Business lessons from The Beatles.

Ok, I know I overdo the anniversary thing. But this week does warrant a commemoration. Fifty years ago, the greatest band that ever was—the most successful musical ensemble of all time—took shape.

On August 13 1960, Pete Best joined the Beatles—finally giving the band a permanent drummer and stable membership. (For more, read my 2007 interview with Pete.) On August 16 they departed Liverpool for Hamburg, to begin their first club residency.

Within two-and-a-half years The Beatles had their first #1 hit in the UK. A year later they exploded in the US and began their domination of the world pop charts.

Their accomplishments include:

  • Resurrecting rock & roll (which was dead in the water between 1960 and 1964).
  • Displacing the musical milk toast in the Top 10 (bye-bye Pat Boone and Steve Lawrence);
  • Transforming the record album into an art-form (instead of a cash cow of second-rate songs).
  • Selling over a billion units of product (more than any other artist by far).
  • Become ridiculously rich in the process (e.g., McCartney's net-worth today exceeds $1billion).

No wonder they're the subject of more than three thousand books. (Some sources say twice that!)

The Beatles were the first—and, I would argue, the last—musical act to be simultaneously the biggest and the best.

But what are the business lessons we can gather from The Beatles? As mentioned previously, when business leaders speak of innovation as the "game changer" in a ruthlessly competitive global economy, they should remember the Fab Four.

Because it was the Beatles' creativity—radical, disruptive, and iconoclastic—that put them on the map, generating world media coverage and an insatiable demand for their products.

From their songwriting craft (featuring bold melodic leaps, wildly inventive chord changes, and poetic lyrics), to their record production (breaking new technological ground on albums including Revolver and Sgt Pepper), to their hair and dress (driving global fashion trends), to their lifestyle (political outspokenness and drug experimentation), they were artistic, cultural, and commercial revolutionaries.

This is what game-changing innovation looks and sounds like. As Newsweek later proclaimed: "What the Beatles did in the 60's remains the most thrilling surge of creativity in the history of pop culture." (More about this in the comments.)


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24 Comments

  1. Some factoids I wanted to footnote on this Comment thread, to keep the post from turning into a book...

    • For those unaware of the early Beatles' personnel shuffles, Stu Sutcliffe was the initial bass player (as shown in the Hamburg photo on the far right). You can read about Stu by scrolling down to my March 13 post. Stu had troubling keeping up musically with the band, quit the group in 1962, and subsequently died of a brain hemorrhage. A few months later Pete Best was replaced on drums by Ringo Starr, just before the band recorded their first single, "Love Me Do."

    • If you weren't alive in the 60s it's hard to appreciate how completely the Beatles laid waste to the schmaltz that dominated the hit parade as late as 1963. (Of course they inspired other British bands like The Rolling Stones to help in the destruction.) To demonstrate my point: the two artists who had #1 hits in America just before the Beatles took over the charts (with "I Want to Hold Your Hand" and "She Loves You") were The Singing Nun and Bobby Vinton. There was still some pop pablum to come, but it at least had a beat and a pulse to it—or quality songwriting and arranging (like Dionne Warwick singing Burt Bacharach/Hal David tunes). But there was one style of music that regrettably lost ground to the British invasion: soul/R&B. But Motown & Stax recovered and had their share of quality hits during the Beatles' reign.

    • Amazon lists over 4300 titles on the Beatles, but I'm guessing many of them are chord songbooks, so a conservative estimate of books about the Beatles themselves may be closer to 3000 or 3500.

  2. The Beatles were creative but not as "radical, disruptive, and iconoclastic" as the Rolling Stones and some others. In fact they seemed tame by comparison.

    Merrilee

  3. Merrilee, the posture of the Stones was more rebellious and their music had a harder edge, but it was the Fabs who fundamentally rewrote the rules—and raised the bar—of pop/rock music. Pop fans and critics soon began to expect more than insipid songwriting from pop acts, lyrics that actually meant something, albums with consistently strong tracks, mind-bending sonic effects, and high quality album covers & packaging. Music aside, The Beatles were the first act since Elvis (and arguably the last) to be front page news. From 1964 on, if they showed up in your city, everything else was a side show. They also made headlines with outrageous statements/events ("We're bigger than Jesus", bed-ins for peace, Lennon's naked album cover, etc.).

