t desperate at all, I had no desperation to be famous or successful. I 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.”

However, he then ended up with a full album worth of material and he wanted to do something with it:

“But then I had all this material and I had ‘Flex-Able’, and I thought, ‘I wonder if I could get this printed up so I could send it to some friends?'”

Steve Vai's Flex-Able 36th Anniversary Edition

“And that’s when the Eva-Tone flexi-disc came into my life. That’s just like one of those little plastic… There was a company called Eve-Tone and they made them and I thought, ‘Well, I know. I’ll be the first one to release a record on an Eva-Tone flexi-disc.”

“I started to look into it, and there was a lot of limitations to it. Then I thought, ‘Well, what the heck. Let me try to see if somebody will release this.’ I started shopping it around.”

So Happy - Steve Vai ( Album - Flex-Able Leftovers )

Of course, things were much more complicated back then as the information about how things worked wasn’t at everyone’s disposal at all times as it is in today’s age of the internet. So Vai found a label but was pretty disappointed with what they offered:

“There was one label Enigma and they were willing to release it. And the only reason they were willing to release it was because I was an ex-Zappa musician. I ended up getting a deal from them.”

“When I read the deal, I was just stunned. 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.'”

As awful as it sounds, this does seem like a standard procedure for any new artist back in the day. So Vai just decided to go his own way. After all, he didn’t feel like anyone in the world should be getting more money than him for his own work:

“And I said, ‘I fuck that’, and I just said ‘No.’ Because it didn’t feel right to me, like, 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.”

Steve Vai - Little Green Men

So what was his next step? He started his own record label. And it wasn’t really as complicated as he expected but it did require some work:

“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, they 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.”

Steve Vai - Viv Woman

“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.”

“Every distributor I called would say, ‘No, we don’t take product from artists. 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.”

Steve Vai - Lovers Are Crazy

“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.”

But despite the distributor taking the cut, Vai still managed to retain most of his income even years after the album’s release. He continued:

“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 an a good conventional deal, 50 cents a record, I was getting $7.50.”

Alcatrazz (w/ Steve Vai) -- Power Live (Tokyo, 1985)

“Within the period of years, it sold like 400,000 copies. But that was crazy for me, it was such a windfall. I mean, I like money, but I wasn’t ever one of these guys who went and bought a lot of things except musical gear. I never did drugs or waste my money on cars. I just wanted to play my guitar and record. That’s what I did.”

Photo: Wojciech Pędzich (Steve Vai, 3-Majówka 2023 61)

  • David Slavkovic

    David always planned for music to be nothing more than a hobby. However, after a short career as an agricultural engineer he ended up news editor at KillerGuitarRigs, senior editor at, as well as a freelance contributor to online magazines such as GuitaristNextdoor and brands like Sam Ash.