Business lessons from the Eagles

Three weeks ago in Hartford, Connecticut, I caught the Eagles for the first time in 35 years. This band is still at the top of its game.

From day one The Eagles approached their career differently from other LA bands I knew—which I remember well because I was scuffling around the Troubadour coffeehouse when the band first started playing the "Hootenanny" open mics there in the early 70s.

After so many promising country rock bands had run aground (including Poco and The Flying Burrito Brothers) the Eagles—and especially their leader Glenn Frey—were determined to do it the right way and become a major brand. (Warning: a business lesson is on its way.)

Frey wanted a band that had all the ingredients for success. “Everybody had to look good, sing good, play good, and write good. We wanted it all. Peer respect. AM & FM success. No 1 singles and albums, great music, and a lot of money.”

Such a crass pursuit of fame and fortune was somewhat at odds with the artistic ethos of the place and time, but the Eagles, to their credit, were determined to make their original songs the centerpiece of the package, which turned out to be their strong suit for the next 44 years, giving us hits like, “Best of My Love,” “New Kid in Town,” and “Hotel California.” This was a songwriter's band.

But their organizing principle was first and foremost to be a commercial powerhouse. They set their sights high and were amazingly disciplined in their pursuit of their goals. “Discipline” is not a word one usually associates with rock music, but in their own way all the great bands were disciplined. And ambitious—as I wrote about in detail eight years ago here. (The Eagles did have their share of interpersonal conflict, which broke the band up for nearly 15 years and led Glenn Frey and Don Henley to take control of the group. But the current musicians seem content with their role in the band.)

One of the differentiators of successful business teams is being mission-driven and result-focused. (And the bigger the game you’re playing the more likely you’ll have team members psyched to play it.)

In the case of the Eagles, it's been mission accomplished.


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17 Comments

  1. A few footnotes:
    1. Thanks to Hotel California (a book I frequently cite) by Barney Hoskyns for the Glenn Frey quote.

    2. In watching the Eagles last month I was struck (again) by the quality of the singing and playing. In fact, I commented to a friend that a few of their earlier hits didn’t match the quality of their later classics, but most people would barely notice, because the songs were so well arranged, sung, and played. This was one of many epiphanies I had that night: great singing and playing can make a mediocre song sound good—and a good song great.

    3. It was a VERY impressive lineup of musicians, including one of the founding members, Bernie Leadon, who had quit the band in the mid-70s. He joined them on stage at Hartford for a bunch of tunes. Original bassist Randy Meisner also made a cameo appearance. Unfortunately, my favorite member, Don Felder (guitarist extraordinaire and co-writer of “Hotel California”) who was dumped from the band 15 years ago, was not on the kiss-and-make-up tour. (Apparently Frey and Henley haven’t forgiven him for his lawsuit against the band for breach of contract. Funny how that works.)

    4. With all of that musical fire power (including the inimitable Joe Walsh) assembled in one place, the most impressive dude I heard, for my money, was a mostly unacknowledged sideman, Steuart Smith, playing Don Felder’s old parts on a Fender Stratocaster. Don’t think I’ve ever heard more sensitive, soulful, and tasteful picking—providing exquisite highlights for the songs. Kudos to Felder for inventing many of the riffs to begin with, but Smith was flawless in his execution and embellishments—inspiring one observer (me) to recommit a major chunk of his remaining life to mastering this six-stringed instrument. I’m tempted to hear the band again in New York in November, JUST to hear Smith.

    1. I gotta get that book.

      Yesterday I was listening to the reissue of Yes' Fragile which has some "unfinished demos" of songs like Roundabout.

      As the liner notes say, it takes an astute listener with a good ear to hear what was "unfinished" about it. But the late Chris Squire and his band knew they weren't some garage band. Had to be flawless.

      Voltaire said "That which is too foolish to say, we sing." Yeah, even a mediocre song can sound brilliant if it's performed well. I'm not aware of a single clunky Eagles studio cut.

        1. Glad to be of service.

          Some friends put on an annual variety show (knowing it's foolish to call it a "talent" show.) This year I'm going to do a comedy routine with Best Beloved: we're going to sit at a breakfast table, conversing only in song lyrics, if possible, all from a single song.

          Because, as Voltaire didn't say, that which should be sung sounds downright foolish when you speak it. (The seed for this was planted years ago when I heard Steve Martin [?] reading the, um, "lyrics", to Donna Summer's Love to Love You, Baby as a poem.)

  2. A friend of mine leads a very successful cover band in the Sacramento area. He's been a musical talent agent for years, and the one thing he always tried to drum into his bands' heads was that the business has to be as important as the art — but that if you have to choose, focus on the business.

    I tell my writing clients, "If you just want to write and not do all that marketing, it's easy: just give your books away. But if you want to sell books, learn how to run a business."

