The marketing genius of “Led Zeppelin IV”

Imagine if Apple unveiled the latest iPhone without a logo or if Lady Gaga had released Born This Way without her name, face, or album title on the cover.

That’s what Led Zeppelin did 40 years ago when the band issued its fourth album with a cover consisting solely of a dreary photo: an old man, hunched over with wood sticks stacked on his back — no title, band name, song listing, record label logo, or even a catalog number.

In doing so, Zeppelin committed a masterstroke of marketing brilliance that still resonates today.

The album many of us simply refer to as Led Zeppelin IV (or Zoso) is the subject of an August Classic Rock cover article by Barney Hoskyns, author of Led Zeppelin IV (Rock of the Ages). His article is a worthwhile introduction (although certainly not the only one) to a work that has sold 23 million copies and is ranked among the greatest rock albums of all time by authorities ranging from Rolling Stone to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Hoskyns not only documents the recording of the album and its landmark songs (“Stairway to Heaven” among them); but he and author Dave Lewis (Led Zeppelin historian and editor of Zeppelin magazine Tight but Loose) also discuss perhaps the most famous album packaging in the history of rock music – a combination of runes and puzzling artwork that inspires conversation even in a digital era that treats albums like relics.

In this post, I expand on the significance of the album design: how it complements the music of Led Zeppelin IV and influences the album’s timeless, mystical appeal. In my view, the success of Led Zeppelin IV is a lesson in creating brand mystique by not over-explaining and instead revealing a few well-chosen clues that provoke discussion.

No Title? No problem

To appreciate the impact of Led Zeppelin IV, I think it’s helpful to understand the album’s historical context. As many rock historians have reported, Led Zeppelin was at a crossroads when it released the album that would help make Zeppelin “one of the biggest bands on the planet” in Hoskyns’s words.

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Music I like: “I Get Da Money” by Spade

The Global 14 social destination run by Jermaine Dupri is a hotbed of emerging music from aspiring hip-hip and rap stars. One of the benefits of being a member is having artists share their music with you personally. It’s like a holiday grab bag: sometimes you find a gift that you toss back into the bag, but other times you find a keeper.

One good example of a musical keeper is the tune “I Get Da Money” by Spade, whose video appears in this blog post. I like this one because the driving beat, Spade’s wordplay, and a Latin-fused chorus move you along with a provocative and tightly edited video.

Spade’s manager Imurge Thugwear sent me that tune on Global 14. Check out “I Get Da Money” and join Global 14 to explore more.

What music do you like?

Will the Apple brand become more open without Steve Jobs?

Where is the Apple brand headed in the aftermath of Steve Jobs’s resignation as CEO?

It’s a significant question for one of the world’s most valuable companies (depending on the daily ups and downs of the stock market.) Steve Jobs is more than the face of the Apple brand — he is the Apple brand. The company has willingly benefitted from the strength of his own reputation, which makes it all the more difficult to build a brand without him.

Fortunately for Apple, as Steve Furman points out in his blog, the organization has an advantage obvious to millions of consumers: an unmatched reputation for creating innovative and user friendly products that have become part of our lives. But many observers associate those innovations with Steve Jobs personally. Here is what I think might happen now:

  • Apple might open up its brand with social media (a largely untapped opportunity for Apple) to show you more of its personality beyond Steve Jobs.

This is a sad time for Steve Jobs, and an interesting time for Apple.  How do you believe the Apple brand will evolve?

Buzz Lightyear might know your name

The next time you visit Disney World, don’t be surprised if Buzz Lightyear greets everyone in your family by their first names before you’ve been introduced to him.

According to an apparently well-sourced rumor, Disney is morphing its Key to the World card (which acts as an all-purpose credit card, ID tag, and room key on Disney properties) into a smart wristband that will give you a more personal and interactive Disney resort experience.

Depending on how Disney develops its NextGen park technology, here is what you might be able to do during a future visit to a Disney resort:

  • Enter the Magic Kingdom by waving your wristband as you breeze past a turnstile. Or buy a snack at Epcot with a scan of your wrist. No fumbling around for your card as you simultaneously help your children find theirs while you hold up a line of impatient park goers.
  • After you enjoy a thrilling ride on Expedition Everest at Animal Kingdom, purchase a video capturing the moment and send it home to your friends.
  • Have Snow White greet your daughter by her first name (“Hello, Emma, how nice to meet you”!) because your daughter’s wristband is encoded with personal information visible to the Disney Princess.

