Adele demonstrates the power of mystique. Merriam-Webster defines mystique as “an air or attitude of mystery and reverence developing around something or someone.” Adele creates that air of mystery by holding back. She avoids TikTok. She has tweeted only nine times in 2021, and her tweets consist of bland announcements probably written by someone on Team Adele. On Instagram, she has shared 14 posts in 2021 (and a recent Instagram Live chat with her fans). Avoiding social media is the wrong move for anyone trying to build a brand in our hyper-social attention economy. And yet, Adele’s new song “Easy on Me” has broken a Spotify record for most single-day streams even though she has not released any new music for six years.
Adele’s approach works for her. But why? Crucially, she built a devoted fan base when her breakthrough album, 21, took off in 2011. She attracted fans who were (and are) not necessarily into following music trends, social media, and pop culture — but who are into Adele. As Nielsen analyst Dave Bakula commented when Adele’s 25 was released in 2015, “[Adele is] an outlier of outliers because she brings in people who are not regular music buyers,” he told Billboard. “Maybe they haven’t bought a record since Adele’s 21.”
Adele has inherited the mantel of heartfelt singer-songwriter from the likes of Carole King and Joni Mitchell. Her fans connect with her songs at an intensely personal level. She is known to draw from her real-life relationships, which gives those songs an authenticity that resonates even more. “Easy on Me” is reportedly based on her divorce from Simon Konecki, as is her forthcoming album, 30.
Having a low profile on social strengthens that connection by keeping her fans focused on understanding Adele through her music, not through her social posts. Being on social risks exposing cracks in the Adele persona and can distract from her narrative. In 2020, she posted on Instagram a rare unguarded photo of herself wearing her hair styled in Bantu knots while she wore a Jamaican flag bikini. The post sparked accusations of cultural appropriation, a rare moment of public shaming. This was not the kind of attention that suits her narrative.
Social media is about creating impressions — little moments that create a steady stream of visibility. But Adele is in her element when she creates The Moment. Like hosting Saturday Night Live.
Or becoming the first person to appear simultaeously on the cover of both the U.S. and British Vogue.
She can control these moments. And then she can retreat behind the veil of mystique. She is like Steve Jobs with his big product reveals when he ran Apple. Adele’s latest big reveal is 30, being dropped on November 19. On Adele’s terms.
I swore I would never write one of those “Lessons I Learned from the Rolling Stones” blog posts.
And yet, here I am doing just that.
Well, a few nights ago, I came upon a YouTube video of them performing “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” onstage September 30 in Charlotte, North Carolina. I decided to watch it even though I already know the song well, and I’ve seen them perform it live. Frankly, I was curious to know how they sounded. After all, they’d just lost an essential member of the band, drummer Charlie Watts, who died August 24 after being their backbone for 60 years. On the other hand, they’d been holed up for months, grounded by the pandemic. The Charlotte concert was only the second show of their No Filter Tour. Would they sound energized by the road after all this time? Would they perform in sync with their replacement drummer, Steve Jordan?
Within seconds, I had my answer. These guys were on fire. Mick Jagger sliced through the air and skipped across the stage like a kid on a playground. Ron Wood and Keith Richards traded guitar licks like a garage band with something to prove. Richards crouched, twirled around, glanced at the heavens, and laughed. Wood swiveled his hips, tilted his guitar, and spat out lick after lick.
This was a moment of passion.
Then I came across them performing “Satisfaction” a few nights later in Pittsburgh. Here was an eight-minute version of a three-minute song we’ve heard countless times — and yet, every second felt fresh and exciting, with the band building up to an explosion of energy.
I have reflected on these moments. These guys are pushing 80 — Mick Jagger is 78, Keith Richards, 77, and Ron Wood, 74. Now, I don’t point out their age in a “Wow, they can still play into their 70s!” way. Their age matters because when you see someone several years older than you exuding that kind of joy and passion, well, you cannot help but feel encouraged that you can keep your inner flame alive, too, year after year.
I mean, it’s one thing to find your passion. But how do you keep it? Make it stronger? It’s easy when you’re just starting out in your career, whatever that is for you. You’re flush with the excitement of learning your craft. Of figuring out how to collaborate with a team. But then, the responsibilities of life start to compete for your energy. Professionally, you encounter hassles. Maybe you have a run of bad bosses or deal with a toxic co-worker. Maybe your job gets cut, and you need to learn a new gig with someone else. And then, there are the personal distractions that creep up on you, like monthly rents, student loans, and the endless minutiae of adulting. At some point, more serious personal setbacks that can crush your spirit enter the picture: like losing loved ones or handling a health issue of your own. All those things happen, and if you’ve somehow been spared and cannot relate to what I’m writing, well, just give it some time.
The Rolling Stones have endured all those setbacks. The loss of Charlie Watts is the latest. They’ve also lost other band members before Charlie, sometimes tragically. They’ve endured the same pressures that less-famous people like you and me face, including serious financial issues (they were broke in the early 1970s), legal scrapes, self-inflicted problems such as drug addiction and health scares (including heart surgery for Mick Jagger in 2019). Any of those obstacles could have sapped their spirit.
But not the Stones. They’ve released dozens of albums. Their work includes some of the greatest rock music ever recorded, and some not-so-great albums, too. But all of their music matters. Their most recent single, “Living in a Ghost Town,” was powerfully relevant to pandemic life.
And they keep touring.
On the surface, they don’t need to tour. They have all the money they need. Touring means travel. Being away from families. Enduring the rigors of road life. But I believe those video clips on YouTube say something else: touring is what fuels their passion. Touring means performing, and performing onstage ignites an inner spark. If you’ve ever performed onstage — whether acting, singing, or presenting at a conference in front of an audience — you know how that live dynamic feels. The energy. The nervousness. The “What if I suck?” doubts. Well, all that energy — both the nervousness and the excitement — creates a spark. And that spark keeps them vital.
