Six Things I Learned From Mick Jagger

My kids don’t know who the Rolling Stones are. They don’t care either. And why should they? Setting aside the common argument every generation makes with the generation after it (“our music is better than yours”) what can distinguish Mick Jagger from, say, Selena Gomez, who they admire? Or Adele? Or any of the other “musicians” that they could listen to all day long (after covering their ears if I play any music from the 60s, 70s, 80s, or 90s.)

Here’s what I get curious about:

– How did the band survive for 50 years. They are about to go on tour again. More than 50 years after they first started. Same front man: Mick Jagger. Same guy on guitar: Keith Richards. Same guy on drums: Charlie Watts. Drugs, divorces, deaths, diseases, debt – they just kept going. Unlike their peers: The Beatles, the Doors, Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin. How do they keep going? What made them different. They don’t even like each other that much if you believe the ramblings in Keith Richards’ autobiography, “Life”. It’s hard to like people for 50 years straight. I have a hard time being around the same people for 24 hours, let alone 50 years.

– How did they succeed? And create? What made them stand out? So many times you hear a young band and they just sound like every other band. Nothing unique. Nothing that makes you want to say, “50 years from now I’m still going to be listening to them”.

A) History of the profession (obsession with the Blues). They all met and bonded because they were obsessed not with Rock (Elvis, the Beatles, etc) but with the Blues (Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley, etc). The band’s name “The Rolling Stones” comes from the song “Rollin’ Stone” written by Muddy Waters. In fact, almost all of their initial songs, performances, and initial song releases were all covers of Chicago Blues bands. When they first started they were just a blues cover band with no idea that they would be writing original music. Their first hit to get into the top 10 for instance was a cover of a Buddy Holly song.

But it’s an obsession with the history of music that brought them together. Richards and Jagger, childhood friends who lost touch, ran into each other at a busstop when they were about 18 and Jagger was carrying a Chuck Berry record. Richards recognized a kindred spirit and they were inseparable after that.

(Jagger inducting The Beatles into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Click image for video)

B) Intersection of Blues and Rock. They didn’t remain just Blues. In fact, they were like the Borg and kept assimilating every musical style that came after them.

Someone once asked me: what is better: to be good at a lot of things or GREAT at one thing. The answer is exemplified by the Rolling Stones – they were “good” at EVERY style of music and thus became the GREATEST at the intersection of all of those styles. While the Beatles combined pop/Elvis/early rock, the Rolling Stones covered those forms plus Blues and R&B (and Jaggers leg motions certainly had an Elvis influence and the band even had a strong Beatles influece (see below).

Things like this remind me of Bobby Fischer and chess. When he was kid he was considered a talented young chessplayer but certainly not the best ever. Not even the best young player ever. So he did what he normally did when he needed to take a step up. He disappeared. This was around the age of 13. He did a comprehensive study of all the games played in the 1800s. When he returned to play, he would play these “old-fashioned” openings from the 1850s but he’d throw in his own subtle improvements that he had developed. Within a year or so he was easily US Champion and on his way to being World Champion (after disappearing again and learning Russian so he could read all the Russian chess magazines).

I think of the bands that stand out for me now. I was just listening to Gotan Project, which combines old-school tango music with a more techno feel. Or creators like Steve Jobs who so effectively combined design with technology (not only with Apple but with Pixar) in ways that had never been done before. It’s hard to be the greatest at any one endeavor, but by combining passions it’s not as hard to be the greatest in the world at the intersections of those passions (because there are billions of things that can intersect, you can find your own place in the “long tail of passion” to be the master of).

It’s hard to call “Sympathy for the Devil” or “Paint it Black” rock, or blues, or any other musical style. The only way to describe it is that it’s the musical style that the Stones defined by carving out the intersection of several styles. It’s worth noting that even though they continued to assimilate future styles in the decades to come, it’s these initial songs (and several others) that they wrote in the 60s and early 70s that continue to be played over and over again – the results of their initial passions and first loves.

It’s also interesting that he not only found himself the greatest at various intersections of music but also literature. After reading Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel “The Master and the Margarita” (which had the line of Satan being “a man of wealth and taste”) Jagger wrote the lyrics for “Sympathy for the Devil”.

C) Persistence/Rejection. People didn’t like Jagger’s voice. The band was constantly rejected. Their initial songs didn’t make the top charts. Their record label, Decca, did zero promotion for their first release. And reviewers couldn’t stand Jagger’s voice. “Very ordinary. I can’t hear a word Jagger’s saying”, said one reviewer.”Fuzzy and undisciplined…complete chaos,” said another.

It was also no secret he couldn’t play any instruments (at that time). So they simply weren’t the best band out there. But they kept playing and they also had the extra quality of Jagger’s charisma, which seemed above and beyond the talent of the band by itself. At the time the band was “run” by Brian Jones, who was the first person to eventually quit the band (in 1969) and basically the last person of the original guys to quit (well, 35 years later Bill Wyman retired but Jagger, Watts, Richards are all from the original band and will  all tour later this year).

Given that Jones was running things, it took awhile for The Rolling Stones to realize that Jagger was the attraction. Nevertheless, they didn’t let rejection stop them. It was several years of playing before they started hitting the charts and several more before they were touring and making good money.

