Monday, 1 July 2013

What can bosses learn from "The Boss"

I'm just back from my 3rd Bruce Springsteen gig in a little over 2 weeks. Wembley, Ricoh, Olympic Park. if you're a fan you will know how awesome it has been, and if Bruce leaves you cold - well there's little I can do for you -:)

However, As I watched Bruce last night, I did marvel at how successful he still was, selling albums by the millions, and with sell out tours the world over, and wondered whether there were any generic lessons for business (and especially creative business like Radio) from analysing the relentless juggernaut that is Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. I thought of five, which I'd like to share with you here:

Rule 1 - Have a clear chain of command. Everyone knows - Bruce is "The Boss" - and that isn't just an affectionate nickname. Bruce is genuinely "The Boss" of the band, and it is clear to see on stage that everyone, even the most talented musicians, takes their lead from him. He is also visible, clear in his direction, and not afraid to give praise in public. All attributes most bosses should follow. I'd contrast this with The Eagles, another favourite band of mine. A recent documentary on the group highlighted how for 14 years they stopped touring and recording because the various members of the band couldn't see the clear evidence that there needed to be some hierarchical structure. Pink Floyd are another great example of this. As were Take That. Bands aren't democracies - and neither are businesses - and a good leader is essential.

Rule 2 - offer value for money. Bruce tickets aren't cheap. £65 or so for standing - which is towards the more expensive end of touring acts - but I guarantee you, no-one ever left a Springsteen show claiming they were short-changed. Bruce and the band regularly do 3 hour+ sets. No other band gives performances of that length as a regular day-in, day-out commitment. their encores alone are normally 45 minutes to an hour in length. Contrast that with other bands where 90 minutes seems to be the norm. Some bands do try a bit harder, and I think that Bruce has laid down a marker for other big touring shows in this regard. Even The Rolling Stones ran for a couple of hours at Glastonbury. However, much as I'd love to see them live - at £400 a ticket - I don't think so, even if they played for 6 hours!

Offering value for money doesn't mean being the cheapest, far from it. It means ensuring that when someone gives you their money, they feel you recognise its worth to you, and deliver a service which more than matches that worth. It's one of the business basics, and one that Bruce learned long ago.

Rule 3 - commit yourself to a vision, and deliver against it. I don't know if Bruce has ever written down "his vision", but as far as touring is concerned, it is clear. When he and the band go on stage, their only goal is to make the crowd happy. This comes through in everything they do on stage, and it is of course infectious. The crowd are happy, which makes them happy, which in turn etc etc. That's a great positive loop to have, but it starts with a clear goal and purpose. They are not on stage to fulfil a contract, or because the money's good - they've earnt too much already for that - they are there to fulfil a higher purpose, and this is what inspires their fans.

Forty years ago I saw Santana at the Odeon on New Street when it used to be a rock venue. Carlos spent the entire set with his back to the audience, jamming with his drummer. the music and guitar playing were sublime, but the contempt for the audience was odious - and I've never, ever wanted to see him again.

JD in IT send me a link recently to a Ted talk from a highly respected business consultant, and his analysis of why some firms outperform others here crystallises this point, particularly with regard to touring bands and their relative success.

Rule 4 - listen to, and respond to, customer feedback. regular Bruce fans will know one of the most brilliant bits of his shows happens shortly after they take to the stage. The band will do one or two hell-raising openers, and then Bruce will literally go into the crowd, picking cardboard notices off fans. These bits of cardboard contain the titles of Bruce songs - and Bruce will select a few every night to play. This does a number of things. It allows the band to retain their freshness, because they are constantly being challenged (as all bosses should challenge their staff); it allows the real die hard fans to wallow in a bit of nostalgia (most of the tracks are more obscure, and tend to be from earlier albums) and for the fans whose songs are picked (and even those who simply make cards which aren't picked) here is the sight of a multi-millionaire rock star - doing requests! How cool is that! It doesn't make up much of the show, but it really does show how much Bruce wants to interact with his fans, and make them feel a part of the show.

He doesn't pick every song, and I'm sure there are some tracks he sees which he knows he'll never perform, but he picks different ones every night (I know, having seen three gigs on the bounce). there are lessons here for business - look to customer feedback - be open about encouraging this (social media now offers great scope for this) - what are they most passionate about - respond to that - but don't get hung up on everything they tell you - sort the wheat from the chaff.

Rule 5 - offer up some magic in your service to delight your customers. Bruce's show might be a hard rockin performance, not to everyone's taste, but one thing he does is to ensure that every night something special happens which touches your heart - creating real "water cooler" moments in the language of marketing. He pretty much always does "Dancing in the Dark" and pretty much always gets a young(ish) girl up on stage to dance with - can you imagine what that is like for the girl he chooses - and I think all the women in the audience would wish they were that girl when that moment arrives, and are happy for her. Last night - he brought his mom out! She must have been in her 80s!! Then he brought his sister out too - and both seemed genuinely entranced to be out there with him. The audience loved it. As they did when Bruce found a young girl to sing the chorus of "Waiting on a Sunny Day"with him. The heartstrings of every parent in the crowd (and there are plenty of those these days as you can imagine) were melted by the cuteness of it all. And then it was back to rock'n'roll!

