Breaking In and Standing Out
Rock musicians are rarely who we look to for examples of strategic thinkers. In the genre’s heavy hitters such as Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Jimi Hendrix, we find careers and even lives lost to scandals, drugs, and burnout. The typical American image of a rock star tends to be someone that exists in the moment, lives hard, and likely does not plan for the future. In spite of this, strategic thinking would seem a necessity in the music industry – one of the most competitive areas imaginable.
Most highschoolers who pick up a guitar or sit behind a set of drums naturally engage in their share of daydreaming. The fame, the fans, and the finances are an attractive combination, along with the chance to belong to a group and see progress in your abilities. For most, that daydreaming is enough to scratch the itch during those teen years and they move on. For others though, that does not suffice. They find a deeper connection to the music and, often for the first time, discover something worthy of all-out commitment. They not only have a vision, they believe they can achieve it.
In his autobiography, Born to Run, Bruce Springsteen details several of his motivations that led to an early commitment to music. Like other musicians and athletes, he had to deal with disappointments along the way. Being asked to leave his first band because he wasn’t good enough provided the needed sting to invest in the deliberate practice required to excel. As he finished high school, he also realized he had no interest in pursuing other career options and, unfortunately, the music option provided little financial viability. During the “startup” phase, he often found himself without stable housing. Oddly, he never made the obvious choice to get a part time job. However, he never romanticized his situation, but instead recognized the long odds and competitive challenges of being a full-time musician. This led him to make a number of strategic choices.
His strategic clarity was built around a desire to experience a lifetime career as a musician, not just producing that one great song. This required him to both understand himself and the music industry. During a trip to the West Coast with one of his early bands, he made the painful observation that another band had “something we didn’t, a certain level of sophisticated musicality.” The reality that another band might be better was not the issue, it was a concern that he was not making the most of his own abilities – “not having a broad or intelligent enough vision” of what he was capable of.
Early on, he recognized he lacked a great voice and would never be the best guitarist. He writes, “So I figured if I didn’t have much of a voice, I was going to need to learn to write, perform, and use what voice I had to its fullest ability.” The focus on writing authentic songs that resonated with his fans became one of the key differentiators. From his first albums, he attracted fans who connected with his depth of storytelling.
An important part of Springsteen’s strategic process was identifying individuals who could provide support, encouragement, and different perspectives to sharpen his strategic thinking and execution. Some relationships endured throughout his career and others he recognized needed to be discarded to reflect situational changes.
He also recognized that he would need to take an active leadership role in his story. After only a few years of playing in bands, he had seen his share of decision-making squabbles and confusion. Looking back at forty years of his band’s continued existence, he credited a lack of role confusion as a key determinant. He writes, “Everyone knew their job, their boundaries, their blessings, and limitations.”
Successful strategies almost always require making the occasional big bet. Springsteen took his fair share of risks as he pivoted at times to solo performances and different musical sounds. At 73, he has over 140 million albums sold and 20 grammy awards to his name. He has fulfilled his aspiration to make music a career by continuing to invest in writing songs that capture what he feels most strongly about. The bold bets and longevity are clearly tied to the clarity of his vision and his strategic understanding of himself, his fans, and the industry. By surrounding himself with the right people at the right times and creating a clear leadership structure he set himself up to control as many variables as possible.
While passion is certainly indispensable to achieve excellence in a competitive field like music, Springsteen’s story highlights success also depends on identifying the critical success factors and relentlessly pursuing them. He lays out a blueprint for not just breaking in but standing out for the long haul.