The Rock and Roll Approach to Your Winning Difference

Boston

Back in 1976, the music industry was in a full-tilt disco craze.

All the smart money was chasing new disco acts based on the success of tunes like The Hustle and Jive Talkin’ by the Bee Gees in 1975. Rock was dead they all said, and this is even before Saturday Night Fever brought disco to middle America.

But then just another band out of Boston turned that wisdom on its head.

Boston founder Tom Scholz struggled to get a record deal. And even after he signed with Epic, he got nothing but hassle from the label as he fought to release the band’s eponymous debut.

This music wasn’t going to work anyway, right?

Eventually, Scholz prevailed and Boston was released. It remains the best-selling debut album in U.S. history, with over 17 million copies sold.

Of course, the bandwagon ensued. Boston spawned an entire industry genre (poetically known as Corporate Rock) as music marketing executives scrambled to produce loads of radio-friendly rock for the masses.

The corporate rock trend continued throughout the 80s and into the 90s, reaching its ridiculous extreme with packaged metal “hair bands.” For every Guns N’ Roses there were ten poseur acts aimed at 13-year-old girls everywhere.

Nirvana

Then in 1991, 15 years after Boston, history repeated itself. A band from Seattle did something that wasn’t supposed to work.

As a long-time fan of alternative music, I still vividly remember the day. I was driving on Loop 610 in Houston, and Smells Like Teen Spirit came on the local rock station.

To me, the world changed. Nirvana was not supposed to be on the radio.

Of course, the bandwagon ensued. Soon we had Clear Channel “alternative” rock stations (an oxymoron of epic proportions) and Britney and the boy bands became the next big thing.

The point?

You can make money chasing trends and being a “me too” marketer. The biggest winners, however, come not from chasing, but from running in a different direction.

What’s the conventional wisdom in your industry or niche?

Now, what can you do that’s not supposed to work?

About the Author: Brian Clark is founder of Copyblogger and CEO of Copyblogger Media. Get more from Brian on Twitter.

Print Friendly

Smarter is Better Solutions for Smarter Content Marketing

Here’s what we’ve got for you:

  • 15 high-impact ebooks on content marketing, SEO, email marketing, landing pages, keyword research, and more.
  • A 20-part Internet marketing course that lays out a comprehensive path for your own online strategy.
  • An organized reference guide to the “best of the best” of Copyblogger.com, and how it all profitably fits together.
Free Registration

Take The Conversation Further ...

We'd love to know your thoughts on this article.
Meet us over on Twitter or LinkedIn to join the conversation right now!

Comments

  1. I agree but disagree.

    You should go your own way but do not expect to be successful. There is a lot of luck in going your own way and most of it does not end up being successful.

    If you want to make money then creating something that is hot might be a better way to go but plan to have shelf life and sell out at your peek.

  2. But Gary, often what becomes “hot” is completely different from what’s expected.

  3. The irony here being, of course, that Smells Like Teen Spirit and More Than A Feeling are pretty much the same song. :)

  4. Gary,

    The Patent Office and the annals of history are littered with people that went their own way (think the Internet).

    You can create the wheel or sell tires; I’ll go with create.

    Buck

  5. I have just one thing to say:

    God, you’re old.

  6. All this and no mention of the fact that “”More than a Feeling” and “Smells Like Teen Spirit” are basically the same song?

  7. If I’m reading you right, Brian, you’re saying it’s actually better to be a Mudhoney than a Nirvana – sure, no huge rake-in-the-cash peak, but still rocking out and loving doing their own thing after two decades in the business.

    Or have I overextended the musical metaphor? ;)

  8. Dubber and Aaron, what would you guys have to talk about if I mentioned everything in the post. :-)

    Yeah, huge irony. The fact that both bands were both convention busters proves that some guitar chord combinations are universally loved.

    Jon, do your parents know where you are? I think it’s nap time. :-)

  9. Jon Morrow, he is not that old. I’m a life-long Nirvana fan as well :)

    Brian, good analogy. Nothing really new, but makes sense. Starbucks is another good example. Earlier coffee shop owners thought that a couple of shops per city is enough, while Starbucks decided to open a coffee shop almost in every corner. Nowadays it’s not difficult to find Starbucks in most of the cities worldwide. I guess that was different in coffee shop markets back in those days.

    Btw, I believe Kurt never made strategic moves but simply enjoyed playing grunge. I guess he didn’t think about the business and he was very lucky to play fresh, new and high-energy music that sold a lot. Am I right?

  10. Marko, you’re definitely right about Kurt, but I’d say the same thing for Tom Scholz. He just wanted to play his music. The guy’s sold 50 million records and he keeps trying to keep Boston going.

