Startups 1-2-3-4 Go!

The Clash, the eponymous self-titled debut album by The Clash, was released 40 years ago last week, on 8 April 1977. How time passes by. It is widely celebrated as one of the greatest punk albums of all time, and one of the best debut albums. It was a record that made you sit up and take notice. It set the template for punk with its sharp shock songs full of passion and angry lyrics that were snapshots of the UK’s decay at the time.

The songs are short and intense, the speed-freaked brain of punk set to the tinniest, most frantic guitars trapped on vinyl. Rich in social commentary, attacking the fraught political and economic climate at the time, the collection of fifteen songs was unusually musically varied for a punk band, with reggae and early rock and roll influences plainly evident.

Despite all the hoopla over the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, a generation of disenfranchised, angry youth faced a grim reality of a dystopian future. In the latter 1970s, punk was the soundtrack for this alienated rage, an anti-establishment outreach of raucous, haywire impulses. Yet it remains timelessly inspiring. If you’ve never listened to this album, put it on your 100 albums to listen to before I go to heaven list.

Like a business startup, the Clash had raw energy, raw ideas and an attitude to take everything and everyone on. The classic line up which emerged from the creative tension of forming a band – Strummer-Jones-Simonon-Headon – made their mark. Each member brought a different influence, whether it was Joe’s folk lyricism, Mick’s rock adulation, Paul’s Brixton-born reggae, or Topper’s driving percussion, what you got was a unique blend.

Most of the first album was conceived on the 18th floor of a council high rise on London’s Harrow Road, in a flat rented by co-founder Mick Jones’ grandmother, who frequently went to see their live concerts. The songs were written over a twelve-day period, three four-day sessions Thursday-to-Sunday, beginning 10 February 1977, and recorded over three consecutive weekends at a cost of £3k.

The cover artwork was designed by Polish artist Rosław Szaybo, the album’s front cover photo, shot by Kate Simon, taken in the alleyway opposite the front door of the band’s ‘Rehearsal Rehearsals’ building in Camden Market. The picture of the charging police on the rear cover, shot by Rocco Macauly, was taken during the August 1976 riot at the Notting Hill Carnival – the inspiration for the track White Riot, their debut single.

The Clash wanted a riot of their own, and so they created one, not in the streets with bricks and bottles but on stage and in the studio with guitars and words. It may be an old fashioned thought now that a record can change the world, but it did and still stands up to this day as a brilliant document of the turbulent times, a luminous and revolutionary record.

I bought the record (one of those shiny vinyl things) and still have it close to hand to this day. It’s battered and scratched, the sleeve torn and frayed, but it’s a key part of my personal social history, but history relevant to now some 40 years on.

It was a platform to challenge prejudice, both without and within, that we could dance to, or jump about to. The first thing I ever liked about The Clash before I had even heard a tune was their name. In those heady days of mid-teens at parties of school mates, The Clash’s debut album was played over and over again. I recall one in particular as we all pogoed in the front room, every word to every song was sung as if our lives depended on it. The neighbours called the police because of the noise. This was a band capturing the moment. So were we.

Today, The Clash, their story and output, remains one of the most important signposts of my formative years. For five years, their lyrics, politicised and bristling with social conscience, had a far-reaching and ultimately enduring influence. They 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. 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, reminding you that music should speak to the politics, opinions and issues of society of the day.

So, I must admit, I still harbour a bit of attitude when it comes to Joe Strummer and company. A debut album like a stick of dynamite, it had heart and soul. I immediately got their vibe and saw their potential to speak to people. If you were lucky enough to see them, I don’t think you ever forgot it.

As I get older, it’s hard to separate songs from the memories we associate with them. People and places we used to know suddenly come rushing back with tremendous clarity after just a flurry of notes and words sung by a familiar voice you hear on the radio.

You don’t hear The Clash on the radio these days, but I can’t really tell you how much it meant to me back in 1977. I had a tear in my eye then, and I do now thinking about it. Everybody would sing along, loud. Those guys were a huge influence. It’s about appropriating anger. It’s what we should be doing. And suddenly (except for perhaps a bit of knew-joint pain and a few locks of grey hair) it’s as if no time has passed at all.

Fast forward, this first album remains an echo of the exhortation created more than 40 years ago. It speaks to entrepreneurs that you can write your own music, your own story, you can do it for yourself. On their record sleeves they printed: ‘Made by the Clash’. That says it all. Frustrated entrepreneurs, doing it for themselves.

Today, 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 and make a living. Social media enables direct-to-fan relationships, but the double-edged sword of technology is the mass-market digital noise reverberating from iTunes to Spotify to Soundcloud, where new bands can’t compete due to the social marketing voice and reach of the established artists.

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 are the strategy lessons from The Clash for startups today, to get yourself noticed as a new business in a crowded, market place as a newcomer?

Stand for something, 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 earlier advocates realise that they could miss out on something unique and special, they won’t want to miss it, and will in fact share 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 at the outset. It’s like building an MVP – be different, stand out from the crowd, offer something different. When opportunities don’t present themselves in a timely manner take calculated risks – pivot.

Be an experience A Clash concert wasn’t just about the music, it was the experience. Likewise great startups like Uber and Airbnb don’t simply sell products, they sell experiences which add value, and we buy into. Give your customers a really great, memorable experience instead of pitching them another me2 product. Social media is a force because it enables connectivity and community, conversations about experiences happen, creating word of mouth and referral marketing. Create opportunities for your customers to connect and share their experience.

Turn up the volume Can you hear us at the back? The Clash were loud. I mean loud, really loud. Their records were meant to be played so everyone down the street could hear it. Well, I thought so. Music sells the album, t-shirts and the concert tickets. Like music, your product content does not always have to ask for the order, just consistently keep everyone in a ready-to-act state. Be bold, and tell your followers and customers what you’re doing by delivering relevant content delivered in relevant ways.

Established customer know your history, 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 repeated content, engage your audience with innovation and create new reasons for people to come back to you.

Ensure your band has an inspired front man When your business leadership requires you to replace founding members with energetic new blood, put your business’s values in front for all to see. For The Clash, the focus was on Joe Strummer, a frontman with tremendous charisma but also, paradoxically, with a tremendous amount of humility. What do you stand for as a leader? Make it part of your brand.

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 an original, not a replica.

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. Is your business logo iconic and noticeable?

Harness nostalgia with innovation Great music enshrines an artist with the amber glow of posterity. Today, 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 your moments from the past meet today’s innovation, you have to leverage the past whilst also pushing the future to stay current.

So that was The Clash in 1977. A new generation raised its voice. Loud, clear, fast, innovative and straight in the face of the establishment. And forty years later this knockout record still sounds furious and roars mighty and still inspires. The restless heart and honest soul of one of the few bands that mattered will never vanish.

Make your startup like The Clash, with positive attitudes and energy, belief that you can achieve something new and spectacular. This mindset and behaviour enthuses and influences others around you as to the possibilities that you have envisaged.

Ensure your startup has the vitality, focus and aims to make a difference. Life’s too short to go unnoticed, be audacious. Life is all about progression from good to great. Push yourself to be there. Make some noise – 1-2-3-4 Go!

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.