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Playing "Billionaire" for the Billionaires: A Violinist's Ironic Wink

"Now it's kind of a joke -- you always need a private violinist on a jet."

Asa Mathat

Gabi Holzwarth, a onetime street-busker violinist who is now a regular performer at Silicon Valley tech parties, played her interpretation of Travie McCoy’s hit “Billionaire” for the crowd at the Code Conference in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif., today.

The chorus to the song, which famously featured Bruno Mars:

I wanna be a billionaire so fucking bad (so bad)
Buy all of the things I never had (buy everything, ha ha)
Uh, I wanna be on the cover of Forbes magazine
Smiling next to Oprah and the queen (what up, Oprah)

Holzwarth said she chose the song for her conference performance as a wink to the immense wealth creation — and ambition — she has seen in the tech world.

“It feels like literally everyone is becoming a billionaire. And they’re great, awesome people, but it’s like, wow, what is going on?” Holzwarth said in an interview before the performance. “I’ve played my violin on a private jet twice. Now it’s kind of a joke — you always need a private violinist on a jet.”

Two years ago, Holzwarth, 24, from Redwood City, Calif., began playing violin on the street and in subways, while also working in sales for the San Jose Earthquakes soccer team. After finding some success with her tip-cup take, she quit her day job.

“Maybe it was a quarter-life crisis, but I ended up making quite a bit of money per hour,” said Holzwarth, who has been playing since she was 3 years old. “And I studied it. I took it seriously. You would think it would be better in front of a fancy store, but I noticed if I was on University Avenue in front of a CVS, everyone will give you money.”

She took her violin — a 1924 Alexander Hume — and played for two hours on Mother’s Day, ending up with enough money to buy a Kindle for her mom. On Christmas Eve, she played for 90 minutes and made $500.

She then started to get invitations to play private parties, many of them for tech executives. Brian Pawlowski, SVP at NetApp, hired Holzwarth after seeing her play outside Trader Joe’s in Palo Alto. Shervin Pishevar, a well-connected venture capitalist, found her on University Avenue.

Since then, she has played for BitTorrent, NetApp, Samsung, LinkedIn and Google. She even played a duet with Snoop Dogg at a Munchery party. And Pishevar introduced Holzwarth to her boyfriend, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick.

For her Code Spotlight performance, Holzwarth bought a skirt at the resort and converted it into a strapless dress. She had never performed “Billionaire” for a crowd before, but she said it seemed perfect for the conference.

“It’s all about the billionaire lifestyle,” she said. “It’s good for people to think about it.”

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