The future is unwritten, so make your mark

Rebel’s Wood is a young forest on the Atlantic-facing North West side of the Isle of Skye. Hidden away on the shores of Loch Bracadale is this beautiful woodland of native broad leaf trees, predominantly Birch, Alder, Rowan, Oak and Willow. This healthy young forest is doing well after taking a while to poke their heads above the bracken, due to the slow growing conditions of the far North.

The wood was formed by some 8,000 saplings being planted in 2003 in memory of Joe Strummer, founder and front man of the Clash, who died in 2002 aged 50 from a rare heart condition. Strummer was instrumental in setting up the Future Forests campaign, dedicated to planting trees across the world to combat global warming, so it’s an appropriate commemoration.

Joe Strummer was a pioneering musician. The Clash were one of the great rebel rock bands of all time, fusing a mélange of musical styles, with riotous live performances, and left-wing political activism, that inspired many. Through his songwriting Strummer showed young people his radicalism, defiance, and resistance to social injustice.

After releasing a final album in 1985, the Clash broke up for good, and Strummer went into a personal wilderness for over a decade. Returning with what was to be his final music venture, with a new band, The Mescaleros, Strummer was reborn. Remarkably, his final music displays a steadfast work ethic and creativity, experimentation and innovation in his musicianship.

Strummer and The Mescaleros recorded three innovative albums, which showcase a renewed, vibrant Strummer producing music radically different from his previous work.  More insightful and mature, here is a collection of stunning compositions and poetic, freely associative lyrics concerning a host of global subjects.

On 15 November 2002, Strummer and the Mescaleros played a benefit gig for striking fire fighters in London, at Acton Town Hall. Mick Jones, his former partner in The Clash was in the audience, and in an impromptu act, joined the band on stage to play a few classic Clash tunes. This performance marked the first time since 1983 that Strummer and Jones had performed together. But within three weeks, Strummer was dead.

Strummer made his mark, redefining music, and reaffirming the principles of committed, intelligent political and social commentary and opposition through music. For someone who used his music to galvanize and promote progressive action, his final performance was most fitting.

In three weeks time, on 28 September, a 32-song compilation album titled Joe Strummer 001 will be released, featuring some unheard demos from The Clash, twelve new songs and Strummer’s final recordings. This will be the last time we will hear from Joe Strummer.

Strummer was dynamic, controversial and confrontational. His social conscience, attitude and acerbic, verbal wit in his lyrics, and cutting, humane and distinct voice made him one of the most talismanic musicians we’ve ever seen. He epitomises disruptive creativity. Originality was a trait characterising both the man and musician.

His brutally confessional and outspoken work was a huge influence on subsequent generations of singers, songwriters and social reformers. He made people think, he made me think. In the years since his death, his image has become a staple of T-shirts and posters, used as a symbol of individuality. He had interesting things to say, and was more interested in pushing boundaries than just making commercial music.

Strummer’s ideology of constant innovation and originality in his craft is very rare. His zest and restlessness puts him alongside the names we associate with C21st tech entrepreneurship and innovation, people who’ve built amazing digital services, devices, new business models or social-media platforms. Like them, Strummer wanted to open up fundamental opportunities for humanity, but through his music rather than tech.

Strummer had the entrepreneurial spark that emphasises experimentation and individuality. Cloning produces replicas, not originals. Originality. What does it mean to you? Originality results from the power of imagination, like Picasso and Einstein, Bowie, Jobs and Musk.

It’s up to the individual to take advantage of that imagination and turn it into something great. Imagination leads us to accomplish our greatest achievements. When you dare to be an original, you are in essence daring to be yourself and who you really are. That’s entrepreneurship. It’s true. Life is too short to live it trying to be anything other than your true original self. Be who you are, and be it the best way you know how.

So how do you do this? Here are some thoughts as to what made Strummer the individual, his entrepreneurial dna, and the takeaways we can learn from him, with parallels to the tech innovators who surround us today.

Start small Bootstrapping and learning your craft, with a strong work ethic and determination, will always give you the foundations to make your dream a reality. You have to make a start, make it happen for yourself. Strummer never forgot where it all started for him: I bought a ukulele. No kidding. I saved some money, £1.99 I think, and bought it down Shaftesbury Avenue. Then the guy I was busking with taught me to play Johnny B. Goode. I was on my own for the first time with this ukulele and Johnny B. Goode. And that’s how I started.

