In my business consulting I often rhapsodize about great rock & roll bands as a model for twenty-first century business teams. My clients are often incredulous at first, perhaps because they view rock groups as lazy, drug-addled slackers. At the very least they don't think of bands as ambitious, hardworking paragons of productivity.
Admittedly, bands sometimes give off an air of insouciance and even brag about their non-work ethic. In the rock classic "Taking Care of Business," Bachman-Turner Overdrive appears to be speaking for rock & rollers everywhere with the infamous lines: "We love to work at nothing all day."
This is all part of the charming and alluring mythology of rock & roll, a wonderful narrative of pop hedonism which most musicians seem all too willing to perpetuate.
But the story, I'm afraid, is apocryphal. I've never met a professional rock & roll band that did not have major dreams and ambitions—and did not invest a big chunk of life rehearsing and performing in pursuit of them, whether to sell hit records, play the best clubs, or attain a high level of musicianship.
These rock & rollers have aspirations—and strategies—and they know how to execute on them. In their own way, they're always taking care of business.
Over the years if the good bands have been ambitious and focused, the very best bands have been maniacally so, even those most associated with the dissipated decadence of the '60s—including the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Beach Boys, and Byrds.
Each of these bands in their early days released at least two, sometimes three, albums of quality material a year (most of it original) while conducting transcontinental tours. No trivial feat.
The Stones recorded more than fifty separate tracks in 1964. The Beach Boys in one twenty-six-month period released nine top twenty albums—seven of them with new songs—while maintaining a preposterous performing schedule. From 1965 to 1968, the Beatles released eight albums of new material, the Stones seven. In less than ten years The Byrds released thirteen albums.
In the studio the Beatles were downright workaholic, often recording into the early morning hours, which sometimes required them to sleep overnight there—much like the legendary software teams that slept on cots at work to meet product release schedules (as celebrated in business classics such as Steven Levy's "Insanely Great" and Tracy Kidder's "The Soul of a New Machine").
In fact the Fab Four, in their quest for high quality product, were known to record songs dozens of different ways—in different beats, at different speeds, in different time signatures—to find the perfect arrangement. (One Beatle song, "I Will," was recorded sixty-five times, after which taskmaster Paul McCartney declared himself satisfied.) Not exactly working at nothing all day.
This focus on—or perhaps obsession with—results is something I observed over and over again in rehearsals, sound checks, and recording sessions of many top bands in the late '60s & '70s.
There's another dimension to this: top bands kick it into a higher gear when it's "show time," similar to championship athletic teams who take-it-up a notch when it really counts (for example, the game is on the line and time is running out).
Great bands seem energized by deadlines and often write their best material in the studio at the eleventh hour. The Beatles, in October 1965, had two weeks to write a dozen new songs for their next album, then a month to record and mix them. Working against the clock they churned out their ground-breaking Rubber Soul album, including classics such as "In My Life," "Norwegian Word," and "Michelle." When it's crunch time these bands perform.
And they love to compete. When Brian Wilson, the creative dynamo of the Beach Boys, heard the Beatles' Rubber Soul for the first time he was so impressed he had to do the Beatles one better. He told his wife: "I'm going to make the greatest rock-and-roll album ever made."
He rushed to produce the legendary Pet Sounds album, which some critics believe is the best rock/pop album ever made. Pet Sounds in turn inspired the Beatles' Sgt Pepper album, which other critics hail as the best ever.
In that era the top bands—especially the Beatles, Beach Boys, Rolling Stones, and Byrds—were engaged in an intense rivalry that brought out the best in each of them. This was a phenomenon we saw later in the Darwinian contention among product teams in the computer industry.
Yes, mainstream business could gain inspiration from the ambition and drive of these rock & roll teams.
In future posts I'll point out other attributes of rock bands that business teams—or teams in government, education, or health care for that matter—would be wise to emulate in a ridiculously competitive global economy.