Great business lessons.

From great bands.

Great business lessons.

From great bands.

Great business lessons.

From great bands.

Listen, I thought we could all use a break from the relentless pandemic news. And yet, now more than ever, it is important to add experience to our intelligence, and so transform it into wisdom. In this case, not your own experience, but the experience of certain rock bands. Most of which, you can actually try yourself at home, or home office, as it were.

This is a longer than average post because there are a lot of important lessons for you via odd backstories. It should prove relevant to your success, and, not to worry, there’s no drum solo.

There are two ways to learn anything: data and experience. There are three kinds of experience: good experience, bad experience and the experiences of rock bands. I have always tried to learn from the first, inevitably learned from the second, and been fascinated by the value and applicability of the third, some of which I pass onto you here.


I started this post on January 12, which was the 50th anniversary of the release of the first Led Zeppelin album. How is this possible when I am no more mature than on the day that I first bought it? I remember getting it a couple of weeks after the album’s release due to the constant buzz about it at school. Back then, I used to translate my allowance into the units it took to buy an album; this was the first time I’d used those precious funds on something that I hadn’t heard yet. Dropped the needle on that first track and had my socks blown right off. They were my first concert and I saw them many times after. But I digress…

The point here is that Jimmy Page and Led Zeppelin’s manager Peter Grant paid for the recording of the first album themselves and then sold it to Atlantic Records as a finished product. They knew they had something different and didn’t want it compromised. Some of this parallels James Brown, who believed that his live shows really captured his essence but couldn’t convince his label to record one since there wouldn’t be any singles off the album, when that’s all AM radio played. So, Brown paid for the recording himself and radio stations started playing entire sides of Live at the Apollo.

The Lesson:
You will never achieve passion in others unless you start with it yourself.


The widely held history is that producer George Martin heard something special in them at their roughest when every other record company had turned them down. True, he learned to love them, but at first the job was forced on him. Back then, retail publishing was where the money was for the music industry, including royalties for the labels on all the sheet music bought by people to play songs at home. The Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein had signed a deal with major music publisher Dick James, who in turn leaned on George Lockwood, the Chairman of EMI Records, to sign the band. Lockwood in turn laid the job of producer on an annoyed George Martin.

They were only given a one-record, two-song deal as a barely known regional band, and many involved in that deal expected them to disappear soon after the record was released. Except that Epstein and the band had done relentless work for years building a local fan base. That small but feral group of evangelists bombarded radio stations to play the song over and over and over, and repeatedly bought out the entire stock from every store in Liverpool. This  propelled the single up the charts and kept it there, earning them their first album deal. You’ve heard what happened after that.  

The Lesson:
You can’t bank customer evangelism when you need it.
You have to put it away ahead of time.


If you come visit the SLAP U.S. offices in San Francisco, you’ll see a full wall of large black and white framed photos that we call the SLAP MAP. They tell the story of what we do as a company and why we do it. One is a rare concert photo of MC5.

MC5 (Motor City Five) was a prototypical street punk band from Detroit, whose album I bought as a kid, initially because it had a swear word in one of the songs – I would have bought an old napkin if it had that word written on it. Turns out I loved the album and the band, especially their song, Kick out the Jams, and sought to learn more about them. What I found was unlike any other band at the time: political activism, giving back to their community, raising money to help those who were struggling.

The Lesson:
If you have a stage, you have an obligation to use it for good.


Maybe you like them, maybe you don’t, but Journey sure has sold a lot of records. Over 100 million of ‘em, making them one of the bestselling bands of all time.

Herbie Herbert was their manager. This guy was a legend amongst band managers, a huge talent and, well, just huge – well over six feet and several hundred pounds. I found him to be sweet rather than menacing, but then again, I wasn’t withholding any box office cash from one his bands. It was Herbie’s idea to put Journey together in the first place. He told me that he knew the band was going to be big and he wanted it to be because they did a lot of small things right.

Neal Schon is their guitarist. When he was 15 years old, Carlos Santana hired him to be the second lead in Santana. That week Eric Clapton had offered him the same job with Derek and the Dominoes. And you were doing what at 15?

When I was working with Neal, he and Herbie reformed the original Santana band sans Carlos as a side project, calling it Abraxas Pool. A friend had a young teenage daughter who was nuts about Journey so was a big Neal Schon fan. Abraxas Pool was playing at the Fillmore, so I snuck her in to join us for their soundcheck. We were backstage when Herbie walked in, clearly wondering who she was. I introduced her as a fan, and it was like there was nobody else in the room. He whirled on her with a flurry of focus group questions, “How old are you? Where do you go to school? What radio stations to you listen to? Where do you and your friends like to shop?” On and on, including, “When did you buy tickets to tonight’s show?”

She stammered that she didn’t have tickets to the [sold-out] show, at which point he growled at the band’s road manager to “put her on the door list as a special friend of the band.” That night they let her sit with me on the side of the stage, and even though it was a capacity crowd and they were filming the show with multiple cameras, several people from Herbie’s team made the effort to check in with her to make sure she was having a great time.

The Lesson:
Every customer is your only customer.


I’ve worked with a number of well-known bands and can confirm that the one thing they are definitely not a role model for is team building. I was going to include some delicious inside stories of shameful group dynamics but there’s no opportunity here for the people I’d name to defend themselves and I don’t want to contribute to that kind of social media vitriol.

Still…it’s hard to withhold such juicy insight completely, so here are a couple of my favorite examples of what you don’t want to have happen to you as a manager, told to me directly by the people involved, their names reluctantly withheld.

As is often the case, tensions are highest between the lead singer, who believes that they are the entire band, and the band, who believes that the singer would be nowhere without them.

The guitarist of one very famous group told me that he was never in better physical shape in his life than on their last tour because he ran several miles right before each show so he would be too exhausted to strangle the lead singer right on stage. I once asked another renowned group’s manager why there was so much antagonism toward their lead singer. I’ll never forget his earnest explanation:

“Let’s say the rest of the band was drowning in the middle of the ocean when [the lead singer] happened to cruise by in his yacht and found it interesting enough to stop. As the band was going down for the last time, he would finally offer them a life preserver in a way that they would find completely untenable to accept.”

The Lesson:
You can’t call yourself a leader.
It is a tribute that has to be given to you by
those who choose to be your followers.

I left home when I was 16 and ended up living in a large house where, for a while, I shared a room with Gerry Goffin, the renowned lyricist of many of early rock’s greatest hits. It was a big thrill for me but likely not one for Gerry, who was pretty depressed and likely hadn’t forecast his living circumstances to ever be so…down market. See, his ex-wife had written the music for all of their songs. Her name was Carole King and at the time she had the biggest hit in the world with a song called It’s Too Late. The lyrics were written by a friend of hers about a breakup with James Taylor, but King wrote the music and sang it.

This irresistibly catchy tune was played constantly, everywhere you could hear music back then, from record stores to supermarkets, topping the US charts for seventeen weeks. Poor Gerry had to endlessly hear his ex, who he missed desperately, confirming “It’s too late, baby” and total strangers next to him in elevators crooning the refrain, “Something inside has died, and I can't hide, and I just can’t fake it. La, la, la.” Drove him out of his mind.

We all wanted to listen to the album too, but we made it a house rule never to do that when Gerry was around. One day it was playing when we didn’t realize he was home. He came into the living room, strode to the turntable – the only turntable we could afford amongst all of us – and kicked it halfway across the room, where it broke into several unrepairable pieces, then stalked out. “Our bad,” we muttered.

The Lesson:
Back up all of your music to the cloud.