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Perfection can destroy your business!
Only 3 takes in the studio, is a showdown with the tyranny of the guided hand and the perfection that reigns in businesses today. A showdown that is crucial if our organizations are to become the platforms of the real innovation and development that is needed. The Hack shows you how you, as a leader, can maintain the organization as an entity whilst at the same time opening up the creative energies that will take you further with the help of the redemptive potential of spontaneity and originality.
Production cycles that follow industrial model are doomed from the beginning to be outdated by the time the product is market-ready. What happens is that the entire innovation phase is dropped in at the beginning of the process and locked in. Every new suggestion that challenges the innovation phase is dismissed or otherwise kept out. This is fine for a slow-moving market. Not for fast ones. But can rock rescue innovation from the industrial age?
Chinese Democracy, the 2008 album by rock band Guns N’ Roses’, was released after 14 years of promises. The band’s shining moment was already far behind them. The group’s front man and driving force behind the album was lead singer, Axl Rose, who started recordings in 1994, right after their last album was finished. Some of the songs were produced a hundred times before Axl Rose was satisfied. Maybe that is the reason why the album was criticized as being ”too perfect” in its expression. The spontaneity, rawness and craziness that had been Guns N’ Roses’ trademark were gone. Fourteen years. Rock star Axl Rose had forgotten one of rock’s greatest mantras: Only 3 takes in the studio.
I often meet executives and their R&D department heads who are locked into exactly this model of thinking. It is a shocker. Here are engineers who deliver some of the most cutting edge products sold, and yet they are stumped because they cannot figure out how to repeat amazing success. They are riveted by my presentations on Rock ’n Roll leadership. They are fascinated by how rock music opens up new, faster pathways to go from idea to product. They want the key to how companies can keep the process open for creativity for a longer time. What changes do they have to make to their company culture?
How far down the road should a company plan? At what point does detail kill creativity? How do we cope with the tension between creativity and structure?
That is a real challenge for companies to master. The methods of rock musicians are rapid and flexible. That’s why they swing well in today’s highly competitive and changing markets.
An important question that many companies struggle daily with is: How to foster the ideal conditions for disruptive innovation to occur?
There are various types of innovation: incremental, radical, sustainable and disruptive. But the only truly groundbreaking innovations are disruptive—both to the company and the market. Think Nirvana. They changed the world of music and they changed the world, creating a brand new sound introducing the world to a new sound on their first album, and introducing the world to grunge. Nirvana created songs that broke with tradition and brought the audience with them. They did it without bouncy hair or stacked Marshall amps. Their music had whisper-like, introverted verses that were countered by an equally banging, extroverted chorus. They introduced contradictory emotions into Rock’s typical music structure. They could do it in a single song, like, Smells Like Teen Spirit. That was one aspect of their disruptive quality—and it was profoundly moving for people of every age. In business terms, they had a highly original material with mass appeal.
By then, lead singer Kurt Cobain had become celebrated worldwide as someone with a very consistent, authentic flavor. He was holding up a mirror to the world while holding it up to himself—the anti-icon perfect for the times.
The first time something new and truly original is experienced, it is highly disruptive. It is abrasive. Ugly. Doesn’t make sense. It insists on its own sense of purpose and demands, often unreasonably, that the world needs to change.
The second time around it takes on a kind of aesthetic language. There is a seasoned tolerance for the ugly thing that has stuck around. Before it was unknown, now it has been experienced. Now, it has the potential to become part of mainstream culture. The world is willing to consider how that language might further develop. How to engage with it? There is suddenly, almost magically, a space that is now mapped in the culture to accommodate the disruptor. Nirvana’s complex messages embedded in the language of ’grunge’ carried far, far beyond music.
Like grunge, spontaneity is in the nature of rock. Anyone listening to early Elvis or Chuck Berry can hear it. The first rock lyrics were not poetry, but consisted of sound-words. The singer’s voice marked rhythm like a solo instrument without a story-telling image. Be bop a lou-ah she’s my baby. Tutti-frutti. These lyrics are impulsive, pre-linguistic. Rock was born to remind us of spontaneous impulses.
