Stephen Ridley used to be the real Wall Street wolf: young, charismatic, big earner. One day he left a large investment bank and started playing piano in the streets of London. This is where the story of his success started. In the last five years the whole world learned about Stephen. He has toured across 60 countries earning 500,000 fans around the world. He has finally come to Moscow to open a local branch of his academy and bring his music over.
Stephen, please talk a little bit about your life and give an introduction to yourself. You’re a very interesting person. You had worked as a trader before you became an artist, hadn’t you?
I started my first business when I was six. I was selling sweets at school. In two weeks’ time I was making more money than both of my parents, and I got kicked out of school because all of the kids were addicted to sugar. And then I understood that it was not normal. And I wasn’t interested in living like everybody else because everybody was unhappy. And I’m just desperate for more than school or business was giving to me. What is success? I had a poor background living in a village. And I decided that what make me happy is being extremely rich. So I needed to get a really nice job. So I went university, I got really good marks then I got invited to a top investment company and now I do this. And I was miserable. I had everything and still I went like ‘Hey, I do everything the advertisement tells me I need to do to be happy’
So you understood the spirit of time and the fact that you weren’t satisfied with your life?
Definitely. I tried to not see it. I closed my eyes and pretended like everything is okay. But really I would panic. I thought ‘shit, is this my next forty years? Is this life for me? Is this success?’ If this is success than I’m fucked. Throughout all of my life success had always been in the future — ‘one day it will be good’. Now I’m here and I don’t know what I’m gonna do. So I was very quietly panicking. I was underneath a thin shell. I didn’t know if I was going to become an artist and I needed to find a solution. I left the bank at 11 o’clock in the morning. At 11:30 I saw a piano in a shop and thought ‘that’s what I want to do’. After I quit everything looked interesting. I saw a guy painting a wall and thought ‘that’s interesting’. I saw a taxi and thought ‘I love driving and talking to people so maybe I should be a taxi driver’, I saw a guy making coffee and though ‘Oh I love coffee so maybe I should do this’. Then I saw a piano and though ‘that s just what I need to do’. I felt like I was in shock and needed to detach. So I sat down and started playing and I was in paradise. And the guy comes over and says ‘if you wanna play it you need to buy it’. And I said ‘Alright’. It was an antique shop and the piano was really cheap, about 100 pounds. We dragged it out in the street, it was really heavy, and I started playing in the street. It was incredible. The street was full. Everyone was happy and I felt amazing. Instantly, within an hour my life completely turned around. First I was an unhappy banker than I’m a musician in the street. For five minutes I felt like Robbie Williams because the street was full.
But you have played piano your entire life, haven’t you?
Yes. I started when I was two and I was self-taught in the beginning. Then I went to the best teachers and understood that the subject is too complicated. Why are they talking in Latin? Why are there so many symbols that don’t mean anything? Why do they have so many rules that don’t relate to playing? And why does everybody sound the same? Something didn’t make sense. And I started losing the piano and thinking ‘maybe I don’t like this. It became an intellectual thing and I got the idea that I couldn’t play. It went downhill from there. At the age of two I loved it, at seven I loved it, at nine I still loved it. But the more lessons I got the less passionate I was. I went to a better school and realized I didn’t love it, then I went to the best school and understood that I really didn’t love it. There was a period in my life where I stopped playing for maybe about four to five years.
Did you forget anything about how to play? I heard that musicians should practice every single day.
There is some misinformation about piano. When I say I didn’t play I would still play as a hobby. Every week or two I would play a song. Before that I used to practice for six hours a day. It’s like driving: you don’t need to drive every single day to remember how to drive. You don’t need to cook every day to know how to cook an egg. The reason people forget how to play piano is that some of them learn by repeating with no knowledge. So as soon as they stop they are like an actor learning a script and they forget the lines. But when you understand something you don’t need to do it every day, you just understand it. That’s why I left the school.
Is this the way you got the idea of founding your own academy? Did you base it on your smart and sustainable way of listening to music?
Yes. We live in a world where even children don’t have two or three hours a day. They have their iPads, and their lives are busy. I understood that traditional education wasn’t going to work and that if we didn’t change anything we would have no pianists in twenty years. Secondly, I got tired of people coming to me after every concert with sad faces saying ‘I wish I could do something like that’. But it’s so easy! However, I don’t know how to tell you how to do it. So it sat in my mind for a long time. Third reason is I see so many people with so much potential that is trapped and not getting out. That’s because language is limited but feeling are very wide. There is a huge distance between the place where language ends and emotions stop. Music gives me the ability express the inexpressible. So I’m no longer trapped. I feel like a free person surrounded by slaves. I just want normal people to be able to have that.
There must be many people who know what notes are but can’t actually play them. What level of musicianship should people be on to enter Stephen Ridley’s academy and what will they be able to play upon graduating?
