Sunday, March 17, 2013
From Groupon to Stone Temple Pilots: What Bands Can Learn from Teams about Dealing with Difficult Leaders
AT 2:57 pm
Groupon’s board of directors recently fired their founder, lead innovator, and CEO. The day before, the rock band Stone Temple Pilots ousted their founder, lead singer, and principle songwriter Scott Weiland. Weiland’s history of drug abuse, arrests, fights, and unreliability suggests that, like Groupon’s board, STP deemed that their leader could no longer effectively perform his role.
Scott Weiland. Time to update the resume
Among rock bands, problematic lead singers are known to suffer from Lead Singer Disease (or LSD), a condition that develops when the leader of a band decides that he or she is more important than the rest of its members. The lead singer begins exercising greater control, acting like a jerk/diva, taking credit for the group’s work, and expecting greater relative compensation.
The band is left with two options. The first is to tolerate the afflicted singer. As Stanford professor Bob Sutton outlined in his book The No Asshole Rule, a team dealing with an important but difficult member can adopt a positive outlook. This is what Guns N’ Roses original drummer Steven Adler did, admitting in his book My Appetite for Destruction that he felt pretty lucky to have a talent like Axl singing in his band. Another tactic is to develop emotional detachment. Though many musicians end up using drugs or alcohol to do this, others detach by developing hobbies or side projects. Another strategy is to focus on small wins, like George Harrison getting a song or two on each Beatles album or Keith Richards making little digs at Mick Jagger in his memoir, Life. Finally, Sutton argues that you can limit your exposure to the offending team member, for example by not socializing with them beyond work-related interaction, and creating a buffer of positive relationships, which is why many musicians travel with an entourage.
But when LSD is accompanied by unreliable performance, some bands make a bold move: they fire their singer. This is what Van Halen, Black Sabbath, Pink Floyd, and, recently, Stone Temple Pilots have done. What was particularly ballsy in these cases is that the ousted singers were also founding members and lead visionaries. Scott Weiland couldn’t believe this was even possible. “Not sure how I can be “terminated” from a band that I founded, fronted and co-wrote many of its biggest hits,” he observed in an official statement.
But what Stone Temple Pilots were in fact doing was taking a page out of entrepreneurship 101. In the world of startups, companies in which founders stay on to manage the organization once it’s grown – like Facebook, Oracle, or Microsoft – are the exception, not the rule. Most founders get the boot. The skills it takes to conceive, garner resources for, and launch a young company are different from those required to manage and adapt a growing company. When the founder’s performance as CEO declines, it’s time to move on. Which is what happened at Groupon.
Andrew Mason. “As CEO, I am accountable.”
In many ways, Groupon’s Andrew Mason, a punk rocker in his college days, was also a rock star, with an appropriately sensationalistic public persona. While still in his twenties he was touted as an “overnight success,” having founded the fastest growing company in web history, and was known for his quirky sense of humor and publicity stunts. But since Groupon was not doing well, firing Mason probably seemed like a good move.
Is it as good a move for Stone Temple Pilots? Probably not. Bands rarely recover from the departure, whether voluntary or involuntary, of their primary creative leader and front person. Pink Floyd had a good run with their post-Waters Momentary Lapse of Reason, but they had to hire professional songwriters to help them out and the result, though commercially successful, was no Dark Side of the Moon. Without a creative leader, they petered out. Van Halen and Black Sabbath both ended up inviting back their original singers, who returned sober and humbled. Their experience suggests that terminations work best when they end up actually being interventions.
Copyright Ruth Blatt. For more on Lead Singer Disorder as narcissism, see my post in Psychology Today.
Wednesday, March 13, 2013
Advice from New Order’s Peter Hook on Doing Your Team’s Work Without Them
AT 12:47 pm
In the January 19, 2013 issue, British music weekly NME wrote some tongue-in-cheek advice from New Order’s estranged bassist Peter Hook on how to tour your band’s classic album when the band actually hates you. The advice is quite good if anyone wants to take what their team did and do it on their own (provided there isn’t a non-compete clause barring it). Here’s what NME had to say:
1. Embrace the positive. Statements such as “Great songs need celebrating” and “It actually feels like new music” mean that Hook actually feels good about the work he is doing. That kind of enthusiasm can sometimes seep out of a team, but is much needed if one is going to go out there and do it on one’s own.
