Monday, May 20, 2013

Interview w/ Ryan Esaki from Ukulele Underground

A lot of great ideas start out as something entirely different.  For example, look at Nintendo.  Nintendo actually started out in 1889 as a playing card company. The game, Hanafuda, became very popular in Japan but they knew the market wasn’t that big. So they began to experiment in other industries. Between 1963 and 1968, Nintendo set up a taxi company, a hotel chain, a TV network, and a food company.
Finally, in 1974, Nintendo entered the video-gaming industry and today they’re third most valuable listed company in Japan.

Ukulele Underground has become one of the top ukulele sites on the web.  I guess it shouldn't surprise us that Ukulele Underground started as a very different enterprise.  Ryan Esaki, one of the founders of UU, was kind enough to sit down and answer some questions about how it all started and where it's all heading.  Hope you enjoy this interview!

Q: Tell us the UU story.  How did it all begin?

A:  In 2006 I was working on Oahu as the New Media Director for a (now defunct) website called which was kind of like an internet portal for all things Hawaii. One of my jobs there was the develop a section of the site called iamhawaiiTV where we would showcase locally produced video content on the internet. One of the shows I really wanted to create was an ukulele instructional show since I already knew a very good ukulele player who just happened to be majoring in education. Aldrine and I had been playing music together since high school and he had just moved to Oahu to pursue his music career as well as going to school part time. I also knew a person who could film and edit the videos in Aaron who was recently graduated from college as well and also on Oahu. Aaron was my brother's best friend since preschool so I had known him forever too.  So I asked both of them to work together to put together some ukulele lessons for the site. IAHTV eventually launched with a bunch of shows I was able to wrangle together, but the ukulele lessons show was the only one that was really showing a lot of traction. This was when youtube was still independent and small so people were actually coming to our website to watch the videos on a crappy video player i coded and passing the links around on myspace and email. Eventually funding ran out for and the company pivoted to doing contract web development. Aaron then asked me about potentially creating our own website to continue doing the ukulele teaching online, for nothing else but to not abandon the few hundred people who were watching at After some initial hesitation, we launched the site with $300 and I left my job. The rest is history.

Q: Ukulele Underground has quickly become one of the top ukulele sites on the web.  At what point did you start to realize it was turning into something big?

A: It didn't feel that quick for us. like I said, we've been doing this since 2006. :) The thing that made us decide we were in it for the long haul was our first tour to California in 2008. Considering how low our membership was and how broke we were at the time, we actually had no business traveling but we didn't know any better. The turn out was great for all the events (there are videos on youtube if you search Ukulele Underground Cali Tour 08). Seeing people stream in wearing Ukulele Underground T-shirts and being able to meet and put faces to people we only knew as online usernames and avatars for the first time is something I'll never forget.

Q: Aldrine has sort of become the face of Ukulele Underground.  Now's your chance to embarrass him.  Tell us something about Aldrine that we don't know.

A: If you listen to our podcast (which we are bringing back this year!) you'll hear a lot of embarrassing things about Aldrine. He's the first to admit his follies which is part of his charm.

Q: Are there any big plans for UU going forward?  Anything "top secret" that I might be able to pry out of you?  :)

A: We're working on a few pretty cool ideas. Our core mission has always been the same to help more people learn to enjoy music through the ukulele. You probably know it yourself that music is more special when you're able to experience it by doing rather than just listening. We're always trying to help more people experience those highs of playing music.

Q: A lot of people are picking up the ukulele these days and thankfully they have a resource like Ukulele Underground to help them get going.  What advice do you have for those just starting down the ukulele path?

A: We have a lot of great resources for beginners in our UU+ service. You can read the comments, beginners love the course. Shameless promotion aside, there are a lot of great resources out there to learn the ukulele, so much more than when we first started, and even more so than when we were learning how to play back in the 90s. Uke players got it good these days.

Q: One final question - coffee or tea?

A: Aldrine drinks tea, Aaron and I are water drinkers.

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