Disney has made no introduction of the wristbands although it’s quite possible Disney could road test aspects of the technology soon. Meantime the rumor has Disney bloggers buzzing, as evidenced here and here.

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Why Amazon and Netflix don’t always know best

It’s far too easy to allow ourselves to be led around by the nose.

Amazon tells us what to buy. Netflix and Pandora suggest movies and music based on our tastes. Facebook and Google+ suggest friends to us. Twitter tells us whom to follow.

But those tools reinforce what we know already. They broaden our horizons only incrementally.

To make a creative and intellectual breakthrough that forces you to grow, I believe it’s important to find moments of serendipity – when you stumble on new ideas that seemingly lack any immediate application to your life. You won’t find those moments by allowing others to curate your life for you.

Here are a few examples of how I’ve tried to spark moments of serendipity:

1. Getting immersed in a different setting

For most of my life, I was not interested in medieval history. So I had low expectations when I joined my family on my first visit to the Bristol Renaissance Faire a few years ago. The faire re-creates the town of Bristol, England, in the year 1574, complete with period costumes, jugglers, minstrel entertainers, and a visit from the Queen of England. And as I’ve mentioned on my blog, the faire enchanted me on my first visit.

It’s not just the passion and spirit of the fairgoers that attracts me – it’s those moments of personal serendipity that occur on so many visits. Recently, by complete chance, I discovered a band known as the New Minstrel Revue, who opened my mind to the gentle and beautiful sounds of Celtic folk.

One of my favorite things to do at the faire is to walk into the Compass Rose music shop and buy whatever the store is playing at the time. It’s a total hit-and-miss proposition that has introduced me to new music I might not have heard otherwise – such as Sacred and Secular music from Renaissance Germany (a selection that I doubt Pandora would have suggested based on my musical interests).

This year I happened to be walking through the dusty Bristol streets and heard a strange, beautiful drone-like guitar sound. By simply following the siren call of the music, I discovered the Darbuki Kings playing bouzouki and drums with a belly dancer. Even better, Antone Darbuki took the time to show me how he strums an exotic sound with an open G tuning on his bouzouki strings.

I had heard of the bouzouki — but I had no appreciation for what a bouzouki could do until this chance encounter at Bristol.

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How the Rolling Stones got their mojo back (and you can, too)

Let’s say you’re an aging business or marketing executive with your back against the wall. You’ve accomplished great things in your career but nothing substantial lately. A brash generation of upstarts threatens to muscle you aside with their attitude and fresh ideas. What would you do?

If you wanted to follow the lesson taught by a group of famous multimillionaires known as the Rolling Stones, you would start throwing punches with one hand and waving your middle finger in the air with the other.

As recounted by the recently published The Rolling Stones’ Some Girls by Cyrus R.K. Patell, the Rolling Stones of the late 1970s was a band on the ropes. The group’s most recent albums (Goats Head Soup, It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll, and Black and Blue) had revealed signs of complacency and artistic decline. Keith Richards was in the grip of heroin addiction. And the rise of punk rock, full of piss and vinegar, made the Stones look more like dinosaurs than the World’s Greatest Rock and Roll Band.

In 1977, when Keith Richards was busted in Canada for possession of heroin with intent to traffic, the band’s future was very much in doubt as Richards faced the possibility of a stiff jail sentence.

How did the Rolling Stones respond? By going into the studio and recording what would turn out to be one of its most critically acclaimed and commercially successful albums, Some Girls.

With Some Girls, the Rolling Stones shocked their critics and reasserting their relevance to modern rock music and popular culture. The album would eventually achieve more than 6 million units sold and would be ranked among the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time by Rolling Stone. The Rolling Stones returned to greatness by:

1. Beating the upstarts at their own game.

Punk rockers, brimming with anti-establishment swagger, forgot that the Stones were the original punk upstarts in the 1960s. On Some Girls, the Stones showed up the punks as wannabes by recording sneering, nasty songs like “When the Whip Comes Down” and “Respectable,” which gave society the middle finger (sample lyrics: “You’re a rag-tag girl, you’re the queen of porn/You’re the easiest lay on the White House Lawn”).