2. Add value. Whereas “The so-called New Order,” as Hook refers to his former band, is only playing the band’s greatest hits, Hook is offering some new material, an added bonus for the audience. This is important for anyone moving beyond their team. You need to show that you offer something they don’t.
Peter Hook: Reducing New Order to the Bass Element
3. Do your research. Why did the audience love you in the first place? Hook says, “I’ve been watching old New Order on YouTube and it’s amazing how punk we were – the setlist changed every night, the vocals changed, the lyrics changed.” It pays off to think hard about what made the team great and try to recreate the magic in your own way.
4. Return to old methods. Hook is using a backing track just like in the early days of New Order. Compared to his more recent work with the band The Light, this is hard. Challenging yourself to work outside of your comfort zone and revisiting beginner methods can be a great way to bolster creativity.
5. Embrace competition. “Competition makes life healthy, doesn’t it?” observes Hook when reflecting on the comparisons he’s likely to get to New Order. “It stops you getting complacent.” Truer words were never spoken. Competition is there for us to rise to the challenge it brings.
6. Have Empathy. Being in the shoes of New Order singer Bernard Sumner makes Hook appreciate him in ways he did not when he was in the band: “If he was half as frightened as I was fronting [new band] The Light when he started singing in New Order then I probably could have been a little bit more supportive, but you always learn these things too late.” Being on his own makes Hook appreciate his old band mates more than he did when he was working with them.
So whether you are a dentist leaving your practice to set up your own or a software engineer leaving a large firm to be the next Mark Zuckerberg, follow Peter Hook’s advice and you are sure to succeed.
Wednesday, February 27, 2013
The Benefits of Fingers in Multiple Pies
AT 9:59 am
Rashida Jones, the Harvard grad who Rolling Stone Magazine called “The coolest girl in Hollywood,” is a movie star (Celeste and Jesse Forever), TV star (Parks and Rec), screenwriter (co-wrote Celeste), and sometime singer (e.g., with Maroon 5). She said her dad, Quincy Jones, told her to be good at more than one thing. He should know, he produced Michael Jackson’s Thriller, produced the TV series Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and won Academy Awards for his film scores. She told Rolling Stone, “There’s something about splitting your energy that takes the pressure off one thing, and it allows you to create something on your own.”
As I argue in my recent article in theatlantic.com, keeping multiple talents and activities alive is a good survival strategy because it buffers entertainers from potential loss of interest from their audiences. If one avenue fails, they have other talents they can develop into careers. Like the rapper Gerardo, who, after everyone forgot about his hit “Rico Suave,” found a successful career as an A&R (artists and repertoire) executive at Interscope Records.
Gerardo, the Deal Maker.
Developing other talents and skills also keeps artists tied to multiple communities, where they can get support and career opportunities. And it’s a way to keep a positive sense of self in the face of a setback. When people define themselves in more than one way, they are not putting all of their identity eggs in one basket. If one avenue doesn’t pan out, they have other things to do and other ways to feel good about themselves.
Alternate activities also keep artists from getting bored, especially if they’ve been locked into a particular niche. That’s why when Madonna gets tired of singing about sex and partying, or more recently, shooting her exes, she makes a documentary about orphans in Malawi.
Monday, May 21, 2012
Aim to Succeed then Fear to Fail
AT 2:34 pm
When bands start out, they usually share a common goal: to make it. BIG. This orientation toward success can be seen in terms of what psychologist E. Tory Higgins coined “promotion focus,” the focus on accomplishing desired goals. When people are promotion focused, they zero in on what they are trying to achieve. They take actions toward attaining these achievements. They practice countless hours, perform hundreds of shows a year, write song after song, tour in the most dismal conditions. They put in all the hard work so that they can reach a wider audience. In almost every rock memoir or biography you see the strong drive behind the hard work and sacrifice. The aspiring musician sees his goal every time he sneaks into a sold out arena show or catches a glimpse of his favorite rock hero driving off in a limo surrounded by beautiful adoring fans. That’s going to be me. I’m going to be a star. And then they go back to their two mind-numbing jobs and practice all night until their fingers bleed.
