Businesses often have to make the difficult transition from being a gang of friends working on a cool idea to being managers of a complex enterprise with multiple stakeholders. It’s a problem familiar to rock groups, which can go quickly from being local heroes to global brands, and from being responsible only for themselves to having hundreds of people rely on them for income. In both cases, people who made choices by instinct and on their own terms acquire new, often onerous responsibilities with barely any preparation. Staff who were hired because they were friends or family have their limitations exposed under pressure, and the original gang can have its solidarity tested to destruction. A study from Harvard Business School found 65 per cent of start-ups fail because of “co-founder conflict”. For every Coldplay, there are thousands of talented bands now forgotten because they never survived contact with success.
The history of rock groups can be viewed as a vast experimental laboratory for studying the core problems of any business: how to make a group of talented people add up to more than the sum of its parts. And once you’ve done that, how to keep the band together. Here are four models.
1. Friends: ‘We can work it out’
The Beatles invented the idea of the band as a creative unit in the 1960s. John Lennon and Paul McCartney’s artistic partnership enabled them to vertically integrate the hitherto separate functions of songwriting and performing. The band had no designated frontman; all four Beatles were capable of singing lead. Though Lennon was the de facto leader in the early years, one of the band’s innovations was not to call itself “Johnny and the Beatles”, as was conventional at the time. Partly because promoters and journalists found this new entity hard to grasp, friendship became central to the band’s image. John, Paul, George and Ringo were presented to the world as a gang of inseparable buddies. Their voices blended thrillingly. They cut their hair and dressed in the same style. They talked – oh how they talked – in synchrony. “We’re really all the same person,” McCartney said in 1969. “We’re just four parts of the one.”
This wasn’t spin. The Beatles spent years in each other’s intimate company, in Liverpool, in Hamburg, in filthy bedsits, tiny dressing rooms and bone-shaking vans. They put thought into making the friendship four-way: on tour, Lennon would room with George Harrison, and McCartney with Ringo Starr, so the Lennon-McCartney partnership didn’t unbalance the group. In private, they behaved as they did at press conferences, finishing each other’s sentences and bouncing jokes off each other. Jagger called them the “four-headed monster”.
There are sound reasons to mix friendship with business. Researchers who study workplace environments found employees who have friends at the office feel more motivated and generally happier in their job. When Jessica Methot, a professor of human resources at Rutgers University, investigated the effects of friendships at work, she found those with more workplace friends felt better about coming to work and earned better performance evaluations. This she expected. But she also found they were more likely to report feeling depleted, over-worked and lacking energy. She reckoned that was because of the emotional labour involved in reconciling the potentially incompatible roles of co-worker and friend.
When you have more close friends at work, professional conflict becomes more emotionally punishing. How do you feel when you need to inform a friend they’ll be taking a pay cut? And how do they feel? As Methot puts it, “the closer [co-workers] become, the more sensitive they are to what’s happening at work. Betrayal seems exponentially more severe.” The most problematic cases involve romantic entanglements: you can’t stop seeing your ex when your ex is a colleague. Fleetwood Mac’s turnover of personnel has been high over the years, partly because the band’s singer Stevie Nicks and its guitarist Lindsey Buckingham were initially lovers as well as colleagues.
By 1970, the Beatles were racked by financial, legal and personal disputes. Apple Corps, the company they founded in 1967, had become an unholy mess of money-sucking misadventures. Lennon was finding more inspiration from his new wife, Yoko Ono, than from his co-workers, and insisted on taking her into work. Harrison was increasingly frustrated with his limited role. Meanwhile McCartney had recorded a solo album, McCartney, which he wanted EMI to release as quickly as possible. But a new Beatles album, Let It Be, was also ready for release, and EMI didn’t want the two albums competing for sales. Harrison wrote a friendly letter to McCartney, on behalf of the other three, asking him to delay the release of his album. Starr drove to McCartney’s house in north London to deliver the letter. On reading it, McCartney became incandescent with rage, shouting at Starr, threatening him and jabbing a finger in his face. McCartney got his way, but the incident damaged his relationship with Starr, who said later, “I’m very emotional; things like that really upset me.”
Business disagreements were intensely personal because, for the Beatles, everything was intensely personal. What were Starr and McCartney disagreeing about so violently? A marketing plan. It was because the Beatles were such good friends to begin with that they fell out irreconcilably.
2. Autocracies: ‘I won’t back down’
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were formed in 1976 by five musicians from Gainesville, Florida, who had moved to Los Angeles in search of stardom. Petty was the group’s lead singer, songwriter and driving force, but the band split its income equally. Petty was talented enough to make it alone, but he loved being in a band: it gave him a sense of belonging after a childhood scarred by violence. The Heartbreakers had an ethos of all for one, and one for all. By 1978 they had released two albums that sold well. Their next, Damn the Torpedoes, would go triple platinum and propel them into the big league. But before that happened, the band’s leader faced a tough decision.
