The business wisdom of the Beatles.

At last: a business book on the Beatles! Richard Courtney (a real estate broker, columnist, and Beatles collector) and George Cassidy (a business writer, analyst,and songwriter) have recently co-authored 'Come Together: The Business Wisdom of the Beatles'.

It's an easy-read, full of practical & pithy lessons (from the Beatles' successes and failures) that you can apply as an entrepreneur, business owner, manager, or employee.

Here's one example: get better business guidance than the Beatles got. 'For all his other virtues, Brian Epstein was grossly inexperienced in negotiating licensing, merchandising, publishing, and recording contracts.' This may have cost the band a billion dollars in today's money!

Last month I caught up with Courtney and Cassidy at a Beatles festival. Here's an abbreviated version of my interview.

JO: How long have you been following the Beatles? Do you remember them from the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964?

Courtney: I do remember them on Ed Sullivan. I ran across them when I was eight years old in November of 1963.

JO: What's your overall evaluation of their manager, Brian Epstein? You mention his shortcomings in your book, but what do you think were his strong points?

Cassidy: I think it was his persistence and his methodical approach. He had numerous rejections… but he got them on Parlophone, which was very much a comedy and jazz and left-of-center type of label where they finally found a home. Also, he had a keen sense of the visual identity.

Courtney: That had a lot to do with his training that gave him a theatrical perspective. He recognized them as a great visual act.

JO: Good point. The Beatles haircut was so revolutionary for the time. Back then all anybody talked about on the street was the Beatle haircut.

Courtney: It was [the subject of] every interview with them.

Cassidy: It wasn't really any longer than Elvis's hair but it was just a different style. It was so different looking, everybody reacted to it very quickly.

JO: Why haven't more artists and songwriters followed the Beatles' approach? I'm amazed there aren't more artists and writers who haven't taken apart what they were doing.

Cassidy: It's hard to do that without sounding like the Beatles. But they lad a laser focus on the melody and lyrics. I do think that today that that kid Bruno Mars—not to compare him to the Beatles—has the same focus on melody and very simple, accessible lyrics.

JO: What do you think is the greatest Beatles song or track?

Cassidy: You can't argue with 'A Day in the Life'. That has the whole package… production and writing.

For their next book they're thinking of taking the same approach with a different act. I'm going to suggest Rebecca Black.

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  1. I caught a review of the book in the New York Times. I'll check it out. I didn't realise Epstein was that inexperienced... but he did get the lads to wear suits!

  2. Alec, Epstein deserves a lot of credit for their breakout success. As the authors point out, his appreciation of the VISUAL was critical to their success. When they first hit America their visual brand attracted more attention than their musical brand. An executive at Capitol Records told me a few years later that the Beatles were signed as much for their hair (and, specifically, the female hysteria it generated) as for their sound.

  3. What impresses me is the sheer volume of books about one band 40 years after their breakup. How is that possible? I have seen more than a hundred books on the Beatles and there must be hundreds more. I don't think I've read even one though I like their music.
    Claudia Sowell

  4. Claudia: depending on whom you talk to, there are between 3,000 and 4,000 books written about the Beatles. (That presumably includes song books and photo collections.) I've read most of them. Well, a lot of them. (OK, some of them.)

    For business insights, Come Together is a good start. If you want a detailed biography, The Beatles: A Biography by Bob Spitz, is the most popular. If you want to understand their beginnings (and influences) I recommend Jude Kessler's biographical series on John Lennon. But I could recommend another couple of dozen, depending on what one is looking for.

  5. “For all this other virtues, Brian Epstein was grossly inexperienced in negotiating licensing, merchandising, publishing, and recording contracts.”

    This was the early 1960's. It was still the era of post-war, austerity Britain. It was a time when Big Business called the shots, not The Talent. Who wasn't inexperienced in these things? These guys (band, management, producer) were blazing a trail: judging them by today's standards is a bit harsh!

  6. Personally, I believe Epstein's strengths dwarfed his weaknesses, but the "Come Together" authors (and many others) make a good case that he should have negotiated better percentages in the contracts the Beatles signed—even by 1963 standards. Entertainment management was not a new field and there were lots of professionals Epstein could have consulted. The authors say Epstein was too concerned about not wanting to reveal to others the extent of his business ignorance. For instance, upon learning that merchandising was usually a 90/10 split in America, he gave away 90% of the Beatles' merchandising rights instead of retaining the 90%.

  7. I'm sure he could have done better and seems to have been less than honest in some respects but, like you, I think his strengths were far more important.

    BTW, the BBC had an excellent documentary on George Martin last night. I don't know if you can use the BBC iPlayer site from foreign parts parts but it is an absolute must for any Beatles fan.

    He revealed that he - along with just about every other label in the UK - rejected The Beatles but only relented, giving them a 1 hour session to see if they could do anything, because of Brian Epstein.

  8. Yeah, Epstein had many, many strengths... He was passionate & persistent as a spokesman for the band. He understood the importance of the band having a totally distinct (but professional) image as well as sound. In their early days he managed the "optics" exceptionally well (having them LOOK successful) — e.g., making sure they played venues they would fill, taking less pay in exchange for being the headline act, etc. I could go on and on.

    I'll check out that documentary on George Martin. He was, of course, another CRITICAL component of the Beatles' success story. Nice fella too. I crashed a backstage party to meet him a while back.

  9. Hairstyle and suits. Very important theatrical signature.

    (I still love some of the older pics in the leather jackets from when they were so young.)

    Seems that many bands have used the big hair method of attracting attention and creating a signature look.

    At work though .. hmm ... let's have this Friday be "Pink Hair Day" ... and that could be a pun.

  10. Yes, an important theatrical signature, although the Beatles were the first band to have shockingly long hair (relative to the times).

    The famous pics of the Beatles in leather jackets were from 1960 in Hamburg. They had a tougher edge to the image then, with the DA hair, leather, and cowboy boots. But a year later Brian Epstein cleaned them up, put them in suits, taught them to bow, etc., etc. Something lost and something gained.

  11. I don't quite grasp the importance of any of this. My immediate response is, so what! Why are we so interested in finding winning forulas?
    Soupy Sales used to say, "If you can't make two ends meet make one vegetable."

  12. The last point is the importance of having something DISTINCT to offer so that one's contributions—as an artist, as a band, as a business team, as an organization (non profit or profit)—aren't lost in the marketplace. In the case of the Beatles, they (and Brian Epstein) recognized the advantages of STANDING OUT from the competition in every way, beginning with their music. But what initially propelled the band to global notoriety was as much their LOOK as their sound. But after the band's strange appearance got everyone's attention, people eventually came to appreciate them as the most original, creative, and talented musical team in pop music history. They went on to disrupt popular culture in unprecedented ways.

    Also, many claim that the contagiousness of the Beatles' joyful, artistic freedom contributed to the demise of totalitarianism in the Soviet block. Here's one quote: "More than any ideology, more than any religion, more than Vietnam or any war or nuclear bomb, the single most important reason for the diffusion of the Cold War was...the Beatles." Can you guess who said this? Hint: the Russian author of the book "Perestroika: New Thinking for Our Country and the World."

    But it all starts with getting people's attention.

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