Danish design and architecture in the last century was considered absolutely world class. Yet, at the beginning of the 21st century, Danes have gotten a reality-check. Our beloved and once unique reputation has lost some of its luster. Danes think of Danish design, like Americans think about the Model ”T” Ford and Detroit. A few years ago, the Danish Center for Architecture, a national institution reached out to a well-known Chilean designer, Bruce Mau, to examine Danish design culture. His conclusion was simple yet powerful: Denmark, as a country, had become too perfect. Danes have put too much emphasis on detail and perfection at the expense of raw innovation and playful thinking. Our design culture has suffered because of that loss. Too perfect does not take into account the end-user. It is not human.
Planned work, driven by an invisible hand, will never, ever be the origin of a creative process, and very rarely will it amount to ground-breaking product. Corporate organizations need to acknowledge that creative process really matters. And that process is not preordained. Creativity is born from life’s joy and agonies and the opportunity to unfold something. It’s about getting the spark back into work life. Trusting the situation. About living in and around unpredictability.
Only 3 takes in the studio will insure spontaneity and makes you stop before you losing the pulse. Don’t think that ’keep on going’ will create great results. Instead you will over-chew it, over engineer your organizations, and create something too perfect and therefore inhuman.
Overcoming a way of thinking
Most companies try to achieve results by first defining a goal. Next, they take that goal break it down into components and tangible specifics. They then consider what resources will be allocated to achieve each component. From there, a scheduling plan can be made and laid out. The project plan contains tasks, time-measurements and internal inter-dependencies. A sequence of interlocking components. Every variation that may later occur, and was not identified before, is deemed a threat to project realization and is treated accordingly.
This way of thinking is anchored in two biases of the industrial age. The first one assumes that a perfect plan, leads to perfect realization. The second is that if we are skilled enough, we can best know how to get from point A to point B. This way of thinking is based on a leap of faith, that causal correlations can be figured out through reflection, professionalism and good old-fashioned project management. It may be worth asking, how come some companies that have not professionalized innovation sometimes have a market advantage. What is the x-factor?
In rock, as in all the arts, the x-factor is following an intuition and acting on an impulse.
This is a completely different framework. You are nothing if you do not have the courage to play along in tune with the music, never getting ahead of it or trying to define it beforehand. Remember trial and error? In real life, who really thinks they can plan a result of a creative process in the project’s beginning? Every f..cking company in the world thinks they can, but not a single person really believes it. We all buy into the illusion out of professionalism. The fact is that we all have to start somewhere. It does not have to be from a perfect start point. Nor is it likely to be. Defining a result from the starting place does not make sense, since you know so little about either the outcome or the process itself. Real decision-making in most of the arts, occurs towards the end of the process. In live theater you “close the bag” (on Broadway, it is called “freezing a show”), making key decisions and withholding on finalizing others, sometimes minutes before opening night, and oftentimes well after.
A few years ago, I was spending the day at Medley Studios in Copenhagen with lead singer Mike Tramp of the multi-platinum group White Lion. He was holding court in the recording studio’s lounge—where the walls are lined with rock posters, framed records-the trophy heads of selling a million plus units, and photos of bands like The Police who have recorded there. Sitting on a sofa during a day at the studio, he was strumming a tune accompanied by Claus Langeskov on an unplugged bass to what later would become a hit off of the latest album that he was recording there. Mike was working out a song that he would end up recording later that day. At first, he was just jamming on some simple chords, while the band’s lead guitarist sat nearby taking in the feel and structure of the song, tuning in.
“There are no surprises, rhythm section is pure AC/DC, no funny stuff, vocals are pure Springsteen” Mike says, using a short hand. Everyone gets it.
He also wanted the rhythm guitarist who was hearing the material for the first time to follow the direction embedded in the lyrics and melody. Well-written songs often have a musical and creative path that is apparent. They seem to write themselves. The path is one that a brilliant musician can follows intuitively and which he can lead in new directions. We often hear that music is the language of emotions. It is a language that everyone in a rock band needs to speak fluently.
At some point, the guitarist asked, “Should we get the chords down on paper, so we know where this is going?” These words express the typical cultural norm of coping with uncertainty through control and preparation. Most of us seek security and move away from risk.
