Dodging The Greatest Hits Graveyard

I’ve kept a frequent presence at rock concerts ever since I was a kid. Back in the day, live rock and roll shows were reasonably affordable—even if you did have to sleep on the street to get tickets—because bands toured in support of the latest record they had produced. Live shows were a catalyst for selling singles and albums, pushed local radio play, sold t-shirts and memorabilia, and paid for the road antics of the bands who could live and party on “permanent vacation.”

The concert world today is obviously different because the ecosystem is so drastically different. There are still monster arena tours like U2, Springsteen, or the Rolling Stones 50th (gasp!) corporate sponsored anniversary. There are small gatherings of devoted fans at venues around 5000 seats for tireless road warriors like Cheap Trick or Chicago. There are nostalgia plays in casino showrooms or destination bars with one or two surviving members of one-hit wonder acts. And there are tremendous new stars like Adele who play the old game a new way and can still fill amphitheaters at top prices, sell plenty of music downloads, and inspire faith that the CD has a tiny bit of life left for the bygone tribe.

What I have noticed over the course of this music evolution is the underlying key to longevity and not moving down the food chain hasn’t much changed—the survivors tend to deliver a healthy balance of old and new material. This is no small problem, as the fans who come out to concerts are no doubt screaming for an artist to play their big hits. It’s natural. It’s satisfying. It’s a trap.

TSO2005A few weeks ago my wife and I went to see one of our favorite groups, the still somewhat niche band Trans-Siberian Orchestra, best known for their annual Christmas shows and the ever-present holiday single, Christmas in Sarajevo. TSO blends heavy metal power chords with classical music and electric violins, usually with an interspersed layer of spoken storytelling. Several years ago they started branching out from Christmas themes, recording and touring a fantasy tale called Beethoven’s Last Night. This was the first time we had seen the show performed live, and while it was familiar to us, it was not well-known to much of the devoted audience. That was pretty brave, I thought, to tour a concept album that was not necessarily top of mind with their audience, but then they did something I found even more courageous. Toward the end of the show, when they had finished playing Beethoven and the audience expected they would play some oldies, they instead played several entirely new songs that had not even been released online. No one had heard these songs except those who had seen the tour, and the applause following was as you might suspect a bit tentative. The nervous quiet during these songs was not because they were bad, it was because they were new. If you are a regular on the live music scene, you know that awkwardness—but without it, there are no new hits.

New music has to be debuted at some point, that’s why it’s called a debut. Audiences can be very tough on new songs, they pay good money to hear hits and the survival of any act is contingent on meeting the expectations of fans. Yet long-term success is equally contingent on innovating, and facing an audience with the unknown or unfamiliar is always a daunting prospect. Who would willingly trade thunderous applause for quiet, polite clapping? The greatest acts know they have no choice.

Most of the hot Top 40 bands in the 1970s and 1980s would periodically release Greatest Hits albums, mechanical collections of their charting singles, usually pushed by their record labels for bankable cash acceleration. Some of these became all time bestsellers, notably The Eagles and Elton John. The question I always used to wonder when I handed over my cash for a dozen song vinyl collection was whether this was the end of the band or the beginning of a new chapter. For too many, we know how that played out, and we know where those bands are playing today, if at all. A Greatest Hits or “Best of…” album was easy money, the equivalent of predictable thunderous applause. Pushing out new work would remain the heart of risk, and the genesis of going to the next level.

Nothing about this cycle is unique to music. Business is the same, especially technology wrapped as consumer products. You need to play to your familiar success, the current incarnation of your brand, but the moment that catalogue is fixed, you’re doing dinner theater rather than headlining at Carnegie Hall. Think RIM with the standing ovation worthy Blackberry, Kodak and Polaroid with endless scrapbooks of silver snapshots, perhaps now Best Buy longing for a different curtain call than their former contender Circuit City. They all climbed the charts, but staying there remains a different story.

