Business Lessons From Rock Stars

Lesson # 1: Passion Often Trumps Knowledge in Creating World Famous Brands

What did Woody Guthrie, Elvis Presley, John Lennon, Jimi Hendrix, Marvin Gaye, Metallica, Lionel Richie, Kurt Cobain, Bruce Springsteen, and Michael Jackson all have in common? Not one of them read musical notation. They just loved to make great music.

I once heard Bono claim in an interview, “we wrote that song on two strings.” He is often heard saying that he and his band mates didn't know why they got signed or became so popular. He says, “It wasn't because we were so great on our instruments because we couldn't play them.”

In an interview on Youtube, David Bowie talks about himself and Brian Eno and how they worked with synthesizers. Supposedly, he and Mr. Eno threw the user’s manual away and just played with the instrument until they got what they believed were interesting sounds out of them. What Bowie calls, “crackles and burps and the most extraordinary sounds.”

So the question is: What are you passionate about? How can you turn your passion into a business that turns a profit?

Lesson #2: Forget the Rules. Make Something People Want.

When Metallica began making music there wasn't even a genre for them. No one knew what to call their music. The entire hard rock industry was going toward glam so they could cash in on the MTV craze, but Metallica went in a different direction.

They toured relentlessly because they figured out quickly they were not going to get on the radio or MTV. The only way the band’s product would get to the people who were looking for it was if the band took it to them personally. So they did. Again, they had to make up their own rules because there were not many clubs in the world who hosted bands who played this type of music. They literally had to create a market that never existed before.

Guns N’ Roses did essentially the same thing. They weren't glam rock because they were not ‘poppy’ enough and they wouldn't wear make-up and women’s clothing. They weren't “Speed Metal” because they didn't play as heavy or fast as Metallica, Megadeath, Pantera, or Anthrax. They sounded like classic rock when classic rock wasn't cool. They didn't play the feel good party music like Poison, Ratt, Bon Jovi, or Van Halen. GNR just didn't fit anywhere. They swore on their recordings, they were aggressive, and morose. They toured for thirteen months straight, gaining new fans in every city, before they had a breakthrough video with “Sweet Child O Mine.”

Then came Nirvana. They turned the music industry on its head inside of a month of their first video release. All the glam rock bands were done (At least for a while). The industry was going in a specific direction. Nirvana went their own way. They were a three piece band. They tuned way down. They played aggressive or depressing songs. It was difficult to understand the lyrics in their songs. The melodies weren't pretty. Neither were the guys in the band. Music company executives asked, “Punk? Who plays punk anymore?” Nirvana did. And they didn't even follow the rules of the punk rock bands that came before them. They were fine with press coverage, tons of television play, radio air time, boatloads of money, and influence. That is not what punk bands were supposed to be about. Nirvana didn't care. It was their world. They played by their rules.

Lesson #3: Repurpose. Remix. And Re-Brand.

Bob Dylan and Led Zeppelin were both famous for ‘stealing’ from their influences. While neither one of these admits to the stealing, Keith Richards is open about it.

The best example I have ever seen of this concept is by the group The Axis of Awesome, of Youtube fame. These three young men walk the audience through the most common chord progression for a hit song in modern music. The chord progression, as expressed in the Nashville Number System is: One, Five, Six, Four. The video by Axis of Awesome is brilliantly informative. It is also hilarious! See their fantastic video about THE four chord progression here:

*Caution: There is some profanity in this video.*

In the spirit of capitalism you can download “4 Chords” and the AOA’s albums at:

If all of those great songs are made from the same musical chord progression, what can you find in your current environment that you can repurpose, remix and then re-brand? This is a simple concept that takes only creativity and thoughtfulness to implement well. These folks were creative enough to make this same chord progression sound fresh, and new. When you repurpose, remix, and re-brand something, make sure you are just as creative.

When I was teaching music I would allow my students to bring in songs they wanted to learn. After teaching them to play the song, I would often ask my students, ‘How would you say that?’ ‘How would you have written that song?’ ‘What would you have said differently?’ I believed my job as a teacher of music was not just to teach students to play other people’s work well, but also to learn how to express their own feelings and ideas. I was teaching them how to find their own voice through music.

Questions to help refine your creative voice in business:

What are you passionate about? If there was one thing in the world you had the power to change, what would it be? What message do you want to deliver to the masses? Great. Get moving and figure it out as you go.

What rules really chap the inside of your cranium? How can you break them in a way that is healthy and will impact people who will care? How can you deliver your product directly to the people it will impact most?

What is something you use or see every day that you can improve? What product, service, or idea has had a tremendous impact on your life? How would you do it differently? How can you do it better? How can you add more value and have it cost less?

Think like a rock star. How can you repurpose, remix, and re-brand it to change the world?

Have fun.

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