The title song famously inspired Reverend Jesse Jackson to launch a boycott against the album for its supposedly racist lyrics. At the time, Jackson characterized the song “Some Girls” as a “racial” insult” that “degrades blacks and women.” Jagger’s reply: “I’ve always said, ‘If you can’t take a joke, it’s too fucking bad’” – a gutsy rebuke given Jackson’s public stature and how much Jagger had to lose at this point in his career. Infamous punk rocker Johnny Rotten seemed like a tame choirboy by comparison.

Keith Richards, meanwhile, was no less unrepentant and defiant. His Some Girls song “Before They Make Me Run” was an unabashed nose thumbing delivered to the Canadian authorities who had busted him in 1977. “I will walk before they make me run,” he vowed in the song — a ballsy statement given that he had yet to be tried for the bust and faced years of hard time in jail. It’s easy to sneer at society when you have nothing to lose — doing so when you could pay the price with your life is another matter.

Even the album cover managed to piss off the entertainment establishment for its unauthorized and unflattering use of photographs of hallowed American icons such as Lucille Ball and Marilyn Monroe (the Stones later changed the album cover art under threat of litigation).

With ugly yet energetic songs like “Some Girls,” the Stones were really recapturing the sound and attitude they had created in the 1960 when they were fined for public urination. And they did so with a vengeance.

Patell characterizes the sound of songs like “When the Whip Comes Down” this way: “it’s the Stones out-doing punk, or perhaps incorporating punk sound into their own, layering on sonic nuances that are beyond the ken of all but a few punk and New Wave bands.”

To cite an analogy from the marketing world circa 2011, it’s like one of the established offline agencies figuring out how to beat the social media boutiques by drawing on good old-fashioned word-of-mouth marketing techniques that have existed for decades.

2. Learning new tricks

Some Girls features one of the great Stones singles, “Miss You,” which became a Number One song on the Billboard charts in 1978. With its disco-tinged beat and Jagger alternately cooing falsetto and growling about lonely angst, “Miss You” sounded quite unlike anything the Stones had ever recorded (although “Hot Stuff” on Black and Blue from 1976 was something of a portent).

In 1977 and 1978, when the Stones were recording Some Girls, disco music was at the height of its popularity. Billboard’s top hits for 1977 included “Boogie Nights” by Heatwave and “I’m Your Boogie Man” by KC and the Sunshine Band. Discothèque Studio 54 was the epicenter for the rich and famous ranging from Truman Capote to Mick Jagger himself.

As related in The Rolling Stones’ Some Girls and in Keith Richards’s biography Life, “[‘Miss You’ is a] result of all the nights Mick spent at Studio 54 and coming up with that beat, that four on the floor . . . Mick wanted to do some disco shit, keep the man happy. But as we got into it, it became quite an interesting beat. And we realized, maybe we’ve got a quintessential disco thing here. And out of it we got a huge hit.”

But by drawing upon disco, the Stones took an enormous risk of sounding like a bunch of old farts trying to pander to a contemporary sound. And disco was dangerous territory for a rock and roll band. Disco was enormously popular, yes, but also alienating to the old guard of rock fans who wore their cut-off jeans proudly and sought refuge in the guitar-heavy sound of Boston and Lynyrd Skynyrd. Contempt for disco would famously erupt in the chaos of the “Disco Demolition Night” riot of 1979 in Chicago’s Comiskey Park.

Incredibly, the Stones figured out how to incorporate the irresistible parts of disco (bass and beat) and in fact claim the sound as their own. How? By adding rough guitars, the bluesy harmonica of guest musician Sugar Blue, and Jagger’s brooding lyrics and soulful singing.

Writes Patell: “Jagger would insist, however, that ‘Miss You’ wasn’t simply a disco song: ‘’Miss You’ wasn’t disco disco. Disco records at that time didn’t have guitars much, and they had all shimmering string lines and oo-eoo-ee girls. It was influenced by it, but not it. I like that.’”

