Thursday, December 31, 2015

Happy and Prosperous New Year's Wishes, Part 1: John Lennon and Paul McCartney and the Business of Life

The 8th of December marked the 35th anniversary of the day John Lennon was shot and killed in front of his apartment building in NYC. As in previous years, his October 9th birthday had inspired me to write a few thoughts on the man, and by the anniversary of his death I had moved far beyond the sadness of the day and felt compelled to pass along the good news that his spirit and presence in the world are felt more now than ever before. John Lennon is as alive as you or me.

And not just because his and and the other Beatles' entire catalog of music came gift-wrapped to all the major streaming services last Christmas Eve. And not just because people of a certain age--like me--can still sing along and rattle off the lyrics of dozens of songs he and Paul McCartney wrote together. It's not just that millions of us hardcore Beatles fans call them the best rock and roll band in history, despite the hard-working Rolling Stones' (and many other fine musicians') publicity department claims to the contrary, or even that the Beatles' stature as such is so widely accepted that it's become cool for dying publications like Rolling Stone or Esquire to hiply rank them or their work below other recording artists, or publish sour-grapes interview comments from aging rockers, all in an effort to be included in the conversation and draw attention to themselves. 

It goes beyond even all that. To this day there is something else that gets many of us, musicians and music writers, music historians and music business people, to continue to cite the craft and musicianship of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr as the gold standard for every aspect of the business of music.

Their self-imposed demand for excellence in all aspects of their work was absolutely unrelenting. Every detail counted, every time. Despite the drugs, despite the love entanglements, despite the gurus and the hangers-on, no excuses were tolerated. Much as it was the approach of another venerated business icon, Steve Jobs, who was a force of nature in his often tyrannical expectations for all things related to the Apple brand, these musicians were famously able to keep their eyes on the mountain and get the team to the summit. So when they knew finally that their ten-year association was coming to a close and were determined to make one final album, they wanted to create a masterpiece. Thus they returned to that taskmaster of a recording engineer who had helped them record much of their best work, George Martin, and recorded 1969's Abbey Road

The Business of Music    

Spotify reported Monday, December 28th, that the most popular song streamed from their site since 12:01 a.m. Christmas day had been Abbey Road's first track, "Come Together," with 2.3 million streams. (During the same three-day period the songs in the Beatles catalog had been streamed upwards of 70 million times, an average of at least one song per Spotify subscriber.) 

When Lennon and McCartney recorded the half-hour radio interview at the top of this article, they were visiting the United States on a business trip. The purpose of the visit was to establish the beginnings of that other famous Apple brand (and what a tale there is in how the two brands eventually entangled...), Apple Corps Ltd, a company whose primary function was intended to be the recording, promotion and distribution of music. Early in the radio broadcast, interviewer Larry Kane asks them what they are going to do with all the power that their success and money was bringing them. "To try and channel it for good," is John Lennon's matter-of-fact reply.

You can't blame him for trying.

Because no question, he and McCartney were trying to do just that. Their stated purpose was to lend financial support and guidance to deserving artists. In addition to that, they had recently lost their longtime manager Brian Epstein, whose unexpected death had plunged their business empire into chaos. But as determined as they were to regain control of things, their lack of experience proved costly. In their innocence, these two young businessmen (Lennon was 27, McCartney 25) and their enthusiastic friends Harrison and Starr were about to experience what every great business venture ultimately endures at least once. Utter business failure and financial ruin lay ahead. 

By the end of their run in 1970 (less than three years after this interview was recorded) Apple Corps Ltd. was in ruins, and the Beatles themselves were, if not dead broke, close enough to Personal Bankruptcy to smell the cheap gin on its breath. They had made several managers, lawyers, financiers and other hucksters and con artists live comfortably, but like many new business people who had gone before and who have come along since, they had a few things to learn.

The good news is that they were quick learners. Better than that, their musical skills and knowledge of music production had resulted in a body of work unparalleled in the history of recorded music. All they had to do was own it, literally and figuratively. It took concerted effort on the part of these divorcees, and the litigation went on for another five years, until 1975, but when the dust had settled the Fab Four were back in control of their financial destinies. Many fences had been mended. Many needed to be rebuilt.

Fortunately, they had understood from the earliest days in their association that quality is fractal.

What the Hell Does "Quality is Fractal" Mean?

In simple terms, it means that not only does quality count, quality in every aspect of selling and delivering the product counts. Every aspect. When a hair stylist cuts your hair, she knows you're potentially going to comb it differently, use a different  or no conditioner, sleep on it or wear a hat over it, maybe even do a little home trimming or barbering, and mess up a good thing in who knows what ways--but she makes sure you see that it looks like a million dollars, and know that you can come back for a fix-up if needed--before you pay the bill. That final glance in the mirror is part of the product satisfaction that sends you home humming and feeling that just-got-a-haircut glow. Why? It's part of what you paid for! So was the music that played over the sound system. So was the barber chair you sat in. So was polished mirror you looked at yourself in.

