I’ve been running my business for 30 years, but before that, I learned how to run a rock band. No, I wasn’t in a famous band.
In fact, I often tell people that my songs sold “well under one million copies.” But, for better or worse, I learned business from those days in the band.
In a rock band, you have a group of guys who have varying talents and equally varied motivations. You can’t play hardball without alienating one or more of them. You quickly learn that your lead guitarist may be great at a guitar solo, but he isn’t great at singing. Your lead singer may have a great range, but if you have him sing too many songs in a row, his voice will wear out. Your drummer may have the most talent in the band, but he may be reluctant to do anything but play drums. This is life in a rock band. Oh, and by the way, you have to motivate the guys to practice and play in some lousy conditions, for very little money.
I dealt with all of this and more. My band, LaBov & Beyond, was originally named after me. But soon I heard many of my band mates complaining that the name was restrictive, so we went about trying to find a new name. Naming a rock band is similar to naming your child. There are endless options and discussions, and no clear right or wrong. For example, famous musician Lionel Ritchie and his band couldn’t come to an agreement and finally decided to open up the dictionary and pick whatever word one of the members pointed to. Unfortunately, that was “commode.” No band wants to be called “The Commodes.” So, they picked the next word and “The Commodores” was created.
One day, I received an emergency phone call (the operator actually interrupted the call I was on — pretty exciting) from a record producer in Los Angeles. He told me our songs were great and he wanted to hear more of them. He told me, “Put your songs in an envelope and mark ‘urgent’ on it so it gets my attention.” All of a sudden, it occurred to me that I had found the perfect name for the band: “Mark Urgent.” The guys in the band loved it because it sounded mysterious, like a secret agent or something. They loved it most of all because it didn’t sound like someone’s name . . . or at least my name.
The reason I mention some of this is that a business has the same challenges. You have people who have great talents in specific areas. As the leader, you must identify those areas and keep those talented people away from areas where they are not so talented. You can’t restrict them without the danger of getting less of them and less of their heart and soul.
One thing I apply most from the old days in the band is that whether it was The Beatles, The Police or Mark Urgent, everyone, anyone, might just come up with a great performance. The Beatles had three songwriters who could write great songs. They all contributed ideas to the arrangements. The band didn’t begin and end with John Lennon or Paul McCartney. Ringo Starr contributed a few songs, sang a number of them and even helped write a few lyrics for some of the songs that he wasn’t officially credited on. It didn’t matter to him. He was in the band and he wanted them to be the best they could be. And their number three songwriter, George Harrison, ended up writing one of the most popular songs in history, “Something.” That was a real band.
In our businesses, we have to allow for anyone to come up with the big idea, regardless of what position they’re in. It’s tempting to assume that only people in the creative department are creative, but the best companies inspire everyone to contribute. I’m kind of an “idea junkie.” I listen to any idea, every recommendation, because I don’t know where the next breakthrough may come from.
Part of the approach that anyone can be part of a great idea is another rock and roll aspect: collaboration. In jazz, they call it improvisation. In rock, we called it “jamming.” It starts out with a guy playing a bass riff, then the drummer starts messing around with it, the guitarist plays on top of it and maybe the singer starts singing a melody. Most of the time, that’s where it ends — after just a few minutes of playing around. But once in a while, there’s magic. Something clicks, something sounds incredible, and all of a sudden, you have the genesis of a great song. Here’s a secret of jamming: Many of the great song ideas or cool riffs came about from “mistakes.” The guitarist played on the wrong fret or the keyboardist’s fingers hit the wrong keys, but instead of sounding bad, it was exciting.
I remember when, in the mid-1970s, The Rolling Stones were getting “old” — Mick Jagger was turning 30. The press asked him how long they were going to stay together, because, after all, you can’t play rock and roll when you’re ancient. His answer was that they would keep playing as long as it was fun. He’s closing in on 70 years old now and they’re currently preparing for their next tour.
I think that offers a good insight into why most of us long for retirement. What’s exciting about going into work every day and being forced to do the same stuff? Who doesn’t get tired of hearing the same ideas over and over again? Where’s the thrill in not allowing others to shake it up and offer up new thinking? How often in business are we willing to “jam”? How often are we open to a mistake that actually could be a breakthrough? How often are we willing to allow our receptionist or our controller express an idea they have?
If you run a rock band or a business that has endless possibilities for fresh thinking and is constantly collaborating or jamming, then you’ll probably never tire of it and neither will your audience or customers.
Sure, business is full of balance sheets, regulations, compliance, regulations and analysis. And much of that is necessary. But, if that’s the heart of the company, then you’re missing the magic. And you can’t predict just where or from whom that magic will come. And what’s more fun or exciting than that? Rock on!