And we like “Miss You,” too. Rolling Stone magazine ranked it among the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, and artists ranging from the Black Eyed Peas to My Morning Jacket have covered it.

“Miss You” endures because the Stones, although down and out at the time – or perhaps because they were down and out – tested new waters but still had enough confidence in themselves to remain firmly rooted in the sound they knew.

By 1978, the Stones had played together long enough to know how to make great music. By combining the new with their time-tested sound, the Stones recorded a song that still sounds fresh today, while eclipsing many disco tunes that remain trapped in a 1970s time capsule.

From the business and marketing realm, a similar example of adapting embracing the new while staying true to yourself is the TED (Technology Entertainment Design) conference. Since 1984, the event has attracted the world’s leading thinkers with the promise of delivering “ideas worth spreading.” Part of the event’s mystique is its velvet-rope policy. Not just anyone can attend or speak at TED. Attending requires a $6,000 fee and an application. And only the most engaging speakers who agree to adhere to TED’s standards may appear. (Past speakers have included President Bill Clinton and many Nobel Prize winners.)

And yet TED has changed with the times. TED now makes hundreds of its talks available free on the TED website. The organization uses social media to keep its brand fresh and relevant beyond the annual conference. TED also grants licenses to third parties to hold spin-off TEDx events so that you can experience a little bit of TED around the world. And yet the keynote TED conference is stronger than ever (TED 2012 is sold out already).

TED has successfully adapted by using digital and making its brand more accessible while staying true to its mission of sharing ideas worth spreading.

Where is your Some Girls?

Sooner or later, you’re going to feel threatened as the Rolling Stones once did. If you’re a seasoned grey hair, already established in your field, you know what I’m talking about. If you’re 22 years old and you’re reading this post, just give yourself some time: you will get older, and someone will usher in a fresh idea that’s going to make you feel like you just got kicked squarely in the ass.

And that’s good. We all need to be kicked in the ass from time to time. The question is, How will you respond? Will you stick your head in the sand or come out swinging like the Rolling Stones did?

We are all content hustlers

It’s ironic Google+ allowed the digital elites such as Chris Brogan early access to Google+ while asking corporations to hold off creating brand profiles. Just about everyone I know on Google+ (including me) uses the social platform to hustle their own content as well as any corporation could.

We are all content hustlers now. In fact, it’s the proliferation of platforms like Google+ and check-in sites like GetGlue that continues to transform everyday consumers into marketers of our own content.

You check into GetGlue on a Friday night to watch Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and the next thing you know, someone responds to your check-in by asking for your opinion, and then you write a mini review in reply. In a matter of minutes, you become both moviegoer and amateur critic.

Case in point: yesterday morning, I needed to do some quick online research to find a business and its street address. I visited Google to do a simple search. Immediately I encountered a Google Doodle that cleverly honored Lucille Ball’s 100th birthday by playing snippets of I Love Lucy via the image of an old-style console TV. How cool! I just had to share the Google Doodle with my friends.

But sharing wasn’t enough: I needed to add my own opinion (my contribution to your content stream) about how the Google Doodle brilliantly synthesized utility and entertainment. Within minutes, I posted a CBS News article about the doodle, plus a brief comment on my Facebook, Global 14, and Google+ content streams. I also wrote the obligatory tweet.

And I wasn’t even working up a sweat – or tapping into the many other platforms I could have used to spread my content (however brief it was) across the digital world.

Within minutes, my mindset had changed from searcher of information to publisher. And then I did what any good content publisher does: checked my metrics. Did I get any retweets? Facebook Likes? +1s? Had I found a responsive audience for the content I was hustling?

A few take-aways:

  • A Google search became an exercise in content publishing. But I also forgot to complete my original Google search, ironically. The content publisher lurking inside me was competing with the simple reality of getting on with my life.
  • Although access to social media sites makes it easier for us to hustle content, not all the content we create is worth hustling. As guitarist Jack White said in the documentary It Might Get Loud, ease of use does not make us more creative.

Yes, we are all content hustlers. But just because we can does not mean we should. Fortunately we can block and manage content, too, by paring our friend lists and curating our information streams (e.g., with Google+ Circles), although doing so is not always as easy as it looks. I’ll let you judge whether I’m hustling content you care about.