My theory always in any career start or career change is that it takes 1-3 years to do the studying required. About 2 years before you are making any money at the new career. 3-4 years before you are making a living from it and 5-6 years before you are killing it. But it requires persistence each day.

D) A generation of artists grows up together- I’m always amazed at how groups of artists, businessmen, creators of any sort, basically grow up together in their respective businesses. In writing, look at Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William S Burroughs, all hanging out together years before any of their books reached any kind of acclaim. Or Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. Or in the art world, Jasper Johns, John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, all living on basically the same block in downtown New York, exploring the art scene of the 50s.

It was no different for the Rolling Stones. There was one concert where lack of any money forced them all to hitch rides together with young musicians Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin), Eric Clapton, etc on the way to see The Beatles in concert.

One time Jagger and Richards decided they needed to start writing their own music. They had no idea where to start. They simply couldn’t write music. So Andrew Oldham was wandering around outside and ran into Paul McCartney and John Lennon and explained the problem. Lennon and McCartney went up to the apartment Jagger and Richards shared and basically riffed out “I Wanna Be Your Man” to help the Stones put together the release that was their first major hit.

(announcing their next tour, 50 years after their first)

E) Never say NO. The Stones said yes to everything. They would perform 200 places a year for almost no money in the beginning. The just kept saying yes, even if it meant playing to crowds of just four or five people.  This reminds me of when The Beatles were playing almost 20 hours a day, 7 days a week at strip clubs in Hamburg, West Germany from 1960 to 1962. It was the non-stop playing that gave them experience and mastery. Gladwell refers to this in his excellent book, “Outliers” as when the Beatles got their “10,o00 hours” in order to achieve mastery before they hit it big.

For early entrepreneurs this can translate to saying “yes” to every networking opportunity, every meeting that can result in down-the-road potential for customers, investors, acquirers, and great future employees. Most meetings are complete wastes of time. But I think it takes going to lots of meetings to build the bullshit detector to determine what is a waste of time and  what isn’t. That said, you can still learn from 100% of the meetings. Sergey Brin, for instance, used to interview every potential Google employee. He explained later that he knew within seconds whether he would hire someone or not and would then spend the rest of the meeting trying to learn at least one new thing from the interviewee so the meeting wouldn’t be a total waste of time.

With Jagger, the ability to say “YES” to everything also translated to the inability to say “NO” to anything. He originally felt he would retire from the Stones when he was 33 – “I couldn’t bear to end up as an Elvis Presley…and sing to all those old ladies coming in with their handbags”. Well, now he’s 70 and just announced his new tour.

It is this which ultimately help the group together. The band members loyalty to nothing (family, friends, other art pursuits) other than the band. They were addicts but the biggest addiction they had was adulation to this entity they created. For better or worse, since it made them all an enormous amount of money.

F) Content is just the trunk of the tree. Then there are a 1000 branches. People all the time ask me how you make money from writing a blog. Or writing a book. There really is no way. Most authors will tell you the fastest way to go broke is to spend years writing a book. Same goes for blogs. But you use the content you create as a launching pad. In the case of blogs – speaking gigs, consulting gigs, multiple books, subscription products, etc. I’ve seen some bloggers make millions not off of their blogs but off of the ancillary activities that happened because they built up their platform through blogging, tweeting, facebooking, etc.

The Stones are no different. They don’t even own most of their successful music. Like many musicians from the 60s or earlier, they mistakenly signed away all of the rights to their music without even realizing it. The songs you know: Paint it Black, Sympathy…, Satisfaction, You Can’t Always Get What You Want, and on and on had their rights signed away to their manager Allen Klein. So they don’t make any money off of those. And how many people can name Stones’ songs written in the 80s? I can’t. (well, “State of Shock” that Mick Jagger did with Michael Jackson. But that’s it).

So how did they make any money?

Tours. They made over $600 million on their last tour. They form a company at the beginning of each tour, collect all the revenues of the tour (thanks to Jagger’s businesslike abilities acquired from attending the London School of Economics before the band started) which includes sponsorships, tickets, clothing, record sales, etc. and then they dividend out the proceeds at the end of the tour. All taking home a nice paycheck. Jagger was analytical on every aspect of the business, even inquiring with  managers about which currency would be stronger, the pound or the dollar over time.

They’ve done over 40 tours, with four of their tours appearing in the list of top 10 grossing tours of all time. Their last tour (which ended in 2007) was at #2, exceeded only by U2’s tour from last year which grossed over $700 million. Interesting to note that Lady Gaga’s most successful tour grossed “only” $234 million, but it can be argued she didn’t have to split it as many ways and still has a long career ahead of her.

By the way, for my friends who write non-fiction books – I’ve seen people write best sellers to non-sellers BUT the ONLY way (even for the bestsellers) that I’ve seen serious money being made by authors that I know is by either doing tours of speaking gigs after the book comes out (far exceeding whatever they got in advances) or by selling information products which complement the value they deliver in their books.

The Rolling Stones is not my favorite band. Some of their songs are among my favorites but I’ve never bought an album and I don’t think I’ve ever bought any of their songs. I’ve never seen them on tour. I barely know anything about them. But I’m fascinated by their longevity, the birth of their creativity, the glue that stuck them together and propelled them from despair to success, and ultimately the magic of creativity that infects anyone who reaches the status they reached. I hope one day in my own way to achieve a tiny sliver of that.

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