The rock industry can teach modern firms much about encouraging creativity at work
Creativity is the new business religion. Managers are exhorted to encourage it, consultancies make millions hosting seminars explaining how they can do it and hordes of researchers in the US are at this very moment grappling with such questions as: What is creativity? How can a company best encourage it? What are the forces that militate against it? And how much can we charge for all this?
As with many fashionable crazes, there is substance under all the chaff. Modern corporations have an built-in bias against creativity. But how is this to be corrected? Many solutions have been proposed but it seemed worth studying the one industry which depends on creativity for its future and its financial viability – the rock music business.
Rock music is an industry which has lived on the cutting edge for so long it has grown accustomed to the feel of cold steel, where every decision is judged not by the company but an unseen audience of billions, many of whom are not even in their teens, and where the tidy pseudo-scientific disciplines of marketing are weighed against a manager’s gut instinct.
Six lessons seem particularly pertinent to others in pursuit of this corporate holy grail of creativity, but the obvious, overriding message is encouraging creativity may take the average corporation as many years of hard work as that great showbiz phenomena, the overnight success.
Creativity needs time
1 One of the recurring phenomena of the pop business is how many acts have trouble with what is known, in industry cliché, as “that difficult third album”. Ian Cranna, a music journalist who managed the 1980s cult band Orange Juice, says, “Most artists have 20 years of life to bring to their first album. But as soon as that succeeds, they’re on a whirligig of interviews, personal appearances, shooting videos, and tours.
“They’ll be sent off to crack America, which involves a tour of at least three weeks. And then when the time comes, nine months later, to make that second album, they probably haven’t had time to work on more than a couple of songs along with a couple they had left over from the first album. And they end up writing songs in the studio, and you can hear that when the album comes out.”
Linda Holbeche, director of research at Roffey Park Management Institute, says, “The biggest barrier to creativity in business is time, the invitation to an employee to squeeze in a bit of creativity into their day job.”
At 3M, some employees spend 50 per cent of their time on blue-sky thinking. Although one fondly imagines rock stars live a life of idle luxury, the pressure on their diaries endangers the creativity that made them successful. This is one reason why many acts have a creative lifespan of five years or less.
Nothing fails like success
2 Al Smith, artist and repertoire director at V2 Records, Richard Branson’s new label, told Getsigned.com, the music web site, “Labels are lazy. Whatever’s working you can bet there’ll be 25 more of those.”
Usually, each successive wave of me-too artists just proves the law of diminishing returns, but they are cheap to sign. “Who wants to develop a band these days?” says Lisa Anderson, who managed Geri Halliwell’s immediate post-Spice career, produced the Brit Awards this year and has worked in human resources. “It’s so expensive, even before you make the investment in making and marketing the first album. That’s why you get so many more of these pre-packaged acts in the pop field.”
Simon Napier Bell, in his self-aggrandising memoir, You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me, says some labels were so desperate to sign the next big thing in the early 1970s that he could sell them acts that did not exist without even having a tape for the A&R manager to hear.
When Fran Healy of the group Travis got up to accept a Brit Award this year he said, “We were just a few kids playing guitars in our room.” His challenge to labels was to develop a mechanism by which artists like them could be found. Anderson says, “It’s not like other industries where you can find the talent if you go to certain universities, there could be thousands of kids playing guitars in their rooms and we would never hear them.”
Yet as the war for talent hots up, many other industries face a similar predicament. In the recording industry, artists are usually recruited through A&R managers. Guy Bolland at Virgin Records says, “I talk to friends, managers, publicists, promoters, lawyers, publishers, producers, people I meet in record shops, I listen to hundreds of tapes a month, go to gigs and browse the Internet.”
Although he laughingly admits he has not signed an artist in a year at Virgin, he is one of two people at his label whose sole mission is to find good new talent to hire that is not the next Steps or Westlife. The question is when will the skills of the A&R professional be used more actively in industries such as IT?
Creativity needs a champion
3 As Holbeche says, “Staff are often at their most creative when they have a manager who allows them their freedom to come in late or dress differently or develop their own rituals and will take the flak.”