The academy doesn’t teach how to play a song. Instead, we teach how to play any song. We offer full understanding of piano and musical theory which lies in the base. Academic methods don’t cut the mustard. We don’t force our students to practice for hours or learn tens of useless subjects. There are four courses.
‘Scale Master Class’: almost every pop song in the past twenty years has been based on just two scales. There are over 20 scales, all of which reflect a certain emotion. Some pend years to study the scale while the most important ones may be learned within three hours.
‘Piano Master Class’: I don’t force people to go to sit in classrooms for hours. Any person from any corner of the world may learn to play piano. We have recorded around 100 simple videos that don’t ned to be learned. Instead they help to understand the instrument and start playing.
‘Intensive Motivation Programme’: I know how hard it is to keep the motivation going, that is why we have a specially designed course to keep you in the moment of wanting to let everything go. It is like an adrenaline rush.
Finally, the ‘Musician’s Self-Development Programme’ is designed for those who aspire to become a professional musician whether they want to earn this way or just play for their own pleasure.
Will your students have any exceptional options of playing with you at shows upon graduating?
Yes, they will. The piano course is online. The artist course is delivered in person during a four-day boot camp. We go out in the city, and we are together. I know that I’ll get a lot of eyes this way. I’ll start my own record label to sign these people and some of them will definitely play with me. I’m creating my own army. I’ going to make a lot of them really popular.
I hope one day I’ll have more free time to try your method.
The course takes three minutes a day for six to twelve months. It’s faster than anything ever created on the planet. 150 times faster than any other course. Pretty cool, huh?
Amazing! Do you find the meaning of life in what you do? I don’t think it is correct to call music your job.
Do I find it amazing? Yes. Do I find the meaning of life in it? No. I have an artist programme. An artist is someone who thinks differently. People find love and meaning to everything, while an artist doesn’t find, he creates. He doesn’t look for love, he creates it. He creates purpose instead of looking for it. He doesn’t wonder if it’s the meaning, he creates meaning. It’s an attitude towards life. Everything is a creative flow. This conversation is creative. There was nothing before it here, now we’re creating something. It’s like a muscle. If it is really strong, it applies to every area of your life. Still now I have six businesses, I build houses, I have a crypto fund, I buy CEOs and sell their companies, I play music 90% of my time. How do I manage everything? I just create.
Do you have business assistants?
Each project has its own team. One of them has 135 people, while this one has only two. However, I am 100% sure this will become the biggest thing. Crypto-fund is niche. There is no passion. Nobody gives a fuck about crypto. Nobody gives a fuck about houses either. Even I don’t give a fuck about them. I just did it because my brother needed help. But people do give a fuck about music. They care about emotions. That’s why they spend so much money no concerts. They care more about entertainment than education. Jay Leno gets paid more than any teacher in Los Angeles. Why? Because people care about entertainment. They need someone who could eject us from our life. It’s one thing to go see a concert but it’s another thing to make a concert by yourself. It’s a long answer but did I find meaning in music? I created it. I didn’t find meaning in the school either, I also created it. These things matter. They are worth my commitment.
What is your key to success? Many managers diversify their businesses and make creative projects as well. But not everybody becomes as successful as you are.
I have several friends who are artists, and they’re broke. They always ask me ‘how do you do this?’ And the first point of the artist course was to teach existing artists how to make money. But then I thought it’s better to call it ‘how to make money creatively’. Then I went further back and now I have a programme that teaches everything.
To answer your question about what the key to success is, first thing is self-awareness. Most people don’t have it. You really need to be able to see yourself from an exterior point of view and change it like you would change your living room. But people are often stuck. They are full of fixed ideas and the same ways of operating. I’m not one of them. ‘I know I can’t do that’ — that’s it, you’re trapped in a box. It is a very important skill. You can’t learn it in a business school. And I didn’t learn them in business school. I learned them by playing Ray Charles songs. He’s a black guy with a raspy voice and I was a white guy with nasal voice. So I saw myself from the exterior and realised that I needed to change myself in order to play this beautiful music. I had to change the way my throat worked, I had to sit right. Ray Charles is fearless, and I had a lot of fear. Back in investment banking I saw that everybody was scared. And I thought I would make myself valuable by being a guy who is not scared. I could see that the environment needed someone who would sit in front of a client and sell something. This is how I was voted #1 investment banker in my category in all of London. And then I quit the next day because I was able to see what was needed and what was wanted.
I think you have a strong character. It’s also important.
It wasn’t always the case. I am a strong character because I needed to be. I could see that what the world needs is not a weak person. And I could see that in all of my projects being scared and lazy would not bring success.
Did your life change completely after you quit investment banking?