    By the way, The Beatles helped launch the Stones by writing their first hit, "I Wanna Be Your Man."

  4. I saw the Beatles in concert - at the Rose Bowl, in San Diego. And maybe at the Hollywood Bowl, I'm not sure.
    It was an amazing time - everything changed.
    When my sons were little, we used to play rock and roll trivia. (I made up the questions, with my far-more-limited-than-John's knowledge of rock music and musicians. When my older son was maybe 13, he was with a friend buying some music. He picked out the Beatles. His friend said "Boy, you really like Classical Music". Funny story with little significance to anyone else - but I love stories about my sons, and I am proud of their musical tastes and knowledge. They left me in the dust long ago.
    My circuitous point is this - the Beatles changed everything. And became history. Even in the little games I made up with my sons, they took center stage.

    Dorothy

    But I gotta say - I always had a soft place in my heart for Steve and Edie. :)

  5. Dorothy, I still kick myself for thinking the Beatles would be around forever and I'd just catch them a few years later. And yet I somehow managed to see the Stones 4 times in that period. (The Who were the best live act I ever saw though.)

    The Beatles' Hollywood Bowl gigs in 64 & 65 were memorable for them, because the audience was actually listening to their music. Less hysteria there.

    Yeah, I suppose I shouldn't knock any of those balladeers (Steve Lawrence even recorded a Carole King tune), who were just trying to make a living. On the other hand, the times WERE a-changin' and some of them were blocking up the hall.

  6. It's sad that at the time they were the biggest and the best (i.e. second half of the sixties) they weren't making that much money from it. Write your songs, own the masters and own the publishing are things we all know about today but bands like The Beatles had to learn, and which ironically helped to pull them apart (the Klein / Eastman dispute over their management).

    Trying to reconcile the creative type with the accountant is still a problem. And it's not just about making sure you get paid fairly. "Creatives" don't seem to want to think ahead to pensions and so forth, with often tragic consequences in later life.

    Richie Hayward (Little Feat's fabulous drummer) died a few days ago and had moved to Canada to try to qualify for healthcare to treat his cancer. He's just one of a number of similar cases.

    I wonder if there should be a Rock Lessons From Business blog somewhere?

  7. Mark, many of the biggest rock bands in the 60s - including some of their managers - were babes in the woods about the music business. As you know, Allen Klein (who took over the Stones in 1965) was an exception. (But he was also an exceptional crook.)

    I hadn't heard of Hayward's healthcare problem, but it's an all-too common story in the music biz. And, as anyone knows who's lived and worked in Canada, the healthcare there is not third-world, despite the bloviating on talk radio.

  8. i think the beatles got together earlier than this ... paul met john in 1957 and george started playing with them soon after that.

  9. Farhard, Paul did join John's group in 1957, but it was The Quarrymen and they played mainly "skiffle" (which is akin to jug band music). George joined a year later but it was still a far cry from rock & roll. By spring 1960, Stu Sutcliffe was playing bass, the other Quarrymen were gone, and "The Silver Beatles" were playing rock & roll. In August they hired Pete Best on drums, abbreviated their name to "The Beatles," and sailed off to Hamburg. The best history I've read of the Fabs' early days is "Shoulda Been There" by Jude Kessler. It's a "fictional" Beatles bio because the author invents the fine details of their everyday lives, including conversations they had, but it's meticulously researched.

  10. after reading your interview with pete best i'm wondering why you think the beatles fired him...and why didn't they ever speak to him again? i find it hard to believe that in the last 48 years mccartney hasn't spoken to him.