The Heartbreakers had a new manager, Elliot Roberts, who, at 35, was already a grizzled veteran of the industry, having managed Neil Young and Joni Mitchell. The first thing Roberts did was sit down with Petty and tell him that he needed to be more selfish. “You can’t do this deal where you’re giving everybody in the band an equal cut of money,” Roberts said. “Because there’s going to be a big problem at some point. You’re going to feel really bitter and used. I’ve been down this road with bands before. It explodes, and everyone walks away.” Petty listened. The days of equal shares were over.
His band-mates felt a stinging sense of betrayal. “I was furious,” keyboardist Benmont Tench told Warren Zanes, Petty’s biographer. “But you’re absolutely fucked, because these are the guys you want to play with…I wanted to play in the Heartbreakers. But it took years to accept.” Nobody left, but Petty’s decision came at the cost of the camaraderie he valued.
When I asked Zanes if Petty’s decision was cynical, he demurred. “Bands start off as exercises in us-against-the-world idealism, in which success lifts all to equal heights. The ones that don’t break up before they reach a recording studio are the ones that adjust their philosophy in order to become a business. A redistribution of power is necessary.” Petty’s decision was hard for everyone, he said. “But there they were, decades later, still together when so many other bands were on the garbage heap.”
Others have followed a similar pattern. On stage, Bruce Springsteen celebrates the ties that bind him to the E Street Band, but in his autobiography he is matter of fact: “Democracy in a band… is often a ticking time bomb. If I was going to carry the workload and responsibility, I might as well assume the power. I’ve always believed that the E Street Band’s continued existence is partially due to the fact that there was little to no role confusion among its members.” By which he means, there is no confusion over who’s the boss.
Even at a time when flat decision-making structures are fashionable in business, some companies are successfully run as Springsteen-style autocracies. In 2009, Cisco’s then CEO John Chambers told The New York Times, “I’m a command-and-control person. I like being able to say turn right, and we truly have 67,000 people turn right.” After returning to the helm of Apple in 1997, Steve Jobs almost single-handedly wrenched the firm out of stagnation. But top-down structures can backfire. For a decade, the Royal Bank of Scotland was run by Fred Goodwin, who brooked no disagreements, whether it was on the design of the company’s Christmas cards or its vast exposure to toxic loans. The bank collapsed in 2008 and the British government had to bail it out. If your company is run by an autocrat, you’d better hope they’re as gifted as Springsteen or Petty.
3. Democracies: ‘Everybody hurts’
In 1979, Michael Stipe, a college student in Athens, Georgia, was browsing in a downtown record store called Wuxtry when he got talking to the clerk, a college dropout and amateur guitarist called Peter Buck. The two men bonded over a love of underground rock and soon decided to form a band, recruiting two fellow students, Bill Berry and Mike Mills. Thirty-two years later, their band, R.E.M., broke up amicably, ending one of the happiest collaborations in rock history.
Another regular at Wuxtry Records was Bertis Downs, a law student. An early fan of the band, Downs became R.E.M.’s legal adviser and manager. He told me R.E.M. operated as an Athenian democracy. “They all had equal say. There was no pecking order.” This was not majority rule: “Everyone had a veto, which meant everyone had to buy into every decision, business or art. They hashed things out until they reached a consensus. And they said ‘no’ a lot.”
Underpinning R.E.M.’s flat governance structure was an egalitarian economic one. As Tony Fletcher explains in Perfect Circle, his biography of the band, each member received an equal share of publishing royalties, regardless of who contributed what to each song. The same was true of their recording and performing royalties – although here equal splits were normal. One notable exception to this rule was the Smiths. When Morrissey and Johnny Marr founded the band in 1982, they insisted on taking a bigger cut of income, from all sources, than the bassist, Andy Rourke, and the drummer, Mike Joyce. This introduced an instability into the group, hastening its demise after five years.
R.E.M. are one of a handful of bands that have successfully contravened Springsteen’s rule. Another is Coldplay. In both cases, members receive equal shares of all income and have had a, roughly, equal say in band matters. Neither of them ever needed to fire or replace a founding member. After R.E.M.’s drummer Berry left in 1997 the band carried on for 14 years as, in Stipe’s description, a “three-legged dog”). If democracy worked so well for these bands, the obvious question is why is it so rare? The answer is simple, says Jeremy Lascelles, who runs an artist-management company called Blue Raincoat. In a band, he told me “you’re dealing with the most toxic element in human relations: ego. A musician needs a big ego to get on stage and bare their soul. But that means you can get these massive egos battling for dominance.” It is perhaps no surprise the history of combustible musical egos is dominated by men – a situation that companies with male-dominated boards (which means most of them) would do well to heed.