Mick Jagger recently commented on performance when he was asked how and why he keeps touring into his 70s:
I’m very passionate about touring. Every time you go onstage it’s a very exciting moment, because you never know what’s going to happen. It’s always different. A lot of unexpected things happen. Each show is a new event. You’re in a different place with a different audience. It’s a very exciting couple of hours and it’s a very intense relationship with the audience.
Keith Richards was more succinct in a Rolling Stone interview: “It’s what I do, man. Give me 50,000 people and I feel right at home. The whole band does.”
It’s what they do. What do you do to keep your passion alive?
In 1985, I crossed paths with Danny Sugerman, co-author of the controversial biography of Jim Morrison, No One Here Gets Out Alive. By the mid-1980s, a global Doors revival was in full swing, and No One Here Gets Out Alive, released in 1980, had a lot to do with that. Sugarman and co-author Jerry Hopkins cast the Lizard King as a modern-day Icarus who flew too close to the sun, a tortured poet trapped in an ugly world of rock stardom. No One Here Gets Out Alive also speculated that Jim Morrison might have faked his death at age 27 in 1971 — an unsubstantiated claim that sparked much debate and critical backlash. Well, accurate or not, the book sold millions of copies.
I was working at a book publishing company in 1985, where I was editing a book about rock and roll, You Say You Want a Revolution: Rock Music in American Culture. I wanted to use a photo of Jim Morrison and had written Elektra Records asking for permission. Out of the blue, I received a phone call from Danny Sugerman. In his laid-back California drawl that suggested Jeff Spicoli from Fast Times at Ridgemont High, he explained that he held the rights to the photo I wanted. Then he asked me about the book I was editing. I explained how the book captured the essence of rock music’s influence on American culture, and a photo of Jim would be perfect. He didn’t ask me another question about the book or the rights to the photo. Instead, we spent two hours talking about Jim Morrison and the Doors. I told him I’d been to Paris for the 10th anniversary of Jim Morrison’s death. He talked of the power of Jim to change lives singlehandedly — Danny’s life and many people he’d met since publishing No One Here Gets Out Alive.
When we hung up, I was reminded of how powerful Jim Morrison’s gravitational pull could be. Clearly, Danny Sugerman would forever remain under Jim’s spell. I also realized the phone call had nothing to do with rights and permissions. Danny had wanted to share his belief in rock and roll mythology, specifically the mythology of Jim Morrison, the rock god and poet. Somehow early in the conversation he must have sensed I was another believer he could bond with. He didn’t come across as a historian. He seemed to me like a disciple. I also saw No One Here Gets Out Alive in a new context: an important addition to rock mythology. That’s how I view it today.
Why Rock Mythology Matters
Since that conversation with Danny, I have come to understand and appreciate the essential role of rock mythology. Rock mythology is important because it liberates us from the mundane realities of life through its epic scope and sometimes sensational storytelling. For true believers — those of us whose lives have been changed by music — rock mythology imparts meaning. We need to believe that the rock gods who influence us also live and die in extraordinary ways.
Since No One Here Gets Out Alive was published, many more myth-makers have emerged, such as Stephen Davis, author of another controversial and salacious book, Hammer of the Gods, about Led Zeppelin. The surviving band members criticized the book for being inaccurate, but the criticisms missed the point: Davis had canonized Led Zeppelin as the ultimate gods of decadent cool, and most certainly did them a favor by elevating them to mythic status. In 2005, Bob Dylan published a memoir of mythology, Chronicles: Volume One, in which Dylan chose episodes of his life to create the portrait of a poet minstrel. Martin Scorsese built on that mythology with the release of the 2019 documentary, Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese. The movie focused on Dylan’s famous 1975 tour that included a band of merry minstrels (such as poet Allen Ginsburg) and musicians. The movie confused many watchers by including authentic-looking interviews with actors who, it turned out, were playing people who did not exist, or real-life people who fabricated stories. The audience was left to wonder how much of the documentary was authentic and how much was made up. And critics were annoyed that they’d been duped. In retrospect, it seems to me Scorsese was playing with the concept of rock mythology by mixing fantasy with facts.
Elegantly Wasted Rock Gods
Rock mythology needs to have enough elements of truth to be believable, but it also needs to amplify the larger-than-life details. Rock mythology might also be based on stories that are generally agreed upon to be true — but the mythology omits details that are inconvenient. For example, the mythology about Keith Richards being a dangerously romantic rock star has been earned by well-documented drug addictions and scrapes with the law. But the closest Richards has come to dying (as of this writing) was actually from slipping and bashing his head on a palm tree trunk, a pedestrian story that is usually omitted from his rock mythology.
Keith Richards was friends with Gram Parsons, and both of them shared serious drug addictions. The life of Parsons, who left this world in 1973, is the stuff of powerful mythology. He was a boyish Southern gentleman who threw away a pampered existence (he came from a family of wealth) to embrace the hard life of an elegantly wasted rock star. Like Jim Morrison, he was a tortured soul; he was scarred by the suicide of his father when he was 12 and the alcoholism of his mother. Oh, and in his early 20s, while battling the demons of a heroin addiction, the rock god Gram Parsons cut two record albums that influenced the rise of modern-day Americana. Because gods of mythology live very, very large.
Of course, he did not die like any mortal. No, Parsons succumbed to a drug overdose in a lonely motel in the desert. But the story does not end there. His loyal road manager Phil Kaufman (who, in the tradition of rock mythology, was once a cell mate of Charles Manson) stole Gram Parsons’s corpse and burned his body in Joshua Tree National Monument. According to rock mythology, Parsons had wanted his body burned in the desert. Apparently Kaufman was the only person Parsons had bothered to tell, but there can be no other reason why Kaufman would have gathered a posse to steal the body and burn it. In any case, verifying details is not important to rock mythology; what’s important is the highly impressionistic portrait that has emerged of Gram Parsons as a romantic, gone-too-soon, fragile soul. This mythology is so strong that visitors to Joshua Tree (including me) who know the story of his death make it a point to find the spot where his ashes were scattered. (Google “Gram Parsons Joshua Tree site,” and see for yourself.) Who can say for sure where his ashes were actually scattered or whether indeed he wanted his body burned in the desert? But mythology is about storytelling, not pinpoint factual accuracy.