This is Bruce's' version of the chocolate on the hotel bed, finding your name on the side of a coke bottle, the guy in the coffee shop giving you a freebie because he knows you are a regular customer. Little things, entirely incidental to the overall value of your transaction, which make you think "these guys have thought about what this means, and are trying a bit harder".

So, five lessons from "The Boss". You don't have to like his music to recognise he is a phenomenon - and of course that is mainly due to the brilliance of his song writing, and the technical skill of his and his bands performance of that music, both on record and live. But a big part too is due to following some pretty fundamental business principals.

And it's sure made me a repeat customer. When's the next tour?

I blogged a couple of years ago on our internal network about my feelings about Bruce after I'd heard the news of Clarence Clemons suffering a stroke, from which he subsequently died, and I thought I'd re-post it here as an addendum to this blogpost. Bruce now regularly features a tribute to Clarence in the show - and both he and the crowd are genuinely moved by the moment.


June 15th 2011 - I thought I'd do a 2nd blog this week on a less mundane topic than sales and marketing, and something personal has touched me in the last couple of days which I thought had some relevance for all of us in this business.

Like me, you probably got into radio because of a love of music. I had my formative music exposure in the early 70s, and became a "soul boy" at school - heavily into Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Aretha franklin etc. This then branched out into a love of early exponents of funk - Ohio Players, Fatback Band, EWF, even The Commodores (that Lionel Richie!) - I think I could even dance when I was 15.

At school, we lovers of soul had to share the 6th form record player with prog rock geeks and heavy metal nutters - god, having to listen to ELP still sends me into shock.

Anyway - heading to Uni, and student radio, I simply couldn't indulge my love of soul in every show, so began to branch out into what has become my favourite music genre, which is US adult rock - which was then the Eagles, Jackson Browne, Doobie Brothers, etc, but lives on today with bands like Kings of Leon and others.

And then there was Bruce.

I can't claim to have followed him back in 1975, when he took London's music industry by storm at the Hammersmith Apollo, and where one critic said "I have seen rock and roll future, and its name is Bruce Springsteen"; but by 1980 I had become a huge, huge fan of Bruce and his E Street Band. The first time I saw them live was with Jean, at the old NEC arena in 1980 (tickets supplied by Bobby Hermon I think!) - and that was the first of many, many live concerts - including an awesome experience at Wembley in 1985 when on July 4th he stepped on stage alone in front of 75,000 fans to perform "independence day" as an acoustic piece - spine tingling.

Then there were the two Villa Park gigs, where the late Edwin Starr joined them on stage to perform "War" - truly unbelievable.

I'm not a religious man - but seeing Bruce and the band live is genuinely the closest one can come in my opinion to having a transcendental experience - I hope you have someone who does the same for you on stage.

Anyway - the reason for this blog is because of the Big Man - Clarence Clemons - Bruce's side-kick, best pal, and the awesome sax player for the E Street Band, who is referred to in the lyric for the song "10th Avenue Freeze Out" which is the title of this blog, and who famously appears back to back with Bruce on his seminal "Born to Run" album cover.

I had a saxophone when I was a teenager, and wanted to learn to play like my then hero Junior Walker. Later it became Clarence I'd wished I could emulate - the biggest, baddest, coolest dude you've ever seen - playing saxophone in the greatest rock band ever. What a life. And his style, mixing soul, blues and rock, is what made Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band my perfect group - tieing my adult enthusiasm for rock back to my teenage love of soul, and the coolness of those who embodied it, such as Marvin, and Smokey, and Otis, and the Temps and all the rest of them. Clarence brought it all together. And just to show how cool this guy still is, he is a guest, playing saxophone, on a couple of the tracks on the new GaGa album.

Anyway, Clarence has been in the news this week, having suffered a massive stroke at the age of 69. 

Of course the worldwide E Street fan base will be hoping and praying for his recovery - as am I - but the evidence of his mortality brings home to me just how precious music can be, and why we should always remember its power to affect our emotions. The opening bars of a great Springsteen song coming on the radio will lift my emotions sky high (admittedly not a regular occurrence on our stations!) So the thought of never seeing the E Street Band play again with Clarence strutting his stuff is almost too much to bear.

So  remember, the next track we play could be the one that breaks someone's heart - or makes their day - and whatever the next gig you go to is - enjoy it like you might never see that magic again.

And just in case you are wondering what all the fuss is about, have a look at this  

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