For some artists, the dream comes true. They make it. And then something strange happens. They become “prevention focused”. Whereas promotion focus is all about attaining their desired goals, prevention focus is all about avoiding their biggest fear. Now that they’ve tasted success, the adoration of the fans and critics, the attention on the magazine covers and MTV airplay, they become afraid of losing it. What if the next album flops? What if they say we’re losing it? Their reputation is at stake, their newly ballooned lifestyle is at stake, and the own identity as stars is at stake. Most artists don’t respond to their success with a blasé, “I can’t wait to work my way down to playing state fairs.” Usually, they want to keep reaching higher and higher.
Prince. The View from the Top
But when you’ve reached as high as it gets, the only way to go is down. Take Prince’s response to the news that he had, at the age of twenty-six, a single (“Let’s Go Crazy”), and album (Purple Rain), and a movie (Purple Rain) all at Number 1 on the Billboard and box-office charts: “We looked around and I knew we were lost. There was no place to go but down. You can never satisfy the need after that.” And so the worries begin. How to avoid the worst fate: oblivion.
Being promotion versus prevention focus has big implications for how you act and how you feel about what happens to you. Instead of doing their best, bands worry about not messing up. When they’re worried about messing up, they take fewer risks. They’re more conservative, maybe repeating the template that had led to the success they are now so eager to maintain. And when success happens, the feeling is no longer euphoria. There is no “Ohmygod, our song is on the radio!” Rather, the predominant feeling is relief. Phew. We managed to ward off failure. This time.
Whereas bands starting out fantasize about success and anticipate its various pleasures and riches, bands that become prevention focused anticipate and worry about the pain of failure.
Beastie Boys. Not the Same Old Bullshit
Some bands, however, stay promotion focused even after success. Take the Beastie Boys, a band that has suffered a great loss with the recent death of Adam Yauch. The Beastie Boys’ debut album, License to Ill, was the first hip-hop record to top the Billboard charts and was, at the time, the fastest selling debut record of all time. It eventually sold over 9 million copies in the United States. When a first album performs this well, many bands would have become prevention-focused.
But the Beasties accepted that it would be downhill from there, commercially speaking, and proceeded to make one innovative album after another. Their next album, Paul’s Boutique, was the first of its kind, built on hundreds of samples used to an extent never tried before. The album became a standard setter in terms of the musicality and complexity that hip-hop can achieve. For the following album, Check Your Head, they added funk to their hard-core and hip-hop repertoires. By the time they made their next album, Ill Communication, they turned to metal rap, pioneering the genre later exemplified by bands such as Limp Bizkit and Korn. Next came Hello Nasty, which was the first time and last time a single group won a Grammy in both Rap category (for the song “Intergalactic”) and the Alternative category (for the album). The next album? 2007’s The Mix Up won the Grammy for Best Pop Instrumental Album.
Clearly the Beastie Boys stayed promotion focused. They kept innovating, not seeming to care about commercial success. For example, when their record company complained that Paul’s Boutique did not have any commercial singles, they shrugged it off and kept the album as it is. Their goals were artistic, not commercial, and they did not seem phased at never recreating the commercial success of their first album.
Metallica and Lou Reed's Lulu and the two copies that sold.
Other bands have tried to change directions, but were not so resilient when their attempt flopped. The example that most immediately comes to mind is Metallica’s dalliance with the avante garde, Lulu, in collaboration with Lou Reed, which spawned some of the most cruel reviews I have ever read. One reviewer noted the album is such a failure it doesn’t even deserve the title of the Worst Album of All Time.
Metallica’s response? The new album, according to guitarist Kirk Hammett, will sound similar to their 1991 eponymous album, better known as The Black Album. The Black Album of course is the band’s best selling album, selling more than 25 million copies worldwide. He told Rolling Stone magazine, “The stuff we’re coming up with is more groove-oriented, a heavier version of what we were doing in the early 90s.” And just to be on the safe side, Metallica will spend the summer playing The Black Album live, in its entirety.
Wednesday, May 2, 2012
I Don’t Like Talking to Journalists… Unless I Have Something to Say to My Band Mates
AT 9:42 am
Direct communication can be hard, especially when it comes to touchy topics. So sometimes bands resort to using the press to have the ‘difficult conversations’ they can’t seem to pull off face to face.