    Most business folks need to know more about art. Virtually all artists need to know more about business.

    If only there were a book about, dunno, taking business lessons from rock . . .

  3. Hi John

    Greetings from over the pond!

    As you know my passion for The Eagles is limitless. Very interesting to read your take on their success. What comes through most to me is their focus, their determination and you could say ruthlessness. There is no doubting their talent which endures. Actually I think they sound better now than the early days.

    Did you meet them in the early days and what was your opinion then about their potential future success?

    Also be interested to hear your opinion of Don Henley's voice - to me the most versatile in rock over the last 40 years.

    1. Henley's vocals are the 2nd best thing about the band, after the songwriting. (Btw, thank Jackson Browne for the latter. Frey, Henley, and Souther learned from the master.)

      I kinda knew Glenn and J.D. when they were Longbranch Pennywhistle (a country/folk duo). They liked the rock band I was in at the time so we would exchange small talk at the Troubadour. Very friendly guys and very approachable. It was obvious that Glenn was one driven dude. But the Eagles were just one of many promising acts to come out of the Troubadour in that period and I didn't pay close attention to them. I was more focused on Jackson Browne who released his first album a few months before the Eagles. There was SO much talent performing at the Troubadour Hoots (open mic) in that period. In the same night you might catch Linda Ronstadt, Tom Waits, Jackson Browne, Glenn Frey and friends all trying out new material. Except for Ronstadt, these folks were pretty unknown to the world at large then.

      1. Songwriting: one of the great unsung (ha!) songwriters is a San Diego guy named Calman Hart (for years half of the duo Berkley Hart, now with a quartet of equally talented folks.)

        Witty songs about death (If I Die in a Nuclear War) and gut-kicking songs about betrayal (Up the River) and laugh out loud country songs about boots (Honey Don't Scuff These Boots) and the first one of his I ever heard, a twist-ending tearjerker about child abuse, Wake Up, Charlie.

        A bunch are on his early solo album The John Boy Drum (http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/calmanhart2) and the whole Berkley Hart collection is worth a listen.

  4. I wouldn't hold them up as a model of "team" however. From what I've read the band is run like a dictatorship, with Frey and Henley in command.

    1. Fair point. Although they began as a democracy they turned into something else. Guitarist Don Felder voiced his displeasure at Frey & Henley taking ownership of the band, which—he maintained—violated earlier agreements. Felder was eventually fired for that. (He sued for wrongful termination—and it was settled out of court.) So they're not my model of an egalitarian team—especially after the mid-70s—but they're a great example of a group with a mission.

  5. Don Henley has a new album out in October called "Cass County." As one who's adopted streaming, I don't mind admitting this will be one of the few CDs I buy this year so my hi fi can do it some justice. (The other will be the forthcoming David Gilmour opus.)

    I think the thing about the Eagles is the lyrics. Sure, there are some great tunes and some great guitar solos etc but it's the lyrics that get me. Songs like "Lyin' Eyes" and "The Last Resort" are stories. Business lesson from rock #1: give people a story or a narrative - something they can follow, identify with and get behind.

    Another Voltaire quote I suspect Messrs Henley and Frey would agree with: "Each player must accept the cards life deals him or her: but once they are in hand, he or she alone must decide how to play the cards in order to win the game."

    BTW, anyone interested in the Eagles who hasn't read Don Felder's "Heaven or Hell" memoir should do so. Given that Messrs Henley and Frey had apparently redacted massive chunks of it on threat of legal action, it makes you wonder what else went on.

    1. Felder's "Heaven or Hell: My Life in the Eagles" is one of my favorite band books. I posted about it here. As good as the Eagles were, I wonder how much better they could have been if the band hadn't turned into a Frey-Henley autocracy, with the other members relegated to sidemen. But it's easy to forget about all of that when you hear them play now.

  6. you're cutting this band a lot of slack ... lots of dipsy country tunes before they became an overproduced aor band.

    1. The Eagles seem do seem to elicit some strong opinions. I wasn't crazy about a lot of their early material myself. As I alluded to in my first comment, their pristine vocals (lead & harmony) and musicianship covered up some weak material, but their writing got better and better ("Desperado," "Best of My Love," etc.). Then after Felder joined, Leadon and Meisner quit, and Walsh joined, there was considerable "brand evolution" as they turned to guitar-driven rock (taking advantage of two of the best in Felder & Walsh). "Hotel California" blew it open for them. It hasn't helped that the ruling troika of Frey, Henley, and manager Azoff has pissed off a lot of folks inside and outside the band over the years. A mixed bag for sure, but they have an impressive oeuvre of classic hits now and their current make-up kicks ass. I can't say enough about guitarist Steuart Smith.

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