Led Zeppelin. The name evokes the hammer of the gods, hypnotic music forged in the mists of Mordor and the mountains of Kashmir, and the heavy gravitas of legend. Here is a band whose place in rock history is secure. Five of its albums are listed in Rolling Stone‘s ranking of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, and Led Zeppelin’s music is so influential and powerful that it resonates with generation after generation of fans. But Led Zeppelin achieved renown at a different time, when the music industry played by different rules, and artists made their mark through an art form — the record album — that has become anachronistic. If Led Zeppelin were just starting out today as an unknown group, would the band break through and succeed? I believe Led Zeppelin would indeed become a household name — but only by adapting its game plan to play by today’s rules:
Rule 1: Make Great Music
Let’s first look at an obvious ingredient for success: artists must produce consistently great music. It sounds obvious, but musicians possess zero margin for error in the here-today, gone-tomorrow environment that characterizes the music industry. Groups are competing against distractions that did not exist in the 1970s: the Internet, mobile apps, video games, and a proliferation of television channels, to name a few. A sensation such as Psy can create a massive breakthrough with “Gangnam Style” only to be tossed on the dust heap of one-hit wonders if he lacks a compelling follow-through. But bands anxious about generating the next hit also have to exercise caution: the proliferation of digital channels such as SoundCloud makes it too easy for artists to release music that is not ready for prime time. Good bands must resist the temptation to release music too early; they also must transcend the blizzard of white noise emanating from multiple channels.
Assessing the quality of an artist’s music is entirely subjective, but I believe Zeppelin’s style would resonate even in today’s climate, where an explosion of music formats such as electronic dance music and hip-hop have diluted rock music’s influence. The band’s music defied categorization. Certainly songs such as “Kashmir” and “Dancing Days” were exotic and versatile enough to appeal to listeners beyond rock. In fact, Led Zeppelin’s music has been sampled heavily by hip-hop artists such as Dr. Dre and Eminem, with “When the Levee Breaks” alone sampled numerous times. All Led Zeppelin’s music was carefully developed under the exacting standards of Jimmy Page, who had the unusual role of lead guitarist, co-writer, and producer. That the group has won so many accolades such as the Kennedy Center Honors is a testament to its attention to detail. Even Led Zeppelin’s rough works in progress from the slew of deluxe editions issued in recent months are better than much of what passes for polished material that you find on SoundCloud.
But consider also how often Led Zeppelin appears in pop culture, sounding as fresh today as it did in the 1970s. Movies ranging from Shrek 3 to Silver Linings Playbook have featured Led Zeppelin songs in their soundtracks, and the newly released Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation uses “Whole Lotta Love” in one of its trailers.
Moreover, consider the appeal of Led Zeppelin to younger generations. Next time you find yourself at a music festival or anywhere millennials congregate, I can guarantee you’ll spot numerous Led Zeppelin T shirts being worn. Whether they listen to Led Zeppelin is open to question, but they certainly believe the Zeppelin name is cool enough to wear on their clothing. And the band continues to appear in millennial-focused publications such as Consequence of Sound, Noisey, and Pitchfork. I think it’s safe to say that Led Zeppelin’s music would resonate if it were being heard for the first time.
Rule 2: Share Liberally
Making great music is one thing. Getting your music heard is another matter completely. Led Zeppelin packaged and shared its music through a dated format: the album. The band would need to alter its approach radically to have a chance of succeeding today, given the decline of the album as an art form. Back in the glory days of album-oriented rock, Led Zeppelin released a total of 10 singles over the course of 10 years. The band deliberately withheld its best songs from the single format in order to force fans to buy its full-length albums. And as the group’s popularity grew, Led Zeppelin built anticipation by releasing albums at a leisurely pace — for instance, allowing nearly two years to transpire between the release of Houses of the Holy and Physical Graffiti. The strategy worked: all eight of the studio albums Led Zeppelin released when it was an active unit from 1969-1979 were Top 10 sellers (four reached Number 1 status), with worldwide record sales estimated to be between 200 million and 300 million over the years.
But record albums are practically dead. The music industry has reverted to the 1950s and 1960s, when artists relied on singles to share their music. Fans consume music in bite-sized portions now, principally via streaming and song downloading. To thrive today, Led Zeppelin would need to create a steady stream of music through video-friendly singles. The band could still record albums, but with a radically different strategy:
- The albums would need to support the live performance and merchandising, not the other way around, as was the case in the 1970s.
- Led Zeppelin would need to flood the market with songs in between album releases. Making fans wait for one, two, or three years between album release would be unthinkable at a time when bands are competing with more white noise for fan attention. Zeppelin would also need to capitalize on the numerous outlets available for sharing new songs, such as streaming, massive festivals such as Coachella, and sponsorships with brands.
