Tag Archives: Music


Did you play in your school’s band or orchestra? Maybe you sang in the chorus? I did all of those as well as in the school’s jazz band. If you did, you came face to face with a conductor. For those of you unfamiliar with how a conductor operates, I’ll spend a few words on the topic. For those of you already familiar, please keep reading because those hours spent under their baton can tell you a lot about business.

Whether you played in an ensemble or just listened, you’ve seen a conductor at work. Their right hand, usually the one holding the baton, keeps time. Their left hand, the far more expressive one, serves many purposes; among them cueing various instruments, helping the musicians understand the dynamic you want to project or the phrasing you’re after.

One of my childhood memories is of seeing Leonard Bernstein conducting the NY Philharmonic. He conducted the orchestra in a way that was a cross between dancing as a listener and working hard as a musician. There is no doubt, if you watch old videos of him, what he is trying the get from his musicians. That’s not true of all conductors.

What you probably never thought of is how anticipatory conducting really is. It begins in rehearsal, where the conductor will often stop and explain what he or she is after. The musicians are learning what each gesture means and they get a sense of the speed and phrasing the conductor wants. It’s assumed the musicians already know the notes and heaven help the musician who causes the conductor to stop and demand the musician play a phrase the conductor heard as wrong. It also means the conductor is a few beats ahead of his musicians so he can cue them, hopefully in a way that also tells them how he wants the upcoming music played.

What does this have to do with business? A lot. I always looked at my role as being similar to an orchestra leader. My job was to bring coherence to a large, diverse group of executives who played very different roles. I kept time with one hand, meaning that I set goals for the entire group and established how we’d get there. With the other hand, I let individual elements within the group know when to speak up. Most importantly, we rehearsed. No, I didn’t have my group do things just for the sake of doing them. I did, however, ask them a lot of questions to make sure they knew the music and that when it came time for them to be front and center they would shine. I was careful to be clear about what I wanted and about what I meant when I asked for something. I was also a few beats ahead at all times.

Watch some of the great conductors. Bernstein, Loren Maazel, Seiji Ozawa, and others. There are some great business lessons there, don’t you think?

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Tribute Bands And Your Business

Over the weekend I saw the Dark Star Orchestra. For those of you unfamiliar with the band, they’re one of the leading tribute bands out there and they play the music of The Grateful Dead. I’ve seen them several times and oddly enough each time I do it reminds me of a few business thoughts.

I played in several bands as I was growing up. We always felt we were a cover band. We were playing someone else’s songs but doing so in our own way. Most tribute bands go beyond that and attempt to recreate the sounds and often the appearance of the original artists. If you’re any sort of fan of The Dead you know that their performances were very hit or miss. The DSO is way more consistent and they sound just like The Dead on a great night each and every time. So what does this have to do with business?

I think imitation is more than just the sincerest form of flattery. I think in many ways it’s better than innovation despite the fact that we often hear of the “first mover advantage.” Innovation is great, but by not being first the flaws in the original product or service become way more clear. The fact that you’re building later lets you correct for those flaws and get beyond the original. That usually is something you can do much more cost-effectively too.

What do I mean? The iPod was not the first music player, just the most successful. Anyone who looks at Instagram knows both that they weren’t the first of their kind and that most of their “new” features these days come right from Snapchat. You could video chat someone long before Skype came around and Amazon was not the first retailer on the web. Each of those companies, and other such as Spotify and eBay, were not first movers. They were imitators – tribute bands if you will, who took the best of the pioneers and made it better.

Is it easier to get funding for a copycat? Probably – the business model has been proven and, therefore, investor risk is reduced. Japan, and now China, built economies on imitating successful products and making them better and/or cheaper. A tribute band has a pre-built fan base. If you’re a Beatles fan or an Oasis fan or a fan of The Band, you have no chance to see the original but you can spend a night with their music. If you’re a business, you don’t have to be the original if you can make the original better and capitalize on their fan base. The DSO do it brilliantly. Can you?

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Being Your Fool

Unless you’ve been off the planet for the last few days, you’re aware that Prince passed away last week. While the word “genius” is overused, it applies in his case. I hope you’ve seen some of the examples of his art – they’ve been everywhere as the tributes pour in. It’s one of those tributes I’d like to discuss today because it is instructive when it comes to business.

English: Prince playing at Coachella 2008.

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Before we get to that example, let me remind you that one aspect of Prince’s genius was his foresight in seeing how the internet and digital technology would disrupt the music business. This is an excellent overview of his relationship with the Internet from the Washington Post. While Price was an early adapter, appreciating how music could now be sold directly to fans without a record label, he also recognized how that very process could wipe out a revenue stream for musicians. As he put it: “Tell me a musician who’s got rich off digital sales. Apple’s doing pretty good though, right?”

