Sunday, 3 March 2013

Heavy metal management: cultivating sheep in wolves' clothing

Only the Swedish can be po-faced about irony, so it's unsurprising that a venture capitalist on the Spotify board, Par-Jorgen Parson, and his investment-banker-turned-crime-writer friend, Hans-Olov Oberg, have written a business strategy and management theory book that in all seriousness suggests big businesses should model themselves on Metallica, AC/DC, Black Sabbath and others.

I haven't read Heavy Metal Management, but the reviews suggest that, like much of the po-faced, ironic product that comes out of Sweden, in substance it's derivative but in packaging and presentation it's clever and good fun. Even if it's not treading new ground, it preaches a pretty sound gospel: too many businesses are boring and unoriginal, and place too great an emphasis on rational analysis when constructing strategies for winning new customers. Why? Because customers are people, and people are irrational and emotional, driven by instinct. Ironically, they've created an analytical framework that they've earnestly called the six-sided pentagram, which outlines how businesses should go about building long-lasting brands that customers truly love:

  • Be epic: Without a fantastic story to tell and a great vision, you are doomed from the get-go.
  • Be a master: Craftsmanship is the bass for true respect.
  • Be instinctive: Rational analysis is dead. Trigger basic human drivers instead.
  • Be sensory: Involve as many senses as possible – continuously.
  • Be forever: You have to be strategically consistent over a long time span.
  • Be total: True conviction and single-mindedness is a core requirement for every successful company.

The Who's John Entwhistle once said 'I'm only interested in heavy metal when it's me who's playing it. I suppose it's a bit like smelling your own fart'. In a sense, metal is the ultimate musical proof of cognitive bias - bands who play music that no one should like actually have the most die hard followers. Though I still occasionally listen to Metallica, Iron Maiden and Slayer, in truth I'm a fair-weather metalhead. That said, I totally get where Parson and Oberg are coming from, and salute their ability to make a buck or two from an in-joke. I've deconstructed my three favourite, long-lasting indie / alternative bands that are still going strong, having worked out exactly how to keep their followers loyal.

Blink 182

Blink Inc.
Many will disagree, but in my view never have a band done more with the four chord business model than Blink 182. Whatever other bells and whistles they add, every great Blink 182 song can be boiled down to a chorus that consists of the chord sequence G, D, E minor, C (or the same but in a different key). In the early days, Blink was an LLP formed by boyhood friends Tom DeLonge and Mark Hoppus. Replacing troubled early drummer Scott Raynor with enfant terrible Travis Barker was a commercial master stroke that added a third prominent partner to the mix. Barker combined a precocious talent with a strong instinct for promoting his celebrity status, and he had a powerful influence over DeLonge. At the height of their fame in the bull market of the early 2000s, DeLonge was boasting publicly of his desire to Inc. Blink and build a corporate empire, combining music, fashion and lifestyle brands. In the end, DeLonge's overreaching would have a significant long-term impact on the band - the catalyst being Barker and DeLonge's side-project Boxcar Racer. In 2005, as the rift between Hoppus and DeLonge worsened, the Blink partnership was indefinitely suspended. DeLonge's hubris scaled bloated new heights with Angels and Airwaves, with whom he declared he would 'revolutionise rock n roll for a generation', while Barker and Hoppus achieved new lows of mediocrity with Plus 44. By 2009, fate had intervened to save Barker's life after a plane crash, and give the three former business partners cause to continue with their most successful venture. Neighborhoods, their 2011 comeback product, was as good a distillation of the Blink business model as any of its predecessors. Let's have a look at it in more detail:

  • From the get-go Hoppus and DeLonge assumed a fairly equal responsibility for lead vocals. Hoppus' dulcet tones were the perfect foil for DeLonge's standard punk nasal sneer, and helped set them apart from competitors. As the band progressed, DeLonge's songs got better and became more plentiful, squeezing out Hoppus's contributions. Despite this, they always find space for at least one song per album where Hoppus and DeLonge trade-off vocal lines - a back-and-forth style that's become a key Blink trait
  • Another Blink USP is the guitar riff that uses the 'pull-off' technique to dance around the song's scale. It was employed most effectively the first time it appeared, on their breakthrough song 'M&Ms', but they've used it subsequently on at least one song per album
  • Simple, unadventurous pop punk melodies embellished with hints of the early 80s New Romantics and Southern California hardcore a la Agent Orange, TSOL, Black Flag et al; a sprinkling of electronica and drum showmanship, all topped off with lyrical themes of teen angst courtesy of 40-something men
  • Lack of a coherent visual branding strategy. Blink have no consistent logo or visual style but they've made this an asset; the Blink brand is not defined by a logo but by the three band members themselves, a marketing strategy typically followed by more traditional boy bands

