Radiohead released their ninth album, A Moon Shaped Pool last week, an eleven track gem. As with each of the previous eight albums, it makes a statement about their musical influences and direction. Each has marked a dramatic evolution in their style, as they incorporated influences from experimental electronic music, expansive sounds, themes of modern alienation and C20th classical.
Nine albums in, 30 years together as a band, how do you keep your product innovation and keep pushing the ambition? What can we learn from Radiohead in terms of their business model, thinking and attitude from an entrepreneurial perspective?
Radiohead is an English band formed in Oxford in 1985 by five school friends. Initially the band were called On a Friday, the name referring to the band’s usual rehearsal day in the school’s music room. In late 1991, after a chance meeting between band member Colin Greenwood and EMI’s A&R representative at Our Price, the record shop where Greenwood worked, they signed a six-album recording contract with EMI.
At the request of EMI, the band changed their name – Radiohead was taken from the song Radio Head on the Talking Heads album, True Stories. However, the strongest influence came from the Pixies, the great but never world-famous Boston band whose gritty, brainy songs, shaded soft and loud, and also inspired Nirvana.
Since their formation, Radiohead have been lyrically and musically spearheaded by Thom Yorke, the essential spark of the band. Yorke’s somnambulant ramblings, individualistic performances cutting a strangely solitary figure make him look like a man in the throes of a tortuous titanic confidence crisis. It’s all there in the songs, spooked, soul-baring millennial masterpieces. Yorke’s vocals trail through those atmospherics most pleasantly.
Radiohead are in many ways the Rolling Stones of Gen Y but without the ostentatious commerciality driven by the marketing machine of an SME. They are a serious band that make serious music. At some point in the early C21st Radiohead became something more than a band, they became a touchstone for adventurous music with meaning.
Yet you have to actively listen to the music and the lyrics, they have meaning. Just like Joy Division, they are seen by many as morose, gloomy harbingers of doom and introspective sensibilities, purporting monochrome view of the world. Not everyone’s cup of tea but for me there are toe tapping and sing-a-long moments a plenty. Something about Radiohead inspires a disorienting kind of hope.
So, A Moon Shaped Pool. It is, you’ll be unsurprised to learn, not an album for moments of shared joy and carefree abandon, easy listening music. Unless you didn’t get around to sleeping last night, there are other albums you will probably prefer to play in the daytime. Like much of the Radiohead back catalogue, it’s a record that seems better suited to the soft unknowable recesses of the human brain.
For me, A Moon Shaped Pool is attractively moody, and with what seems like a lighter hand than sometimes in the past. Or that could just be me. Put them on. I’ll nod along. And even if I nod off instead, it will be with a smile. The album is slower and softer than any of their previous work as opposed to the dark brooding Radiohead sound.
So I kept listening to Radiohead. They make me curious about the process of creating music. They seem to be interested in trying to attempt something more ambitious each time a new release is issued.
We all like music for different reasons – tunes, lyrics, live gigs etc., but for me Radiohead articulate a sentiment and voice that has something to say that resonates, be it political, a perspective on social conscience or simply a point of view, the nagging suspicion that some fundamental stuff needs shouting about and that someone else, somewhere else, needed help and that society should be doing do more. I guess it’s C21st protest music.
So what lessons can entrepreneurs learn from a band that has remained in existence for a long time and continues to thrive, carving out an audience from paying customers for music and concert ticket sales, at a time when the music industry has been disrupted by digital like no other? Here are some of the best values of entrepreneurship and disruptive innovation that I see from Radiohead.
Passion – do it because you love doing it Thom Yorke wasn’t thinking of building a global brand and business when he started playing guitar. He did it simply because he loved it, he had talent and gave it a go. Musicians often say they play for themselves first and that it is a choice by which they can earn a living. This is a very basic principle that is common to successful entrepreneurs everywhere.
