The best band you never heard

Moby GrapeHIGH RESOLUTION COVER ARTWe’ve talked endlessly about the importance of creating your own identity as an individual, team, organization, or business. This of course is what branding is all about. Identifying and promoting what’s unique about you—and your product/service. Otherwise, how do you stand out against the background noise?

So what happens to a small business that has off-the-charts talent yet fails to establish a distinct brand identity? Nothing. That's the problem. Here's one rock band that provides the case study in this.

Moby Grape was among the most promising groups to emerge from the San Francisco scene in the mid-sixties, when record labels were pouring buckets of money onto new rock bands like The Jefferson Airplane, The Grateful Dead, and Janis Joplin’s Big Brother & the Holding Company. Many musicians considered the Grape the most gifted—and eclectic—rock group they’d ever heard, given the band’s proficiency with blues, folk, country, and even jazz. These guys had everything going for them, according to Rolling Stone’s brilliant critic David Fricke:

    "They had the looks, the songs, the guitars (three of ‘em) and the singing (five drop-dead, blues-angel voices)—everything they needed to be America’s Beatles and Rolling Stones combined. Everything except the luck."

When Columbia Records made the marketing blunder of introducing the band by shot-gunning the release of five very different-sounding Grape singles AT ONCE, radio programmers and listeners were confused. There was no coherent, identifiable Grape sound to latch onto. The Grape’s stunning versatility suddenly worked against them.

The band never recovered. They never scored a hit record, and protracted legal battles with management dogged them for decades. These and other troubles are cataloged by Fricke here in his liner notes for The Very Best of Moby Grape.

Better brand management—which would have identified and promoted what was distinct about the band—could have ensured a much different outcome.

"Be distinct or be extinct," as Tom Peters would say.

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  1. Heard of them. Never heard them, not once. Now I should.

    Reminds me of the Freddy Jones Band: three pretty good singer/songwriter/guitarists — each with a different and distinctive sound.

    I could accept that "Daydream" and "Waitress" were the same band, but the album sounded like a mix tape by someone who didn't necessarily know which songs belonged together.

  2. Somebody mentioned to me on Facebook that some of the members of the Grape played at SXSW two years ago. Good to hear.

  3. Brand management applies just as well to individuals. When I interviewed a job applicant I wanted to know what was special about the person that separated them from the pack. What was the unique contribution they would make to the company? Every applicant should know that walking in.

  4. As an addendum to the post, I should add this comment I received from a Facebook friend who often has insider knowledge of events like this (though it's possible this account is apocryphal): "Columbia screwed up, but it's really Ahmet's fault! Ahmet Ertegun (President of Atlantic Records) and Clive Davis (then President of Columbia Records) were having lunch. Clive was boasting to Ahmet about the new Supergroup he had just signed, MOBY GRAPE. Clive said, "You know, there are at least six singles on this album. I just don't know which one to release." Ahmet replied jokingly, 'Well, why don't you release all six simultaneously?' Clive took him seriously."

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