Dinosaur Jr

Dinosaur Jr and Co.
Thank god for Dave Grohl. Without Grohl, J Mascis may just have been Nirvana's drummer (he auditioned but didn't get the job), and as such Dinosaur Jr would likely've ended three albums in. Instead, Kurt Cobain burned out, the mainstream got Foo Fighters, and Mascis has since churned out eight or nine records that sound blissfully identical, despite the line-up changes. For someone who gives the impression that his life proceeds at a snail's pace (and is about as interesting), Mascis is incredibly prolific, and probably just as shrewd. Intentional or not, he's built a brand that's lasted way beyond grunge and outlived the Neil Young comparisons. As Pitchfork said, 'for all their ubiquity, then and now, I can't think of one band but Dinosaur Jr able to do what they do'. Here are the essential elements:

  • Wistful, psychedelic pop songs enhanced by stoner rock riffs and the odd bit of funk
  • At least one seemingly aimless fuzzed-out guitar solo per song
  • One seven or eight minute long song per album, which could've been much shorter but provides a great excuse for Mascis to extend his guitar wailing
  • Effortless (literally) croaked lead vocals and cracked falsetto backing vocals
  • A ratio of two Lou Barlow songs to approx nine Mascis songs per album, the Barlow-penned tunes a nod to melodic diversity and collaboration in what is essentially a command-and-control organizational structure, set up to showcase and maximise Mascis' tunnel-visioned brilliance
  • Artwork that combines acid-influenced cartoons, out-of-focus photos of animals and Mascis' scrawled handwriting

Belle and Sebastian

Team Belle and Sebastian
Belle and Sebastian's Stuart Murdoch has mastered the art of creating a world and telling its ever-evolving story. Though the company name is French in origin, the world of Belle and Sebastian is rooted in (and in-between) urban Glasgow and the Scottish countryside, seen through the eyes of a contrarian poet - bookish, cynically romantic, and horny, who laments the unfulfilled promises of church and school and who celebrates the rich potential of long, lazy summer days and a chance encounter with a dark-eyed beauty on a mundane bus journey or during a hungover breakfast at the local caff. It's a wonderful world because it's the real world seen through ironic rose-tinted hipster glasses, and because the B&S brand has been so perfectly crafted to evoke this world in all its facets - the music, lyrics and artwork. Forget the Stone Roses or Oasis - to my mind, Murdoch and B&S are the natural heirs to the mantle of Morrissey and the Smiths; and though they may not be as influential, B&S have surpassed the Smiths in terms of building a long-lasting brand. Here's how they've done it:

  • First and foremost, by distilling all the best elements of all the various genres of pop music from the past 50 years. Like Ryan Adams, Murdoch has an uncanny ability to craft pop songs in almost any genre, in great quantity (and unlike Adams, of consistently high quality). B&S have done folk, country, synth pop, techno, garage, punk, glam, psychedelia and even hard rock, and made it sound like Belle and Sebastian
  • By building a great team. Despite a couple of high-profile departures in Stuart David (whose own songwriting ambitions were constrained by Murdoch's dominance) and Isobel Campbell (with whom he was in a tumultuous relationship), Murdoch set out to build a diverse, multi-talented team from the start who would compliment his songwriting skills. It paid off in terms of developing a customer base, and when his break-up with Campbell threatened to destroy the entire enterprise (proving it's never wise to sleep where you work), the B&S team were there to steer the ship through troubled waters. 'Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like A Peasant' and 'Storytelling' may not be the best contributions to the product portfolio, but they kept the brand afloat while Murdoch worked out his demons
  • Indulgent liner notes that read like diary entries by a smart teenager of indeterminate sex. In and of themselves they're of little interest, but they subtly enhance the overall impact of each B&S product
  • Artwork that uses photos of pretty, sulky-looking girls posing provocatively as Catholic schoolgirls, bad-tempered waitresses, contemplative aspiring writers, lovelorn teenagers etc. Each album is colour-filtered to distinguish it from the others; to date, they've used shades of red, green, yellow, pink, orange and sepia
  • At least one song per album about a smart, hot girl who's misunderstood by figures of authority and who subverts the system in some way (and who, we assume, must be the character on the album cover)
  • At least one song per album sung by guitarist Stevie Jackson, in a nod to melodic diversity and artistic collaboration in an organisational structure that, while fairly flat, most certainly does have a single CEO whose decisions are final

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