We frame uncertainty. We box it in where it is less likely to cause damage to us. So, we can distance ourselves from it, instead of immersing ourselves in it. A few months afterwards, I heard that this band member who also happens to be Danish, had left the group. I wonder why? I have my own theory that this exchange reflected his inability to play in the world of uncertainty. Band life requires an enormous tolerance for, indeed a seeking out of, uncertainty. Especially in times of change, we need to re-think our ideas about how transformation is brought about. Leaders cannot drag change forward in a mechanical manner, nor even lead in the traditional sense. That is an illusion. They need to see themselves as transforing the organization from within the framework and not from without it. They have to include themselves in what is to be changed. You can be on top of things without being in control of all things. It is an act of trust that will help your organization evolve.
Mike Tramp insisted that day, and no doubt, on many, many other days, that band members capture the feeling and sample a taste of the lyrical potential, before they ever record a note.
I am taken back to that day: Within the span of a minute the band is huddling in next to him on the sofa, and they are playing the song “dry”. One strums his electric guitar, the other is plucking bass, but both are nearly silent because they are not plugged in. The drummer taps percussion out on his knees and Mike hums and sings a cappella. The band and I are in the solar plexus of music-making. This is it. The outcome of this session determines whether this song and possibly the band itself have a right to exist! Can the band blow life into the material or not? Will the band members lift it up and get it off the ground?
There is only the faintest sign of a tune to start with. It is so fragile. At first, sparks are delivered by rhythmic vibrations and intonation. A vibe. Putting in energy curves, pulses, ups and downs, waves of sensation, breaks and emphasis. The band is breathing life itself into the song. It is lovemaking - music-making. Right in front of me gesticulating, riffing, and making sounds, the band is sealing the promise of the song and their own destiny.
Everyone is smiling, chipping in, rhythmic incursions signal off of each other. Right there, bridges are being built from one place to another. There is a grounded emotional pattern taking shape. It’s loose. Rapid prototyping. Evolving.
There is amazing energy in the lounge. The band unfolds a musical arrangement over the same basic chords that I heard before. But there is now a profound difference. It is raw, fresh and crisp. In some very few minutes they have done exactly what great bands are supposed to do. They nailed it. This is the magic of art.
They are ready to close the bag.
Everyone moves over to the studio. There is a sense of urgency because there is a feeling a code has been cracked. The band members put down their chips and got lucky. They record the song five times in a row. After the third run-through, I notice they are losing steam. It is obvious with each new take. When the band stops and listens to each run through, I guess they will pick the third recording. They do. A significant glitch is corrected by re-dubbing a bridge, which the sound engineer punches in and out. Now Mike finally lays down the lead vocal track and background vocals are dubbed. The song is not without errors. Who cares: it is spot on.
That is rock’s true gift.
Rock records the energy, the nerve and the message before anyone closes the bag. Because when the bag is closed, you trap your song. If you do it to early, in development, which we often do, we enclose it within the frame of what is already known. Edginess and energy will be suffocated by predictability; structures and music will go on autopilot. Jazz giant Charlie Parker said: “You hit the song through a vibe, a feeling.” Do that, and you can close the bag!
The song made it to the airwaves, and when I hear it today, I look back with great pleasure on how the band achieved a recording that was so faithful to the emotion that day. Lesson learned: great leaders do spark a process by creating the right circumstances where people can contribute their skills and their feelings. This is put into the process and creates a vibrant result. Managers have got to learn how essential employees’ ties to each other is and foster strong emotional bonds within the organization. Employees that are emotionally tied to others in an organization will stick around. Quite simply because they want to. Because it answers a human need: The desire to play off each other. Not an obligation to the company or some charitable impulse.
What I have come to realize is that the people who get ideas, the ones who draw, design, and program, will do so successfully if they are in their element.
They ought be encouraged to draw in different people into the creative mix. This also means that the CFO or sales leadership should go to them and NOT the other way around. Senior executive have got to get out of their chair and out of their offices and hit the ”studio.” Get some dirt on their hands. Creative people will only thrive in contexts that truly back them up and when they feel that resources are allocated to what they are trying to bring into the world. Companies need to align to them, NOT the other way around.
