Business lessons from Robert Johnson

guitar Today we discuss the man hailed as "the king of the Delta blues," "the James Dean of blues," and "the most important blues singer that ever lived."

That would be Robert Johnson, who died at the tender age of 27 in 1938. His music—after being popularized in 1961 with a reissue of his recordings—is now considered the foundation of blues and rock, having inspired such musical luminaries as Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Jimmy Page, and Bob Dylan.

On the subject of Robert Johnson so little is known but so much has been written. And, at the time of his life, so little was achieved by a man of so much talent. But fortunately his musical influence is heard everywhere these days—especially in blues.

But we’ll focus today on some business lessons, because, well, that’s what we do here. There are at least four things you can learn from Johnson’s brief career that you might apply to yourself, your company, or your products and services.


Building a brand identity—part 1

_DSC0006 Pop music artists provide great examples for how to—and how not to—develop a brand identity.

Playing clubs in LA in the classic rock era, I got a close-up view of some talented acts in their formative years and it was obvious from the get-go which ones were taking control of their brand. (Not that anyone ever used that word in the music community, but many were very conscious of how they wanted to be perceived by the public.)

The top artists eventually acquired big-time managers and record companies who helped craft their image, but the savviest of them had already established a distinct brand identity on their own.

Jackson Browne is someone who managed his image well—whether instinctively or consciously—and built his brand slowly and authentically. (I’ve been reading Hotel California—a book mentioned in a previous post—which details how Browne and many of his ambitious compatriots became superstars in the 1970s.) He had the luxury of time to develop his brand because he didn’t cut his first record until years after other artists had begun popularizing his songs.


A week in the life

Beatles Silhouttes As a Beatles get-a-lifer, I like to check in on what the Fabs were doing at a given point in time (as I mentioned in a previous post) and see if there are lessons to apply. After all, this small business team was one of the most commercially successful artistic enterprises in history.

During the week of March 9 to March 15 here’s what the Liverpool lads were up to in different years—and what it meant.

1958: The band who would later become the Beatles—the Quarry Men (including John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and George Harrison)—performed in a small basement club in Liverpool that was seedy enough to be closed by police a month later. A valuable reminder that The Beatles not only had been playing gigs for SIX YEARS before they became world famous in 1964, but they played in some of the most rat-infested cellar clubs in northern Britain in that period. Hashtag: not an overnight success. (Not a prima donna band either.)

1961: The Beatles performed at the tiny Cavern Club (a small subterranean Liverpool dive that had become their home base of operation) several times this week. On two of the days they played three gigs at three different venues! While on stage they would eat, drink, and smoke—and even curse at the audience. This was not show-business-as-usual. Here was an insolent working class band, belting out raunchy rock & roll at high volume, wherever and whenever they could. Exuberance and defiance was their calling card.


Fluffy thoughts

Of7vyUNC Being snow-bound in New England this winter has led me to more observations and reflections, as deep and fluffy as the 10-foot drifts outside my window. (Can thoughts be both deep and fluffy?)

I'm only one quarter of the way through Hotel California: The True-Life Adventures of Crosby, Stills, Nash, Young, Mitchell, Taylor, Browne, Ronstadt, Geffen, the Eagles, and Their Many Friends by Barney Hoskyns, and already I miss the LA weather! But the work itself, which I've waited eight years to read, is one of the most smartly (and snarkily) written rock history books I’ve come across. Supporting the argument of my last post, the book shows what happens when you put dozens of wildly creative types in the same spot—for instance, Hollywood's Laurel Canyon. (Having opened shows for many of these desperados in their early days I can attest to the creative intelligence of this pack.) Mix the above names with the likes of Cass Elliot and John Phillips (Mama’s & Papa’s), Mickey Dolenz (the Monkees), Jim Morrison, Frank Zappa, J. D. Souther, Jackie DeShannon, and many more who hung in the area, and you’re going to get some catalytic reactions. No wonder Hollywood was once rock’s Silicon Valley. Maybe it still is.