Take Keith Richards apologizing to Mick Jagger to the camera in a forthcoming documentary in honor of The Rolling Stones’ 50th anniversary. Apparently Jagger was offended by some disparaging comments Richards made about him in the book. In my opinion, the number of negative comments was far fewer than the number of positive comments (see number 10 in the Top 10 Management Secrets from Keith Richards), but the media really had a heyday with the negative ones, blew them way out of proportion. Mick Jagger was embarrassed, as suddenly people were discussing Richards’ negative comments about his singing, dancing, and even the size of his penis.
Jagger and Richards, Reconciled
We already know how much the media loves it when band members fight, so that’s not surprising. What’s actually cool is that Keith conformed to the 5-to-1 rule identified by marriage researcher John Gottman. Gottman found that in long-lasting and happy marriages, the number of positive comments is at least five times the number of negative comments. Other researchers have confirmed that this finding also holds in work teams. Because each negative comment or criticism is so hurtful, it takes 5 positive comments to neutralize it. So a good marriage, family, or team isn’t one where there is no negativity whatsoever but one where there is so much more positivity relative to the negativity. In other words, for every “that sounded lame” there are five “that sounded awesome”s.
But the media overlooked the love and blew up the petty jabs, and so Keith Richards found himself in a little situation with his mate Mick Jagger. How to clean up the mess? In front of the cameras of course! Richards said, “As far as the book goes, it was my story and it was very raw, as I meant it to be, but I know that some parts of it and some of the publicity really offended Mick and I regret that.”
He also admitted that he and Mick had talked about the issue in the past year, which is good to know. Maybe this bit of a crisis was what they needed to start talking again. Jagger was, in fact, sitting right next to Richards as he said this to the interviewer and had himself apologized for shoving Richards out of the business side of the Rolling Stones back in the 1980s. Jagger had found out just how badly Richards felt about this through Richards’ book.
So we have this situation where the Rolling Stones are using published books and filmed interviews to bring up some very touchy issues that they may not have been able to bring up otherwise. And that’s not such a terrible thing. It’s the reason people go to mediators and therapists. Sometimes it’s easier to speak to your band mate through someone else.
Moreover, stating something to your band mates publicly indicates a greater commitment to that statement. When you say something in public, this increases the visibility of what you said and makes it harder to retract it. Plus it puts on the pressure. If after this public apology Jagger still sabotages a 50th anniversary tour, he’ll be the one who looks bad. The public display of good will isn’t just about repairing the negative image of the band, it’s also a mechanism for keeping the conflict in check.
And of course a way to generate a buzz for the tour. After all, good bands play the media as well as their instruments.
Monday, April 2, 2012
Have a Good Fight
AT 11:28 am
As mentioned in my previous post, a key challenge for bands and other teams isn’t to avoid conflict altogether but to manage it effectively. Conflict is good for creativity. If all you have are yes-men, then your product will be as good as your own ideas, not better. As Neil Young told his producer David Briggs, “If you agreed with me all the time, there wouldn’t be any need for one of us. Guess which one?” (see Robert Sutton’s excellent article, “Why Innovation Happens When Happy People Fight”).
Other band leaders were not so aware of the benefits of conflict with those around them. Take Black Francis of the Pixies, or Roger Waters of Pink Floyd, or Joe Perry of Aerosmith, or Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones. When they got themselves some yes-men, the product just wasn’t as good.
So how do you maintain the benefits of conflict without suffering the costs? Here’s a paraphrasing of Intel’s “Constructive Confrontation” approach:
Do you have a problem with my haircut?
Address the problem directly with the person. Don’t just bitch to the press or your manager— face your teammate. Although sometimes it helps to have an external mediator, band members and other kind of teammates should be able to talk to each other directly about their problems and concerns. As reported in Bill Flanagan’s U2 at the End of the World, here’s U2’s Bono to drummer Larry Mullen, Jr. on his unwillingness to experiment and change, “You haven’t changed your haircut in ten years! Yes, I sometimes fail, but at least I’m willing to experiment.” Ouch. It hit the issue right on the spot though. And it worked. The result: Achtung Baby.
Keep it from getting personal by focusing on the task. Whereas in a business context, you can use facts and data to support your perspective, in creative contexts it’s harder to use objective criteria. What sounds great to one person may sound lame to another. Plus, people are emotionally invested in their ideas because of the close link between people’s work and their identity. So in bands it becomes really easy for a criticism of an idea to sound like a criticism of the person. And that’s what you want to avoid.