This is exactly what producer George Martin and manager Brian Epstein did for the young Beatles. Although with hindsight their success seemed predestined, in the early 1960s they were rejected by many A&R managers one of whom explained, “groups with guitars are on their way out”.
Martin produced most of their albums and, intriguingly, it is as his input declined that The Beatles faltered musically. The saga by which a successful act turns on the producers/impresarios who made them famous to do their own thing is one of rock music’s dominant motifs. Often, the course of unfettered creativity does not run smooth. By the end of The Beatles’ days as a group, Paul McCartney was pleading with Martin to help them make “a proper Beatles album like we used to”.
This suggests that managers, apart from championing the cause of their creative staff, also need to retain the ability, as Holbeche says, “to manage their egos and relate to them as adults” and find ways to tell them the occasional home truth.
Sometimes this can go too far. Two members of Westlife were seen at this year’s Brits “being bored to tears and getting a telling off because they’d been seen smoking”, says Andy Strickland, editor of the UK music web site, Dotmusic.
Creativity doesn’t always work
4 Nine out of 10 albums do not cover their production cost and in 1996 the average artist on a major label in the US sold 702 copies of their CD. This rather horrific success rate may be due, says Strickland, to the fact that, “There are a lot less people in the industry who just love music than they’re used to be. There are more people in it who behave just like everybody else at a big conglomerate.”
The oft-repeated mantra, “We reward risk-takers” is often nothing but a hollow soundbite of corporate hypocrisy, yet in the record industry where “failure” is almost the norm it is impossible to fire every A&R manager who hires a band that does not sell.
Where the music industry is endangering its own future is the decline of the A&R man. “When companies merge, the A&R man somewhere up north is an easy economy to make”, says Anderson, “and being London-centric as many labels are, it’s easy to sit back and think that if an act’s any good it will come to them”.
Creativity can be dangerous
5 “Often the very thing that makes someone creative and successful is the very thing which makes them so screwed up,” says Cranna. “I used to try and get the band to discuss where we were going but Edwyn Collins [the lead singer of Orange Juice] wasn’t interested.”
Such wilful ignorance is summed up by the young Michael Jackson who, when asked by his teacher who would look after his money when he grew up if he could not do simple maths, replied, “My manager”.
Many acts have had deeper personal problems which fame only worsens, the most tragic recent example being the disappearance and presumed suicide of Manic Street Preachers’ Richey James in 1995. But the pressure upon them is immense. “The press always say these kids know what they are getting into but that is such a threadbare argument,” says Anderson. “They see pictures of Robbie Williams having fun and they don’t see the other side. They don’t know people are going to go through your dustbins.”
The pressures on creative people in most other industries are less intense but they often behave in ways which the corporation finds uncomfortable. They may, for instance, not play the corporate game in meetings and have a penchant for telling unwanted truths.
They may also need to be shielded in some way from the corporate power games. They may, if things aren’t going well, as Holbeche says, bury the babies. The classic rock example of this is when Dexy’s Midnight Runners kidnapped the tapes for their first album because they thought their label was ripping them off. The ploy worked – they got bigger royalties but their reigning genius Kevin Rowland admitted it was a mad thing to do.
At the same time, creative “stars” are notorious for evading blame. “It’s never their fault, so if their album doesn’t do as well as they’d hoped they’ll blame everyone but themselves,” says Cranna.
The classic example is Michael Jackson, who fired his manager Frank Dileo partly because his album Bad only sold 6 million copies compared with the 24 million Thriller had shifted.
You may equally find that when a project goes awry it is hard to see through the smokescreen of bluster and evasion. “The trick is,” says Bolland, “to work with people who are good but still have the humility to accept they can learn something.”
Creativity needs TLC
6 The industry’s most famous publicist Howard Bloom said, “Once a label has signed an artist, it will put every obstacle to success in front of them.”
Cranna elucidates, “Acts think that once they’ve been signed it’s an end to all their problems, but it’s often the beginning of a new set of problems. It’s then you find out whether they’re prepared to put the work in that you need to succeed.”