Why is the myth of the rock star who lives fast and dies young so compelling? Perhaps because according to popular mythology, rock and roll itself is a subversive force that emerged from the depths of hell to corrupt the young. Rock and roll is supposed to be dangerous. After all, Ian Drury sang, “Sex, Drugs, and Rock and Roll.” Rock stars are supposed to be dangerous. And under the subversive influence of the devil’s music, rock stars are vulnerable to the temptations of rock life. They may even become agents of the devil himself. Rock mythology says that Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil; it tells us three members of Led Zeppelin also forged a contract with Satan. Many others, such as Ozzy Osbourne, might not have been known to sell their souls to the devil, but according to mythology, they did the devil’s work.
Thanks to the internet, anyone can create their own rock mythology to endure for the ages. If our myths became challenged by the facts, we can either ignore all but the most unavoidably inconvenient truths or incorporate them into a new mythology.
A good case in point is the recording of the last Doors album with Jim Morrison, L.A. Woman. Popular rock mythology says that when the Doors went into the studio to record L.A. Woman, Jim was a bloated has-been who’d run out of ideas and needed to plumb the depths of his childhood journals to find something fresh. After Jim Morrison’s infamously chaotic performance in Miami in March 1969, the band suffered from a slew of canceled concerts. Jim Morrison was charged with obscenity, a process that drained him and the band. Cast adrift, they struggled. By 1970, when the Doors were recording L.A. Woman, the Doors sounded so bad in rehearsals that their producer, Paul Rothchild, quit them, fuming that the Doors sounded like a cocktail lounge act. But somehow — so goes the mythology — Jim Morrison managed to tap into some muse that was still burning inside, and he forged a new instrument from his hoarse, beaten voice.
That enduring perception is probably true, and probably false. Who knows? That’s the point of rock mythology — to paint pictures we hold onto for those moments when our mortal lives feel too ordinary. And so, the myth of L.A. Woman persists.
“Riders on the Storm”
A recently unearthed demo of “Riders on the Storm” challenges the mythology that Jim Morrison was in decline when the Doors made L.A. Woman. The demo, uncovered by album co-producer Bruce Botnick, suggests that Morrison’s voice sounded better than ever, even gaining some depth and soul missing from his earlier recordings. Known as the Sunset Sound demo, it feeds into a mythology that I’ve embraced: the rise of the shamanistic Jim Morrison who was enjoying a creative Renaissance, contrary to the has-been Jim mythology.
According to the myth of Jim Morrison as shaman, he had decided to leave behind his Dionysian past and morphed into Mr. Mojo Risin, a blues persona who sang in a gruffier, lower register. Mr. Mojo Risin is best appreciated on the title track for L.A. Woman (in which he name-checks Mojo Risin, which turned out to be an anagram for Jim Morrison), “The Changeling,” and “Been Down So Long.” But Mr. Mojo Risin actually appears before L.A. Woman, notably on “Road House Blues” from Morrison Hotel, which was released in 1970.
How do I know all this about Jim Morrison’s creative renaissance? I don’t know. I believe. But the belief is well-founded. L.A. Woman was a critical success, and it was no fluke. Morrison Hotel was equally well-received. On those last two albums, the Doors released some of their strongest songs, which sounded nothing like the psychedelia of their celebrated first two albums — a sign of a band growing and experimenting with its sound. And on live albums recorded from the few concerts the Doors could book after the Miami incident, Morrison sounds like a man who is experimenting with different personae onstage. Absolutely Live captures Jim applying the confrontational theater style he’d learned from the Living Theatre in Los Angeles. On Live at the Aquarius: First Performance (recorded in July 1969, but not released until decades after the fact), you can hear Jim Morrison experimenting with the Mr. Mojo Risin persona. He improvises the song “Back Door Man,” by incorporating lyrics from the yet-to-be released “Maggie M’Gill” from Morrison Hotel: “Well, I’m an old blues man and I think that you understand/I’ve been singing the blues ever since the world began.”
On “Riders on the Storm,” Jim achieved one more creative transformation. He conjured up a frightening Wendigo from Native American mythology to inhabit the soul of Mojo Risin. He’d had a longtime fascination with Native American culture. In a spoken recording, he once talked of a childhood incident in which his family came across an accident on a highway. Several Indians were scattered on the pavement, and the soul of one of the ghosts of the dead Indians inhabited Jim Morrison’s soul. He would also capture that moment famously in the song, “Peace Frog,” from Morrison Hotel. If this story alone does not constitute epic rock mythology, I don’t know what does. It’s fantastic enough to sound ridiculous if you are a skeptic. But if you are a believer, you can totally accept a younger Jim Morrison deciding he was inhabited by the soul of a dead Indian and then drawing from that belief to create art.
In “Riders on the Storm,” Morrison evokes the Wendigo to create a feeling of dread that pervades the song even in its rough form. The early take is simpler than the final version, which would be embellished with an echo of Jim Morrison’s voice and the thunderstorm special effects. But the evil spirit of the Wendigo emerges even in this early version, with Morrison’s words creating a powerful narrative:
There’s a killer on the road His brain is squirmin’ like a toad Take a long holiday Let your children play If you give this man a ride Sweet family will die
The Wendigo also expresses the chaos of existence in the line, “Into this world we’re thrown” (a lyric that Doors scholars believe was inspired by philosopher Martin Heidegger’s concept of thrownness, or human existence as a basic state). Throughout, Jim’s voice is haunting and dark, deep and pure.
He didn’t create the dread alone. “Riders on the Storm” represents a peak performance by the entire band (as well as guest bassist Jerry Scheff) and some brilliant production by the band and Bruce Botnick.
The song was still taking shape when the Sunset Sound demo was recorded. But Jim was already where he needed to be.