One strategy is for band members to focus on the sound, or the beat, or the vocals, or any other aspect of the work rather than the individual performing it. Here’s Metallica discussing a track in their movie, Some Kind of Monster. The band is working on the drum track, which Singer James Hetfield thinks should be simpler. Although they are anything but kind in their tone, they do focus on the sound, not the person producing it.
Hetfield: “I’m used to having the drummer do the beat part. You know what I mean? Holding it together.”
Drummer Lars Ulrich: “What I’m hearing is – Choose my words carefully here – [the singing is] pretty straightforward. And the guitar shit, it’s– You know, it’s a little stock. So I started trying to introduce some kind of edge to it on the drums.”
The conflict remained at the task level.
Keep the tone positive. Keeping the fun element helps protect the relationship and buffer some of the negativity that may otherwise accompany conflict. Bands and teams can use play, humor, pranks, jokes, and moderate partying to maintain positive energy in otherwise uncomfortable situations. For example, in a recorded meeting documented in David Browne’s Goodbye 20th Century, Sonic Youth eased the tension in an uncomfortable discussion with label head Paul Smith about finances, by using humor, subtle digs at each other, and ultimately, sharing a joint.
Confront problems right away. Don’t let issues simmer until it is too late. Here’s former Guns n’ Roses member Slash on the costs of not bringing up his concerns to Axl Rose: “As time went on, we developed a habit of appeasing him. If it wasn’t that big of a deal in the short run, we’d let him have whatever he wanted; we’d tell him what he wanted to hear. But it established a pattern in which he got used to getting what he wanted… We could tolerate a lot because we were so easygoing, but an unrecognized tension was building.” Things, of course, ended badly for Slash and Axl.
Tuesday, March 20, 2012
Aerosmith: The Prototypical Wreck Band. Or is it?
AT 11:45 am
A recent feature on 60 Minutes about Aerosmith portrayed the band in all of its glorious dysfunction. Guitarist Joe Perry making jokes that he would break singer Steven Tyler’s jaw, except that Steven needs it for singing. Steven supposedly getting hurt about it. Drummer Joey Kramer rolling his eyes at the notion that Aerosmith owes its success to Steven’s talent. Other band members calling Steven cruel and controlling. Interviewer Lara Logan lapped it up and pushed the conflict points. “Why are you rolling your eyes?”, “He needs his jaw for singing!”
Perry and Tyler: Feel the Tension
Being a “wreck band” is part of Aerosmith’s bad boy rock n’ roll image. They have set the template for countless other feuding bands, where members use the press as a forum for arguments and insults. Take Oasis, who are still bickering in the British music press. Many budding musicians drew their ideas about band dynamics from these types of exchanges. Unfortunately, their own bands are not around anymore.
But whereas Oasis were not bluffing in their dysfunction, Aerosmith are still together, 40 years into their careers. In fact, they are working on an album of new material. They are one of the most resilient bands in the history of rock and roll. They survived addiction and musical decline and managed to reinvigorate their career in their forties. Clearly they have some positive things going on that they are not sharing as eagerly (or that 60 Minutes is not as interested in). What’s their true secret? Now that would make for an interesting TV segment. Or business book!
“The relationship among these five guys was the foundation for everything. I mean, how many bands are still on top, with the same five guys, after so many years? It ain’t easy, and those relationships have to be nurtured–not exploited.” Joey Kramer, Aerosmith drummer, italics mine. As this quote suggests, Aerosmith very much nurtures its relationships, including going to therapy as a band and in pairs. Maybe it’s the press, not the relationships, that are being exploited.
Perry and Tyler: Feel the Love
Not that the conflict isn’t there. It’s just that the conflict may not be the whole story. Or that it co-mingles with the love and respect to fuel the energy of the band. Here’s Steven Tyler: “On tour [Joe Perry and I are] brothers, soul mates, but there’s always an underlying tension broken up by moments of ecstasy and periods of pure rage. Mutual animosity is a necessary part of a band’s chemistry. It’s all egos in a band, anyway. Would you want to be in a group who were all clones of yourself?”
