Originally published in Forbes.
“Would you support me if I wanted to do a solo album?” Robert Plant asked Led Zeppelin’s manager, Peter Grant sometime in the mid-1970s, when Led Zeppelin was at the peak of its career.
“Of course,” answered Grant, as reported in Chris Welch’s biography, Peter Grant: The Man Who Led Zeppelin. “Who would you imagine would play guitar?”
“Ummm,” answered Plant, “I suppose I’d have to have Jimmy [Page].”
“What about bass?”
“Well, again,” answered Plant, “It would have to be Jonesy [Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones].”
“Gotta be Bonzo [Zeppelin drummer John Bonham], I guess.”
“Why do you want to do a solo album Robert?”
Peter Grant didn’t want to hear the answer to that question, and Plant never mentioned doing a solo project to Grant again. But the answer offers a window into the complex workings of one of the greatest creative teams in history. And it teaches us important lessons for any other kind of creative team.
Led Zeppelin granted Plant access to the best musicians to complement his singing. There was an undeniable chemistry between the four members of that band. Each musician supported the other to create powerful and moving music.
In fact, John Bonham’s first words to Plant were, “You’d be a lot better singer if you had a drummer like me.”
The problem was that Zeppelin was Jimmy Page’s band. Page, and, to a lesser degree, bassist John Paul Jones set the musical direction. Plant was not even Jimmy Page’s first choice as a singer, and even after he hired him he maintained doubts about the extent of his contribution. “It was obvious he could sing,” Page told Zeppelin biographer Mick Wall, “but I wasn’t sure about his potential as a frontman.” Also, “I didn’t know what he’d be like yet as a songwriter. When I first saw him he was a singer first and foremost.”
Even once Plant’s status in the band grew, his position was the most precarious. When he and Bonham would get into fights, it was Plant who was told to back down. According to an insider quoted by Wall, Grant sat Plant down and told him that the bickering had to stop. “It’s either you or Bonham and right now it looks like it’s not going to be you.” Plant backed off.
Plant wanted a solo album so that he could have the experience, never felt while in Led Zeppelin, of calling all the shots. Of being the most important person. Of setting the vision. Indeed his post-Zeppelin solo career shows his musical inclinations wandered far from “Stairway to Heaven” territory. The singer of what is arguably the first heavy metal band has spent the past decade playing bluegrass music. These explorations would not have been possible within the confines of Led Zeppelin.
Robert Plant’s quandary points to a basic paradox in creative teams. Each team member is a competent professional who expects to have a voice in creative and business decisions. Yet it is the leader’s vision that gets priority. Everybody wants to belong to a great group and enjoy the validation and status that come with it. But at the same time, people want to distinguish themselves, to express their unique individuality.
The best groups are those that not only satisfy members’ needs for affiliation within the group, they also allow them to feel distinct. For some, this means doing “solo projects” on the side – opportunities to be a leader in a different group. Each one of the Rolling Stones, for example, has created solo albums or played with other bands.
For others, balancing the opposing needs of belonging and differentiation means a meaningful hobby where they stand out. For Kirk Hammet, for example, surfing offers a breath of individuality in a career defined by his membership in Metallica. He said in the documentary Some Kind of Monster, “There’s a sort of individualism, also, about surfing that I like. I mean, when it’s your moment, man, that’s your moment and yours alone.”
For Robert Plant, John Bonham’s untimely death meant Led Zeppelin was no longer too good to leave. The magic chemistry that defined the band was gone. Plant’s solo career took off and the power dynamics within Zeppelin have never been the same. Now, it is Robert Plant who has the final say about whether there will be a Zeppelin reunion show and even what songs they will play. For the most part, he’s been saying “No.” And each time the band has done anything together, such as their 2007 performance in London’s O2 Arena captured in the Grammy-nominated concert album Celebration Day, Plant has made sure to tip the power dynamics in his favor by counterbalancing it with a solo project. In 2007, it was his collaboration with Alison Krauss, Raising Sand.
For any team to sustain itself, its members should learn to accept and manage the tension between suppression for the sake of the collective and expression for the sake of the self.