Steve Jobs liked to say that he never believed in focus groups, because it was not the job of customers to tell you what they wanted—how could they know what they wanted when it hadn’t yet been invented? No civilian could concretely describe iTunes, the iPod, the iPhone, or the iPad prior to their release. You can only imagine how many pundits prior to the success of these inventions could tell you of their impending doom solely on the basis of unfamiliarity. Of course Apple never stopped marketing its core line of computers during this unbelievable expansion of reach, they were still playing hits while composing new material and seeding it to the faithful, those with whom they had established profound affinity and could ask to trust them further with the unknown.

I also don’t think it is a coincidence that Steve Jobs was a huge fan of The Beatles, who in an active career that spanned all of about eight years never stopped putting out new material, took themselves off the road to focus on composition and the creative process, then reinvented their sound with almost every album, including a few radical pivots like Sgt. Pepper. Is it counter intuitive that the actual career of The Beatles was so short despite all that new material and no Greatest Hits collection until after their break-up? Possibly, but if impact is the name of the game, it is hard to dispute that The Beatles succeeded most of all at avoiding that most dreaded of dead-ends, The Greatest Hits Graveyard. Their incomparable legacy remains vibrant because they pushed themselves so hard to be innovating all the time while crowd pleasing.

Celebrated descriptors like “Built to Last” and “Good to Great” are hard-won praise tied to nimble companies for navigating the same difficult balance for so many years of reinvention. It’s a lesson in courage and vision that is as difficult to learn as it is to replicate, but it is that very bravery that can guide any individual career from ordinary to enviable. Facing the anxious reception of the untried might not be pleasant when a clear alternative is available, but it’s the only trail that bypasses the one-hit wonders.

Are We Thankful Enough?

The following is an edited version of a note I sent to my staff a few years ago.  I started to draft a new version, but then remembered how similar this was in theme:

Each year about this time I like to take a few minutes to share some of my gratitude with colleagues. Given the industry in which we work, it is sometimes hard to separate our business interests in the holiday season from our own more personal sense of human enrichment, but let me try. True enough, the holidays can be seen through the eyes of materialism, and indeed given our dependence and expectations on retail behavior this time of year, it is too easy to allow oneself to “Get Scrooged” without seeing some of the more enlightened generosity that is all around us. Forgive me, Shelley and I attended the annual tour of Trans-Siberian Orchestra this week, so I am in a highly festive and particularly reflective frame of mind. The work we do for our customers and each other is much more than a feeding of the virtual cash register for tabulation by the National Retail Federation. The work we do has meaning because we have chosen to share this time together and infuse it with meaning. It is there if you want to see it, and it is always there for me in each of your own creative contributions and team celebrations.

Let me start with the basics, I am thankful for all of the wonderful people around me each day. As I always say, I have good days and bad days but I never have boring days. The work we do is interesting because the people we share it with are universally interesting. Each day I see your passion expand, your thinking blossom, your communication flourish, and your expectations of yourselves and each other rise to new heights. This isn’t just invigorating for me, it is sustenance. There is reason to come to work each day as long as there is purpose in the day’s activity, and sometimes that purpose is simply rooted in the ability to learn something new. I can honestly share with you that I learn something new from the imagination that surrounds us each day, and I have no sense that has likelihood of disappointing me anytime soon.

I am thankful for the good fortune of being alive at this precise moment in history. To truly appreciate and understand the power of the Internet is to have lived without it for so many years before. I used to say this about the personal computer, that to discover it as an artist’s palette was for me not a continuation of history, but a reinvention of history. Just as many of our parents were born into a world without television, the advancement in democracy of being able to see news from around the world each day was almost a miracle, as was radio before that, and widely available print before that. To be alive today at the inception of the digital age is to me a gift as well as an invitation to have a profound impact on establishing a set of norms that are as evolutionary as they are unknown. Our younger kids see texting and mobile communications and even social networking as quite ordinary, if you were here before them, my sense is you share my awe in the privilege of codifying the extraordinary.