Never give up attitude One eminent trait of Strummer is that no matter what the obstacles, he never gave up. He was exceptionally self-driven. Unlike ordinary men, he displayed determination to continue and keep moving forward through all challenges. He had a clear idea of what he wanted and was wholeheartedly driven to do the right thing Persistence is very important. You should not give up unless you are forced to give up.

Aim for the big picture Strummer wanted to be the best, get his voice heard above everyone else. He had something to say. He was ready to take big risks when there were no short-term gains in sight. There was a time when no one believed in him or his music, but this did not dent his self-belief. He just kept going – keep the big vision, take small steps – and then with The Mescaleros he went again, saw success. Nothing is impossible.

In the words of Muhammad Ali, Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they’ve been given than to explore the power they have to change it.

Strummer’s enormous ambition to do what everyone said couldn’t be done far exceeded everyone around him. He was in dispute with his record company for eight years, and released no new music, yet he kept fighting. He aimed for breakthroughs instead of incremental improvements. He always targeted disrupting systems instead of innovating incrementally.

Strummer was audacious, his philosophy reflected in these quotes:

Listen to the voices in your head – what do you mean, you don’t hear voices inside your head, is it just me then? Whatever the voices tell you, trust them and your instinct, and go for it. Trust yourself and your intuition.

Expect a lot from yourself, believe in yourself Don’t let someone else define your agenda, you decide what is possible for you. Dare to believe you can be the best, and make it happen. Embrace challenges and setbacks as defining moments, learn from them, use them as springboards.

Chose your attitude Regardless of appearances, no one escapes life without enduring tough moments and cul-de-sacs. The truth is, life is messy and unpredictable. The difference between those who overcome challenges and those who succumb to them is largely one of attitude.

Build prototypes Joe’s risk-taking and creativity always had a balance between experimentation and implementation. He didn’t just throw caution to the wind. He prototyped and tested many versions of his songs, he re-recorded constantly, always looking for some new and unique angle.

For each finished track, there were about twenty alternate takes in different styles and genres. He practiced each version over and over until something clicked. If after a while, he couldn’t come up with something that met his standards, he dumped it.

He was tirelessly, unflaggingly optimistic Despite all his trials and tribulations, Strummer also had an ace up his sleeve – he had a resolute glass-half-full mentality, ignoring the doubters and naysayers. The secret to his innovation lied in his enthusiasm. If you wake up in the morning and think the future is going to be better, it is a bright day. Otherwise, it’s not.

Alongside Strummer’s thinking, I’ve always held JRR Tolkien’s words in The Hobbit as inspiring about choosing your attitude for personal or business growth:

The greatest adventure is what lies ahead

Today and tomorrow are yet to be said

The chances, the changes are all yours to make

The mold of your life is in your hands to break

The future is unwritten There were moments when Strummer wanted to be left with his thoughts. He liked being alone, he needed time to compute what he had listened to and heard. He once said Thinking is what gets me out of bed in the mornings. But according to his wife Lucinda, it was also his excuse for burning the midnight oil. He would say, ‘I’m thinking, I’m thinking.’ And I would go: ‘No you’re not, you’re just staying up!'”

The future is unwritten is a headline quote just before his death, which captures the essence of Strummer and entrepreneurs, restless, curious individual, never satisfied with the status quo. He continuously sought self-growth, anything he could do to break new ground. This helped him grow as an artist and human being, and further distanced himself from others as being unique. He was an individual, in every sense of the word.

In today’s startup environment, we have to be different to be seen. Don’t be a sheep in wolf’s clothing, or another sheep’s clothing. It’s better to fail in originality than succeed in imitation. Individualism is a human thing. Don’t waste your time trying to be a copycat. Be yourself, stand out from the crowd, because those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind. Go easy, step lightly, stay free.

Directions to Rebel’s Wood – From Dunvegan follow the A836 South for half a mile; turn right onto the B884 and follow for half a mile; turn left to Orbost (signposted) and follow for two miles. Park in the yard and follow on foot the track to Bharcasig (Barabhaig) and continue south to the site.