Prince recorded an unreleased song called “There’s Something I Like About Being Your Fool,” and that gets us to our business point today.  One of the “tributes” to Prince came from AMC Theaters.  They announced that they would play Prince’s film “Purple Rain” in their theaters this weekend to honor him.  In my mind, this is the furthest thing from a tribute: it’s greed.  There is no mention of AMC letting patrons see Prince’s work for free.  They are charging full price.  There is no mention that all of the admission proceeds will be donated to any of the numerous charities Prince quietly supported throughout his career. I might be totally off base here and AMC might be doing something honorable, but even if I am, the business point still applies.

As businesses, our motives can’t be questioned.  It gets to the issue of trust, and trust is a critical currency these days.  If we’re not believable, whether it’s with respect to our products, our customer service, or our alignment with our customers, we’re in deep trouble.  Maybe AMC is letting people in for free or donating the proceeds but they’re being awfully loud about the film and quiet about the rest. Unlike the Prince lyric, people don’t like being your fool.  Sure, show the movie, but don’t call it a way to honor anyone when you’re lining your pockets using a tragedy.  I’m not that kind of fool.  You?

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I woke up this morning to the news that David Bowie has died. I know we’re about business here and we’ll get to it, but Bowie was an artist I loved and I’d be remiss if I didn’t use his passing as a starting point today.

I first saw him on Valentine’s Day, 1973. From the opening notes of the introduction (Beethoven’s Ode To Joy) until he collapsed on stage after an hour and a half of intense rock, it was unlike any show I had seen to that point. What was striking, besides the music, was Bowie himself: flaming red hair and so androgynous. Spiders From Mars was an apt description, and Ziggy Stardust was mind-altering in terms of how I thought about rock stars. I think I spent a fair portion of my senior year in high school on the lawn outside of the music room listening to “Alladin Sane” with friends.

Over the next few years, I bought every Bowie album, each one different, often with completely different musicians. I first heard Stevie Ray Vaughan on a Bowie album (1983’s Let’s Dance) but Bowie was always a musician with whom other musicians wanted to collaborate – the list is way too long for this space. Let’s just stipulate that anyone who can sing with artists ranging from Bing Crosby to John Lennon to Queen is the personification of versatile.

Another interesting thing about Bowie was how he became different characters over the course of his career. Ziggy Stardust became a soul singer who became the Thin White Duke. Rock became soul which became dance which became electronic which morphed back into rock. He also did many things well – actor, songwriter, performer.

Yes, there is a business point. Bowie’s career was, as Wikipedia says, one of reinvention, musical innovation and visual presentation. Those are three keys that should be a focus for any brand: innovation, reinvention, and presentation. You never quite knew what you’d be getting with the release of a new Bowie record but you always knew it would be good, if not great. We should always be seeking to push ourselves while keeping the core tenets of our brands true.  People need to be able to count on and trust a brand, and Bowie showed us that brands need not stop innovating, growing, and surprising to retain that trust.  That innovation and surprise continued right up until the end with the release of his final album. Universally acclaimed, it is very different musically. Maybe because he knew it was to be “a parting gift” to his fans.

“Heroes” is probably my favorite Bowie song.  It came out my senior year in college (a school that Bowie’s wife Angela got kicked out of, by the way), and I’ve found it to be inspiring ever since. Great products can do that.  Have a listen and take a moment to miss what Bowie, one of my musical heroes, has taught us.

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The Blend

One of the really special things about the holiday season in my town is the concert put on each year by the high school music department. They held the 75th annual one over the weekend and it was great. It also offered us an instructive business point as well.

Philharmonic Orchestra of Jalisco (Guadalajara...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The school’s band, orchestra, chorale, and choir all perform. While I never played in the orchestra, I did play in my school’s band (saxophone, thanks for asking) and I sang in the choir. When I go to concerts of this sort, I always listen for the one thing my conductors used to emphasize: the blend. If you’ve ever gone to a school concert, inevitably you hear the voice or playing of a really talented kid above all the others. That’s exactly what you don’t want to hear, because it has the effect of distorting the overall sound.  Really wonderful musical groups sing and play as one instrument.  Every component of that instrument is in sync – on exactly the same beat with exactly the same dynamics.  It’s the conductor‘s responsibility to make that happen. I recall how when our musical groups were doing extremely well in rehearsal, the conductor would often walk to the back of the auditorium and listen.  We were all working together so well that we really didn’t need to be lead.