This takes me to my third thank you for the year, appreciation for being able to have even the smallest impact on reaching out to change our world. Our technology has impact, our creativity is unbounded, and our business relationships are honest and crafted around the principle of win-win-win: a win for us is a win for our partners and a win for our customers. You may not always get to work in a culture that embraces notions of empowerment, I certainly have had my own ups and downs over the years in various places I have worked. Yet more than that, we get do fun things like embrace Make-A-Wish kids, give thousands of prize dollars away to families who need it, offer great discounts to families who might not get by without them, help people make the world slightly greener by encouraging them not to drive somewhere if they can shop at home. We also save moms time, lots of time, time that can be better spent with their families enjoying more moments than they might otherwise spend away from home on errands and chores. No, it’s not the work of Mother Theresa, but it is very positive and uplifting, especially when you read all those comments each day from people saying they “love” what we do for them. That’s a powerful word, and each morning I read it in our customer comments, I know we are doing something right.

So I wonder, are we thankful enough? Can we make Thanksgiving something more than a time to power-eat and start charging up our credit cards on the big sales days that follow?  As we enjoy two days away from the office, what is it that we can reflect on that keeps us coming to the office? Thanks for our incomes – I am sure there are varying levels of satisfaction there, but to have a regular income is still unfortunately rare in world of six billion people. Thanks for the people who sit next to us, or in front of us, or in the next room over – again, I am sure there are some around us whom you like more than others, but then again, I am confident that every one of us is within talking distance of at least one or two people we really appreciate, and as I said, don’t take that as a given, it will not always be the case. Encouragement to pursue excellence – OK, I know there are cynics out there who say this is just work-speak, but I promise you it is not, we have created an environment where we expect you to do your best and create work that makes you immensely proud, you’d be missing an important moment if you didn’t embrace and enjoy that, a lot of places it really is just work-speak. And finally, memories and future foundations – the accomplishments we enjoy, the education we give and receive from each other, the stories we are creating to enjoy at a later date, all of that is worth a moment of meditation; time escapes us in precious illusion, and though you are likely to forget this project or that deadline in the years out, if you look around you and thank your colleagues from time to time for even the smallest favor, you just might be making history, as that could become a moment you will share for years to come.

Freedom is such a difficult concept to appreciate because most of us have always known it, it is in the fabric of our society. Yet again, look around, is it the norm or a gift we can cherish? As we keep the women and men who serve us in uniform at the top of our thoughts this time of year, perhaps we can also reflect on just what it means to have the lives that we do, where we can pursue career aspirations and friendships and family and creative contributions to our world all at the same time. As I type these words, it all seems like a pretty big deal to me. I wouldn’t take it for granted. To be thankful is to truly enjoy all that we have, and as I look around our company, I see that we all have so much. I am never sure that I can personally be thankful enough.

I hope you are all enjoying this special time of year, it comes with a lot of work stress and family stress and Scrooge-Stress! Yet the journey is the reward, so let’s do our best to enjoy it and share it and where it makes sense, be thankful. You’d be surprised, it really can be a magical world when you look for the magic in each of the people around you. I see it, so very clearly!

Happy Thanksgiving!

Originally published: 11/22/07

Let’s Be Careful Out There

The private reaction I received to last week’s post on career opportunities was quite overwhelming.  I expected to get a few calls asking for similar consultations from people I know trying to decide between this or that gig, and I did, but the breadth of emotion I received in reaction to the first paragraph — the seemingly unmovable 9% national unemployment factor — reinforced for me just how far this epidemic has reached.  A few years ago, I remember hearing about how many of my college classmates could not afford to attend our 25th reunion.  That was eye-opening and unsettling.  This is much worse.

Look around you.  The impact is everywhere.  People need jobs.  People need opportunity.  People need leadership.  People need purpose.  They are wondering if anyone is listening.  I don’t mean running for office, I mean listening.  Caring.  Responding.  It is hard to see much evidence that any response is on par with the outcry.