    Often I think the thing you’re “not supposed to do” brings an element of genuine passion. You can be strategic too, but the things that come out of nowhere seem to have someone with passion driving the train.

  11. Paul, well… I was focusing more on the home runs in this post, and how they generally work against conventional wisdom. Nirvana was a home run hitter, and Mudhoney is a dependable base hit player.

    Nothing wrong with that, just not the particular point of this post. But I’d also say that it’s difficult to even have a successful small business without differentiation.

  12. Alternative radio was located in certain markets from the start. In college in the early eighties, college towns had great music. But as I traveled it was amazing how you would have to listen to the same old crap. Now I know that majority of the radio stations are owned by a few large corporations. It is awesome for new technology that is removing the power of the radio station from the music industry. MarketingClerk.com

  13. Brian, you’re right. Just like Kurt and Tom, many other artists just want to play their music but some of them are lucky and become famous. There are lots of great metal bands here in Finland who can’t break through. May be the market is already saturated and it is very difficult to come up with something really different. Grunge was very different in early 90’s, and it actually came and killed good old thrash metal.

    I don’t know about boy bands and pop culture that much but aren’t many of those bands “strategic products”? They sell well 1-3 years but then fade away. I remember two kids called Kriss Kross or something. I remember they had one hit song but that’s it. They were a product, but probably their producer made a good money. Just guessing..

    Nirvana definitely had genuine passion and that really was a driving force. Few months ago I watched a document of Nevermind album. It’s great, I recommend.

  14. John, good point… I loved college radio in the 80s. I meant Clear Channel type alternative stations (and I just updated the post to make that clear).

    Marko, good call on the boy bands. People like Lou Perlman realized that bubblegum pop would still sell, especially as an alternative to alternative. Definitely a strategic decision to swim the other way that was hugely profitable.

    And don’t forget that other strategic ensemble… The Sex Pistols. Malcolm McLaren just had more authentic characters (and in the case of Sid, a tad too authentic).

  15. Eventually, Scholz prevailed and Boston was released. It remains the best-selling debut album in U.S. history, with over 17 million copies sold.

    Yeah, but so what? Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” album holds the record for over $108 million in sales. Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, The Beatles, and Garth Brooks, among others, command higher album sales than Boston’s 1976 statistic.

    And isn’t that the point in music sales? I can count on many hands the number of “one-hit wonders” who sold millions of copies of an album but then disappeared off the music charts. Shouldn’t one’s musical success be determined by multiple albums and/or concert tours and not just one?

  16. well, you’re a bit off – tom scholz was an mit grad student developing electronic music components and also a musician…he was planning to do both things, as i understand the history of the band, and wound up breaking away with not a new genre, but rather a new specific guitar sound effect…

  17. Wow, mentioning Gary Vaynerchuk and Nirvana in blog posts back to back? You and I would get along.

  18. So Ari, you don’t find it interesting that a band that the wisdom of the day said was undesirable continues to own the debut album sales record? And other than selling over $50 million in records, Boston was a hugely successful touring band for decades, and the band still exists (for better or worse) today.

    Beyond that, I’m afraid you’re missing the point of the post. See, it’s not really about music. :-)

  19. >>and wound up breaking away with not a new genre

    I didn’t speak to Tom’s intent. The success of Boston did in fact cause the typical lemming effect among music executives who tried to replicate the same brand of radio-friendly rock.

    The point is that the market wanted something the so-called experts didn’t see. Sometimes market desire is discovered accidentily, and sometimes strategically.

  20. Brian, “alternative to alternative” –> finding new niche-markets inside a niche. :)

    Sex Pistols, good point. And yet another great band.

  21. Brian – You’re not listening to the new Weezer, are you?

    I just downloaded it this morning and there’s a song that credits the ’91 release of Nevermind as being the catalyst for Weezer’s formation.

    Kind of an odd coincidence to run across two Nirvana references in the same morning…

  22. David, I didn’t know that about Weezer (I do need to snag the new release for sure).

    I’m betting Nirvana’s Nevermind was the catalyst for a lot of bands being started. The entire Seattle scene was hugely influential on a lot of people.

  23. @Jon Morrow, you made me laugh. I agree, Brian is very, very old.

    One of the interesting things I saw when I was (not very successfully) writing romance is that the writers who were insanely successful were all driven by the love of it. Yes, some of them then went on to learn strategic stuff about distribution and contracts, but the writers who came into romance cynically, thinking it was a formula that could be cranked out for the money, all bombed.