  11. Farhard, there are many theories why Pete was fired. I once totaled up eight different ones. I really don't know the answer, and given the great mystery of human motivation, I'm not certain that even the other 3 Beatles could have given a simple explanation. But it wasn't because he made such a poor showing at the Beatles' audition for George Martin, as is commonly reported. Norman Smith, the Beatles engineer, who was at that session, told me they thought they should use a studio drummer for recording (a common practice in the day) because Pete didn't have the right feel for one song ("Love Me Do" I think). But they didn't advocate for replacing him in the band, and in fact they used a studio drummer in place of Ringo for the Beatles' first recording session. More commentary on an earlier thread: https://www.blogger.com/comment.g?blogID=8674747094564015781&postID=701103466328876463

    I think the Beatles never spoke to Pete again because they were so embarrassed by how they handled it (having manager Brian Epstein give Pete the boot). Lennon implied that years later when he said they acted like cowards in the matter.

  12. Re. Pete Best and not talking to the rest of the band.

    Maybe it's him that doesn't want to talk to them? He certainly refused most requests to even talk about them for quite a while, never mind talk to them.

  13. Interesting possibility, Mark. Maybe at the very beginning. But I remember reading Lennon's comments that when he borrowed some medals from Mona Best for the album cover of Sgt. Pepper he stayed in the car outside and didn't enter the Best home, apparently not wanting to encounter Pete. Maybe both sides are gun shy. Pete told me he's very open to talking to Paul, but I'm sure as a point of pride Pete's not going to make the first move. It seems to me the responsibility falls on the Beatles—which is now Paul as the sole survivor of the original 3. After all, they fired HIM, with no warning, through a third party. And then they wanted him to play one more gig with them! (Obviously I'm prejudiced on this score. That strikes me as a chicken-shit way to terminate anybody.) But I'll ask Pete the next time I see him.

  14. And one more observation along with all the others, John....they were in the right place at the right time with, fortunately, the right manager!

    Ciao!

  15. Yes, Nick, a lot of things fell fortuitously into place for the lads when Brian Epstein took over management and George Martin took over record production. But prior to that they were already on their way to being (1) the most distinctive rock & roll band in Britain and (2) the best songwriting band anywhere.

  16. I think you're shortchanging the Rolling Stones influence in the rock n' roll revolution. They brought a dark and erotic element to rock/r&b, expanded rock's reach into the underclass, helped resurrect American blues, and influenced at least two generations of rock bands.

    It was Keith + Brian, not John + George, that inspired me to learn guitar and start a band. In that period all the wannabe bands wanted to be the Stones not the Beatles and they all played the Stones repertoire.
    gk

  17. I hate to do band comparisons, gk, because it sounds like I'm putting down one band in the process, and in this case I've always been a Stones' fan (though more so when Brian Jones was alive and kicking with them). The Stones did everything you said they did. But it was the Beatles that toppled the proverbial monarchy. Suddenly instead of fans simply watching or dancing to pop (or rock & roll "lite") acts, there was mass hysteria—and riots—at Beatles' performances beginning in 1963. The Stones were actually quite content to be an underground blues/r&b act that just did their own thing outside the pop media glare until they actually witnessed a Beatles performance at the Royal Albert Hall in London in April 1963. The spectacle (especially the crowd reaction) floored them. They wanted some of THAT, and to their credit they forged an "anti-Beatles" image with a rowdier appearance and sound, while staying true to their blues roots. They staked out a different territory with a different audience and did so brilliantly. (I'll be going into detail in my book about the methodical branding effort by the Stones and their manager Andrew Loog Oldham.) And as I said earlier, the Stones did help the Beatles push the cotton candy off the airwaves.

    I too started playing in bands around that time and I can tell you one of the reasons so many bands played Stones' songs instead of Beatles' songs is because the former were easier to learn, sing, and play. One lead vocalist, occasional harmony, playing 3-chord blues progressions is easier to pull off than two and three part vocal harmonies, with songs containing 6 or 8 chords, augmented and diminished, etc. (BTW, this is also the reason few amateur bands would touch Beach Boy's songs: they were way too sophisticated harmonically.) Also the Stones' songs were easier to dance to (because of the fewer chord changes and the stronger groove), so it was a better repertoire to learn for a new band that needed to earn money in dance clubs. There were few local bands in my neck of the woods (Boston) that could reproduce Beatle songs in the 60s. (One of the few—at least to my uninitiated ears at the time—was The Rockin' Ramrods, who played the Surf Nantasket.)