The democratic model depends on individual members believing that each has the group’s interest at heart, not just their own. Morrissey’s and Marr’s policy made it hard for the band members to trust each other; R.E.M.’s decision-making process meant they exhibited confidence in each other every day. There must also be a belief in each other’s competence. Tony Fletcher, the biographer of R.E.M., said: “Usually in a band there’s someone the others think isn’t good enough, or isn’t pulling their weight.” But that was never the case with R.E.M., all of whom were skilled in multiple ways. Everybody Hurts, the band’s biggest hit, was largely written by the drummer, Berry.
Finally, it helps to have a shared vision of success. The members of Coldplay knew they wanted to be the biggest band in the world; each had the same clear-eyed ambition. Their equal income split works like equity shares: every partner has a direct interest in keeping the band together.
4. Frenemies: ‘It’s only rock ‘n’ roll’
Watts’s forceful rebuke to Jagger came at a difficult time for the Rolling Stones. In the 1980s they came as close to splitting as they ever have. Their last album, Undercover, had sold disappointingly. Jagger embarked on a solo career and seemed to be seeking an escape from the band, possibly because he was tired of dealing with Richards, who had shaken off a debilitating dependence on heroin only to replace it with one on alcohol. But Jagger’s solo albums flopped, and he returned to his old partner. The two came to an accommodation. By the end of the decade, the Stones were back on the road again, promoting a successful new album. They have been touring – and the money has kept pouring in – ever since.
“In bands that survive a long time, there’s often an agreement to disagree,” says Simon Napier-Bell, a manager of multiple bands, including the Yardbirds and Wham! “People who don’t get on can get on in an interesting way.” It was possible for the Stones to come to such an arrangement precisely because they were never as close as the Beatles. It’s not that Jagger and Richards weren’t friends, but friendship was never as central to their image. When it comes down to it, they are there to work.
The Stones also have a clear division of responsibilities. In Life, Richards portrayed Jagger as a cold, soulless character who cared more about money than music. But it is Jagger’s leadership of the business side of things, and Richards’s acceptance of that leadership, that has kept the Stones rolling for so long. In crude terms, Jagger is chief executive, Richards is chief product officer. Robert Greenfield, a biographer of the Stones, told me, “Mick is a brilliant businessman as well as a great singer. Keith never gave a f— about the money.”
In the band’s early days, guitarist Brian Jones was the band’s chief creative force, but he made for an unpredictable, unpleasant colleague. In 1969, Jagger and Richards pushed him out of the group, in the equivalent of a boardroom coup. From then on, the duo took all the band’s key decisions in consultation with Watts and Bill Wyman, who left in 1993. Other band members have been switched in and out, and for the most part have not been eligible for royalties. Even Ronnie Wood, the lead guitarist since 1975, was essentially a salaried employee for decades.
Another reason the Stones have stayed together is they aren’t afraid to fight – even if it’s at 3am in an Amsterdam hotel room.
Ernest Bormann, a scholar of small-group communication, said every group has a threshold for tension that represents its optimal level of conflict. Uncontrolled conflict can destroy the group, but without conflict, boredom and apathy set in. Simon Napier-Bell told me bands who don’t fight tend to be creatively moribund. He recalled an argument between the Yardbirds in the recording studio, over whether guitarist Jeff Beck should be allowed a solo. Beck felt he wasn’t being given enough room to express himself. Eventually, the others grudgingly let him have a few bars on a song called The Nazz Are Blue. Napier-Bell sat with the band and watched as Beck recorded his solo. When it came to his bars, Beck simply struck one note and let it bleed into feedback, all the while glowering with defiance at his bandmates. “Everything he felt was in that note,” Napier-Bell said. “It’s the highpoint of the album.”
One of the most striking differences between the Stones and the Beatles is the Beatles split up after seven years at the top, while the Stones are still going. One start-up flashed brightly and burnt out; the other established itself as a long-running corporation.
Perhaps there is a trade-off between creativity and stability. The Stones ceased to be musical innovators by the end of the 1970s, but survived the waning of their creative powers by reaching a professional arrangement that enabled them to exploit their earlier innovations. The business they most resemble is Microsoft. The Beatles lasted only seven years before splitting, but their albums represent the greatest body of work in the rock canon. Their emotionally intense collaboration maximised their creative potential, but made the group fragile. When Mark Lewisohn, an expert on the band, was asked whether it was surprising they split so quickly, he replied the real question was how such headstrong and wilful characters stayed together so long.
Marie-Louise von Franz, a psychoanalyst, wrote, “whenever one is in a group … one has to draw a veil over a part of one’s personality.” Gains from collaboration are traded off against self-expression. Occasionally, she said, it’s the other way around: a group can become united in spirit and each individual expresses themselves more fully than they would be able to by themselves. A “super-personal harmony” prevails. This rare condition, von Franz says, is what lies behind myths such as the knights of King Arthur. If the rock group is a modern myth, then perhaps we venerate the Beatles most of all because they seem to embody the possibilities of perfect harmony. But in the fallen world of business, it may be better to be guided by the Stones.
Ian Leslie is the author of Born Liars and Curious.