The future is unwritten: Joe Strummer

Twelve years ago today, the legendary frontman of The Clash, Joe Strummer, died suddenly from an undiagnosed heart defect at his home in Somerset, sat on the sofa after taking his dogs for a walk, aged 50. He was always the one for me.

The first time I heard White Man in Hammersmith Palais when I was 16, it totally resonated with me, and the moment and the tune has stuck in the turntable in my head for the next 36 years. His voice wasn’t just angry, it was vulnerable and hurt. When he died, I didn’t play Joe’s music for a while afterwards because it meant having to confront the fact that he was dead. It’s amazing the influence music and musicians have on you.

Joe Strummer was born on August 21, 1952 in Ankara, Turkey, named John Graham Mellor, the son of a British diplomat. He grew up in several countries before settling in London, attending London’s Central School Of Art and immersing himself in films, music, and literature. Rock music became his consuming passion, and he changed his name in the mid ‘70s to reflect his new lifestyle. In 1976, his 101’ers band propelled him into the punk rock scene, and later that year he co-founded The Clash.

The Clash’s song writing collaboration between Joe Strummer and Mick Jones is often compared to the chemistry between legendary duos such as Lennon and McCartney, and Jagger and Richards. The pair wrote songs about political and social injustice, cultural apathy, repression, and militarism. As front man, writer and motivational force behind The Clash, Strummer and his band became one of the most influential, expansive and enduring groups in the UK in the late 70s and early 80s.

In January 1977, The Clash signed with CBS Records and recorded their self-titled first album. Rolling Stone magazine called their first record the ‘definitive punk album.’ Three years later, the Clash’s London Calling album was voted Best Album of the 1980s by Rolling Stone magazine. Also released in 1980 was the band’s fourth studio album, the epic triple album Sandinista!. In support of the album, The Clash went on a tour that included a historic 17 consecutive date stint at Bond’s International venue, in Time’s Square, NYC.

After the 1982 album Combat Rock, friction and feuding increased within the group and in 1983, Strummer fired band mate Mick Jones. For Strummer the band, and the 10-record deal with CBS became a prison sentence. Relationships with the record company were strained, which led to promotion problems and poor sales. After six albums, The Clash broke up in 1986.

After the split, Strummer went on to write and contribute to film soundtracks, most notably for the 1997 film Grosse Pointe Blank which starred long-time fan, John Cusack. Having worked on a number of soundtracks, he released his first solo album, Earthquake Weather, in 1989. During the 1990s, Strummer formed The Mescaleros. They signed with Mercury Records and released an album called Rock Art and the X-Ray Style.

In 2001, the group signed with Hellcat Records, a punk label from California, and released the band’s second album, Global A Go-Go. The band toured and garnered a devoted following of both old and new fans. His final album Streetcore was released posthumously. The Clash were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2003.

After his death, his family and friends created the Strummerville Foundation for the promotion of new music. Besides influencing countless rock and punk bands that followed The Clash, another legacy Strummer left behind is Future Forests, an organisation dedicated to fighting global warming by planting trees.

You start to feel old when your heroes begin to die, albeit there may be some contradiction involved in speaking of heroism. It’s a term freighted with overtones of nobility and authority. But for a whole generation of us, Joe Strummer was a hero.

It’s December 1979. I’m seventeen years old. One of the lads brings London Calling to school. The cover of the album shows a black and white photo of a man smashing his guitar. I am an impressionable teen, and the image is powerful, even strangely beautiful. But two disks’ worth of smashing guitars? I am dubious. It’s mine to borrow overnight

Dropping the needle on the first track…London Calling, which gives the album its title, it is immediately evident that these guys can play. The riffs are catchy, the tone somehow menacing. This record will not leave my turntable for the next few months.

Strummer – it seems like an appropriate name for a guitar player, although his pick usually hits the strings with a staccato regularity of a jackhammer. Watch his left leg, it thumps out the rhythm and beat with genuine force. Strummer bashes out an urgent message with no time to spare. The lyrics were explicit about how much capitalism was banking on people remaining passive. In time, the band collapsed from the usual strains of touring, ego, drug use.