    Not everyone who loved it succeeded, by a long shot. But the me-too crowd who tried to cynically re-create an existing trend failed, almost universally.

  24. “Often I think the thing you’re “not supposed to do” brings an element of genuine passion. ”

    I wonder too at that intersection of success and doing just this. It isn’t necessarily a given that success will follow passionate endeavor. There has to be a connect somewhere. Although there is a decidedly satisfying ring to the idea. What made Cobain and Stolz successful in a business sense is that they did connect with major distribution. I am all for zigging passionately instead of zagging repetitiously, but there has to be the other part too. Having said that, It sounds slightly insane to me NOT to do something you are totally passionate about. And if it is something you are not supposed to do…well, that just makes it all the more fun when it works.

  25. Yes, Brian, I do “find it interesting that a band that the wisdom of the day said was undesirable continues to own the debut album sales record.”

    But you need to keep in mind, which relates to what I wrote above about Michael Jackson and AC/DC, that Boston’s self-titled debut only raked in 1,000,000 sales in the first three months and got eight million buyers 10 years later. Their multi-platinum sales are only in the 15-20 years since.

    Also keep in mind the analogy of financial market guru Peter Lynch, author of “One Up On Wall Street” and “Beating the Street” who wrote of his proven strategy to buy stocks with dull or undesirable product lines.

    Funeral home conglomerates, waste disposal firms, paint manufacturers, or alleged Mafia-connected companies were Lynch’s ten-baggers that gave him the most profit. Much more than stalwart Blue Chip stocks that his peers recommended.

  26. Ah, so now you’re saying that Boston succeeded via longevity, but in your original comment referenced “one hit wonders.” Sorry for my confusion.

    But I guess you do get the point, just not from my post. You just gave an example of someone who went in a different direction (Peter Drucker) against the advice of the conventional wisdom of the “experts” (his peers).

    Still not sure what you have a problem with. Seems others understood the analogy that made the same exact point you just offered.

  27. Interesting premise Brian, which brings up another point on my mind–

    Is it better to be on the “innovative edge,” or to be the “seminal touchstone” of your genre?

    For example, a friend of mine a year or so ago tried to sit down and come up with what we would consider to be the “epitome” film from that decade.

    Our votes so far–

    1960s–“Rebel Without a Cause,” “Dr. Strangelove,” or “Easy Rider.”
    1970s–“Saturday Night Fever” or “The Godfather”
    1980s–“Wall Street” or “The Color of Money”
    1990s–“Can’t Hardly Wait,” “Reality Bites,” or “The Matrix”
    2000s–“Garden State”

    For example, Nirvana was first, but Pearl Jam was the “touchstone” of grunge, though Nirvana is still considered more innovative.

    Your thoughts?

  28. Interesting post! Best Nirvana cover ever!

  29. Steve, interesting. I’m not sure you get to be a touchstone without being innovative anymore, but of course that’s open to interpretation and debate.

    I’d like to make a distinction using one of your examples. Pearl Jam (and Soundgarden, and the rest of the established Seattle scene) did not bandwagon off of Nirvana. They were established bands who benefited from the limelight Nirvana brought to Seattle bands in general.

    On the other hand, Creed bandwagoned off of Pearl Jam, and God Smack was the best Alice in Chains cover band ever.

    That’s the difference I’m talking about. And true rock fans know the relative positions of esteem enjoyed by each of the bands I’ve mentioned in this comment.

  30. Also, one the most influential touchstone films for this decade actually came out in 1999… Fight Club. A film with legs, for sure.

  31. I’ll respectfully disagree that Fight Club was more influential than the other 1999 film, The Blair Witch Project.

    According to Wikipedia data…

    FC, with a production budget of $63 million, grossed $37 million in the US and Canada and $100.8 million worldwide.

    BWP, though, was initially invested with $35,000 and marketed with $25 million. It went on to gross $160 million in the US and $248 million worldwide.

    Even if you dismiss BWP as an indie film, it still earned more than Fight Club. But I suppose it depends how you define ‘influential.’

  32. As somebody who considers himself on the cutting edge, I pride myself on being a part of the “something-new’s” and not just another “me-too”. In today’s market it’s too easy to just copy somebody else’s idea and it’s often the case that the freshest ideas are the ones left after all the copycats have scratched each other out.

  33. I agree with Sonia, loving what you do is key. Having an intense passion will keep you going when others say that what you are doing will never work, when doors are slammed in your face, or when you choose to go the extra mile for the sheer joy of your work.

    Passion and skill for what you do makes you work due to love and not money, but the money will eventually come. Skill is another critical component because most of us have heard the passionate, off-the-wall people from American Idol who have no talent. Even some of those people, have made some sort of name for themselves due to their uniqueness (wildness) and passion.