The Danger of Rock Mythology
Chasing rock mythology can lead you down self-destructive paths. Gram Parsons killed himself chasing the mythology of the elegantly wasted rock star (a mythology inspired directly by his association with Keith Richards), and in doing so, Parsons only added to that mythology, giving artists such as Steve Earle and Townes Van Zandt a template to follow. Embracing rock mythology is like dreaming in the day, and as T.E. Lawrence said, dreamers of the day are dangerous men. But the alternative is to view rock stars like Jim Morrison as ordinary people, even unsavory people who lived and died in very pedestrian ways. This will not do. An everyday insurance salesman or an anonymous computer programmer didn’t give the world “Riders on the Storm” and “L.A. Woman,” did they? Those are not the works of ordinary people. They are gifts left behind by gods who walked the earth.
“Let’s reinvent the gods, all the myths of the ages/Celebrate the symbols from deep elder forest,” Jim Morrison once wrote. We need to reinvent the gods to believe in ourselves and the choice we have made to believe in them through their music.
The NFL should have given the entire Super Bowl stage to Kendrick Lamar.
The NFL announced on September 30 an all-star line-up for the Super Bowl LVI halftime show, which happens February 13 in Los Angeles. Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Eminem, and Kendrick Lamar will represent three decades of hip-hop, with Mary J. Blige providing a hip-hop soul flourish. (Covering the news, Yahoo Entertainment said “Dr. Dre, Eminem, Snoop and more lead star-studded 2022 Super Bowl halftime show, thus relegating Mary J. Blige and Kendrick Lamar to “and more” status.)
The announcement showed how far the NFL halftime show has evolved and how far it has to go.
The halftime show come a long way since college marching bands Up with People.
It’s more diverse and sometimes more culturally relevant although not always in ways the NFL expects — such as when Beyoncé, a guest performer for the featured act Coldplay at Super Bowl 50, stole the show by performing her socially and politically charged song “Formation,” which sparked controversy and absolutely slayed.
The NFL likes to think of itself as make-no-waves family entertainment (make of that what you will). And the Super Bowl is a rare event that strives to appeal to a broadly defined global audience in an era of data-driven television narrowcasting. The NFL plays it safe with Super Bowl halftime entertainment — especially after the NFL made the mistake of allowing MTV to produce the Super Bowl XXXVIII halftime show, resulting in the edgy performance by Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake that introduce “wardrobe malfunction” to our common vocabulary. After that, the NFL circled the wagons and featured safer acts such as Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen, Prince (not the younger, out-there Prince who gave us “Dirty Mind”), and the Rolling Stones (not the younger, dangerous Stones). The social gravitas of Beyonce’s “Formation” was the exception that the NFL did not plan on.
But there’s a problem with this approach: the Super Bowl is losing the 18–49 audience, which is crucial to attracting advertisers. Which brings us to the line-up for the 2022 Super Bowl. The NFL is trying to be more culturally relevant by emphasizing hip-hop and diversity in the line-up, but the performers are play-it-safe choices. We’re not going to see the raunchy and dangerous Dr. Dre, Eminem, and Snoop Dogg of the 1990s, but three established brands that appeal to a broad audience (Eminem just opened a restaurant called Mom’s Spaghetti in Detroit). Between the three of them, they could slip in a surprise call-out to their edgier past, but I doubt that will happen. Mary J. Blige, who performed at Super Bowl XXXV and the 2012 Democratic National Convention, is also a safe choice.
Kendrick Lamar, though, is probably the most socially conscious and influential musical artist today. To say that his songs confront American racial injustice is an understatement. His music has become a rallying cry for social and racial justice; indeed, his “Alright” from To Pimp a Butterfly is considered to be the unofficial protest song of Black Lives Matter.
Kendrick Lamar owning that halftime stage would lend street cred to the NFL and attract more of the 18–49 age group. But I really don’t think the NFL wants to see another “Formation,” as exciting as Beyoncé’s performance was. In the NFL’s eyes, Black performers entertaining a global audience is great; Black performers getting political onstage is scary.
And yet . . . the NFL knows it needs to find a way to connect with younger viewers in a multicultural world. So, Kendrick Lamar will perform in an ensemble role. Th NFL is hedging its bet like a fund manager who offsets a higher-risk investment with safer choices.
But with more risk comes more reward — the kind that Kendrick Lamar can deliver. But you never know: if anyone can turn the moment into a breakthrough, Kendrick Lamar can.
Warner Music Group (WMG) and Twitch recently announced a first-of-its-kind relationship to launch recording artist channels and create a standalone music space featuring premium music-centric programming on Twitch. The deal demonstrates that the legacy music labels such as WMG are as important as ever. In fact, they might play a more vital role as star makers in an increasingly cluttered digital world.
Why Digital Is a Two-Edged Sword
In the digital age, anyone who has a TikTok or YouTube account can publish music. And in that regard, digital is liberating: you don’t need a deal with a record label to share your music to the world. But how do you find an audience after you upload your music when everyone around you is competing for eyeballs and ears, too? A Scooter Braun discovering a Justin Bieber on YouTube happens rarely. Music labels possess the muscle and money to amplify your name. If they do their jobs right, they solve the distribution and promotion problem for up-and-coming artists.
Why the Twitch/WMG Deal Matters
The Twitch/WMG deal will tap into the power of Twitch as a distribution platform for WMG artists. WMG acts Saweetie, Bella Poarch, and Sueco will receive artist channels on the platform, with more to come. Twitch may also become an important intermediary between artists and some of the brands that have marketing relationships with Twitch, ranging from Chipotle to the NFL.
The relationship will also give WMG a way to scout emerging talent on one of the most culturally relevant platforms in the world. For example, WMG and Twitch have already announced programming that includes a freestyle throwdown for Twitch rappers and a segment, “The One,” in which guest artists will “meet up-and-coming Twitch musicians that they have inspired.”
A closer relationship with Twitch should also give WMG an important listening tool to monitor the tastes of the all-important Gen Z/Millennial audience that Twitch attracts.
This Twitch/WMG deal is about two powerful brands understanding how to become more influential during the rise of the creator economy.
Who inspires you when you need motivation? What face do you envision when you need a kick in the butt? I think of Tony Iommi, co-founder and lead guitarist for Black Sabbath.