Everything changed. I left my job, my apartment, my girlfriend, I saw some friends for the last time and I’ve never seen them since. Because I looked at my life from the bird’s eye. I didn’t like anything about my life. This woman was with me because I was rich and bought her stuff. We didn’t love each other. She was hot and I just loved having sex with her. And I was rich and also good-looking so she also liked having sex with me. I didn’t see her as the mother of my children. I didn’t even like her as a person. She was mean. I didn’t like my job because it didn’t make me happy. I saw my friends, they didn’t really like me, they just liked getting drunk with me because I’m fun when I’m drunk. . I had a car and I didn’t like it either. It was hard to drive, and all the time I was only worried about paying for this car. I had a flat in a penthouse with a swimming pool and I only had it to impress people. I hated cleaning it, and I didn’t like paying a cleaner to do so because she stole from me. And I was always bored at my place, I wanted to go outside and see the world. So one day I said ‘screw it’ and left everything in one day. Boredom is worse than unhappiness. The worst feeling to me is not caring about your day. It’s not natural to me. My father passed away when he was 50 and full of dreams. And I don’t want to experience the same. I need to be fast. As soon as see something I need to act. I did this job for 1,5 years and I still wasn’t happy. I should have quit after the first day because I saw it and I was too scared to admit it. Now if there is something I don’t like I just change the conditions.
Was it difficult for you to change your life after you left the bank?
It was the best time in my life. I was happy. I felt the love of the world. Nobody smiles when they do investment banking. Nobody says ‘thank you’, nobody gives you a hug, nobody is happy to see you. And I felt the same. And then suddenly I fell in love with people because I gave them something, and they gave something to me. It was truly beautiful. I was happy. I didn’t care what my fake friends or my gold-digging girlfriend would think. I started making real friends, really ng cool people.
You travel a lot. Which countries do you like best?
Italy is obviously the best. On day one God made everything. On days 2 to 7 he finished Italy. I love Brazil. I really love London. The more I travel the more I appreciate London. I love St. Petersburg — what an amazing city.
How do you handle the stress of travelling? You’re in a good shape. It must be difficult handling such a hectic schedule.
Who told you that? Travelling is a privilege. I sit on a plane and write a book or read a book. I’m in a tin 40,000 feet above the ground with the best view of the planet and eat some food. I don’t know what is tough about it. I get tired anyway but I’d rather get tired doing something I love. I only have a human body that needs sleep and sometimes wants some sex.
Do you have a schedule?
Yes, I do. In Russia I don’t do it but I should probably start doing it. In London I have a 15 minutes to 15 minutes schedule. I know what I’ll be doing for the next 15 minutes every day. I have two guys who work with me and we plan the next day by the end of each day. I treat time like water. I give away money very easily but I don’t give away my time as easily. Last year I gave 50% of my money to charity but I didn’t give away my time. Moscow is pretty busy so I probably need to start scheduling. Before I only came here for holidays. But now I have goals. We have exactly the same 24 hours in a day as Steve Jobs did or LeBron James does now. But successful people don’t waste their time watching Netflix for three hours. I didn’t understand it two years ago when I was living a Bohemian life. I feel more responsible for my ambitions and goals. They will genuinely fail if I don’t take action. Having a great idea is not enough. If I don’t do this I will die like 99% of people — pissed off and full of regret. I want to be proud of what I do. I want to sit years from now and be proud of making 10,000 artists and watching my academy being tagged all over Instagram.
What is your main goal in life for next year?
I don’t think in short terms. I could break down a ten-year goal. I would mostly like to have a million eyes. That’s the minimum. The music itself doesn’t have to be super famous but I’d really love for people to listen to it. I don’t want to make a shitty song and put it into a Pepsi advert but I really want people to see it. I would really like to be known by people who make great art. Worldwide. That’s the goal. I would genuinely like to be known as someone who wants to help the world. Partly it’s because of my own ego and partly because I feel like it’s the best use of what I am.
Have you ever thought about making a concert with the use of new technologies?
At least once a day I get an email from someone saying ‘do you want to make a concert using 3D mapping or where everybody wears IMAX?’ And I say no. I want the opposite of that. I used to teach meditation which means intense focus. Look around you. There are too many sounds and colours. Our senses are overloaded. I want just one sound at my concerts, not even ten instruments. Just me and the piano. I want it to be spiritual. VR is the opposite. It wants you to concentrate on a tiny screen. And it’s fake. I want real things like pieces of wood hitting metal strings. I want my shows to feel like they were made 100 years ago. Ideally I want candles instead of white lights. The most important things in life are timeless. I guarantee that love felt exactly the same 10,000 years ago. Music is primitive. I don’t want to cover it in tinsel and sparkles.
Do you plan any shows this summer?
Yes, some amazing shows. I’m playing some festivals, the opening of Monaco Grand Prix, the Riga Jazz Festival which to me is the best jazz festival on the planet, I have some very cool shows in LA, next week I’m playing for Kim Kardashian, and I’ll probably be doing my own course. Summer is always busy. Mostly spinning in Europe.
Written by Mila Goncharova-Legrand
Translated by Tony Savosin
Photo by press service Stephen Ridley