Entrepreneurs

Meet SpaceX's first passenger — a billionaire rock musician who got his start selling CDs via snail mail

Japanese billionaire entrepreneur Yusaku Maezawa speaks at SpaceX's headquarters in Hawthorne, California. 
Michael Sheetz | CNBC

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk says the first passenger on a private space flight around the moon will be a Japanese billionaire who also happens to be a rock musician and art collector.

Yusaku Maezawa is the founder of Zozotown, Japan's biggest fashion retail website. He's Japan's 18th-richest person, according to Forbes, which estimates his net worth at $2.9 billion.

Maezawa, 42, is paying an undisclosed amount of money to be the first commercial passenger to fly around the moon on SpaceX's Big Falcon Rocket (BFR), the company announced via webcast on Monday evening. The mission is scheduled to launch in 2023, and Maezawa is also paying for the fares of up to eight other passengers — all artists, who the billionaire says will create works of art reflecting their time in space.

"Ever since I was a kid, I have loved the moon. It's always there and continues to inspire humanity," Maezawa said on Monday.

Musk tweeted a photo of himself with Maezawa at the announcement:

So, who is Maezawa? Turns out being SpaceX's first tourist is not the only interesting thing about him.

Growing up near Tokyo, Maezawa attended a prestigious high school, where he took up drumming and formed a hardcore punk band, Switch Style, which released its own EP album in 1993 while Maezawa was still in school.

Maezawa decided he was not interested in a traditional career after he constantly saw "salarymen" (Japan's white-collar workers) looking miserable on his commute to school. "Looking at the gloomy salarymen on the train every day, I thought, 'I never want to be like them,'" Maezawa said in a June interview.

Instead he skipped college and headed to the United States for a brief stint with his girlfriend at the time, who was studying abroad in California. While in the U.S., Maezawa obsessively collected American music that was not widely available in Japan; his tastes leaned toward America's hardcore punk scene of the 1980s, including bands like Anthrax, Biohazard and the Dead Kennedys.

While frequenting music festivals in the U.S. Maezawa realized the business opportunity in selling music merchandise, like CDs and band T-shirts.

In 1995, he returned to Japan with his collection of American music and an idea to import CDs and vinyl records of his favorite bands from the U.S. to sell in his home country. "I wanted to share my favorite music with everybody," Maezawa told Forbes in 2011.

Maezawa started a mail-order business out of his home in Japan, making a catalog of items like CDs, records and band-related merchandise. He worked from his kitchen table, packing and shipping orders himself, he told Forbes.

He balanced the mail-order business with his music — he was again playing shows with his band, Switch Style, which released full albums in 1997 and 1998. Maezawa told Forbes that he didn't mind splitting his time, "because I didn't really think I was in the retail trade," he says. "I was in the music business, and I was happy with it."  (There appear to still be some videos of the band on Youtube.)

The business started out small, but by 1998, Maezawa had built up enough customers to hire 10 employees. He officially launched the company as Start Today — taken from an album by the New York hardcore punk band Gorilla Biscuits — and in 2000 he launched the company's first website.

VIDEO1:2601:26
Here's what it will be like to travel to Mars in Elon Musk's spaceship

Also in 2000, Maezawa's band, Switch Style, signed with the record label BMG Japan. The band released another album that year, and another the following year, but he eventually grew tired of repetitive routine of touring and recording with the band. "This is the same as being a salaryman," he says he remembers thinking at the time.

After 2001, Maezawa focused solely on Start Today, which continued growing, eventually launching the Zozotown apparel website in 2004. Maezawa decided to branch out into fashion after he noticed that his Start Today employees always wore trendy clothing to work, and he figured hip apparel would also appeal to the company's customers.

Zozotown took off to the point that Maezawa shuttered the music arm of Start Today in 2005, two years before taking the company public. He told the Japanese publication President in 2014 that some of the hardcore punk music Start Today sold was "not suitable for the company image in going public."

Today, Start Today has over 900 employees and the company is valued at more than $7.5 billion, with revenue of over $670 million in 2017.

Maezawa's business started with his music collection, and he says he tends to "buy things on impulse" based on what he's passionate about, like music. He believes that following your passion will ultimately lead to success. "I find that if I pursue my interest, then money follows," he told Christie's in 2017. "I believe that the pursuit of one's personal interests has to come before pursuing money."

Along the way, Maezawa has expanded beyond collecting music to collecting art, paying a record $110.5 million for a painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat at Sotheby's in 2017. The billionaire's art collection also includes multi-million dollar works by artists like Jeff Koons and Alexander Calder.

Now, Maezawa's latest step into the art world takes the form of an intergalactic art project he's calling "#dearmoon," where the artists he will invite on the SpaceX moon flight will create works of art inspired by the experience.

While Maezawa has not yet chosen the artists he will take on the SpaceX moon flight, he said he will look for "some of Earth's greatest talents," including painters, musicians, film directors and fashion designers.

"People are creative and have a great imagination. We all have the ability to dream dreams that have never been dreamt, to sing songs that have never been sung, to paint that which has never been seen before," Maezawa wrote on a website dedicated to the "#dearmoon" project. "I hope that this project will inspire the dreamer within each of us."

Don't Miss:

Elon Musk: Starting SpaceX and Tesla were 'the dumbest things to do'

Valedictorian Jeff Bezos said he wanted to build 'space hotels and colonies' in his 1982 high school graduation speech

Like this story? Subscribe to CNBC Make It on YouTube!

VIDEO1:0501:05
Elon Musk reveals his plan to send passengers anywhere on Earth in under 60 minutes, for the price of a plane ticket
Japanese billionaire entrepreneur Yusaku Maezawa speaks at SpaceX's headquarters in Hawthorne, California. 
Michael Sheetz | CNBC
make it

Stay in the loop

Sign Up

About Us

Learn More

Follow Us

CNBC.COM