His last incarnation with The Mescaleros was not just a retread of old sounds, but a rich blend of more kinds of musical influence than you can pick out, even after several listenings. The lyrics aren’t as militant as his earlier work, he sounded more wistful and romantic than in his Clash days.

So, how to remember Joe Strummer? It’s a question being asked around the world, as the twelfth anniversary of his untimely death passes. The John Lennon of his generation, his sloganeering lyrics, fuelled by anger, idealism and the call for justice and unity, empowered the social consciences of countless thousands. Reflecting on his personality, his voice, his actions and his personal values, what can we take from Strummer the individual and the musician, into our business thinking?

Stand for something, and be true to your purpose Strummer did whatever he wanted but had a clear sense of purpose. He was shaped by deeply held personal and passionate values and remained true to them, quickly finding out that there are millions of people who shared those same values. Like a musician, put a tone of voice into your content marketing and stamp it with your personality. When your customers (fans) realise that they could miss out on something unique and special they won’t want to miss it.

Being different matters more than being better Joe became successful because he was different. We had never seen anything like him before, he grabbed our attention. Rock stars have proven for years that being different – and getting noticed because of it – is more important than quality of music. Be different, stand out from the crowd. When opportunities don’t present themselves in a timely manner take calculated risks.

Be an experience A Clash concert wasn’t about the music, it was the experience. Likewise great brands don’t sell products, they sell experiences which we buy into. Give your customers a really cool experience instead of pitching them another product. Fan conversations about experiences happen, use them to create word of mouth and referral marketing. Create opportunities for your fans/customers to get together and have fun.

Turn up the volume Can you hear us at the back? Make sure you connect with your customers. Music sells the album, t-shirts and the concert tickets. Like music, content does not always have to ask for the order, just consistently keep everyone in a ready-to-act state. Tell your followers and customers what you’re doing by delivering relevant content delivered in relevant ways.

Classic fans know your band; new audiences want your hits. Communicate your business legacy and future value through targeted channels and voices. New music keeps fans coming back for more, always generating new and fresh products to keep people engaged with your brand, but treat existing and new customers differently. Don’t just deliver content, engage your audience with it.

Ensure your band always has an inspired front man When your business leadership requires you to replace founding members with energetic new blood, put your business’s needs ahead of its past. For The Clash, the focus was on Joe Strummer, a frontman with tremendous charisma but also, paradoxically, with a tremendous amount of humility.

Don’t just copy songs Even if it’s just a chord sequence or a riff, take it and make something else. Just copying something is no good, unless you want to just be in a tribute band. It’s vital to keep playing around and pushing yourself in business, create your own product. Don’t be afraid to build a business or revenue model that plays to your strengths, even if it’s non-conventional.

Be a brand, with an image. If you plan on getting noticed, establishing a brand promise, and creating an image is vital. John Pasche designed the ‘tongue and lips’ logo for The Rolling Stones in 1971, originally reproduced on the Sticky Fingers album. It is one of the first and most successful cases of rock brand marketing. Strummer and The Clash had their own style and image too – what’s your business logo or icon?

What do you write when one of your heroes bites the dust? Today, 22 December 2014, is the twelfth anniversary of the death of Joe Strummer, and for me, it’s a sad day. It’s enough to make you go out and get a tattoo. My little sister had Diana, Princess of Wales; I had Strummer and the Clash. If you grew up with the Clash you knew exactly what they stood for and Strummer was an icon, a voice with attitude and intelligence.

Being Joe Strummer meant turning rebellion into meaning. He hit a chord in my youth that has never stopped humming. Strummer was the key that opened the door for me out of teenage apathy, giving me more inspiration than any teachers could. Strummer was everything a rebel rock star should really be. People believed in him, and he inspired all from soldiers to newsreaders to miners to students. Strummer had integrity, romance, looked great and was a brilliant sloganeer. Throw in a great soul of humanity and, most importantly, musicianship.

People say you should never meet your heroes but I did three times and he never let me down. To meet Joe was to meet a man with a teenager’s passion and an old blues singer’s pain. He had to carry the knowledge that he had created truly great music at a great time and then confined it to history. Strummer spoke passionately about his beliefs – be they endangered gorillas, trees or Nicaraguan street kids. He was also a great leveller – if you met someone who liked the Clash, they were alright.

