Playing it unsafe

I’ve always admired businesses that were willing to take serious risks to succeed.

Patagonia, an outdoor apparel company, has done it repeatedly. In 1994, for example, it decided to switch to organic cotton after its founder, Ivan Chouinard, recognized the environmental damage caused by toxic chemicals from traditional cotton. The company bet the farm on it, going a year without profit on cotton products as it searched for new gins and mills. Despite the fact that organic cotton cost at least 50% more, Patagonia successfully made the transition, raising its cotton sales 25% (which also helped establish a world market for organic cotton).

Zappos, the online shoe and apparel shop, realized years ago it had to separate itself from the pack so it instituted a radical policy (at the time) of free shipping even on returns. Though it cost a fortune, that soon became an acceptable marketing expense as sales exploded. Zappos also decided to go for broke on a call center that was fanatically devoted to customers, where enthusiastic call reps would sometimes spend hours on the phone to help a single customer. Zappos has since become the world's largest online shoe store.

Many of the greatest rock bands have taken similar risks. The Beatles at the peak of their success threw caution to the wind and recorded wildly experimental records. Revolver in 1966 and Sgt. Pepper's in 1967 were unlike anything they had ever attempted, featuring highly creative recording techniques, production effects, and even cover art. The band had no idea how the records would be received, but history has rendered its verdict: two of the greatest and most influential pop albums of all time (along with the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds), say top critics. Discussing the Beatles' philosophy at the time, Paul McCartney made the simple observation: “It always seemed an unsafe idea to try to be safe.”

Other examples abound... In 1975 Fleetwood Mac, a well-known British blues band at the time, reconstituted itself around an obscure California country-rock duo, Buckingham Nicks—whom Mick Fleetwood had never heard live before welcoming into the band! Fleetwood Mac quickly became a megastar attraction and commercial juggernaut, with its second album together (Rumours) eventually selling nearly 50 million copies. Green Day, after a successful 16-year career of recording and performing short, intense alt-pop-punk songs, switched directions in 2004 and recorded a decidedly ambitious “punk rock opera” and political protest record, American Idiot—a creative and commercial triumph. The album also became the basis for a successful Broadway musical.

This matches an epiphany I had when I was 29 years old. Shortly after recording my first record—an independently produced four-song EP—I made the rounds of record labels in Hollywood in search of a distribution deal. After not making it past the receptionist at a half dozen companies, I devised a way of getting a guaranteed audience with the next one.

Someone had tipped me off that A&M Records was trying to stay on the good side of its popular but mercurial artist, Joe Cocker, so I decided to reinvent myself as Joe’s buddy. Knowing he was on tour and probably not easy to reach, I determined I would contact a top gun at A&M and say that Joe Cocker had recommended I play my songs for him (they were usually men). When I called the receptionist the next morning and delivered my pitch, instead of getting the usual run-around (“Mr. Big's assistant would be delighted to listen to your songs sometime if you’d like to mail them to us”), I was immediately forwarded to the Director of Talent Development, who, if my memory serves me correct, was David Anderle. As it turned out, he had time to speak to me that very afternoon if I wanted to drop by with my record!

Three hours later I was face to face with the big guy—definitely a first for me—who carefully listened to my songs. Unfortunately, the rest of the story didn’t go quite the way I had fantasized, young naïf that I was. Instead of opening his drawer and pulling out a contract and a check, he patiently explained what A&M was looking for, that my record didn’t fit their current criteria, and that he’d be happy to hear future offerings from me. And of course he asked me how our friend Joe Cocker was doing.

As I drove out of the A&M parking lot that afternoon, I knew I had gleaned a simple but valuable lesson, which over the years has stood me well: think outside the grooves, take chances, and be creative—not just artistically (hell, that’s assumed) but entrepreneurially. In other words, take some personal risk. This is a learning I took into my next project.


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4 Comments

  1. Safe was never the best route, but soon, it'll be the worst route.

    Safe is a commodity, a race to the bottom, disposable and replaceable. Safe is using a calculator to decide between Scott Tissue and Charmin. Safe will get you dumped for someone who's a nickel cheaper.

    Nobody ever went to a George Carlin show or read Umberto Eco because it was the safe choice.

    Any day that doesn't have a frisson of fear from leaping out of an airplane with a silkworm instead of a parachute is less than I wanted.

  2. The underlying point here is probably not one of 'safety' - that's likely purely incidental to the ethos of 'talent does as it pleases'.

    Just one of many (and you'll of course know 'em far better than me), Neil Young is of course an obvious example of being so-inclined... each new album bearing little similarity to the one before, with apparently little-to-no concern as to whether anyone would buy (or even like) it.

    So here's a big yay-hooray to 'fuck business-as-usual, focus groups, and all that malarkey'.

    1. Neil Young may be a good mascot for the I-don’t-give-a-damn-what-you-think philosophy. (He would just not show up for some CSN&Y gigs, for instance.) I was in a band with a guy like that. When he missed gigs and we had to cancel, he’d wonder why the booking agent and club owner got so uptight about it.

      I’m not sure that fits The Beatles as well. A lot of the risks they took seemed to be on behalf of staying on top. I think they recognized early that staying one step ahead of the competition required them to be relentlessly and insanely creative. Lennon and McCartney were extremely competitive with the other top acts of the era—Stones, Beach Boys, Dylan, etc.—and they knew if they played it safe somebody would overtake them. (In Lennon's famous Rolling Stone interview he went ballistic over Jagger for his bad-mouthing of The Beatles.) I bet they were shitting bricks just before Pepper came out, wondering if people would accept it. I know that after they broke up, Lennon and McCartney were obsessed about the chart success of their solo records.

      1. Steering away from bands and firmly toward business...

        Key point here is that Patagonia and Zappos (plus all the others who're inclined toward doing business 'differently') recognise that 'good' (as in 'decent') business is 'good' (as in 'profitable') business - and deservingly prosper therefrom.

        Raraities they'll remain though, because there's just too many who simply don't and/or won't get it.

        Oh well, such is life; fuck 'em.

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