Let me tell you something about this guy.
When he was a teenager and aspiring guitar player in the 1960s, he lost the tips of the middle and ring fingers of his right hand in a factory accident. It sure looked like his guitar-playing days were over.
As he later told Loudwire magazine, “I went to the hospital and they cut the bones off and then they said, ‘You might as well forget playing.’ God, I was just so upset. I wouldn’t accept that there wasn’t some way around it, that I couldn’t be able to play.”
So what did he do? He adapted to a two-fingered guitar playing technique. He fitted his damaged fingers with homemade thimbles so that he could still use them on fret chords.
“It worked,” he told Loudwire, “but then I had to persevere for a long, long time to get used to working with them . . . and it was painful.”
He also slackened the guitar strings, which made it easier to bend them. All these changes added up to a different sound, the heavy metal power chord, that would make him one of the most inventive guitarists in rock history and contribute to a long run of success for Black Sabbath that included 70 million record sales. Rolling Stone would rank him Number 25 on its 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time List.
Now let me tell you something else about Tony Iommi.
Let’s fast forward to 2013. Black Sabbath was a legend. Tony Iommi had accomplished everything. He could have rested on his laurels. But instead, he went back into the studio with the band to record 13, the first album Black Sabbath had recorded in many years. The album become a critical and commercial success. Black Sabbath went on tour to promote 13, which is when when my family and I saw them in concert one night. Well, Tony Iommi took over that stage. Dressed in a black leather jacket, he looked like a cross between the Road Warrior, the Terminator, and one of the Nazgûl as he wielded his guitar like a weapon. He didn’t preen like Jimmy Page or mug like Keith Richards. He just shot one power chord after another into the air like roman candle bursts from hell.
Oh, and you know what? He was doing this show in between lymphoma treatments.
Here is how he described that tour four years later to the U.K. website Mirror:
After we released the album we went on tour and played 81 shows in 28 countries. I really enjoyed it, but it was tough. After the illness I got really tired. Every six weeks I had to fly home for treatment at the Parkway Hospital in Solihull, just outside Birmingham.
I was hooked up to a drip and given an antibody that sort of coats the cancer cells and stops them spreading. Then I had to be home for two or three weeks recovering before I could join up with the band again. We had to plan the whole tour around my treatment.
Unbelievable. Get hooked up to a drip. Rest. Then go onstage and become a guitar god. But he had no other choice because that’s how he rolls. As he told the Mirror website, “I could be here another 10 years or just one year – I don’t know. Sometimes I wonder if I should try to live a more peaceful life. Then I think, ‘I don’t want to let the illness take over. ’”
I’ve never seen such a unmitigated display of strength onstage. Tony Iommi inspires me all the time. Who inspires you?
One of the ways I learn about musicians is to pay attention to their stage patter on record albums, and fortunately the vinyl resurgence makes this particular form of immersion easy to do. On a live album, a musician’s interaction with the audience can reveal something important about the artist. On the Doors album Absolutely Live, when Jim Morrison screams “Shut up!” at a chatty audience in the middle of “When the Music’s Over,” you are hearing an important moment in Jim Morrison’s life when he was experimenting with the confrontational performance technique he’d learned at the Living Theatre in Los Angeles.
Then there’s Mick Jagger on Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out!, teasing his audience with, “I think I busted a button on my trousers. Hope they don’t fall down. You don’t want my trousers to fall down, now do you?” This quintessential Mick Jagger moment, all ego and sexual bravado.
Sometimes stage patter becomes as memorable as the music. On One More From the Road, when Ronnie Van Zant famously asks, “What song is it you wanna hear?” the audience’s lusty “Freeeee-birrrd!” response becomes a defining moment for fan zealotry. (Whenever you hear someone at a concert jokingly shout “Freebird!” you now know where the joke originated.)
One of my favorite albums with interesting stage patter is Charley Pride’s In Person, a 1969 recording of a concert in Ft. Worth, Texas.
His personal story is one of overcoming poverty and racism on his way to becoming something very rare: a Black country music superstar. He was born to a family of poor sharecroppers in Mississippi in 1934. At age 14, he learned how to play guitar. Throughout his life, he thought his ticket out of poverty would be professional baseball, and indeed he played a considerable amount of minor league ball until an arm injury cut short his dreams. After his baseball career ended, he worked construction and unloaded coal from railroad cars in Montana, a dangerous job. Well, all this time, he was singing. And he was good at it. When he was playing ball, he sometimes sang before games, which increased attendance and earned him some additional income. After baseball, he keept at it, playing gigs in regional bars. He became good enough to land a recording contract at RCA Victor in the 1960s. RCA believed in him, but it was hard to get record promoters to play country music by a Black musician. But fortunately for Charley Pride, when his songs such as “Just Between You and Me” got played on the radio, where white listeners did not know the color of his skin, he caught fire.
As his popularity rose, he started to perform live to white audiences who were in for quite a surprise when a Black man walked onstage to sing the songs that they’d fallen in love with. The audience did not always welcome you with open arms. But he quickly won them over with his charm and enormous talent. The album In Person captures the essence of Charley Pride – his easygoing singing style and his warmth. “Oh, you’re mighty fine,” he says from time to time, acknowledging the enthusiastic applause. (It’s clear his audience loves him.) During two important moments, he also reveals profound truths about his difficult past. Before he launches into the rollicking “Shutters and Boards,” he says, gently, “I’ll tell you, it’s getting a little warm up here, but I’ll guarantee, I’d rather be seating up here than picking that cotton in Mississippi.” If you’re distracted, while you’re listening you might miss the remark – but when you hear it, you think of the album in an entirely new context. That one remark says everything about where he’s been and his motivation for succeeding. And then, before the final song on the album, “Cotton Fields,” he makes that motivation even more clear when he introduces the song. He says “Cotton Fields” is personally important to him because “It reminds me of what I never want to go back to doing. It hurts my fingers, my back, and my knee. When I go onstage, I try to sing the best I can, because I don’t want to go back to doing it anymore.”