In his article "Quality is Fractal" for the blog RAMENwriter Des Traynor illustrates the point with a quote from arrogant, hotheaded, foul-mouthed television chef and hugely successful businessman Gordon Ramsay's autobiography, Humble Pie:

"It doesn't matter how amazing the steak is, if it's served on a cold plate it's crap. If it's served with a dull knife it's crap. If the gravy isn't piping hot, it's crap. if you're eating it on an uncomfortable chair, it's crap. If it's served by an ugly waiter who just came in from a smoke break, it's crap. Because I care about the steak, I have to care about everything around it."

John Lennon and Paul McCartney, plus George Harrison and Ringo Starr, knew this principle. Everything between their lips and your ears counted. Everything. With a recording technology that was prehistoric by today's standards, and recording engineer George Martin (my candidate for the the title of Fifth Beatle), these four working-class heroes from Liverpool, England, started from scratch after they had disbanded as a recording and performing entity, and became astute businessmen. Led by the sure hand of Paul McCartney since 1980, the fractal quality they had insisted on as recording artists has been brought to bear on their mutual business practices in the form of Apple Corps Ltd., and the wealth they have accumulated is legendary.

Quality in A Small Business

As small business owners, I know and you know that quality counts even more for a small business. How much more?

I've watched  a fair number of episodes of Gordon Ramsay's television show, Kitchen Nightmares. If I were a restaurant owner, I don't imagine I would be too thrilled to see him come through the front door of my business on that first day. But I would get over it. Why? He has only one acceptable standard: perfect. Perfect. If he adhered to his usual routine, he would first sit down and order a meal, making his selections based on the advice of the waitress or waiter... he might taste something that was to his liking, but more than likely he wouldn't.

Then he would go back to the kitchen, and 9 out of 10 times he would immediately order every single cook or chef, sous chef, saucier and dishwasher to scrub down all the pots and pans, grills, ovens, refrigerators, vents, drains, walls and floors, until the place was sparkling clean.  

And if he was in the mood, he'd roll up his sleeves and pitch in and probably out-work everyone.

What Color (or Shape or Quality) is Your Fractal?

The online Oxford dictionary defines fractal as "A curve or pattern that includes a smaller curve or pattern which has exactly the same shape," and also as "A curve or geometric figure, each part of which has the same statistical character as the whole."

What does this have to running a small business?  

Whatever your product or service is, it is composed of smaller sub-products or sub-services (fractals) that form the final sellable or exchangeable product or service when all are added up and considered as a whole.

When the Beatles famous White Album was released in November of 1968, they didn't just release it, they presented it. Thirty finely crafted musical performances, delivered as a double LP in a stark white gatefold album with only two words printed on the front: "The BEATLES". In an age of psychedelic complexities and ornate Fillmore West-inspired op art design, it stood out in startling contrast. On the inside, in addition to two vinyl disks containing some of the finest music they had ever recorded, were both a poster and four 5"x7" color prints with portraits of each of the four lads. The quality of the packaging was the most stunning anyone had ever seen.  

What a set of fractals!

Each company and each product has its own particular set of fractals. Certainly, they are similar in a general way. But the object of this discussion is how to address your particular set of concerns. Your fractals are unique, different from anyone else's.

Everywhere from Facebook to the cover of Forbes, you've seen the ubiquitous list of the ten or twelve or nineteen habits of successful people. Every so often you get pulled into reading one of them, only to discover that you know them all. 

Rarely, you will see something on one of these lists that you never thought of.

Rarest of all, you might find what is really valuable: a specific habit for a specific field from a specific person. Instead of reading that successful people like to read in bed just before switching off the light and hitting the hay, you read that a famous author likes to a read a Louis L'Amour novel before bed.

You might read that John Coltrane, perhaps the most innovative and radically creative jazz saxophonist of the modern era (since WWII), practiced his scales and did his exercises for hours every day.

Or you might read that back in the 1980s-1990s when Michael Jordan was leading the Chicago Bulls to six NBA championships with an astonishing .835 free throw percentage, he would go down to the snow-covered stadium hours before anyone else arrived, and practice his free throws before the building was even heated. 

Or that Larry Bird's lifetime .886 free throw percentage came from practicing his free throws 365 days each year, at the stadium or in his home's driveway when the team was in town, even if he had to shovel snow off of it. 

Or that Billy Crystal has always done one hundred sit-ups backstage in preparation for performing a stand-up comedy routine, one of the most stressful and physically demanding feats in show business. 

Designing Your Own Fractals for Success 

In Part 2 of this article, we are going to design a set of custom fractals, a list of component parts that you have derived from your own experience. Armed with this list, you will have a strategy for producing a perfect product for your small business.

Get out your legal pad, and sharpen your pencil. Sharpen two. Whether you are a jazz musician, a basketball player, a writer or a stand-up comic, get ready!

We're going to make you a list of Happy and Prosperous New Year's Wishes that are going to materialize as New Year's Successes in 2016.

Stay tuned!  

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