Business-and-music-related observations and comment.

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Feliz Navidad

Holidays aren’t the same without a Walk Off The Earth video, so here we go!

If you're new to this site, Walk Off The Earth is a Toronto band that achieved YouTube glory in the winter of 2012 with a live video of all five members playing one guitar. (See here). A national TV appearance on The Ellen DeGeneres Show and a Sony recording contract quickly followed. Since then it’s been a whirlwind of videos, albums, and multiple tours of North America and Europe.

Here they are doing a holiday spoof of their original video. (I’ve seen them up close on many occasions perform a medley of songs on one guitar, so I'm here to tell you this ain't smoke and mirrors.)


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This and that

cartoon taco I thought I'd give myself permission once again to wander off topic a bit. (This assumes of course that I’m normally ON topic.)

I was about to stop at my favorite Chipotle restaurant in Boston last week when I noticed a caravan of TV news trucks parked outside. I soon discovered it had just been closed by health inspectors. Bummer, I thought. I was really looking forward to that E.coli burrito.

Chipotle hasn’t had a great couple of months—if you hadn’t heard—having been cited for numerous food safety violations. (This is not a desired outcome if your brand identity centers around healthy food.) It raises questions about Chipotle's “Food With Integrity” promise. Now marketers will always tell you there's no such thing as bad publicity, but that may not extend to salmonella salads.

And yet, loyal customer that I am, I’m rooting for the company to turn this around. Snarkiness aside, I actually do like Chipotle's food (and prices) and I respect any business that’s trying to do something innovative. Chipotle has been praised by Slate Magazine for "unusual process innovations" that invite comparisons to Apple. And its decision to go au naturel with its food sources was an adventurous one for a “fast casual” restaurant. Chipotle's success in recent years in rolling out its “slow food, fast” approach to dining is a pretty good example of business model innovation.

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What do Bob Dylan and Steve Jobs have in common?

light-309103_1280Continuing my recent Bob Dylan fixation I just devoured A Freewheelin’ Time by Suze Rotolo, a 2008 book that details her three years as Dylan’s girlfriend, beginning soon after he arrived in New York in 1961. Several things caught my attention.

First, though Rotolo painted a mostly favorable portrait of her ex, she did admit that “artists we admire aren’t necessarily exemplary human beings just because they are exceptional in their chosen fields.” Whoda’ thunk? In particular she commented on the webs of deception Dylan spun about his pre-NY past and other women in his life. No breaking news here. But when Rotolo described his occasional tirades and “telling-it-like-it-is” cruelty to friends and colleagues it reminded me of other creative geniuses who are similarly famous for their withering take-downs of coworkers, including Steve Jobs—especially as depicted in the recent film of the same name.

I’ve often wondered about innovative wunderkinder—like Jobs—who are capable of such hostility to colleagues. Are they dealing with pressures that the rest of us mortals can’t comprehend? Are they dealing with old childhood wounds that have never been healed? And are they so above reproach because of their immense talent that no one dares to call them out on their incivility and immaturity, allowing them to continue it indefinitely?

Second, from watching Dylan up close for years, Rotolo had a simple take on innovation, which also applies to Jobs’s modus operandi: “The learning process for artists of all stripes usually follows the path of imitate, assimilate, then innovate.” Jobs, like Dylan, was famous for his expropriation of others’ ideas. (To be fair to Dylan, that's accepted practice in the world of blues and folk music.) As mentioned in a previous post, Jobs and Apple became experts at “recombining existing technologies” (including, in the first Macintosh, the rudimentary graphic interface of Xerox’s PARC computers). Jobs himself has admitted that creativity is just synthesizing.

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An album that left a footprint

Fifty years ago this week one of the most important records in rock history was winging its way to music stores across North America.

Rubber Soul was a major pivot by The Beatles—a distinct turn towards more sophisticated songwriting and eclectic instrumentation. (The album was considered by some to be their first “work of art.”) It was their answer to a string of signature hits—all blockbusters—by their competitors in the previous months: “Tambourine Man” by The Byrds; “Satisfaction” by The Rolling Stones; and “Like a Rolling Stone” by Bob Dylan.

The day after RS was released, the Byrds’ second monster hit, “Turn Turn Turn,” became the #1 single, soon to be followed by “The Sound of Silence,” sung by an unknown folk duo named Simon & Garfunkel. Rock had come of age! (It’s true that The Beatles had recently scored a #1 hit themselves—with “Yesterday”—but it was time for them to assert their mastery of the album format.)

Rubber Soul soon became #1 (displacing The Sound of Music as the top-selling album) and remained on the US charts for most of 1966. A work that greatly expanded the bounds of pop music at the time—featuring inventive lyrics, exotic sounds, and creative production techniques—Rubber Soul remains one of the most critically acclaimed rock albums and is ranked #5 on Rolling Stone magazine's list of the "500 Greatest Albums of All Time.” Tracks such as “In My Life,” “Norwegian Wood,” and “Michelle” still stand the test of time.

But to those in business—who live in a world of projects, deliverables, and deadlines—Rubber Soul should represent another kind of achievement, as mentioned here. No other business author or music writer has picked up on this, so I’ll continue to trumpet it: RS was one of the most amazing time-to-market breakthroughs in the history of the music business—if not business at large—especially considering the quality and originality of the product.

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P.F. Sloan, Bob Dylan, pyrotechny, and a crazy doc running for U.S. President

explosion-139433_1920 I was sorry to hear of the passing of P.F. Sloan, a singer/songwriter/musician/producer who wrote several pop hits in the 60s, including the campy, not-intended-to-be-funny "Eve of Destruction.” (He wrote some good songs too.)

It was Sloan who, in describing his experience performing at a California rock concert in 1967, said his audience transformed into "undulating love jello.” That's one phrase I haven't been able to get out of my brain. But I have to remember that Sloan was in an altered state at the time (it WAS the Summer of Love, as reported here) which may be why I haven’t been able to reproduce that experience with my business audiences. I guess there are some things that don’t carry over so well from rock to business.

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As I continue to work my way through Elijah Wald’s book, Dylan Goes Electric (from which I’ve been gleaning business lessons, as reported here and here), I’m reminded of an early connection I had with Dylan. During my first summer in New York, I was doing all-night session work at Richard Alderson’s recording studio on W. 65th Street and sleeping in his back room, where different artists stored their musical equipment. My bed during that period was a sleeping bag on top of a Fender amplifier cabinet that had the name “Dylan” stenciled on it. I found out later that Alderson had been Bob Dylan’s sound engineer during his first “electric” tours and was warehousing some of Bob’s gear there. Looking back on my music career, I’d have to say that sleeping on Dylan’s amplifier was the closest I ever came to greatness.

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