Grateful Deadlines

© PrintingSociety -
© PrintingSociety -
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.

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  1. I was with Warners in the Mo Ostin era just after Joe, but my producer, Eric Jacobsen (Loving Spoonful, Chris Isaak, etc) absolutely loved Joe and never had a bad word to say about him. So I'm on Joe's side here.

    It was an era of endlessly squandered studio time, hell, the Airplane were at Heider's in Frisco when I was there and they just block-booked studios for months at a time. Folks showed up whenever.

    I opened for the dead in Boston for a few nights, and they were great guys, real sweet and friendly. Their contribution to commerce is impressive and undeniable. On the art side, I rate them a zero. Derivative, insipid, uninspired hippy-dippy wanking off. And their influence? Bands like Phish etc attempted to leech off the formula and produced even worse drivel. You could take the entire Dead catalog and hit it with a flamethrower and nothing would have changed musically in America, except for the better.

    The Beatles produced great stuff under extreme time pressure. And great stuff when they had years to pop out another album. Greatness is as greatness does. The Dead produced garbage no matter what auspices it was produced under.

    Moral: Aspire to greatness in the formation of the team in the first place, and it won't matter how fast the clock is ticking.

    1. I'm pretty ambivalent about a whole load of records the Dead made but I'd forgive them just about anything for "American Beauty." The songs 'Box of Rain' and 'Friend of the Devil' are (to my ears) terrific.

    2. Ken, you should tell us how you really feel. No need to hold back here.

      Yes, Joe was a very popular—and accomplished—music exec. And he’s still around.

      Speaking of which, we lost a great one last week with the passing of Sid Bernstein, who brought the Fab Four to America, booked everyone from Tony Bennett to the Stones, and managed the Rascals.

  2. I'm not quite sure what Mr. Smith was trying to achieve with the letter, beyond putting on file up some "evidence" of the band's "unprofessionalism" in case there was a later falling out. I also love the implicit message that these guys have signed a contract so they need to align their creativity to the recording and release schedules!

    However, he does make one very good point:

    "No matter how talented your group is, they're going to have to put something of themselves into the business before they go anywhere."

    Early evidence of the ongoing saga in all businesses at all levels about how to handle the maverick salesman / designer / engineer / whoever else that thinks they can bypass the stuff the rest of us have to do because their great sales / design / engineering / whatever gives them a free pass.

    1. When I first started playing in bands (in the Pleistocene epoch) we did look up to the managers, producers, and record label execs as the adults who called the shots. But I finally realized that they worked for us. This same band of mine (The Morning) that lived with the Dead briefly—and opened for them in NY and LA—hired and fired four different managers (two of which were owners of famous nightclubs) in two years.

      Come to think of it, we weren't much more responsive to schedules and deadlines then the Dead were—which may have had something to do with the fact that we never got a label deal.

      1. No question the A&R men and managers and agents and label execs and producers could all be incredible assholes who were ultimately, as Randy Newman likes to call directors, "Bad for music." It was up to the musicians to hold fast to their integrity and keep the sound in their head alive under intense pressure to "go commercial."

        On the other hand, there's a great moment in this cool doc "Sound City" where they were interviewing the Heartbreakers about making their first record there. They had played out a lot and couldn't understand why the fancy producer (Phil Ramone or Jimmy Iovine or one of those guys) was giving them such grief and demanding take after take.

        So Mike Campbell comes into the control room all pissed off and ready to chew the guy out but the producer just says, "Listen." And he plays it back.

        Cambpell then says to the camera, "I suddenly realized...holy shit. We totally sucked!"

        Making records or good business really is a team effort and team commitment to get it right. It's so easy to fall in love with your own sound or ideas and get lost in the ego trip of it all.

        1. Ken - lovely story. However, I can't help but wonder if the hotshot producer might have got a better and quicker result by letting the band have a couple of plays and then called them into the control booth. A quiet, "How do you think that went?" followed by a playback could have done the job, without wasting time and creating a lot of frustration.

          1. Well, what Mike was really experiencing was the "first-timer" experience in the studio. Live players used to playing stuff once can never believe how many takes a basic track requires to provide the producer with just the right feel for a building block. Today with all-digital you can fake a ton. But back in the day, the producer would usually chop up the submaster with a razor blade like a Samurai to get one workable basic track with exactly the right feel and flow.

            When I was working at Abbey Road, I asked my engineer why there was all this rotting brown muck under the control room window in Studio 2. "John Lennon used to throw apples at George Martin when he demanded too many takes from him and the lads. We just left the residue there out of affection."

        2. When I was a drummer I used to tape live performances of my band as often as possible — no matter how shoddy the quality of recording — just to get a sense of whether I was playing in the pocket, not overplaying, not speeding up, etc. It was ALWAYS humbling to hear, 100% of the time. My perspective while playing was skewed.

          1. Yeah, it passes from the realm of emotion to reason. That's the moment you realize it's not enough to "feel" the music, but you/your performance must also become the medium through which the entire track can best be revealed. That's why I love recording. Very Zen. It's like Lao-Tzu is always on your shoulder saying, "Perfection is the art of becoming one within and without. Pleasing only yourself is never an option."

            Be the track! Usually, less is more. Look at Ringo or Charlie Watts. Did they overplay? Never. Ever take a solo? Never. Even Ginger Baker. What?? He was all over the place and took ten-minute solos! Fair enough. But does anybody ever REMEMBER a single Ginger Baker solo? Never. The key is his playing was the perfect compliment to a 3-piece ensemble. His fills made perfect sense in a power trio. His core grooves transformed songs that would have been muddled drivel into soaring classics. He was one with the needs of the tracks.

            In jazz, the first question about a drummer is "Can he play time?" Meaning, is there a locked, metronomic beat in his head that is in sync with all the other players at all times? Without that, may as well become an accountant. Game over.

            In "Sound City" Dave Grohl recounts how he kept speeding up the Nirvana songs as they got more and more exciting. He thought that's what you're supposed to do. So the producer insisted he play to a click track, and Dave freaked out. Drummers consider that the ultimate insult. But he did, he locked on immediately, and they got it in one take. That's how we got "Smells Like Teen Spirit".

  3. Time constraints are necessary.

    It's better when they're self-imposed.

    Despite my overall lack of interest in the Dead's music (other than the aforementioned American Beauty) they took personal indulgence to new heights, and turned it into a commercial force of epic proportions.

    There's a lesson in there, apparently a whole book full.

    1. Yeah, the Dead stumbled into a lifestyle niche and so perfectly exploited it! It was very similar to how Harley-Davidson brilliantly re-invented itself after an infusion of cash.

      Harley finally got they they weren't selling motorcycles (which sucked). They were selling not just A lifestyle, but THE American Way of Life Lifestyle.

      The Dead evolved their counterculture version of that. Their music sucked as bad as the Harley bikes, BUT they started selling the CULT component, us (Deadheads) against Them (straights, actual music lovers, smart non-stoner people), and that's when they cashed in forever. Their product of lowest-common-denominator musical rock pablum was perfect for wasted fans.

      And John has some great segments in here on the whole emergent freebie schemes that the Dead practically invented. Mucho commercial lessons to be learned.

  4. Hi John! I remember all this fairly well. Time constraints are nice, but many work at their own pace, such as we. Now remember, it was 10 years between the second and third (I think) Boston album. Now, one can put out goodies when one wants to, unless you are Madonna, Gaga, or Miley....other stories!! He he!!

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