It’s Christmas 2014, the offices are empty and Strummer is dead. All around the world, people are putting on Clash songs today in tribute as they remember Joe Strummer lives forever, and the future is unwritten.

 

The future is unwritten: go out and make it happen

Today, The Clash release Sound System a twelve disc box set featuring their five studio albums re-mastered on eight discs with an additional three discs featuring demos, non-album singles, rarities and B-sides, plus DVDs and a host of other media stuff. Their story and output, as told in the words, music and iconography of Sound System, remains one of the most important signposts of my formative years.

For five years, The Clash’s lyrics, politicised and bristling with social conscience, had a far-reaching and ultimately enduring influence. The Clash caught my ear and imagination, their mixture of politics and music shaped my beliefs and tastes. Their musical experimentation and rebellious attitude was utterly inspirational and positive.

The Clash fell apart in 1986. Joe Strummer’s sudden death from a congenital heart defect in December 2002 ended any possibility of a reunion and ruined my Christmas that year. Some 30 years on, I can still shout-a-long virtually word perfect to all their song. I can even do the crowd part on the live albums.

Mick Jones says this is the final word on the work of the band. This is the end, there will be no more. He’s spent three years creating this ‘do-it-yourself’ mammoth retrospective, an echo of the exhortation proffered to their fans more than 35 years ago that you can write your own music, your own story, you can do it for yourself. On the box it says Made by the Clash. That says it all.

For me, there remains a sense of urgency and anarchic inventiveness in their songs that roots them in the great musical moments of the late C20th. The songs more than stand the test of time, Complete Control, (White Man) In Hammersmith Palais, Stay Free and Train in Vain remind you that music should speak to the politics, opinions and issues of society.

The Clash had an identity and brand, a total artwork of clothing, painting, sleeve design mixed with charged live shows, sharply produced records, strong melodies, and a humanistic, charismatic front man in Joe Strummer which combined to create an iconic band. To be sure there were follies and inconsistencies, but the proof is in the music and messages in their lyrics, broadcasted, loud and clear, left a sound that still resonates. This is Radio Clash!

As Sound System is a symbolic landmark and final chapter in the story of The Clash, it comes five months after the 10th anniversary of iTunes. A decade of the iTunes era of music, although Apple did not invent digital music, iTunes embodies C21st music. In just 10 years, it has become the world’s top music retailer with users currently downloading 15,000 songs per minute from the App’s library of 26 million songs.

Technical disruption in the music industry began with the CD. The CD allowed track shuffling and eventually ripping and burning – music labels have looked back regretfully on the release of unsecured music discs as a hindsight-is-20/20 moment which opened the floodgates to new consumer behaviours and demands.

However, it was the evolutionary leap of MP3 in 1990s that marks the start of the digital music era. The MP3 compressed audio files making file transfers feasible in the low-bandwidth early web. When Apple launched iTunes and the iPod, digital music was a frontier being fought by pioneers where illegal peer-to-peer (P2P) file-sharing was rampant.

With the advent of Napster, the demand for MP3 music was met, but in 1999 the company lost its legal challenges, and shut down in 2001. Enter Apple, and the iTunes Music Store sold 1 million downloads in the first week, and the next month Apple sold its 1 millionth iPod. The ecosystem was up and running.

For the digitally progressive music customer, iTunes offered a coherent, digital marketplace that was reminiscent of a record shop. The model was a refreshing hybrid of newness and familiarity. Pricing was attractive and unchanging: £10 for an album, 99p for a track, no retail shenanigans. The perceived value of music was reset.

Perhaps the most important feature for iTunes customers was the dismantling of albums. In the CD-era, consumers had to purchase a 12-song disc to acquire five tracks they liked. Finally, the iTunes model worked for consumers.

Looking into the next 10 years, iTunes faces challenges to its dominance with the emergence of streaming as a newly popular type of music consumption. The rise of Pandora and Spotify, https://www.spotify.com have driven interactive listening to parity with downloading. Apple’s iRadio launch signals their recognition that the era of post-iTunes is more complicated.

