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Photograph by Emily Becker

Great Scott: Scott Whitney's corporate gigs help pay the bills while he makes original CDs.

Start Me Up

How Latin jazz guitarist Scott Whitney used his marketing and sales background to create a music career

By Sarah Quelland

HIS CHARM and enthusiasm make Scott Whitney the antithesis of the stuffy jazz snob; he has no patience for pretentious music elitists. At 43, the acoustic Latin and jazz guitarist is as likely to be rocking out to the Bone as he is grooving along to a smooth-jazz station.

The Los Gatos resident known as "Fat Dad" to viewers of KPIX Channel 5's Get Fit With Malou sold almost 35,000 albums through his website before he made a live appearance. Then, soon after he decided to start playing in public, he got booked at the Mountain Winery in Saratoga.

Recently, he performed at the Mansion in Las Vegas, an exclusive resort area reserved for million-dollar rollers that's secreted inside the MGM Grand. Whitney--a longtime Silicon Valley techie--has been working diligently to become a career musician and realize a dream decades in the making.

Whitney got his start in music playing drums in junior high school. He soon determined that you can't bring your drums to the beach and pick up girls. As fate would have it, he found a guitar in the trash can that was missing one string. He took it home, and soon he was killing the first four bars of Deep Purple's "Smoke on the Water."

He borrowed his father's piano book, The Greatest Hits of the '60s and '70s, and began teaching himself guitar using the square fingering diagrams that accompanied some of the songs. "I would come home and spend 12 hours a day doing nothing but going through that book and playing all the chords, just fascinated by it all. My fingers were bleeding from doing this kinda thing. But I loved it," he recalls. "I realized this was fun, and I could bring a guitar to the beach. And I did."

After high school, Whitney joined the U.S. Air Force. He kept up his hobby while assigned to electronic warfare and stationed at Castle Air Force Base in Merced County. He got a little house and stocked it with equipment; he says he recorded about 200 original rock songs during what he calls his "heavy-metal" period. "Really hardcore," he says with a smirk, letting out a classic rock "huwaaaaaaah" for effect.

An Air Force guitar teacher introduced him to classical composers and helped him see there was more to music than rock & roll. It began to crystallize that, unlike Kiss, Whitney probably wouldn't be able to keep up the arena-rock jumps forever, so he turned to jazz.

After his service ended, Whitney entered the Silicon Valley workforce, working for Varian in Palo Alto. While attending a sales meeting at Pebble Beach, he heard classical, jazz and Latin guitarist Jeff Linsky performing in the lobby of the Four Seasons.

"Everybody else is out running around, drinking, playing golf, and I'm in front of this guy going, 'My God! What are you doing?'" When Linsky asked for requests, Whitney offered up the theme from The Flintstones.

"He played the most beautiful ballad I've ever heard in my life, ... and it was The Flintstones. I was like, 'Dude, how do you do that?' [and] he goes, 'I don't know. My fret board just kinda lights up.'"

Later, after a stint as a marketing director for Compaq, Whitney decided to start up his own web-development company and devote more time to his music. He tracked down Linsky and offered him a deal; Whitney traded his website expertise in exchange for the guitarist's ear and advice.

The deal paid off. Over the next five years, this one-man marketing machine used his Internet savvy and sales skills to sell thousands of copies of his two holiday albums, ChristmAcoustic and ChristmAcoustic II, and his all-original acoustic Latin-jazz album Guitjazzathon, all released through his own Spinario Records imprint.

His business strategy--to establish himself as a serious musician through his album sales rather than club gigs--enabled him to skip several steps in the paying-your-dues program many musicians follow. He primarily plays corporate events and private parties and loves doing them.

"Part of my job as a marketeer, as a salesperson, is to develop momentum," he says. "If you look at my gig list, there's a lot of stuff going on there. I'm not opening up for big-name guys--that will happen, I think--but now I'm doing well, and I'm getting paid what I think I'm worth."

He's living off the music and is currently in preproduction for his fourth album, Who's Your Bossa Nova?, which he expects to release this fall or winter. For kicks, he's been playing drums in a blues band called Blue Truth, which frequents area wineries.

He has a number of websites and businesses he's preparing to launch. He intends to use his marketing know-how to help other independent artists take advantage of his business strategies to get their name out.

It frustrates him that so many talented musicians get overlooked. However, he's not resentful of so-so musicians who find a large audience. "They did something right," he insists. "You can't suck on all levels and get famous. I think you have to have something.

"The most fascinating thing about making it in music," he continues, "is [that] music skills in and of itself isn't it," he says. "There are great musicians who aren't making it--great musicians playing on the street. You can argue that eventually they'll be discovered, and that's probably true. Stanley Jordan was busking in New York and the next thing you know, he's one of the biggest jazz guitarists around. But it helps to make stuff happen," Whitney says.

"What's that line? 'The harder I work, the luckier I get.' It's true. You do have to work at getting in front of people."

Scott Whitney performs at the Equinox Wine Makers Dinner Tuesday (May 25), 6:30-9:30pm, at the Mountain Winery in Saratoga. The evening offers a five-course menu by executive chef Rodney Baca that features tastes of the Mediterranean with a hint of Asian flair. The dinner is $115 per person plus tax and gratuity. (408.741.2819)

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From the May 19-25, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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