For Charley Pride, there was no going back. He would go on to record 52 top-10 hits on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart, and 30 of those made it to Number One. After he became an undisputed star, he most certainly put his life on the line performing in Belfast at the height of the Troubles in 1976 – at a time when it was too dangerous for anyone to travel there to perform. That’s the kind of man Charley Pride was. Brave enough to risk his safety to perform his music. Brave enough to travel down the lonely road of becoming a Black country singer. Brave enough to open up about himself onstage. He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2000. In 2020, he died at age 86 of complications from Covid-19.
The Covid-19 pandemic unleashed suffering on a global scale not seen in our lifetimes. As if waves of sicknesses and death were not bad enough, businesses everywhere were rocked to the core, resulting in job loss and economic hardship. And it’s not over. But amid the turmoil, some businesses are as strong or even stronger than they were before the pandemic changed everything. Here are their stories, and the lessons we may learn from them.
1 Take Care of Your People: Raising Cane’s Chicken Fingers Rallies through a Hard Times
Todd Graves saw the storm coming. Graves, the co-founder and CEO of fast-food chain Raising Caine’s Chicken Fingers, followed the spread of Covid-19 in China before the virus was news in the United States. He read about lockdowns happening to contain the virus. He quickly grasped the potential impact of Covid-19 on his business. So he and his management team went into crisis mode even though there was no crisis to react to yet.
The executive team canceled a scheduled management retreat to celebrate its five-year plan and started to change how the chain operated. Raising Caine’s quickly implemented CDC guidelines for social distancing and placed an “uber-intense focus” on sanitizing every location, as discussed in QSR magazine. Managers were trained on how to conduct team meetings in socially distanced fashioned so that operations would not be disrupted. Fortunately, most Raising Caine’s locations have drive-through service. So the company changed the focus of its marketing to put a full-court press on its enhanced safety measures and its drive-through service.
Almost all Raising Cane’s 500 locations stayed open and did a thriving business. Thirty-three non-drive-thru locations temporarily closed, but Graves kept employees in closed locations busy sewing masks and supplying local hospitals amid a mask shortage.
Raising Cane’s purchased sewing machines and supplies for the group. Two teams worked in shifts to comply with the company’s social distancing procedures. They created more than 600 masks in their first week and upped production to 100 a day. The mask sewing initiative gave employees in closed restaurants a sense of purpose as they gave back to the community. And beyond those efforts, Raising Cane’s launched fund raisers to help frontline workers in hospitals putting their lives on the line to fight the pandemic.
All the while, Graves refused to furlough or lay off any of the 23,000 workers.
“Our mantra then was no crew member left behind,” Graves told QSR. “I wanted the team that went into this pandemic to be the team we come out with. And so we’re going to work like heck to get through it.”
Initially, the chain suffered a hit as the pandemic upended our lives. Sales were down as much as 30 percent. But by late April, they had returned to pre-pandemic levels even as other restaurants struggled — a stunning turnaround.
This was a story we all needed to hear in the early days. Raising Cane’s gave us hope and put its people first.
2. Sense and Respond: Amazon, Target, and Walmart Ascend to Greater Heights
Some businesses prospered during the pandemic. You know three of their names: Amazon, Target, Walmart. All of them crushed their quarterly earnings announcements throughout 2020 and enjoyed all-time valuations on the stock market.
All three of them benefitted from the rise of the stay-at-home economy, in which people increasingly bought what they wanted from their sofas. Amazon already had a lock on ecommerce, and both Target and Walmart wielded an advantage with their curbside pick-up capabilities. People who preferred to order groceries, clothing, and housewares from their homes, then pick them up without leaving their cars, chose Target and Walmart. As a result:
Target’s curbside pickup service sales jumped by more than 700% during its fiscal second quarter.
Walmart’s eCommerce business jumped 97 percent year over year, partly because the popularity of curbside pick-up services.
Amazon just kept powering through, showing 37% year-over-year growth for the third quarter ended September 30, 2020.
Were they in the right place at the right time? No. They prospered because they know how to sense and respond.
Target and Walmart had been steadily building ecommerce services and curbside pickup over the past few years. They both saw the rise of a mobile consumer who preferred the immediacy of driving to the store but didn’t have time to go inside to make their purchase. When the pandemic made many people frightened to shop inside stores, curbside pickup served Target and Walmart well.
Amazon, building off its already strong ecommerce operation, had made a major investment in its own delivery capability, including its own air cargo fleet. The move triggered a war with FedEx and raised questions about whether Amazon had overreached. But as retailers struggle with maxed out supply chains in the 2020, Amazon seizing control of its own destiny now looks smart and forward-thinking.
In addition, by building out its cloud computing service, Amazon Web Services, Amazon positioned itself well when stay-at-home living in 2020 caused a surged in online usage. Amazon Web Services is the backbone for digital platforms ranging from Facebook to Netflix — a $10 billion business.
Leaders always think ahead — during good times and hard times.
3 Act with Purpose: Netflix Invests in Racial Justice
Netflix put its money where its mouth is.
As the world erupted with protest over racial inequality in 2020, businesses sought to have a voice. Many responded with gestures of support on social media. Others took action, and Netflix was one of them. In early June, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings announced that he was donating $120 million to support scholarships at Black colleges and universities. On June 30, Netflix announced it was allocating up to $100 million of its cash holdings into financial institutions and organizations that directly support Black communities in the United States. As reported in The New York Times, the action would help Black-owned lenders inject more capital into Black-owned businesses.
It turns out Netflix had been planning the capital reallocation since April. The New York Times reports that the company’s decision makers were influenced by book “The Color of Money: Black Banks and the Racial Wealth Gap,” by Mehrsa Baradaran, a law professor at the University of California, Irvine.
Netflix’s financial commitment reflects the company’s culture in other ways. For example, Netflix’s marketing arm Strong Black Lead, is committed to hiring people of color and supporting their voices. (Read more about Strong Black Lead here.)