Streaming gives you access to all the recorded music in the world, on the go, stored in a cache on your phone and synchronised. It’s stunning, a powerful consumer-focused marketplace, sound tracking one’s life at an extremely low cost. Between the listening platforms and musician hangouts like SoundCloud, https://soundcloud.com/ the entire library of recorded music is accessible.

Mobile music has been important since the Sony Walkman. Today customisation is important, enabling the creation of playlists. Listening to music on-the-go has become entwined with social sharing and ‘lifecasting’. As a result, the digital music manifesto in 2013 reads: everything, cheap, customizable, everywhere. With all these wide-open listening platforms, the definition of music ownership seems to be changing too. We are leaning toward a world in which universal access is the new ownership – the ‘celestial jukebox’ – where convenience and ubiquity is key.

It’s a new market dynamic for the supply side: iTunes represents download stores that take a cut of every song or album sold; streaming sites like Spotify pay artists small royalties when their songs are streamed; then there are digital enablers like TuneCore, http://www.tunecore.com and other so-called aggregators, which charge fees for placing an artist’s tracks in all the online stores and streaming services.

However, distribution into digital channels creates a cacophony of market noise, making it harder for any artist to be heard. A songwriter can pick up a guitar, record a few songs in her bedroom and see them in the world’s largest record stores the next day. Musicians have tremendous access to audiences, but they might not have leverage in the new marketplace – it’s still all about marketing.

Besides the disruptions to the traditional business model, a fundamental mind-shift is also emerging. Many musicians are re-thinking the product. ‘Product’ in music meant a discrete unit – a CD or a track. The unit is either shipped on a disc or downloaded. The alternative is thinking of music as a service, just as consumers do.

There is almost unlimited digitally fuelled competition for ears and pennies. For musicians, buskers or professionals, it has never been easy to turn tunes into cash. Social media enables direct-to-fan relationships, but the double-edged sword of technology is the mass-market noise reverberating in the digital marketplace.

You have to shout loud and spend lots to be heard. There are only so many iTunes/Starbucks ‘free track of the week’ cards to go around, so what would The Clash do if they were starting out in today’s marketplace? What are the key marketing strategies to adopt, and messages you can take into your business from today’s music industry?

Stand for something, and be true to your purpose The Clash did whatever they wanted, great bands have that sense of purpose. They have a set of values and they remain true to them, quickly finding out that there are millions of people who share those same values. Like a band, put some voice in your content marketing and stamp it with your personality. When your fans/customers realise that they could miss out on something unique and special they won’t want to miss it.

Being different matters more than being better The Clash became successful because they were different. We had never seen anything like them before, they grabbed our attention. Rock stars have proven for years that being different – and getting noticed because of it – is more important than quality of music. Be different, stand out from the crowd. When opportunities don’t present themselves in a timely manner take calculated risks.

Be an experience A Clash concert wasn’t about the music, it was the experience. Likewise great brands don’t sell products, they sell experiences which we buy into. Give your customers a really cool experience instead of pitching them another product. Fan conversations about experiences happen, use them to create word of mouth and referral marketing. Create opportunities for your fans/customers to get together and have fun.

Turn up the volume Can you hear us at the back? Make sure you connect with your customers. Music sells the album, t-shirts and the concert tickets. Like music, content does not always have to ask for the order, just consistently keep everyone in a ready-to-act state. Tell your followers and customers what you’re doing by delivering relevant content delivered in relevant ways.

Classic fans know your band; new audiences want your hits. Communicate your business legacy and future value through targeted channels and voices. New music keeps fans coming back for more. Always generate new and fresh products to keep people engaged with your brand, but treat existing and new customers differently. Don’t just deliver content, engage your audience with it.

Ensure your band always has an inspired front man When your business leadership requires you to replace founding members with energetic new blood, put your business’s needs ahead of its past. For The Clash, the focus was on Joe Strummer, a frontman with tremendous charisma but also, paradoxically, with a tremendous amount of humility.

