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.