We had the good fortune of connecting with Steve Wolff and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Steve, how has your background shaped the person you are today?
I grew up in London, UK studying science and engineering first in London and then getting my Masters in the US (both in Chemical Engineering). I’m from London, UK originally but for the past 22 years, San Diego’s home, before then I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Musically, I played a bit in the UK but really started getting into it out of necessity when I moved to the US for grad school, funded by the UK government. I can “thank” George Soros (the investor) for that. Not long after arriving in the US, he shorted the UK pound by 50% before my funding arrived, so I was REALLY short of cash! Being unable to work as a foreigner, all I could do was form a band – my first US band, British Wire Gauge. I’ve learned that the best way to move forward in life is to think outside the box and do something different and keep trying: you “succeed when you run out of ways to fail” is a motto I’ve lived by. Back then at Stanford, bands were mostly playing Grateful Dead covers etc. so we played Brit punk and New Wave at Frat/ dorm parties. I apply the same strategy to music projects as I do to the “real job”: find quality people, motivate them to come up with something different.
What should our readers know about your business?
These days, my income comes from a mix of consulting for companies developing scanners for homeland security / Customs applications and playing music at local bars and other venues.
I started the consulting business after being laid off a couple of years after 911 where, oddly, funding for most security technology development dried up with the haphazard formation of the Dept of Homeland Security. In spite of promising work that later led to security developments including PreCheck, the company cut back staff and eventually sold out to GE. I informed my connections around the world of my departure and rapidly got offers to work with different organizations. Originally I’d planned for this to only last a couple of years before joining another company, but it became a 19 year (and counting) consulting business. Businesses have a lot in common, no matter what you’re doing, so I leveraged my marketing skills into my music, deciding on a unique (to San Diego at least!) identity – “iconic pop/rock classics from both sides of the pond and beyond”. I started out using then new technology (loop stations, prerecorded/ edited background tracks) and selling my solo performance to various venues around town,
Key to my marketing message was a new strategy to bring in crowds no matter where I played around the county. MeetUp groups where (at the time) new, so I approached the leaders of the most popular ones and offered to post and host MeetUp events at my gigs. I could sell this to the venues (especially new venues) as a way to get them free PR/ exposure to thousands of San Diegans that had signed up with the groups in order to go out and meet people. Even though I started this in 2011, I believe I’m the only one who developed relationships with the group owners and post my own events. I later formed my band, Wolff (www.wolff.rocks) and still use this active marketing PR technique, which has been way more successful than passively posting events on social media.
JamTheWire came out of the blue during the pandemic, piecing together several aspects of original musicians’ realities. First, the lack of playing opportunities for musicians. Second, the difficulty in getting exposure – and pay – for original music and videos; each musician is a musical “island” on services such as YouTube; there’s no sense of community for recorded materials, unlike the streaming services, where musicians are on common platforms. Still, those are only valuable while a musician is performing on them. What I envisioned for JamTheWire is a multi-channel on-line (web based) suite of “music video stations”, like a multi-channel MTV but accessible on-line. The plan was for musicians to grow the overall community and expose their fans to others’ music videos, with the fans hopefully “tipping” the site, which would distribute revenue to the musicians.
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
Days • See the main cool San Diego sites: Downtown gaslamp, the Zoo, Balboa Park and museums, head out to Coronado Island (take the ferry from downtown).
• Catch some outdoor Concerts in the Park(s) around town on the weekend
• Head up to Julian, chow down on apple pie and hike some of the mountain areas (Cuyumaca) or bike the roads
• Head out to Anza Borrego desert (best in the winter/ spring, but some people love the hot summers).
• Head to Mt. Palomar – great state park, plus one of the largest telescopes in the world (I learned about it long before I moved to the US).
• Go to Pacific beach boardwalk, chill on the beach
• Take a boat out to the ocean to go whale- and dolphin watching
• Go snorkeling / SCUBA diving, including checking out the Leopard Sharks (harmless) at La Jolla Shores, possibly combine that with a kayak trip to the La Jolla caves!
• Wander around the coastal communities, especially La Jolla, Encinitas, Del Mar and grab dinner at any of the fine restaurants overlooking the ocean
• I’m not a golfer, but plenty of people come here to go golfing (including the Pros!)
• Plenty of fine dining from all around the world downtown and with great ocean views
• Lots of live music, at smaller venues or head to the main auditoriums, including the new “Shell” downtown. Favorite places of mine are Humphreys (main and back-stage), Belly Up tavern and smaller venues like Fast Times, Jolly Joker Tavern and too many others to list here.
• If you can, check out a “grunion run” or if you’re super lucky, bioluminescent waves during a “red tide” event.
The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
I was fortunate to have very supportive parents, both business owners who excelled at their craft (antique restoration and dealing); my father gilded the Queen’s coronation thrones and constructed a gilt mirror designed by Her Majesty for the royal yacht. The only exception was when I started learning the violin – that lasted 2 weeks before they shut it down. Other than that, they encouraged me to find my interests and explore them constantly telling me don’t worry about failing, just do my best.
Boarding school (in the UK) was another major influence – I was one of the poorer ones there, so developed entrepreneurial skills repairing and selling TVs (legal) and booze (totally illegal!) to underclassmen, finding a need that wasn’t being met and filling it.
Once in the US, I was really supported and aided by a Stanford professor, who helped me land a job at a San Diego company called SAIC, where I learned how to persuade the US Government and other organizations to fund innovative research projects.
A key lesson over the years is to grasp and follow new opportunities when they come up. That led me to a startup company in the Bay Area that ended up being the first to adapt medical CT technology to detect explosives in airline baggage. We started out as 11 people and built it into a multi-national business that was featured in Time Magazine and set the standards for screening checked bags – and more recently cabin bags.
Growing up, my next door neighbor was a professional drummer: Robert Henrit, who played with the Kinks, Zombies and as a session musician. On chatting with him about being a pro-musician, he gave me the true story about life on the road. So that taught me early on that it was better to have music as a hobby while having a “real job” than make music the real job.
Still, music provided a great balance to the sometimes intensive work environment.