    Back to the business lesson... The Beatles turned pop music on its head in 1963 and "out-innovated" every artist on the scene for the next 7 years, which obviously contributed to their unparalleled success. But The Rolling Stones, at least in their first decade, were an innovative force as well, creating a nasty, sexy, and deviant brand of rock that had never been seen or heard before, which forever changed the landscape of popular music. BOTH groups influenced generations of bands.

    As Tom Peters would say, the lesson (especially today) is: "Innovate or die!"

  18. John: I love the quote you have from Newsweek, “What the Beatles did in the 60’s remains the most thrilling surge of creativity in the history of pop culture.” Reading that, I can see, hear and feel the excitement and almost giddy feeling of the promise of change (a little slogan theft there). And the Stones? Oh man. They added to those expectations. They were so subversive. We were used to not just a different sound, but a different look and approach. To have these two sides of the same coin - all at once -- was a glimpse into a new territory. A promise of what was ahead.

    It was a great time to be alive, to be young.

  19. Thanks, Dorothy, for keeping this thread going. Yeah, the Stones get overlooked by many for their part in the revolution. The two bands were the Yin and the Yang of the cultural insurgency. I'm reading a brilliant bio of Keith Richards by Victor Bockris, which shows how the Rolling Stones "team" got developed, which is the angle of my own book. (It's especially interesting—for me at least—to see how Brian Jones got edged out of the inner circle.) I read excerpts of it for free on Google Books before buying it. http://books.google.com/books?id=OoweODRk47wC&dq=victor+bockris+keith&printsec=frontcover&source=bn&hl=en&ei=_8J3TJCtMcP98Absv6zSBg&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=4&ved=0CCsQ6AEwAw#v=onepage&q&f=false

  20. The Yin and the Yang is the perfect way to explain it.
    I've always thought the songs the Stones did in those first years - Paint It Black, Under My Thumb, Play With Fire, Not Fade Away, I'm A King Bee, Ruby Tuesday, Yesterday's Papers, Little Red Rooster, and (of course) Satisfaction - were some of the most amazing songs of all time. Powerful.
    And sexy? Oh my. I'm A King Bee? Wow. Pretty graphic, really.
    Yeah, the Stones were part of it. Yin and Yang.

  21. It's also worth noting that the Stones may have been the hardest working band in the business in the 1960s. According to Bockris's bio of Keith Richards: “The Stones toured incessantly between 1963 and 1966, doing more gigs per year than any other band (in 1965, for example they did two American tours, two European tours, two British tours, and one Australasian tour).” That year they also released 3 albums in the US.

  22. The Stones the hardest working band in the 60s? Hardly matching that rowdy, naughty reputation. That's a lesson from Rock, huh? When all is said and done, hard work wins the day. A lesson for business and life.

  23. Hi John,

    F.A.B. piece here. In case you have not seen it do check my book 'Sex, Leadership and Rock'n'Roll - Leadership Lessons from the Academy of Rock' - I'm sure it will complement your own.

    Acclaimed by Tom Petera and available on Amazon at http://www.amazon.com/Sex-Leadership-Rock-Roll-Lessons/dp/1845900162/ref=sr_1_4?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1197803350&sr=8-4

    There is a piece on the Beatles in the book under the teamwork area and a pdf is available on my website - http://www.academy-of-rock.co.uk

    Rock on!

    Peter

  24. Thanks, Dorothy. More on the subject on an earlier post.

    None of the great bands were slackers, by any stretch.

    Peter, I have your book! Nice section on the Beatles—and the Forming, Norming, Storming, Performing, and Reforming stages. I especially liked the book's creative layout & visuals. Many business books that promote creativity don't exemplify creativity in their design. Yours does. Nice acknowledgment of Tom Peters on your website. Cheers.

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