Put in 10,000 hours before you expect to make a difference Malcolm Gladwell talks about the 10,000-hour rule in his book Outliers. He states that to be good at anything, you have to put in 10,000 hours of practice to hone your skills. Radiohead were gigging for seven years before they released their first record; in business you have to craft and refine your offering before customers notice.
The truth is though, Radiohead are perfectionists. They’re ingenious, wonderful musicians, and they really put the hours in, so much so, that Thom Yorke often complains of how physically draining it is making a record with them. That commitment is driven by inspiration by determination by hunger. That’s what we’re all after to make our business different.
Open mindedness Radiohead’s work has always drawn from a diverse range of influences. Their uniqueness is the product of constant change and combining existing elements in new ways, producing something entirely their own, with a prowess for innovation, throwing stuff together randomly to discover new combinations and possibilities. This ability to create genuine uniqueness is a key trait of an entrepreneur.
Each member of the band has undertaken a series of independent, solo projects, collaborating with a range of artists. This builds a sense of both free-spirit and freedom yet unity, free thinkers who then regroup to do something together that is better having had time to breath and explore individually.
Restlessness & reinvention Radiohead has never succumbed to the stick-to-a-formula mantra, each release has emerged with something completely new and unexpected. Not all of his experiments have worked, but this willingness to try out new ideas, knowing that not all will triumph, is a trait every innovator needs.
In 2007, when CD sales were taking a major hit due to illegal downloads, they offered their seventh album, In Rainbows, as a download directly from their website, avoiding all the middlemen, and let fans choose what they wanted to pay, including the option of nothing. About one third did choose the free option, but the average donation for the two months this offer was available was $8.00. It turned into a huge financial success.
Novelty Their passion for novelty and spirit of experimentation is a constant presence in their music, imagery and style, even when if it is critically maligned.
Radiohead has built a loyal base of fans that follow and support them. They nurture and cultivate their audience through innovative online marketing – check http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2014/feb/11/radiohead-polyfauna-app-iphone-ipad-android Paying attention to your customers is the essence of any business.
Build IP If you are an entrepreneur or aspiring musician, you have made the decision, whether overtly or not, that you are someone that wants to make a mark on the world you live in, live by your own rules and create your own structure. Your innovations and intellectual property are your lifeblood. Radiohead are shrewd and carefully manage their IP, the copyright to their songs and music is the greatest revenue earner from licensing.
They’ve worked without a record deal since leaving EMI in 2003, in an effort to ‘get out of the comfort zone’, and maintain their independence. They must be the best unsigned band in the world. Their last three albums have been released by independent label XL Recordings.
A clear dividing line between important work and busywork Before there was email, there were letters. It amazes me to see the amount of time some of our greatest historical writers committed to their letters. Many would divide the day into real work (such as composing or painting in the morning) and busywork (answering letters in the afternoon). Others would turn to the busywork when the real work wasn’t going well. Ernest Hemingway always tracked his daily word output on a chart ‘so as not to kid myself’, but left dedicated time for letter writing.
Radiohead are not productive – nine albums in twenty three years, two in the last decade and five years since the last for A Moon Shaped Pool. That to me says everything about busy work, and important work.
Staying relevant by creating your own future Musical tastes change, new artists emerge – your market can move in a new, unexpected direction. For a while in the late 1970s the emergence of punk pushed Bowie to one side. Before his last record on his last birthday, Bowie had released no new material for a decade. But he stayed relevant. Of course, the legacy now replaces the future for Bowie, but like Bowie, Radiohead create their own future.
Radiohead have always sounded like a band in constant motion, each new release an agitation from the previous release, the traits of innovation highlighted above evident in their work, never resting on their laurels.
So Radiohead are back. Their best songs have never given you a choice but to listen, filled with existential dread, political and social anger, innate pessimism, but on A Moon Shaped Pool, there are unhurried, diffuse sounds. A beautiful album, so many influences coming through that haven’t been heard in their previous outings. A refreshing return to more guitar-based songs and, surprisingly, more conventionally structured ones too. A more soulful sound. Listen now, and learn how to stay relevant by creating your own future.