Monday, October 27, 2008
Revisiting the Creativity & Innovation of The Beatles
I just returned from spending a couple days in Liverpool, the city of The Beatles. I stayed at the new Hard Days Night Hotel, sleeping below a huge air-brushed portrait of George Harrison. I’ll write more about the hotel, it was, to use a 60’s phrase, a trip. In the meantime, I have a lot of things to say about The Beatles, and their relationship to creativity and innovation. I spent an afternoon at The Beatles Story museum at Albert Dock, which had a great audio tour and memorabilia.
The anecdote that struck me was one told by their producer, George Martin. He recounted hearing the first tape of The Beatles and thinking it was awful. Brian Epstein, their manager, was insistent and George finally said, well, come down to London and let me evaluate them in person. He booked an hour of studio time but had low expectations. They arrived, were pleasant, polite, funny, and played with a lot of verve and energy. After they left Martin remarked to himself how charming and nice the boys had been, how much fun they had playing, and their “wit”. He noticed that after they were gone that he felt “diminished” by their absence. He noted to himself that if he felt this way, what might young people feel? That was the feeling he went with when he signed The Beatles. He remarked that he didn’t know at the time that The Beatles had been turned down by every record label in London, and if he had known, he wouldn’t have signed them.
There are several things about this anecdote that strike me for those seeking to innovate.
1.) Notice how you feel. Martin was self-aware enough to notice that he felt “diminished” by their absence. That was his clue to understanding how they affected their audiences. It takes real thoughtfulness to notice a subtle feeling like “diminished” doesn’t it? How many of us slow down often enough to notice what we are feeling about people and things? He was also impressed by their wit — their sense of fun was part of the reason he thought they had promise. Intuition
2.) New and different almost always seems wrong at first. The Beatles had a new take on pop and at first nobody, that is the experts, got it (one famous comment about The Beatles “guitar groups are on the way out”). They were ruled out by nearly all the experts. Martin was open enough to simply give them a chance and consider what was good about them. Positive evaluation allows for more possibility. Most disruptive innovations lack sophistication in some dimensions; they haven’t been all polished up and featured out. The raw chords of American R&B hadn’t been filtered and refined, it didn’t sound like “good” music to those used to something else.
3.) Persistence matters. Brian Epstein kept making his presentation, he believed in what he had and stayed after it. Most of us would have quit after the first two or three rejections.
4. Consumers know best. The fan base in Liverpool at the Cavern Club and the Casbah knew The Beatles were great two years before the experts did. They were ready for something new, ready for something fun, ready for something to lift their Liverpudlian blues. It’s old news really but it’s a lesson we often forget, consumers know best. If you want to innovate, see what people are doing, particularly those with noting to lose. Notice what those people enjoy, and you’ll find the best clues to market acceptance of virtually any product.