Cooperative competition: another business lesson from The Beatles

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A long-lost Beatles interview was discovered a few years ago from a Scottish TV taping session in April 1964.

This was initially touted as the earliest surviving Beatles interview—which of course it is not—but it may be the earliest surviving interview in which John Lennon and Paul McCartney discuss their songwriting partnership.

But more importantly it offers a critical lesson in team collaboration: it works to share the credit.

John and Paul agreed from the beginning that no matter how much or how little each contributed to a finished song, it was to be credited equally. (Even if a song was written only by Lennon or only by McCartney it was labeled a "Lennon-McCartney" composition and the royalties from the song were shared fifty-fifty.)

This was a smart way to manage competition cooperatively.

On the one hand, Lennon and McCartney could still take individual pride of ownership in—and receive public recognition from—what each contributed.

After all, most discerning listeners could figure out who wrote which songs (and even which sections of songs) by noting who was singing the lead vocal. For instance, in "A Day in the Life" John wrote and sang the body of the song, while Paul wrote and sang the bridge ("Woke up, fell out of bed, dragged a comb across my head…").

On the other hand, Lennon and McCartney shared equally in all the financial rewards from each song. Given their hyper-competitive natures—which were on ample display in the later Beatle years, contributing to their eventual breakup—this partnership model may have kept them together a lot longer than what would have occurred otherwise.

With a few exceptions, most of the Beatles' songwriting competitors were not able to manage their creative differences long enough to sustain long-term business success. (Interestingly, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards adopted the same partnership model as Lennon-McCartney and are still writing, recording, and performing with the Rolling Stones.)

Similar songwriting partnerships might have extended the life of other creatively-gifted bands of that era, such as The Byrds (featuring singer/composers Roger McGuinn, Gene Clark, and David Crosby) or Buffalo Springfield (Neil Young and Stephen Stills), given that both bands were unnecessarily riven by songwriter competition and jealousy.

As US President Harry Truman once said: "It's amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit."

(This post was originally published six years ago. The commentary is worth checking out.)


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4 Comments

  1. While the 'competitive collaboration' of John & Paul may have been a happy accident, their initial desire was to emulate the great songwriting teams before them, like Kern & Wodehouse, Rogers & Hart, Mann & Weil, etc. Creative growth was born of the fact that they weren't handcuffed into specific roles of "arranger-lyricist", as the others were.

    Of course, their great performing abilities ensured that their material would be presented as intended, or with the best possible interpretation.

  2. I was surprised to learn how many of their songs were not jointly composed -- the vast majority of them I believe. Very wise of them to not be competing on royalties. But maybe when they started they assumed they'd be composing together more?

    1. Even in their early days John and Paul brought some songs to the band that were written by just one of them, but as time went on they wrote solo more often.

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