For the past few years since the recession began, it would seem many people have been suffering if not in silence, then at least maintaining a difficult quiet.  Of late that pain has become manifest in anger.  The anger we are seeing expressed by Occupy Wall Street is one form of reaction, but there are others all around us.  If you are not personally impacted, just listen to the dialogue around you.  Listen, really listen.  You may be surprised at what you hear, and who is saying it.

Compassion is a noble reflection that we celebrate usually in the final few months of each year during the annual holiday season.  Regardless of our various faiths, public messages of Peace on Earth become evident in everything from retail sales displays to city street decorations.  Then shortly after the Rose Bowl, we take down all the signs with all those slogans and catch phrases and get back to normalcy with the new year.  Can we afford to do that this year, with all of the requests for outreach we are hearing from friends and acquaintances?  I wonder if this time maybe it’s different.

Each holiday season I look forward to a touring rock band known as Trans-Siberian Orchestra that puts on a theatrical spectacle with a tremendous amount of meaning captured for me best in the following few lines from a song called Old City Bar:

If you want to arrange it
This world you can change it
If we could somehow make this
Christmas thing last
By helping a neighbor
Or even a stranger
And to know who needs help
You need only just ask

I usually post these lyrics around the holidays, but I thought I’d get an early start so the sentiment does not get lost in the year-end noise.  We need compassion now and year round.  Some people are going to ask you for help.  Others are not going to feel as comfortable asking, so maybe you can offer it without the ask.  As I discovered in the response to my post last week, sometimes it’s as easy as being a good listener to someone who has lost hope, having chased down every opportunity they can and not found work.  For others you can make a phone call or two, or help edit their resume, or simply remind them that they are good at what they do and these are extraordinary times.  Just returning a phone call can be a very big deal.  The point is that your compassion will go a long way right now, further and deeper than you can comprehend.  Remember Pay It Forward?  It’s always a good time as Steve Jobs would say to make a brand deposit.  Now is an especially good time, never better.  Someday you too will need a withdrawal.

There’s one more thing on my mind this week besides reminding us all to be compassionate, to help where we can, and to not let the message of the holidays flicker out when the crowds leave the Rose Bowl.  There remains a good deal of misunderstanding on all sides of the equation as to whom we can blame for our problems, the catastrophic impact of hyperbole and invective, how simplistic notions of corrective strategies can be naive, and whether justice is a shared ideal that can be broadly and fairly enacted.  When you combine the complexity of all that anxiety with the pain and anger that seems to be spiraling, you have a very bad brew.  The potential for rotten things to happen — events that cannot be reversed, stalemates that cannot be reconciled, words that cannot be taken back, violence that will be regretted — becomes a turbine gaining momentum, suddenly with its own inertia.

Certainly we all want change for the better, regardless of whether we agree on the definition of better.  What we can agree on is certain definitions of harm — physical harm to individuals, extended harm to the economy, permanent harm to our democracy.  Business enterprise is not all wrong, investment is what drives opportunity; there are no jobs without investment, and there will be no investment without risk and return, that is the backbone of free enterprise and prosperity.  A nonviolent protest against unfairness is not wrong, there is a message in the expression of pain and anger we need to hear; every one of us plays a role in this economy as a consumer, that voice cannot be taken away, and that voice says people want to work.  Real trouble begins when an impasse cannot be bridged because too many people decide that it cannot be bridged.  The path through that impasse is ours to negotiate, one at a time, with each other.  It is the very compassion of one person helping one person that gets the wheels moving again.  We don’t have to wait for a grand proclamation of resolution to express humility.  To not do so is to let a fire burn that we needn’t allow consume all that we have built together.

People always wonder if they can make a difference, if any individual can make a difference.  The answer is yes, one individual can make a difference to another individual, and that can become a movement.  The opposite choice is to allow the stalemate to divide us.  That seems like a dangerous choice.

On the groundbreaking 1980s TV series Hill Street Blues, a police drama set in an extremely troubled and decayed metropolis, the avuncular Sgt. Phil Esterhaus (played until his own premature passing by Michael Conrad) would conclude roll call each week with the words, “Let’s Be Careful Out There.”  I think for the foreseeable future that is very good advice.