Of course not. Just like you wouldn’t like to be in a work team in which people have the same skills, contacts, and other resources. In which people agree all the time. Diversity is good for the creativity of any team, and diversity inevitably comes with conflict. And of course there is competition. The key difference between “wreck bands” (or “wreck teams”) that implode and those that thrive is in how their conflict is handled, the extent to which the team members appreciate what each person contributes, and their willingness to communicate about their issues. To each other, not to reporters.
Wednesday, March 14, 2012
Symptoms of the Common Gold
AT 9:04 am
There are two things an entrepreneur needs to worry about: unexpected failure and unexpected success. Most of us worry plenty about failure, but when it comes to success, the approach tends to be, “Bring it on!”
What we don’t prepare for as well, in business or in rock bands, is just how much work it takes to be successful. Sometimes a gradual climb toward success is better than becoming an overnight sensation, because then the changes occur gradually. You can learn and adapt.
One entrepreneur I interviewed for my research about technology start ups had a great idea and a successful track record. Venture capitalists were knocking on his door, wanting in on whatever he was up to. There was funding, there was a market, and then it really took off. But before he knew it, demand overwhelmed capacity. Servers crashed, customers were enraged and then lost interest. His employees were demoralized by the customer complaints. Having hired too many people too fast, he didn’t have time to develop them, train them, or invest in the culture, and the environment was getting hectic. He was an overwhelmed mess.
Bands are usually thrilled to make it big – there is money and attention and they are reaching more and more people with their music. That’s the easy part to prepare for. But many musicians are ill prepared for the downsides. For example:
It can be overwhelming. Back in the early days, all the band had to do was write and perform. Not anymore. Now other people are dictating what the band should do with its time. There are obligations. Business decisions. Expectations. Meetings. Interviews. Radio promotions. Television appearances. As R.E.M.’s Bill Berry complained, success sucks because “it’s getting to the point where we have to make a lot of decisions every day.”
Moreover, much like the work overload experienced by the entrepreneur I interviewed, successful bands face enormous pressure to keep on performing no matter what. The fear is losing momentum, fan interest, and a lucrative revenue stream. For example, in the spring of 1966, Bob Dylan was visibly debilitated from his grueling tour schedule and controversy about his music. Much of the pressure to tour and do interviews came from Dylan’s manager at the time, Albert Grossman, rather than from Dylan himself. Likewise, when Jimi Hendrix became successful, he felt stifled by the demands of his increasingly elaborate organization. His cousin Diane Hendrix told biographer Charles Cross, “He was crying to my mom. He wanted out. He didn’t want to go back on the road.” But Jimi told her he had no choice: there were thirty people on his payroll who were counting on him for their livelihood.
Slash. Choosing to stay in
People like you because you’re famous. Here’s Slash on how his life changed after Guns ‘n Roses became successful: “When you start to get famous at all, a few typical things start happening: in Hollywood, if you’re out at a bar, everyone wants to buy you a drink; you can get into any club, whether you like it or not, you are suddenly a figure on the nightlife circuit. When that started happening to us, there was nothing less interesting that I could have imagined doing with my time. That Hollywood scene was the same old shit, and the more recognizable I was, the less I liked it. The amount of “dudes” who wanted to “party with me” had quadrupled, so I became entirely insular.”
Likewise, Michael Stipe has complained, “It’s kinda gross, what money does to you. Businessmen say hello to me in the street now. They acknowledge me when I go into a nice restaurant.”
It’s hard to know who your real friends are once you’re a celebrity, which is why a lot of people become more isolated the more successful they are.
At last there is money – to argue about. Before the band (or start up) was successful, the group split everything equally. Now that there is real money involved, often those who feel that their contribution is more important (song writer/s, lead singer or instrumentalist) want a bigger share of the royalties. When these conversations happen after success, it can be hurtful because the other band members feel that something is being taken away from them. Take Kurt Cobain redistributing song-writing credits after Nevermind took off. When the band signed their original publishing deal, Cobain had split songwriting royalties evenly with Novoselic and Grohl. After the record became successful, Cobain insisted on a 75/25 split on the music, with him getting 100 percent of the lyrics, effective retroactively. It may have made sense given the extent of his contribution, but it wasn’t what the others had signed up for. Although they agreed to the change, it didn’t foster any goodwill in the band.
