There’s a great article in The Economist about management lessons derived from the rock world. I think the study of bands’ management styles really does give useful insights into creativity and venture creation — this is a topic I covered in Lean Media, especially with discussions about the rise of Led Zeppelin in the late 60s, but also with examples from other musical groups, including Michael Jackson, producer L.A. Reid, and The Who.
Why does music provide such a rich vein of study? Bands (more than most startups) represent an almost ideal opportunity to have a balance of complementary job responsibilities; it’s then up to the members (or leader[s]) to creatively optimize the output, including song creation, live performances, recording, fan outreach, marketing, etc.
One area where things get interesting is when professional management gets involved. I was intrigued by that part in the Economist article about the grizzled manager Elliot Roberts telling Tom Petty to put his foot down and take full control of the band, and the repercussions that followed. This manager cut his teeth working with Joni Mitchell and Neil Young, perhaps the two most mercurial and insistent creative forces of the late 60s rock scene. It’s interesting to think what would have happened had Petty hired someone else who had a different perspective on creative control, although over the long run the Heartbreakers stuck with Petty until his death two years ago.
Another area that fascinates me is when things go wrong, and how these entities adjust. The scene in Bohemian Rhapsody where Freddie Mercury splits with the record exec who doesn’t like opera is fictional, but a true story that is even more bitter is the split with Queen’s early manager Norman Sheffield, a former drummer and later founder of the UK’s first Apple dealership. Listen to the first track off the album Bohemian Rhapsody, written by Mercury, “Death on Two Legs,” probably the ultimate rock diss track. It’s so powerful and bitter. It amazes me they didn’t try to work it into the movie, although that may relate to the fact that it is unfamiliar to most audiences, probably because radio was reluctant to play it back in the day.
A third topic is scaling the business. I’ve written about Led Zeppelin in the past and believe the band was the ultimate rock startup: A talented creative team that clicked, an experienced pro (former Yardbirds guitarist Jimmy Page) leading the way, using audience feedback cycles to help shape the first songs before they entered the studio, and management that didn’t try to mess with the creative core.
Manager Peter Grant was a fearsome character, but only focused on the business end (especially touring) and let Page lead the way in the studio and on stage. Because Led Zep was bootstrapped and didn’t have a record deal when they started, they didn’t have some record executive trying to call the shots in the studio and they worked quickly. Inception was in August 1968 and the release of the first album took place in January of the following year. Led Zeppelin II was similarly lean, recorded while they toured. Four of their first five albums were certified RIAA “Diamond” albums, each selling more than 10 million copies which I think may be a record.
Yet by the mid-70s Led Zeppelin really bogged down. They started living the rock star life, and were doing massive tours that sucked the energy out of the band. Physical Graffiti took something like 18 months to produce (yes, it was a double album, but still). By the late 70s, Page and Bonham had serious substance abuse problems and the creative mantle passed to Jones and Plant. The band folded after Bonham died in 1980.