Like that conductor, a great manager needs to be able to make the blend happen.  We need to let individuals sing their parts loudly, but we have to blend all of those parts together in a single, overarching product that’s our brand presented as one. Without the blend, it’s just a cacophony.  It’s not just within your own unit either.  The blending across departments is critical today more than ever.  As an example, think about how marketing and tech have become so totally intertwined. The Chief Marketing Officer must blend with the Chief Technical Officer in a seamless duet or the organization is absolutely not going to sound right.

The next time you hear some live music, listen for the blend and think of your company.  Are you putting out a unified sound that’s greater than the sum of its parts, or does the world hear a lot of strong pieces that are disjointed and not pleasing to the ear?


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Broken Strings And Business

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the passing of B.B. King. While I have been to hundreds of concerts in my life, at one point I had seen B.B. King more than anyone (yes, even Springsteen although that’s no longer true). He has been rightfully honored over the last few days by every guitar legend – Eric Clapton being the most prominent – as having been a huge influence on their music. When he wrapped his fingers around Lucille, his guitar, he could say more in three notes than most guitarists can say in an hour.

English: King performing at the Fox Theater in...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Of the dozens of times I saw him, one night in particular stands out and as it turns out there is a business point to be made as well. B.B.’s shows always began with the band playing a number or two and then the master would hit the stage. This particular night he played his first song and began his second when a string broke on Lucille.  It would have been incredibly easy for him to have signaled the band to stop because it was very apparent that a string had snapped.  Instead, as he continued to sing the lyrics, his right hand reached into his jacket pocket and out came a few strings.  Singing all the while, he proceeded to change the string, tune it as he played, and finished the song without missing a beat.  The audience stood as one when he finished, not because the song was a show highlight but because of the master class we had just seen.

The business point is one that I think we all know.  Strings break in all of our businesses from time to time.  The customers don’t really care even when they’re aware that something is amiss.  The broken string is your problem, not the customer’s.  How prepared are you?  Can you go about your business of providing an uninterrupted product or service of the expected quality or do you stop the band and make the customers wait?  B.B. King didn’t play a different guitar every other song.  He stuck with Lucille, so waving a roadie out to swap instruments wasn’t an option (and I could go on here about loyalty and consistency but you’re already there).  He probably had those strings in his jacket every show and rarely needed them (this was the only time I ever saw them come out in dozens of shows).  Do you have strings in your pocket or are you looking for a roadie to bail you out?

I’m sad The King Of The Blues is gone but thankful for all the joy he gave me and the inspiration he provided to many of the others whose music I love.  I’m also appreciative of his professionalism and have learned a little from his broken string.  You?

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Top Posts Of 2014 – #2

Continuing a review of the most-read posts written this past year, today we have one from way back in January.  This was one of our TunesDay Tuesday posts (should I bring those back?) and deals with the same business idea as yesterday’s post.   Do I detect a pattern in your curiosity?

Tomorrow we’ll have the most-read post of the year and Friday we’ll have your favorite Foodie Friday post of 2014.  This one  was originally called “Long Black Road.” Enjoy!

This TunesDay we’re going to look at an old song that’s actually new.  Recorded back in 2001 it wasn’t in wide release until recently when it was featured in the soundtrack to American Hustle.  The movie is very good; the soundtrack is excellent.  The song is Long Black Road which was recorded on ELO‘s last album (Zoom) and only issued in the Japanese version of the record as a bonus track.  Pretty obscure, but to those of us who’ve long  admired Jeff Lynne it was sort of familiar.  Here it is for your listening pleasure:

What makes this song of interest to us today is the message contained in the lyrics.  What I like about this song is it makes the same point in three different ways.  A directionless musician pursues his dreams in the first verse despite being told to get, in essence, a real job.  “Face reality” as the song puts it.  I’m sure every entrepreneur and every start-up has heard that at some point.

The second verse is the core message for anyone in business:

So I drifted for a while down the road to ruin
I couldn’t find my way, I didn’t know what I was doin’
I saw a lot of people coming back the other way
So I kept on goin’ when I heard them say,

“You gotta get up in the morning, take your heavy load
And you gotta keep goin’ down the long black road.”

How many businesses are caught up doing the same kind of drifting?  How often do we wonder if we’re lost?  In this case, despite the number of people coming back, the singer keeps going, having heard the message to persist.  Quitting is easy – taking the load down the long black road isn’t.   By the third verse, the singer is a success, but gets reminded that money won’t bring happiness.  The journey – overcoming the obstacles, facing “trouble and strife” are every bit as important as the end goal.  Three great business points.

Funny how much one can learn in three verses over three minutes if we’ll just listen…

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