Nirvana talk business
Several of the start ups I interviewed in my research had similar situations. When they started the company, it wasn’t worth anything, so there was nothing to distribute. Each member worked with an exaggerated sense of his or her own contribution. Once the money came in and it came time to discuss distribution, serious conflict ensued. The experienced entrepreneurs knew to have these conversations in advance.
It can get boring (see previous post). Here’s Deering Howe, friend of Jimi Hendrix, on the guitar hero’s disillusionment with his stature: “All his audiences wanted to hear were the four big songs that they knew, and Jimi wanted to play other stuff. Artistically, it was like he was trapped back on the Chitlin’ Circuit again, forced to play what someone else told him. He didn’t feel he could break free of that.”
This is why some bands will create a pseudonym so that they can play whatever they want and at smaller venues. They are recreating the experience of not being famous. Like Derek and the Dominoes, which started out as a way to hide Eric Clapton. Or Quasar, which is basically the Beastie Boys performing hardcore material in small venues.
Because of these potential downsides to fast success, some artists consciously try to slow down their rise. Patti Smith turned down a record contract following her immensely successful poetry reading, in which she was accompanied by Lenny Kaye. She writes in Just Kids, “I was bombarded with offers stemming from my poetry reading. Creem magazine agreed to publish a suite of my poems; there were proposed readings in London and Philadelphia; a chapbook of poems for Middle Earth Books; and a possible record contract with Steve Paul’s Blue Sky Records. At first this was flattering, and then seemed embarrassing… It came, I felt, too easy. I decided to back off.”
A guarded approach to rising fame and success is also good because you ease into the realization that “making it” doesn’t solve all of your problems. Which can be a letdown. As Ice T put it, “In my view, that’s why a lot of successful people commit suicide. Because when they finally make it big, get to this supposed finish line of fame and fortune, they look around and think: This is it? This is what I’ve been working for all these years? Fuck.”
Monday, March 12, 2012
Rock Bands Not Like Organizational Teams: Myth vs. Reality
AT 10:58 am
There are many ways in which rock bands and organizational teams are different, though on this blog I’ve been arguing that they are not as different as some people think. One myth I’ve discussed in previous entries is that rock bands [supposedly] do not take financial considerations into account in their decision-making. Today I’ll address another myth I’ve encountered, which is this: Organizational teams work within a stifling routine, whereas rock bands’ work is non-routine and improvisational. In other words, musicians work when the muse strikes and stop when inspiration goes away, nothing like the clock-punching schedule of non-artists at work.
In fact, there is a lot of drudgery and routine in the life of a rock band.
Ice T in the Studio. "Can I go home to Coco yet?"
Take recording, which involves hours, days, sometimes weeks working on a single song. You record the same part over and over and over again. As Ice T says, “I actually hate recording… when you’re in the studio, doing take after take, punching in little mistakes in your vocals, that’s tedious as fuck. All the work that goes into polishing the record, that’s pure tedium.”
Think the Beatles were pure inspiration? “The secret to the incredibly rich, creamy bass sounds that characterize Sgt. Pepper [was] Paul’s [McCartney] willingness to put in the long hours, free of distraction, to create harmonically intricate bass lines and then play them as well as they could possibly be played. There were nights when he would labor until dawn, keeping at it until his fingers were literally bleeding.” – Geoff Emerick, Beatles Chief Engineer. Apparently Paul spent a full week just on the bass line for “Lovely Rita.”
How about shooting music videos? Tedium galore. Example: Bono had to lip-synch to “One” for seven long hours for the shooting of that song’s third video.
In fact, no rock band would succeed unless they were willing to submit to the rigorous and constraining routines entailed in the production and dissemination of music. Even performing can sometimes become routine. Here’s Joey Kramer, drummer for Aerosmith: “I would get seriously bored on stage… I would look over at the set list and think, Ah, five songs to go. Only five songs to go. Ah, only three more songs to go.”
But touring isn’t like that, right? Parties, travel, adventure. Yeah, sure. But there are constraints and a lot of routine.
Time to wake up and go to work!
