I recently discovered this 1967 letter from Joe Smith, executive of Warner Brothers Records, to the Grateful Dead’s manager, admonishing the band for its inability to give WB sufficient product to release on schedule.
Given the discussion we had four weeks ago on the pros and cons of establishing “constraints”—including tight deadlines—for creative projects, this provides us with a wonderfully entertaining vantage point for further discussion!
My history of working with teams—WOW! teams, breakthrough teams, process re-engineering teams, quality improvement teams, etc.—has usually involved operating out of a “tight box," dictated by the demands of business. Often the team has to achieve an ambitious outcome within an aggressive time frame and limited resources. This structure can push teams to think outside the lines because they recognize that they can’t achieve the goal conducting business as usual.
Yet Harvard business professor Teresa Amabile has argued persuasively that when it comes to generating innovative solutions, dealing with “time pressure” can be counterproductive, especially for creative thought processing. But this raises the question: what about the extreme case of a team having no consciousness of a deadline (and, perhaps in the case of the Grateful Dead, no consciousness of linear time)?
Quoting from Smith’s December 27th letter:
Lack of preparation, direction and cooperation from the very beginning have made this album the most unreasonable project with which we have ever involved ourselves. Your group has many problems, it would appear.
But wait. It gets better!
It's apparent that nobody in your organization has enough influence over Phil Lesh to evoke anything resembling normal behaviour. You are now branded as an undesirable group in almost every recording studio in Los Angeles. I haven't got all the New York reports in as yet, but the guys ran through engineers like a steamroller. It all adds up to a lack of professionalism.
Wow! Even without seeing the name of Phil Lesh, we could have surmised what group Smith was talking about. After all, this was 1967, when most record companies still held some sway over bands.
I should add that during this time my band of Yale drop-outs was briefly living with the Dead in a rock & roll crash pad in Englewood, New Jersey—so I had first-hand experience of their trippily whimsical behavior which so irritated their record company. But as a fellow musician (whom the Dead invited to join their jams) I found them also to be an approachable, congenial, and wildly creative gaggle of musicians—who just loved to play (in every sense of the word) all the time.
Joe Smith had one final appeal:
Your artistic control is subject to reasonable restrictions and I believe that the time and expense involved along with your own freedom has been more than reasonable. Now let's get the album out on the streets without anymore fun and games.
Fortunately, in time, the Dead DID become more disciplined, less drug-addled (except for Mr. Jerry Garcia), and more responsible. (Some percentage of musicians eventually grow into adults, which is still a goal of mine.) Within a decade or so the Dead became a veritable financial juggernaut. Some, including myself, would say they became savvy capitalists. In fact, there's an excellent book that documents their contribution to commerce as well as art: Marketing Lessons From the Grateful Dead by David Meerman Scott and Brian Halligan (which I will properly review one of these days).
Meanwhile, Joe Smith went on to become one of the most capable and respected executives in the music business, serving time as prexy of Warner Brothers, Elektra Asylum, and Capitol.
Returning to our original point… Can we agree that creative projects require “reasonable restrictions”? Even Professor Amabile, in a Harvard Business School interview, concedes that “very low time pressure might lull people into inaction.” Then she adds that “I don't think there's much danger of too little time pressure in most organizations I've studied.” Apparently her studies never included the early Grateful Dead.
For an earlier post on the Dead check here.