Secrets from the World’s Most Innovative Rock Band

Originally published on Wired.com.

Many artists in the music industry have responded to changes in how business is done by doing more of the same, complaining about greedy fans, and watching their sales decline. Yet one band – Oklahoma’s 20-year-old psychedelic indie rock band the Flaming Lips – has seized the changes in the music industry as an opportunity for innovation and growth.

“The industry was lucky people were ever willing to buy music,” reflected frontman Wayne Coyne. Rather than complain that people will spend more money on a latte from Starbucks than on music (and after all, which one creates more significant memories?), the Flaming Lips saw that music could be about more than listening. They could get their listeners to participate.

WayneCoyneThat attitude has served The Flaming Lips well. They have produced a steady stream of innovations that have kept them in the spotlight, including a commercial in this year’s Super Bowl. These innovations include releasing a Valentine’s Day album of love songs by embedding a USB stick deep inside an anatomically correct chocolate heart (the limited edition sold out), streaming a 24-hour-long song (and selling it for $5000 implanted in a human skull), selling the opportunity to have Sean Lennon say your name in their 6-hour-long song for charity, embedding songs in gummy fetuses (“Eat your way to the new music!”), a collaborative album of duets with artists from different genres, such as pop artist Ke$ha and the avant-gardist Yoko Ono, breaking the world record for most concerts played in a 24-hour period, and a forthcoming musical based on their album Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots. At this year’s SXSW festival, they made a splash by premiering the world’s first vertical iPhone movie.

And it’s paying off. In the words of their manager, Scott Booker, The Lips are “making a great living touring, licensing our songs, selling merchandise, and frankly, to some degree being a brand, an iconic emblem of weirdness.”

How do the Flaming Lips keep innovating, engaging their fans, and fascinating the media, all the while continuing to create high-quality music? In two ways: by cultivating their relationship with the fans and by cultivating their relationships with each other.

Cultivating Relationships with Fans

The Flaming Lips make their fans, or in traditional business language, their customers, part of the musical experience, thereby transforming their product from a passive listening experience to an active creative experience. For example, in 1996 and 1997, the Flaming Lips included fans in their Parking Lot Experiments, where fans in 40 cars were given one of 40 tapes and conducted, like an orchestra, to create an unusual 20-minute composition. Their live shows include Coyne crowd surfing inside a large plastic bubble with fans scrambling to touch the bubble and pass him around. Their album Zaireeka was released in a 4-CD format so that listeners could customize their listening experience by playing any combination of the CDs in sequence or simultaneously.


They also engage fans bymaintaining a steady stream of products. “We want there to always be a constant flow of new things we’re singing about and new sounds,” Coyne explained to Entrepreneur. “The idea of waiting two years to put out new music—why?” The old model, epitomized by Michael Jackson’s Thriller, was to intersperse products and stretch out sales for years. That’s why Columbia Records treated Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA as a new release for two years. The new model is to keep audiences delighted and engaged with regular deliveries of new content.

Yet quantity does not trump quality. The Flaming Lips realize that fans easily lose interest if the music is no good. The most dangerous thing that can happen to a band – as to any business – is to get complacent. A little humility can go a long way. As the Flaming Lips’ multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd told Pitchfork.com,

“I was worried that everyone, except the most hardcore and patient Flaming Lips fans, would just say, “F—, this is too much s— to even try to keep up with.” Then, my next thought was, “How are we going to make a record that people even care about?”… I wasn’t worried about us burning out— I was worried about the fans.”

Cultivating Internal Processes for Innovation

To keep their creative juices flowing, the Flaming Lips have adopted a few key practices. First, they do more with less. The Flaming Lips use whatever resources they can get their hands on, including old song ideas. “If you know the Flaming Lips,” said Drozd, “you know that we use everything.” Some artists think they need tens of thousands of dollars for backdrops, lighting systems, and other technology. But as then-president of Warner Brothers Records Steven Baker told writer Jim DeRogatis, they’re wrong: “Look at the Flaming Lips: They have a better light show, and it came from Ace Hardware!” By forcing themselves to work with their constraints, the Flaming Lips exemplify what scholarly research has shown: that scarcity, and the creative problem-solving process needed to overcome it, is at the root of innovation.

Second, the Flaming Lips change up their creative process. Although they have been making music for twenty years, they have not been doing it the same way. At one point Coyne switched from writing songs on the guitar to writing them on a keyboard. With their most recent album, The Terror, they switched from jamming songs into existence to using sounds that they like as their starting point, without the standard use of chord progressions. By shaking up the creative process, the band keeps itself moving toward newer ideas and products.

Third, the Flaming Lips seek critical feedback. They let outsiders, such as producer Dave Fridmann, weigh in on how they’re doing. Unlike other producers, who are afraid to contradict the band, if Fridmann doesn’t like what the Flaming Lips have to offer, he will either make them change it or convince him otherwise. Either way, the quality of the material benefits. Critical outsiders prevent the band from losing touch with how their music affects its audience.

Finally, they keep it fun. The Flaming Lips love what they do. They love making music, they love working together and collaborating with other artists, and they love touring. As Coyne told DeRogatis, “Like any job that you end up being good at: You like the job. If we didn’t like driving, seeing the countryside, playing music and talking, loading in equipment, sleeping on floors, and meeting people, we would never have been able to be the Flaming Lips.” That enthusiasm shows, and it keeps audiences coming back for more.

What are some other examples of bands that offer lessons for innovation? Please contribute your ideas in the comments section.