Business lessons of a music legend
- Frank Luby
The call came as midnight approached, along with my deadline. I was in the office of the Maroon, the University of Chicago’s student newspaper. On the other end of the line was Stevie Ray Vaughan, sitting in a downstate hotel room. He sounded exhausted, but said he was ready to talk for an article that would run on the front-page of the Maroon’s arts supplement.
And talk he did. He took me behind the scenes of his hectic schedule and his band’s upcoming album. He defended some tough decisions he’d made. He told his stories with a mix of hopefulness and humility that clashed with his furious onstage presence.
Neither of us knew on that night in February 1984 that Rolling Stone and Guitar World would one day rank him among the greatest guitarists of the rock&roll era. I certainly didn’t know that one day, 30 years later, I would revisit our conversation, re-read the article, and see far more than just a snapshot of an artist on his way to superstardom. Between the lines, I noticed that his approach to getting ahead contained some very sound and universal business advice, as fresh and relevant today as it was then.
Despite some progress in the early 1980’s, Vaughan was still in the early stages of his “business”. He knew intuitively that talent alone does not guarantee success. Taking only a few small liberties with his comments and stories from our conversation that night, I would distill Stevie Ray Vaughan “Management 101” into these five recommendations:
Don’t be a superhero: Success takes a team. A staff or an organization makes you more productive. A team makes you better. The members motivate and inspire, give honest feedback, and profit from each other’s experience. Vaughan’s partnership with his bandmates in Double Trouble exemplified that. Drummer Chris Layton brought his own influences and also adapted his style to Vaughan’s. Bass player Tommy Shannon was about 10 years older than Vaughan and Layton, had more touring experience, and knew how to play larger venues. He backed Johnny Winter at Woodstock. He had also seen the good, the bad, and the ugly that a young musician might not encounter in the bar scene in Austin, Texas, where Vaughan and Layton has spent most of their early careers. The three of them remained a band until Vaughan’s death. As a good businessman should, he picked great partners.
Have a compass: Imagine your own startup gets a surprise break, a chance for constant exposure sooner than you ever imagined. To take advantage, though, you would need to change your vision and split with your team. Would you do it? Vaughan’s surprise break came when David Bowie asked him to play guitar on his tour to back his platinum-selling album Let’s Dance. Vaughan had played lead guitar on the studio album. Millions of Bowie fans had heard the hits and already knew the riffs. Fans by the thousands could now see the same guitarist play those riffs live. Vaughan said no. “There were promises that weren’t kept,” he told me that night, adding that “things got out of hand” and “it wasn’t necessarily about the money.” Too many of the Let’s Dance rehearsal and tour dates overlapped with too many tour dates for Vaughan and his band Double Trouble. His loyalty to Double Trouble and to his vision trumped the opportunity to reach a mainstream audience by backing up another act. In the years that followed, it never appeared that Vaughan regretted that decision to remain true to his team and his original vision.
Tell a memorable story: People can’t open doors for you if they can’t hear you knocking. “I don’t mean to sound cocky, but we needed someone to listen,” he said, referring to the band’s early days together in Austin. In the era long before websites and apps, nobody could look you up and fill in the blanks themselves on who you are, where you come from, and where you are headed. You had to tell people your story yourself and - if they liked it - maybe they would retell it to others the right way. That set a high standard for storytelling. His stories about sleeping in pool halls, jamming with his heroes, playing at the Montreux Jazz Festival, and getting “discovered” again and again were compelling and made me ever more curious to see him play. Perseverance and consistency are two other critical, often underrated aspects of storytelling. I’m sure Vaughan had better things to do than talk to a college reporter that night. I’m sure he told me absolutely nothing he hadn’t said before. In today’s world, you enjoy access to online platforms that let you reach thousands if not millions of people with one post. But so does everyone else. The lesson is that the standard for a compelling story remains high, but that isn’t enough. You still need to tell it repeatedly and consistently.
Grind it out: Let’s say your band will open one night for The Police on their Synchronicity tour. In Honolulu. How do spend your Saturday night in Chicago, one week before that date? You and your team drive to a nerdy college campus and play a full set in a decrepit gym that looked a like a faded black-and-white photo come to life. Maybe 100 people show up. And you are absolutely kicking ass. Why? It’s an obligation, night after night. The lesson here is that small jobs pay the bills and build the reputation, too. If you take the job, you have to put in 100% effort.
Give back: When I met him briefly backstage after that show, he immediately asked about Blues Heaven (http://www.bluesheaven.com/), a foundation established by blues legend Willie Dixon. “A lot of people have opened a lot of doors for me, and I’m doing my best to open those doors for others,” Vaughan said. “And that goes all the way back. I’ll help any way I can.”
These five principles helped him make his own luck in his business of music, and are applicable in all fields. The intangibles – consistent story-telling, day-to-day commitment and conscientiousness – often make the difference between success and failure.
Stevie Ray Vaughan passed away 24 years today in a helicopter crash in southern Wisconsin. Our two encounters six years earlier inspired me one way. That interview in February 1984 helped me launch an 8-year “career” as a free-lance music journalist. Today as part of the start-up team at Present Tense LLC, his words inspire me another way. I know that we need to find great partners and be great partners to build the company. We need that inner compass to help us keep surprises - both good and bad - in perspective. We are aiming for stories that are worth retelling and that make people curious about us. We take every job seriously, because it is indeed an obligation to do the best we can. And we have made sure that giving back remains an important part of our lives. So far, Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “Management 101” has served us well.
Frank Luby is co-founder and CEO of Present Tense LLC, a communications company dedicated to helping people express their ideas through better business storytelling. We work with managers and executives of Fortune 500 companies as well as individual authors, providing a range of writing, editing, and training services. To learn more, please visit us at www.presenttensellc.com and follow our regular blogs and posts.