Take Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler’s account of a day on the road: “You wake up the next morning around nine, eat a little something by ten. At eleven you go to the gym, take a shower, you’re back in the room by twelve, get your room in order and have a little lunch. By one, one thirty, there’s a lobby call [to meet fans]… You ride back to the airport. Two thirty you get on the plane… You get out of the plane at four thirty… By five o’clock you’re in your dressing room at the venue… You shoot the shit and bullshit for a while. It’s six o’clock, time for your meet ’n’ greet, shaking hands with people from the radio station, fans who have won tickets by being the fifth caller… They’re all there in the room with you, asking you questions they already know the answers to.” Then it’s time for dinner (salmon every night), relaxing, make-up, hair, yoga, stretching, warming up. A two-hour show until eleven fifteen and by twelve thirty he’s back on the plane. The next day he stretchs and rests, and the day after that, “Nine o’clock my alarm goes off, I get up, order breakfast, go to the gym… And that’s my life.” No wonder he writes, “If you’re on tour for a year, you’re not fantasizing about drugs and booze and hot chicks so much as you’re dreaming about falling into a comfortable bed at the end of that endless day.”
Whatever they would like for you to think (note that Aerosmith did call that tour the “Permanent Vacation” tour), being in a band isn’t all play all the time – there is plenty of work involved. Of course, if the drudgery overwhelms the fun, it might be time to find another gig. But isn’t that the case for any job?
Tuesday, October 18, 2011
Sonic Youth in 2011: The Year the Couple Broke
AT 11:33 am
Alternative Rock’s First Couple, Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth, announced their separation on Friday. The couple and band have been together for more than 30 years. Their longevity was inspiring. In fact, it was at a Sonic Youth show in 2009 that I decided to write a book on rock bands as creative teams and start this blog (I had to attend to the small matter of finishing up my full-time job first). I was amazed that a band can stay together and stay creative for so long. Sonic Youth wasn’t playing an all-hits show for their fans. Their new material was really good. I thought, how can a band keep it going and keep it fresh for so long? Many work teams can’t pull that off.
At the time, I reflected on the fact that two members are married and thought, “Maybe they’re just really good at relationships.” I thought, the relational skills they put to use sustaining their marriage in the midst of the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle must transfer over to the rest of the band. I’ve read quotes by various musicians commenting on how nice Sonic Youth are. I also thought, maybe it’s that strain of normalcy that helps keep it all together: a traditional wedding, a kid, a house in the burbs. Maybe that’s how they tame the craziness of their music and world and thereby keep it all sane and going. As Thurston Moore told biographer David Browne, “We were set apart by our conservative lifestyles. Our music was extreme and wild, and we met those people on that level.”
I had other ideas about the secrets behind Sonic Youth’s creative endurance. But now my emerging theory is cast into doubt. Will the band stay together? Bands with exes in them have stayed together before, like The White Stripes, but usually not for long (see ABBA) or else they take a looooong break, like Blondie. Change is extremely hard and disruptive for a band, particularly change in the interpersonal dynamics. Take the Beatles. When manager Brian Epstein died, Paul McCartney took on management responsibilities, thereby changing the power dynamics in the band. Not good. Bands, like teams and families, develop patterns of communication, task allocation, and decision making. When one member tries to change that dynamic (like Keith Richards waking up from his drug haze wanting to have a say in decision making, Axl Rose turning the rest of G&R into hired guns, or Kurt Cobain renegotiating royalty distribution for Nevermind post-hoc), the others don’t like it. Change doesn’t necessarily mean breaking up, but it’s something that has to be dealt with mindfully.
Sonic Youth performing in 2009
Organizational research indicates that groups become resilient by experiencing and overcoming setbacks together. By dealing with setbacks and hardships, teams develop the communication and improvisational skills they need to deal with future problems. They also develop a sense of collective confidence in their ability to deal with anything that comes their way. A change like the separation between Moore and Gordon means that the band needs to reconfigure, rethink, and be comfortable with a new world order. The only way to attain this is through intense, open, and respectful communication. I’m really hoping that Sonic Youth can remain resilient despite the separation of its leading couple.
Of course there is the final ingredient, which is motivation and commitment. Do they even want to stay together? Or, like R.E.M, do they feel like they’d done as much as they can as a band? Sonic Youth has been a paragon of the “open marriage” model of bands, with each member involved in many solo and side projects while continuing to contribute to the primary enterprise. Are they curious about life as a retiree of Sonic Youth? As a fan, I hope not. That would truly be a great loss.