Don’t just copy songs Even if it’s just a chord sequence or a riff, take it and make something else. Just copying something is no good, unless you want to just be in a tribute band. It’s vital to keep playing around and pushing yourself in business, create your own product. Don’t be afraid to build a business or revenue model that plays to your strengths, even if it’s non-conventional.

Be a brand, with an image. If you plan on getting noticed, establishing a brand promise, and creating an image is vital. John Pasche designed the ‘tongue and lips’ logo for The Rolling Stones in 1971, originally reproduced on the Sticky Fingers album. It is one of the first and most successful cases of rock brand marketing. What’s your business logo or icon?

Box sets like Sound System are designed to enshrine an artist in the amber glow of posterity. Vibrant retrospectives of digitally remastered content show the artist has transcended their time and that they can now be appreciated outside of the context of their era. Recordings from the past sit comfortably with tunes from the present. In business terms, it’s where nostalgia meets innovation at the junction of deliberate disruption.

The music marketplace reflects similar patterns of dislocation in many business sectors, and it’s how agile you are in your response that counts. Your future starts today, not tomorrow. As Joe Strummer said: Your future is unwritten, go out and make some noise, go out and make a difference, go out and make it happen.

Being Joe Strummer – The future is unwritten

What do you write when one of your heroes bites the dust? Today, 22 December 2011, is the ninth anniversary of the death of Joe Strummer, and for me it’s a day filled with wistful memories of my (fading) youth, and at the same time happy memories that make me smile of being at some amazing concerts, and the legacy of some fantastic tunes that I’ve been singing along to for over 30 years. Still out of tune I might add. My little sister had Diana, Princess of Wales; I had Strummer and the Clash. If you grew up with the Clash you knew exactly what they stood for. He was also a great leveler – if you met someone who liked the Clash, they were all right. Strummer was an icon, a voice with attitude and intelligence.

Strummer was the key that opened the door for me about what was out there in my later, formative teenage years, giving me more inspiration than any teachers could, apart from Mr Evans my Maths teacher who I think did more for my mathematical inspiration than Isaac Newton, although the 1-2-3-4 intro to some Clash songs showed progress towards a Fibonacci series…

Strummer was everything a rebel rock star should really be. People believed in him, he inspired all from soldiers to newsreaders to miners to the unemployed. Strummer had integrity, was articulate whilst being angry, a brilliant sloganeer, and most importantly, a great soul of humanity. His restless musical curiosity gave the lie to the caricatured image of punk as a mindless two-chord thrash, while his acute lyrics set a benchmark for song-writing that tackled political and social themes. Live fast, die young – and he did.

We all have our heroes and icons, people who influenced us, shaped our thinking, stirred our passions. I have a relatively simple definition of heroes and role models: they are people you look up to and aspire to be like because of what they have accomplished, what they stand for, and how they’ve articulated themselves. Mostly, they inspire you to live life better.

There’s no question that Strummer was an explosive live performer and a great songwriter, but he is equally remembered for inspiring a generation to try to make a difference through music. He played as if the world could be changed by a three-minute song, and when I first saw the Clash play aged 16, my world was changed forever. Over the next few years, this was it, and in the first weeks of being away from home at University, seeing the Clash play at Sheffield Lyceum, October 1981 as a first year student, this was my world! His idealism and conviction instilled in me the courage to try to make a difference. This was what I wanted. Joe Strummer was my greatest inspiration, my favorite singer of all time and my hero. He sang, he played and he didn’t stop. He’s someone to be admired. We all took a little bit of Joe from those that saw him.

I think everyone should have a hero in life. Someone you aspire to be like, who you look up to. Having a hero is a good motivator because not only does it push you to keep a high standard to your own actions but also when you feel dispirited you can ask yourself how your hero would respond. Having a hero will keep you on the right course when you’re unsure of what to do, motivate you to perform at your peak and will be a source of strength when you need it.

But let’s step back a little. This isn’t a eulogy to the memory of a hero born out of some teenage angst, rather about a man who lifted my head when my head was pretty empty of knowledge and experience, who gave me social and political conscience and an attitude born from anger, frustration, a catalyst to doing something different and doing it for myself. It isn’t hero worship, and he certainly isn’t a role model I’ve carried a torch for. A hero is not a role model.