Netflix’s actions point to a bigger role that businesses have to be purposeful, a major news theme of 2020. Corporate accountability to society really took hold as the Covid-19 pandemic spread. In March, According to a recent Kantar study of the public’s attitudes about COVID-19, more than three-quarters (77 percent) of people surveyed said they wanted to see brands talk about how they’re helpful in the new everyday life. And 77 percent wanted to see brands to inform consumers about their efforts to face the situation. Meanwhile 62 percent of people around the world surveyed by Edelman said that their country would not make it through this crisis without brands playing a critical role in addressing the challenges. Then, in June, the conversation turned toward race. An Edelman survey revealed a widespread public outcry for businesses to take a lead tackling racial inequality. Sixty percent of Americans surveyed by Edelman said that businesses must speak out publicly against racial injustice. Sixty percent said that brands need to use their marketing dollars to advocate for racial equality and to educate the public on the issue.
Airbnb was on the brink of collapse. Under CEO Brian Chesky, the company had built one of the most storied brands in the digital age by creating a network of property owners willing to rent homes to travelers. Airbnb had become so successful that it was threatening the established lodging industry without owning a single hotel. It’s no exaggeration to say that Airbnb helped invent the modern-day sharing economy, in which people profit by sharing their assets for a fee. But Airbnb was like traditional lodging industry in one important aspect: Airbnb and its network of entrepreneurs needed people to travel and book lodging. And as the pandemic took hold, travel had practically ground to a halt. Overnight, bookings plunged. By mid-March, Airbnb saw $1.5 billion in bookings vanish.
Airbnb’s stellar trajectory was halted. A planned initial public offering was out of the question. Chesky laid off a quarter of his staff, slashed expenses, and sought capital to keep the business afloat. Things did not look good as the weeks went by. Even as people emerged from lockdowns, traveling was not popular.
Or was it?
In fact, Airbnb’s data scientists noticed something happening: people emerging from lockdowns were traveling. But their preferences had changed. Instead of looking to fly to cities and stay in tony urban locations — a mainstay of Airbnb’s revenue — travelers were looking to rent homes in smaller locations within 200 miles of their homes. People were ready to get out of their homes and travel. But they wanted to rent entire homes instead of sharing them with other people (and risk contracting the Covid-19 virus), and they wanted to drive, not fly. So as reported in The Wall Street Journal, the company quickly changed. Airbnb redesigned its website and app so that its algorithm would showcase travelers interesting locations such as cabins.
Incredibly enough, by July guests were booked stays at the rate they were just before the pandemic crushed the travel industry. By December, Airbnb had recovered so fully that it launched a successful IPO after all.
“People are now discovering small towns, small communities,” Chesky said. “They’re discovering national parks, falling in love with the outdoors, and realizing they can go to all sorts of other places. This is an irreversible trend.”
And Airbnb was ready to capitalize on that trend.
Airbnb needed to do a lot more than reposition itself to short term travelers in order to survive the tumult of 2020, but listening to its customer data and adapting were essential. In 2021, Airbnb says it appeals to a new type of traveler — people redefining their staycations, traveling in small pods of families and friends, or visiting different towns with an intent to relocate permanently. You can be sure Airbnb is adapting to them, too.
5 Be Bold:Disney Saves Its Future
It’s quite possible that “pivot” is the most overused word in 2020, used to any business that adapted during the pandemic. But Disney really did pivot its business, and may well have saved it.
It has been painful to watch the COVID-19 pandemic crush Disney’s fabled parks and resorts. In September, Disney announced it would lay off 28,000 employees across its parks, experiences and consumer products segments. Disney blamed prolonged closures and capacity limits at open parks for the layoffs.
On November 12, Disney reported its first annual loss in 40 years, and declining attendance at its parks had a lot to do with that decline. Disney said that the pandemic cost it $7.4 billion in operating income in the fiscal year, and $6.9 billion of that loss came from theme parks and experiences division.
But by November, Disney had already made a very important move to change course. On October 12, Disney reorganized its media and entertainment divisions in order to focus on streaming content, namely its wildly successful Disney+ platform. Kareem Daniel, the former president of consumer products, games and publishing, would now oversee the new media and entertainment distribution group, responsible for content distribution, ad sales, and Disney+.
In an announcement, Disney said that its “creative engines will focus on developing and producing original content for the Company’s streaming services” — meaning that Disney’s creative teams, ranging from Pixar to Lucasfilm, will be all-in to support streaming, focusing on Disney+, Hulu, and ESPN+, all streaming brands owned by Disney. Meanwhile, a newly created Media and Entertainment Distribution group under Daniel would be responsible for monetizing and distributing that content.
Disney didn’t wait for its restructuring to change the way it operates, either. In September, Disney bypassed movie theaters in the United States and released its feature film Mulan on Disney+ (while distributing the movie in theaters internationally). Mulan received mixed reviews and lackluster box office receipts globally. But as Kay McGuire of Screen Rant discussed in an analysis of Mulan’s financial results, Disney+ was a lifeline for Mulan.
These were big-time moves, but they did not emerge from left field. In 2019, Disney had already laid the groundwork for its newfound focus on digital content — first, by taking ownership of the popular Hulu streaming service, and then by launching Disney+. Hulu gave Disney an instant streaming audience of 28 million (at the time) and a prestigious content library with popular titles including The Handmaid’s Tale. Disney+ gave Disney an arm to unleash its powerful library of content, including the coveted Marvel franchise, as well as new titles such as the wildly popular The Mandalorian, which tapped into the eternal appeal of Star Wars.
Little did Disney know that a global pandemic would trigger a massive shift in people’s entertainment options, from going to the movies to streaming them. By the end of the 2020, Disney+ subscribers had grown to 86.8 million, and Hulu paid subscribers had grown to 36.6 million.
And the financial results reflect the increase in subscribers. In its earnings announcement, Disney said that its Direct-to-Consumer and International division, which includes streaming, had generated $4.85 billion in revenue, up 41 percent year over year.
Disney knows where its near-term future is: streaming. And so it doubled down. And its stock value, incredibly enough, increased even as its theme parks continued to struggle.