Led Zeppelin’s famously elaborate album cover art would still matter in the digital age. As I’ve written, album cover art remains an important way to brand a band through multiple channels, including social media, mobile, and offline. But the albums themselves would support the brand rather than be front and center.
Rule 3: Tour Relentlessly
The band’s emphasis on touring, especially in the lucrative North American market, would serve Led Zeppelin well today. According to Billboard, touring revenue accounts for 80 percent of the income earned by music’s Top 40 acts. Led Zeppelin helped pioneer touring as a massive money maker. In its day, the band built rabid word of mouth that way. Between the band’s founding in 1968 and 1971, Led Zeppelin toured North America nine times. In 1969 alone, when Led Zeppelin released two albums, the band played 139 dates on its way to playing more than 600 concerts throughout its career. Touring served three purposes:
- Building fan loyalty by playing directly to them, which was especially crucial in the band’s early years, when critics dismissed its music.
- Generating revenue. In fact, Manager Peter Grant famously rewrote the rules of the touring industry. At a time when concert promoters earned most of the revenue from tours, Led Zeppelin earned 90 percent of the concert take, all because of Grant.
- Introducing music. The fan was known to debut its songs in concert in advance of album releases, akin to the function YouTube plays today for many bands.
Led Zeppelin’s tour-heavy strategy set the template for modern rock bands. Building a fan base by constantly playing is an unquestionably vital part of any band’s playbook today, especially with record sales tanking. However, if Led Zeppelin were starting out today, the band would likely make one crucial adjustment: refining and expanding the merchandise available through concerts Touring doesn’t generate album sales as it did in the 1970s. It sells merchandise.
Rule 4: Market Aggressively
Bands must act as brands to succeed in the digital era, which means:
- Aggressive marketing and PR aimed at fans and influencers.
- Co-branding with corporations through events and imaginative ad campaigns, an example being Kid Rock and Harley Davidson partnering to release limited-edition merchandise.
- Licensing music for other media such as movies, commercials, and games.
Led Zeppelin was a marketing machine in the 1970s, and many elements of its brand would work well today, such as:
- Having one of the most memorable names in music history.
- Visual storytelling. Led Zeppelin was a highly visual band, onstage and offstage. The creation of the runic symbols to visually express the band’s essence for its untitled fourth album was both an artistic and marketing masterstroke that would work perfectly in an era when people upload 1.8 billion photos a day. Led Zeppelin understood that music is a visual medium, too — a lesson that successful artists such as Lady Gaga have learned.
- Influencing the influencers. During the band’s first few years, Manager Peter Grant was a relentless promoter, famously convincing Atlantic Records to offer Led Zeppelin a lucrative record deal before the band had recorded a single note. The same approach would be effective today although the set of influencers would now include brands such as Apple, Facebook, and Google, to reflect the changing power base in music.
For decades Led Zeppelin refused to play the co-branding game, until 2001, when the band permitted Cadillac to use the song “Rock and Roll” in an ad. Music purists cried foul then, but today brands play an important role as DJ for musicians, through commercials and promotions. The band learned and adapted, as it would today.
Rule 5: Engage Your Superfans
Taylor Swift. Lorde. Justin Timberlake. They’re all superstars who follow the golden rule: always engage your fans. Whether tweeting to fans, calling them personally, inviting them onstage, or holding ticket scavenger hunts on Instagram, the successful artists find ways to honor their superfans all year round.
In the 1970s, rock stars did not have the tools at their disposal to court their superfans as they do today. Led Zeppelin gave everything they had to their fans onstage, but offstage, the band was not known to be particularly warm or fan friendly. Jimmy Page created mystique by being inaccessible and aloof. John Bonham, temperamental and potentially violent when drinking, was probably best left alone.
The behavior of its surviving members offers a clue as to how Led Zeppelin would have courted its fans offstage if the band were making its name today. Most certainly Led Zeppelin would have left it up to Robert Plant to carry the day. He actively uses social media to open up his life to his fans, usually by documenting his travels via media ranging from Instagram to Tumblr. As an entity, the band would likely be solid, if unspectacular, in the social media department, hitting all its basis on the major social media sites to announce tour news, and perhaps some occasional ticket giveaways. But Led Zeppelin would probably do now what it did then: reserve fan engagement for the stage.
If Led Zeppelin were starting out today, the band would need to play by a different set of rules, and measure its success by different standards, in order to break though. But would fans respond to “Stairway to Heaven” and “Kashmir” if they heard them for the first time today? Yes. These songs continue to flex their muscle in contemporary pop culture and find an audience, as evidenced by the success of the Led Zeppelin deluxe reissues that concluded with the release of Coda, In through the Out Door, and Presence on July 31. Newer generations discover the band every day and embrace music recorded 40 years ago.