Def Leppard guitarist Phil Collen got so fed up with the time taken to record the group’s albums that he considered quitting. “It got to the point where I would go to the loo just so I could get out of the room. I’d get coffee and go, ‘I don’t want to be in here, it’s worse than working in a factory’.” Collen might have had a point – one particularly painful album took four years to make.
The overriding lesson of the rock music industry’s history is that even in such a flamboyant, cutting-edge business, creativity needs to be constantly encouraged if conservatism isn’t to set in.
Cranna says, “It’s harder than ever to be original now because radio, especially in America, is so formatted and they only play one genre or oldies. And musicians aren’t writing on a clean sheet of paper in the way say Elvis was.”
Colonel’s textbook case of bad HR practice
Money-grabbing manager, who was the power behind the King, did little to protect ‘his boy’
When Elvis Presley died on 16 August 1977, his manager of some 22 years, Colonel Tom Parker, rang Presley’s father. “Vernon,” he said, “This is the worst possible time in our lives and no one can ever replace Elvis but there are thousands of people out there who’ll take advantage of Elvis’s life. We must protect it not just for ourselves but for Elvis’s child. We must move immediately to make sure outsiders cannot exploit the name of Elvis Presley.”
At the funeral, Parker declined to be a pallbearer but presented a contract for the distraught father to sign. His management reaffirmed, the Colonel would boast, “I owned 50 per cent of Elvis when he was alive and I own 50 per cent of him now he’s dead.”
Parker’s management of one of the 20th century’s most famous people is a textbook study in how not to manage human resources, a fairytale-cum-tragedy in which almost every error of modern management is committed.
Officially, Parker hailed from the Deep South but in reality he was an illegal Dutch immigrant without a passport, which explains why Elvis never toured outside North America.
From humble beginnings, he gravitated towards country music and, in 1955, persuaded the parents of a hillbilly singer called Elvis Presley that he was the man to turn their boy’s talent into a million dollars.
From 1956 to 1961, Parker’s management was almost faultless and yet, even then, it is alleged he paid a Hollywood actor to befriend and spy on “his boy”.
At first Parker took a quarter of Elvis’s earnings, but through special deals that cut rose to 50 per cent on much of Presley’s income. By 1973, when Parker was negotiating a new RCA deal, he ended up with $4.7m in one-off payments from RCA while “his boy” got just $2.7m. Similarly, at the Las Vegas Hilton, where Presley performed over 600 concerts, Parker offered “his boy” at such a knock down price he was the only act ever to make a profit for the hotel (most Vegas shows are loss leaders). Parker also got one off payments of $175,000 from The Hilton where he gambled away up to a million dollars a year.
In 1971 Presley was so incensed by Parker’s gambling losses he tried to fire him but the Colonel demanded $5m for various unspecified services and Presley relented. It was, after all, only money and Presley, a man of childlike generosity who bought total strangers brand new cars and financed recording sessions for the black bluesman who had written his first hit, did not really care about money providing he had enough to spend.
While the US courts have investigated most of these deals, Parker’s real crime is probably his refusal to admit “his boy’s” growing dependency on prescription drugs. Officially Parker did not intervene in Presley’s personal life but, in the late 1960s, when a hippy hairdresser upset Presley’s entourage by giving the star books with big words to read, Parker had him exiled.
Between 1970 and August 1977, Presley performed 1,064 concerts and, in Vegas, often gave two performances in one night, a workload which accelerated his drug abuse and contributed to his death. By 1976, he was so ill he could sometimes only perform by nipping off stage to get another blast of pure oxygen.
In 1977, a disenchanted Parker disclosed that the contract to manage Elvis was for sale, a decision he rescinded when “his boy” made the astute financial move of dying.
The singer Tony Bennett says, “Elvis was killed by the money making machine.” One should resist the simple-minded impulse of many fans to blame anyone but the singer himself for this tragedy, but from the late 1960s, Parker managed his boy with all the selfless devotion Count Dracula would bring to running the nation’s blood transfusion service.
By Paul Simpson