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Ego, greed, time pressures, at-risk capital, substance abuse, late hours, dealing with the press, fights over strategy and control, money, groupies, risky behavior.  All are hallmarks of both the startup and music worlds.  Except for the fact that startup participants gain weight while musicians lose it, the processes of being creative in the two industries are frightningly similar.

Both pursuits involve getting a small group of people together to create something tangible from a shared vision.  Both happen everywhere and they make an impact on the world.  Both involve combining different skillsets (product/strategy/design/engineering vs. lyrics/music/recording/design) to produce a consumer product.  Both involve dealing with investors and business people and leveraging resources that are not necessarily owned by the group.  Both involve working on something for years before consumers have a chance to use it.  Both require teams to accomplish an overwhelming task.

I looked at the data from the most successful bands over the past 30 years, as determined by the number of units sold (ed note #1: I focus on bands rather than individual artists for obvious reasons, ed note #2: this has nothing to do with what music is “good” or “bad”, and ed note #3: these kinds of metrics are now meaningless for modern bands).  There are some great lessons here for the aspiring entrepreneur.

Here are the traits of both high-performing startups and bands:

  • Talent
  • Team Dynamics
  • Tenacity
  • Product/Market Fit (Local, Global)
  • Timing and Luck

Here is the list of the top selling bands by number of units sold, from the 1950’s thru 2008, according to Wikipedia.  (The Internet is awesome.)



I know.  I couldn’t believe the Bee Gees were the #2 top selling band of all time either.  And that both Chicago and Bon Jovi have outsold The Who.  And that local Boston heros, Aerosmith, are #7, outpacing Van Halen.

  • Talent Matters, But Not Critical:  Talent is important but not critical to success.  Sure, all of these bands know how to play an instrument and stand on a stage, but there is a huge gulf of talent between, say, the Spice Girls and U2.  You need to be really good at what you do, but you don’t need to be a genius to be successful.  The Beatles are #1 for a reason; they are the most talented team of musicians ever assembled.  But just because you are not John, Paul, George, and Ringo doesn’t mean you shouldn’t work together.  You still could be Def Leppard.
  • Team Dynamics:  For the most part, the core team sticks together thru thick and thin and upgrades where appropriate.  Whether it is swapping out for a new guitar player (Pink Floyd, Rolling Stones, Chili Peppers), lead singer (Van Halen, ACDC), drummer (Pearl Jam), entire rhythm section (Oasis), these bands continue to thrive because the core remains intact.  Usually these are good changes and the team grows.  But, when the heart and soul of a band goes (Nirvana), oftentimes the band dies or is unlistenable (Guns ‘N’ Roses).  Obviously, bands, like startup teams, sometimes completely implode (Beatles, Zeppelin, The Who, Oasis, Sabbath) and never record again.
  • Tenacity: While it is true that it only took the Spice Girls 4 years to make the list, most of the bands toiled at their craft for decades before achieving massive success.  ACDC, Stones, Aerosmith, Bon Jovi, U2, Metallica, Green Day continue to work together making new music.  Not all of the output is as high-quality as their previous efforts, but as bands like U2 and Green Day demonstrate that your best work as a team could be in front of you.  These bands are tenacious about their values and team dynamics and are constantly trying to be relevant.
  • Product/Market Fit:  Bands and startups alike need to produce something that a group of people enjoy.  Marc Andreesen and Steve Blank are the absolute authorities on this from a startup perspective.  But, check out the aforementioned Bee Gees to see a great example of achieving product/market fit.  They achieved their success because they were huge throughout the rest of the world, while they languished in the largest music market, the US, at #32.  Similarly, Dave Matthews, The Eagles and Boston seem to be uniquely American.  Dont worry about being global right away; find your core audience, satisfy their needs, and then see how far wide you can grow.  And if you find out you have a great offering for the domestic audience, that’s ok, you’re just Foreigner or the Doors.

  • Timing and Luck: Sometimes bands become huge because they happen to perfectly time the tastes of the market and deliver the exact right sound and the right time.  This is particularly true for the teen demographic.  Bands like Backstreet Boys, Spice Girls, Ace of Base anticipated the cultural winds and were there to ride the wave.  These types of bands tend not to have staying power as they are more fads.  And not that there is anything wrong with that.  If you have this type of idea or business, milk it for all its worth and get out.  You are Destiny’s Child.

In my my next post I’ll show how bands and startups today are using technology to change their respective industry dynamics and definitions of success.

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One thought on “Making The Band: Startup Lessons From The Music World

  1. Pingback: Making The Band #2: Startup Lessons From Music Industry « The World According To Carp

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