Sunday, March 27, 2005
You Gotta Serve Somebody
The Clash were important to me when I was growing up. I saw them perform in about 1982 - I think. It was towards the end of their career as a band and not long before I made the transition from rebellious punk student to working stiff - though I couldn't have foreseen that at the time - because surviving into my twenties conflicted with the live fast die young punk ethic - and I only had a year to go. The Clash had a wild, riotous sound that I found particularly liberating. Musically more controlled and with more of a thinking punk's edge than, say, The Sex Pistols.
Although it is Easter Sunday I was driving across the Auckland Harbour Bridge, heading for work and hoping to have some quiet time for the admin that I am so lousy at doing when there is anyone around me to offer even the most vague of distractions.
I flipped the tape into the deck and cranked the volume up near distortion levels (which, given the age of both the tape and the player wasn't all that loud). The music is still as exhilarating as it once was. The thing that surprised me was an interview with the members of the band - rough sound quality, profane language that would have once titillated me (yeah, I know - we were all like Beavis & Butthead once). Over twenty years later it's pretty tame. What struck me most was a comment made by Joe Strummer; if you didn't like the band's sound it didn't matter to him. He and his mates were exploring something for themselves. The band had been counselled by worthies at the label to try to sing more clearly. Mick Jones, lead guitar and vocalist says he tried and it just came out sounding like Matt Monroe. He used the example of 'Jamaican music' (I guess he was referring to Reggae) where you can't understand a thing they sing until you've heard it about twenty times.
You might think that kind of attitude isn't going to work if you want to find an audience for what you do.
The Clash sold millions of records, though their catalogue was small. Rolling Stone Magazine rated London Calling as the best album of the 80's (although it was released in 1979) and in the recent top 500 songs of all time edition Rolling Stone Magazine placed London Calling at number 15, Train in Vain at 292, Complete Control 361 and White Man at number 430.
The One & Only™ argument goes like this: If you don't please yourself how can you please anyone else?
Sometimes whole markets make a shift based on a simple, single truth. Before punk, rock had gravitated towards an obese, monstrous obession with overblown scale and excess. Bands like Electric Light Orchestra and Pink Floyd had mutated into gigantic circuses that totally alientated the audience. The rock dream began with people like The Beatles playing in tiny clubs and garages, with a love of the music and expressing their teen angst or raging hormones. While punk wasn't perfect or even the answer, it certainly pricked the bubble. It argued for autheticity and not artiface (even if it quickly fell into self parody - if you doubt that find yourself a copy of The Great Rock n Roll Swindle).
These past couple of days I read the autobiography of actor Michael J Fox. One quote stuck with me "What other people think of me is none of my business." You might think that sounds kind of weird for a performer who lives or 'dies' depending on what the audience thinks about him.
But both are true, the choices the performer makes for himself predicates the outcome. Presented with a bad script and an offer of millions to take the role, the outcome pivots on that moment of decision. Integrity or a quick buck.
A lot of very experienced marketers try to catch me on this point. "If it's not obviously profitable, why do it?"
My response is: if it is 'obvious' to you then the same strategy or execution is going to have occurred to someone else before you. You might well make a quick buck in your rabid anxiety to have a slice of the pie, but in doing so you miss the banquet that having a monopoly on an idea or its expression will give you.
Completing the third part of the triangulation From The Clash to Micheal J. Fox, to a fragment of the Self-help author and lecturer Stuart Wilde from his book called The Secret to Money is Having Some - Which I recommend, even if you're not a navel gazer … especially if you're not a navel gazer.
I have to admit that I like to read in the loo in the office and have gotten over the embarrassment of taking a book in with me. I'd like to suggest installing some shelves to the landlord. I randomly picked up this book from my shelf this afternoon. It fell open at page 120. Wilde is discoursing about service. He says the trick is to put your ego aside and get under other people. If you are in the business of serving then SERVE. Take care of your customer's every need:
"Would you like ice sir?, A twist of lemon perhaps, an extra napkin or bowl of nuts? What can I do for you? Can I get you an extra cushion? Would you like the morning paper? Can I take your canary for a walk while you are sitting here? In other words the waiter has come from a place of concentration, subjugation and complete, limitless service. Nothing is too much trouble. the customer is always right, even if he is wrong. There is not limit to what you will do to serve while the person is in your bar and in your care"
Now pay attention here, it's pivotal, Wilde goes on...
"To serve is honorable. But it is also crafty.
There is a hard way in life:
When you feel unsure of yourself.
So you have to project a seeking of people's affection and approval.
And there is the easy way.
YOU FEEL GOOD ABOUT YOURSELF.
You can serve in silence without it affecting your self-image. You are proud to serve and to do a good job.
You need no acknowledgement to yourself in advance, in silence. You want nothing for yourself. And in wanting nothing, other than to serve your customer, you get everything and more.
Life is simple. Mostly it's a matter of going in the opposite direction to the average twit. Nothing more."
You don't have to adopt a posture of splendid, artistic, non-commercial isolation to be The One & Only™. Quite the opposite is true. In making the decision to simply be yourself and to offer your gifts uninhibited by self consciousness or fear of diasproval is essential (makes no difference whether you are a server in a restaurant, the head of a multinational corporation with a portfolio of brands, or an artiste).
When Steve Jobs says let's make something 'Insanely Great' - then goes right ahead and does it with products like the Macintosh, iMac, Powerbook and iPod he was expressing a view of the world, a big idea that informs everything Apple does (not always entirely successfully, but hey, Apple is human too...) With a 'profit first' board without Jobs (who fell victim to a coup d'etat) Apple nearly tanked. Their products added no joy to the world. All of the great moments in Apple's history came on Job's watch.
When Sarah McLaughlin bares her soul through her music, I'm betting it's got not much at all to do with market research and exit polling and EVERYTHING to do with expressing herself creatively through music. Her audience found her and sticks with her like glue. They are FANS, not customers. They seek her out. When I hear Angel on the car radio I pull over and listen (It makes me think of Megan my son's mom who died of cancer - it is too special to multi-task to). By taking care to express herself and NOT to blend into the top selling genre in a scramble for her share of airplay and album sales McLaughlin not only remains true to herself, but true to us, her fans.
I guess it's like Bob Dylan says "You gotta serve somebody." But when you serve, you serve yourself.
I predict that the Apple brand will be in the business of consumer electronics within five years - the computer part of their business will be important but not as definitive as it once was. I can see a demand for Apple personal communication devices, video cameras and stuff that I can't even imagine in the future. It will all be the coolest gear, because, at the end of the day, aside from functionality, that is what separates Apple from the pack. Always has, always will.
Links for this entry
The Clash - Check out their music
Micheal J Fox - Lucky Man Autobiography
The Trick to money is having some - Stuart Wilde
Rolling Stone Top 500 Songs