Role models are intimately connected to our experience, whereas heroes may serve as vicarious images. Role models usually fulfill our needs, whereas heroes may be a disappointment when they fall from grace. Role models are not an extension of who we are, whereas heroes may be tied to an illusion that we have about reality. You rarely hear about role models, but heroes receive a great deal of attention. From a personal development perspective regarding business, I prefer to look for role models for spiritual and psychological growth as I find they assist me in building confidence and character, and stimulate my thinking.

While I only have one hero, I find role models everywhere. They are people who exhibit some characteristic I admire and try to emulate. Thus I think it’s possible to have many different role models, each excelling in a different field.

When things get tough, I look to Ernest Shackleton, the Antarctic explorer, who was known for his leadership, positive attitude and stamina. No matter how many setbacks got in his way, and no matter how exhausted everyone else in his expedition team was, Shackleton would still be out there leading from the front. So every time I feel myself flagging I think about this great man and find a burst of energy and renewed commitment.

A business role model I have is the company 37 Signals, a web applications development company based in Chicago, founded in 1998 – check out their website http://37signals.com/ I admire their business attitude and philosophy as set down in two very readable books by founders Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson Getting Real and ReWork.  Like Strummer, they have confidence and attitude that there is a different way, and provide motivational insights throughout their writing. For example, whenever I’m feeling boxed in or hitting barriers, I recall these words regarding embracing constraints:

Let limitations guide you to creative solutions. There’s never enough to go around. Not enough time. Not enough money. Not enough people. That’s a good thing. Instead of freaking out about these constraints, embrace them. Let them guide you. Constraints drive innovation and force focus. Instead of trying to remove them, use them to your advantage.

There are a few other gems in the books too:

  • What you need to do is stop talking and start working.
  • Success is the experience that actually counts.
  • Be a starter. The most important thing is to begin.
  • Decisions are progress. Commit to making decisions. Don’t wait for the perfect solution. Decide and move forward.
  • Don’t make things worse by over-analysing and delaying before you even get going. Get it out there
  • The best way to get there is through iterations. Stop imagining what’s going to work. Find out for real.
  • It’s OK if it’s not perfect. You might not seem as professional, but you will seem a lot more genuine.
  • What does 5 years experience mean anyway? How long someone’s been doing it is overrated. What matters is how well they’ve been doing it.
  • Inspiration expires now. Inspiration is a magical thing, a productivity multiplier, a motivator. But it won’t wait for you.

I think that it is important to make a distinction between the heroic figures that we value and the role models that have impacted our lives. People tend to idealise their heroes and believe that they live in a world of perfection. Who can forget the candle light vigils that marked the death of John Lennon? Admire your heroes, don’t worship them.

Outside the boardrooms of Sony and EMI, there are those of us who look to music to remind us that we’re not alone, to help us make sense of a changing world, and to inspire us to believe that we can change anything if we want to. Joe Strummer’s music changed lives, and we should not forget the truly incendiary power that music can have. His intensity focused the music into something whole, and wholly his. Asked to explain what The Mescaleros, his last band, play in the song Bhindi Bhagee he said It’s got a bit of … um y’know Ragga bhangra, two-step tango, Mini-cab radio, music on the go! Umm, surfbeat, backbeat, frontbeat, backseat. There’s a bunch of players and they’re really letting go! – which of course is just what 37 Signals are doing in their own way, and we should all do with our lives.

Joe Strummer remained sincere and passionate, always has a cause to fight for – his last gig was a benefit gig for the striking fireman in London. In the audience was Mick Jones, his partner from the The Clash. Mick got onstage and they played a couple of the old tunes together for the first time in 20 years. Strummer died two weeks later. How poignant was that night. He fought against the injustices of the world, and strove to push himself forward artistically, but he will be remembered above all for the band that was loved by so many, The Clash, with his hoarse, bawling voice and choppy rhythm guitar he gave it his all, and thereby inspired a whole generation. He is sorely missed, but his music will continue to inspire.

It’s Christmas 2011, the offices and buses are empty, people are at home and Strummer is dead. All around the world, people aged between 40 and 60 are putting on Clash songs today in tribute. He said the future is unwritten,  so let’s do it, and make sure Joe Strummer lives forever.