  34. I agree. Run in a different direction. Follow your heart (I know this is cliche – but there is wisdom there). Break the cookie cutter cycle. I will be forwarding this post to all the indie recording artists I work with. Nice Job Brian.

  35. It’s ironic: Boston just launched their new world tour here in Thunder Bay. And I would venture to say that they are the first major band to start a world tour from here (though CSNY kind of formed here…) Talk about running in the opposite direction!

    Here’s hoping it makes the winning difference…

    ~Graham

  36. Really interesting conversation.

    In response to Brian’s post #29–

    In analyzing the question, “Do you get to be a touchstone without being innovative?” As you stated, I think the answer is likely “no.”

    Even if you don’t completely shake up the conventions of a genre by sticking to its existing formula, to be a touchstone you have to be at the top of the genre. And to make it to the top of a genre, you have to “innovate” not the conventions, but the execution–you have to have better processes, better awareness, better vision–and then be able to have the public recognize that excellence in execution.

    Now of course, the danger is if your touchstone genre suddenly becomes irrelevant, what happens to you? You end up like Tommy Lee and the rest of Motley Crue…..

  37. And I thought you were going to be writing about the Celtics…

  38. I have to admit that when I first got into Smells Like Teen Spirit I was hooked. I was just getting into rock at the time and my favorite band was Pearl Jam. The next few albums were great, but then after Kirt Kobain died and the endless talk on all media stations for years killed their music to me. Now I can’t stand to listen to Nirvana anymore.

    Regardless, I see your point. Having your own direction is first mover advantage which is very valuable.

    Google is another example of how they took the idea of search engines and went off in their own direction and crushed the competition.

  39. This is great stuff, I kind of relate it to “timing the market”, in relation to investing. A lot of people do it, yet very rarely are people able to do so consistently.

  40. Plus, Foreplay/It’s Been Such a Long Time is the greatest “start of summer vacation” song ever.

  41. Thanks Brian, I thought it was right on. At least it comforted some of my concerns with what I’m doing right now. I feel this is even more compelling in these days with everyone because so, so-so about the status quo.

  42. Great post Brian. I am new to blogging and am excited to start forging my own direction.

  43. Brian,

    I can remember that Boston debut album…and I remember the first time Nirvana played “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on MTV.

    Boston went on to release one album every 10 years approximately, and each one was a hit…because of differentiation. Just goes to show you don’t have to do what everyone else is doing to get the results YOU want.

  44. I found this article stumbling through your archives and found it to be really interesting. While I’m too young to remember Boston (although I love their music) and barely remember how groundbreaking Nirvana was, I can completely identify with the massive changes they made to the music scene.

    It’s a great example how breaking the mold and doing something different can change things. With the internet developing so quickly and social media making information infinitely available, does that make it harder to make groundbreaking changes in any given industry?

  45. Brian,

    I agree with your statement, “The biggest winners, however, come not from chasing, but from running in a different direction.”

    ** Personally, I call it the “flip it” effect.

    But, I believe before you flip anything or go in a different direction, it’s important to analyze and understand the model in its entirety before you “flip it”.

    For example, if there is a need to create a new solution to a business problem, you need to evaluate the business process (i.e, conventional wisdom or another words how its always been done).

    1. Take the initial view of the process and think horizontally by asking the following questions:

    What, who, why and how is the model affecting the overall goal.

    The face value of the process is what I consider the surface view (i.e. What someone tells you the process does or does not do).

    2. Take the surface information and identify objective vs subjective information.

    3. Take the objective information and bring it down, which will allow you to gain a deeper perspective.

    You will now have to use vertical thinking until you reach the core element. The core element should have a direct effect on a need (i.e. Maslow Theory of need for your customers), and it should be in direct alignment with the overall goal.

    4. You will need to identify if there is a positive or negative effect on the need.

    5. If there is a negative effect use horizontal thinking to identify the complete opposite.

    6. Now, with the right (positive) intentions, you “Flip It”.

    Result: You now have an “As is” and a “To be” model.

    You are not competing; you are creating.

  46. Thank you for encouraging people to take the road less travelled by.

  47. The hard part, if you’re interested in success at that level and looking to be different at the same time, is to completely forget that you’re interested in success at that level. Boston and Nirvana were more focused on being unique and kicking ass. Somehow that wound up translating into monster record sales. A bit of luck, a bit of timing, and, of course, being awesome.

    Nice post, Brian. And I was around for both of these massive waves, so you’re not alone in your advanced age.