What don’t they need?
They do not need quality assurance or fussy gatekeepers! They don’t need people judging whether their ideas are commercial or not. At least not in the beginning. They don’t need one person, who is external to the process anyway, to be the judge of whether an idea should move forward or not. What would such a person know that your own R&D guys don't? We need to find better ways to evaluate whether “new material” is good or bad. The vast majority of ideas are thrown by gatekeepers. That is generally a bad idea.
One of the ways rock bands take on new material is by getting a sensation. How friendly is the material to work with? Does it lead the band and their music in a new and exciting direction? How does the sound work from the audience's perspective?
These are all collective and internal valuation processes that provide orientation to how good the artistic qualities really are. Band managers don't get to decide! When you create original material, success cannot be predicted and neither can market potential. This collective and intuitive process is therefore the best way for the band to pick out original music.
No innovation department should play within the frames of what is expected of them.
The fire that employees have in their eyes and hearts, needs to burn. They should never be tamed or put into spreadsheets.
Never become housebroken.
World famous producer, Bryan Eno who has produced such luminaries as Pink Floyd, David Bowie, U2, and himself as a member of the band Roxy Music, has talked about ‘getting in the zone’.
The zone is where your best work comes out. Finds its shape. When you get into the zone, you only have about 3 takes before it turns stale.
These are your chances to pitch in with the best you got. You have a brief moment opening yourself up to inspiration. If you cannot deliver in those three takes when you are in the zone, then you are looking for something that just isn’t there.
U2’s bassist Adam Clayton once described how it took just two takes for Bono to lay down vocals over the instrumental tracks that ended up on the recording of In A Little While, one of their greatest hits ever. It happened after a night on the town, with just two hours of sleep—hung over—and yet, suddenly; the song was there. It is impossible to plan such moments. They just happen. You need to be ready to hit record, because unfortunately, these moments pass, and you cant go back. Either you got the vibe or you don’t. It is very characteristic of Bono’s creative work. It comes in eruptions. An all or nothing proposition. Not long-distance running.
Bands achieve their best results by focusing on the jam and the interplay between each other and their instruments. The ordinary daily dynamics of the band is an important factor in how well and how quickly they come together when they are starting to play. The structure of the band is their strength. Band members typically know each other cold, and are totally in tune with each other. They share a unified vision, and they talk the same language in music, and they master their instruments - their field of expertise. All that creates the best conditions to experience creative flow.
The band’s intimate and laid-back culture creates an organization, which many companies try to imitate through casual Fridays and pizza pies. That kind of culture is earned day-by-day. Spirit and flow cannot be bought at Ray’s Pizza. Or occur just on Fridays. The heart of a band’s collaboration is not nurtured by restraining the unexpected and impulsive choices. The band develops a “safe” context for experimentation and by experimenting together on a regular basis. The power of a band lies in its unique make-up and its creative urge.
If you need more than three takes, it may be too early to ’hit the studio’ or the circumstances may not be right for your business. That doesn’t necessarily mean the conditions aren’t ideal. What happens after three takes is that you begin to repeat yourself. And in this stale repetition you close down the brilliance of what happens when you have natural sparks. You lose your source of inspiration. For the band, the consequence is that they return to their automatic way of playing. Instead of creating they are slowly shutting down. The result is that the freshness and the energy fade out. It becomes clichéd, tense and boring. Tutti Frutti was recorded in three takes.
Sir Elton John lives by a self-imposed rule: When lyricist Bernie Taupin hands him new lyrics, Sir Elton is only given fifteen minutes to shape it into a melody. If he doesn’t succeed, Taupin takes back the lyric sheet, and they will start the process over with another set of lyrics. Elton John has shifted 3 takes to 15 minutes or bust. You get the idea. Regardless of what you call it, it’s all about seeking the moment and honesty of music. Seeking the honesty of being a human. The honesty of being in business that delivers to our human needs!
Former owner of IT Grooves production - a UK/Danish music production company and a recording studio in Copenhagen.