Disney demonstrated an eternal truth about industry leaders: when times are tough, the make bold moves. Disney’s digital-content first approach was reflected elsewhere in the entertainment world, too, most notably when Warner Brothers said it would release its entire slate of movies on the HBO Max streaming platform as well as in movie theaters.
These are hard times. Businesses that want to survive them can learn from Disney.
Hope in 2021
Weeks into 2021, we see glimmers of hope for a sustained rebound from the ravages of the pandemic. The travel industry as a whole is showing some signs of life. The live events business, crushed by the pandemic, could return as early as the fall of 2021. Initial public offerings area actually booming. Much uncertainty and hardship remains. But new stories will be told and lessons learned. Stay tuned.
How does a business say farewell? Family is showing us how: with grace, humanity, and gratitude. On January 5, Family Video went out of business. All its brick-and-mortar stores closed. But the brand is still alive — ironically in the digital world that helped usher in the company’s demise.
Family Video’s corporate Facebook page is something to behold. On Facebook, Family Video continues to share tributes from customers and ex-employees saying farewell. Keeping the digital lights on and letting letting the Family video community comment openly on social media is a branding masterstroke. Here are some sample posts:
“I’ll never forget how it felt to walk through a video store and pick up some rentals along with some food and drinks for a special movie night with your family. It was an irreplaceable nostalgic feeling… A sense of awe and wonder in my childhood when I would go to the video store.”
“I used to go to my local store every Sunday after work, met some great people who worked for the company and bought hundreds of movies.”
“My husband and I met working at your Fond du Lac, WI location. We dated for 5 years, and have been married for almost 8, and have a 4 year old son together. We are together because of FV.”
“We will miss Family Video and the employees that we became friends with!!!!!”
“I spent 8 great year with family video and 6 of it as an assistant manager. I’ve shared so many memories with my children and many others in my community. To this day everyone who sees me, reminds me how much they miss me and the store, almost like were one in the same, apparently.”
“So appreciated the free kids videos when my kids were young and I was young and poor! Sad to see you go.”
“The 10 years that I worked for and managed Family Video stores were some of my favorite years. I formed many friendships that I still have to this day . . . Thank you for all of those years. They have helped me become the manager and person that I am today.”
“We had our ten year vow renewal photos taken at Family Video. True story!”
“We had our engagement photos taken at Family Video. True story!”
Common themes emerge:
Family Video meant tradition. Going to the store, stocking up on movies, and buying other goodies for movie night made the movie watching experience special in a way that flipping on the TV and watching movies on demand through a streaming service does not. And the availability of streaming services does not always mean availability of a movie you want to see. The Family Video inventory mattered. You could find popular movies and also some more obscured choices in back catalogue.
Family Video was about connecting people with each other. This was certainly true of my experience. I always got a kick out of talking with the dudes behind the counter who reminded me of the stoner surfer Spicoli from Fast Times at Ridgemont High. You cannot connect like that with someone on Zoom.
But all those advantages that made Family Video special were doomed by the Covid-19 pandemic. Going to the video store and being with other people became, well, outright dangerous in 2020. And Family Video never recovered.
The Family Video Facebook also continues to share content such as movie-related posts and crowdsourced memes, cartoons, and even some humor that pokes fun at its own demise.
The brand is consistent, too: on socials such as Instagram and Twitter, Family Video cross-promotes customer stories and comments itself actively with the same grace and sense of humor:
And I’m going to guess that selling Family Video merchandise will perpetuate a retro vibe with the cool kids:
The Family Video business is dead. Long live the Family Video brand.
Bruce Springsteen is catching some flak for appearing in a Jeep ad. He does not need the money. So why would the Boss do a commercial? Here’s the answer: he wants to keep his personal brand relevant and visible. And that’s a lesson everyone should heed, no matter who you are or what you do for a living.
Bruce Springsteen broke through during the album-oriented era when heavy radio airplay, touring, and mass-media PR helped his music find an audience. When MTV came along, Springsteen adapted to the video format by learning how tell stories visually. His career became bigger than ever. But even then, video was a mass-market play.
Then digital changed everything.
Today, Springsteen can only hope to gain a sliver of anyone’s attention while his music competes with Fortnite, Netflix, Facebook, and a ton of other distractions that did not exist in the 1970s. Music has become background noise while we exercise on our Peloton bikes. The idea that an artist like Springsteen can expect anyone to listen to a record album from start to finish is laughable.
To his credit, Springsteen saw what was coming when Napster exploded on the scene in the early 2000s and killed the record album. He found new ways to stay relevant, such as performing at the Super Bowl in 2009 (which introduced him to Millennials and older Gen Zers who were about 12 years old at the time), speaking at the oh-so-trendy SxSW festival, and doing a Broadway show. He also relied on one of his great strengths — concerts — as the touring industry exploded in the 2000s in way it never did in the 20th Century.
But Springsteen cannot tour during the pandemic. A commercial (especially a Super Bowl commercial) amplifies an artist’s voice the way radio used to do when Springsteen hit it big. He’s doing what he needs to do in order to keep his brand relevant and visible.
He’s not the only Baby Boomer artist who has learned the lesson of brand relevance in the digital age. Many, many others have gone down this path. One of them, John Mellencamp, used to skewer artists for doing advertisements with corporations. And then he licensed his song “My Country” for a Chevrolet advertisement around 2007. His fans howled with outrage. But he had seen the writing on the wall when artists of his generation were not getting the attention they used to receive. As he explained in a 2007 Rolling Stone interview discussing the licensing of “My Country” to Chevrolet:
Chevrolet is talking to me, and I ask, “How many times are you going to play this commercial?” They said, “You’ll have more airplay than on any record you’ve ever had.” I couldn’t believe it. I believe it now.
Or as Mellencamp put it to The New York Times, “The bottom line is, I’m a songwriter, and I want people to hear my songs. I’m not saying it’s right. I’m not suggesting it for anybody else. This is just what I did this time to reinvent myself and stay in business.”
What are you going to do in order to reinvent yourself and stay in business as the world changes around you?