Whole Lotta Love : Business lessons from Peter Grant and Led Zeppelin

Introducing Steve Mostyn as an honorary Rock’n’Roll Business Blogger here.  Steve and I met at the London Business School a while back, where we talked about the idea of an article and seminar series on Led Zeppelin and the business lessons that can be derived from Peter Grant’s superb management of the band, building on my earlier article on Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Madonna and Branding.   Steve is an associate Fellow at Said Business School, University of Oxford.  Before we get started, let’s see Led Zeppelin in full flow:

Chris Welch’s obituary of Peter Grant in The Independent Newspaper stated his achievements well.

It was Grant who arranged their deal with Atlantic Records in 1968, then hailed as one of the biggest in industry history. He never interfered with their music, but was a “hands-on” manager who travelled the world with his charges to ensure their financial and physical well-being. Grant was essentially the fifth member of Led Zeppelin. While stories of his exploits have become legendary, and he was as much feared as admired, Grant was a warm and good-humoured man who know well the impression he could make on the nervous and unwary … he was  determined that Led Zeppelin would get their fair share of the profits. As a result, Led Zeppelin became extremely wealthy from the sales of millions of albums and concert tickets during their 12-year reign from 1968 to 1980”

Behind the myth of both Led Zeppelin and Peter Grant is evidence of management thinking and action that gives the 21st century manager some new insights.

In 1966 the Jimmy Page joined The Yardbirds.  With his childhood friend Jeff Beck, The Yardbirds would tour sold out venues across America. The Yardbirds played to packed houses and gained critical success but financial failure that left the band wondering how to even meet food bills. Poor management was to blame.  Beck left the group leaving Page to assume control of the frustrated outfit. The band’s management duties were passed on to Grant and by 1968 the pre cursor to Led Zeppelin, The New Yardbirds were formed.  Grant’s management transformed the band.  So what did Grant do that we can learn from?

1.      Grow and support talent

The first role of a manager of creative people is to grow and develop talent, nurturing and most importantly getting out of the way of the creative process. Grant’s obsessive support for the band was outstanding, from ensuring the member’s financial well being to ensuring that they were always ready to wow their audience on a demanding 45 shows as part of a 50 day tour. He also created a close team of publicity, security, sound engineers, roadies and financial managers that were the core support team to the band’s success. Grant deliberately refocused attention on the needs of the artists, often at the expense of the record companies, tour promoters and other agents.  Perhaps Prince is another extreme example of someone who did not wish to be controlled by the music industry.

2.      Reinvent Business Processes – Challenge the accepted process

Grant’s paradoxical PR and publicity strategy created a genuine grass roots mass underground following. His refusal for TV appearances of the band and refusal to release singles were keys to Led Zeppelin’s word of mouth rise and ongoing media mystique. Coupled with this were his radical re-negotiating of promoters fees from 90% to 10% of door revenue.  Grant quoted by Welch.

‘The days of the promoter giving a few quid to the group against the money take on the door are gone. Managers, agents, and promoters ran the business when the funny thing is it’s the groups who bring the people in. I thought the musicians would be the people who get the wages…that are the way the big names are made these days. Not by the press, but by the people seeing them and making up their own minds’

Grant’s approach to marketing would not be out of place in the 21st century where crowdsourcing and customer experience and engagement are the watchwords of business.

Today it is recognised that profits come from well managed live performances as opposed to music sales.  Grant laid the foundation stones that Beyonce to U2 have benefited from. Promoters’ assumptions about margin had well and truly been challenged. The creation of Swan Song record label in the 1970’s was a further act of controlling market access, co-director of Swan Song, guitarist Jimmy Page commented:

‘We’d been thinking about it for a while and we knew if we formed a label there wouldn’t be the kind of fuss and bother we’d been going through over album covers and things like that. Having gone through, ourselves, what appeared to be an interference, or at least an aggravation, on the artistic side by record companies, we wanted to form a label where the artists would be able to fulfil themselves without all of that hassle’

3.      Inspire a shared vision. Create collaborators

Grant’s insistence that Led Zeppelin could (and would) be the world’s greatest Rock’n’Roll act was the push and belief that allowed Page, Plant, Bonham and Jones to do their best. The leverage behind the Atlantic Records deal in 1968 was evidence of that. Atlantic Records granted them a $200,000 advance before Atlantic president Ahmet Ertegun had even seen the band.

4.      Let Leaders Lead

The paradox of management is the confusion of leadership and management. Both are key to organisation success. In a Rock’n’Roll band leaders are almost never the manager. Grant allowed distributed leadership to develop within the band, from founder Jimmy Page, ‘front man’ Robert Plant, with the world’s leading drummer John Bonham to intellectual philosopher and bass leader John Paul Jones.  Here’s a rare interview with Grant:

5.      Create and enforce Governance

Governance is the often overlooked duller part of the manager’s toolkit.  Once Grant had established the rules of copyright, he was renowned for his frequent personal enforcement of challenging fake merchandisers and bootleggers. Welch comments

‘People were terrified of him. He rode roughshod over anyone who tried to get in his way and he wasn’t scared of anyone, police, promoters or officials. In America he insisted on putting on his own shows, with the local promoter acting simply as an organiser’  

In the 1970’s Led Zeppelin was the most profitable band in rock history. Grant’s attention to detail was also noted from his assessment of the quality of PA equipment to lighting sequences to the attention to the fine detail of his accountant’s profit and loss accounts and tax status advice.

Leadership thinker and author Gary Hamel argues that management needs reinventing:

‘Management is undoubtedly one of humankind’s most important inventions. For more than a hundred years, advances in management—the structures, processes, and techniques used to compound human effort—have helped to power economic progress. Problem is, most of the fundamental breakthroughs in management occurred decades ago. Management, like the combustion engine, is a mature technology that must now be reinvented for a new age.’

Some of the clues to its reinvention may be found in Peter Grant.

And finally, let’s get the Led out again, this time performing Kashmir:

Our new book ‘The Music of Business” has a piece on Led Zeppelin, plus much much more – acclaimed by Harvey Goldsmith.  Sample it here – available worldwide on Amazon and as a Kindle download.  Our other books are rather good as well …

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23 responses to “Whole Lotta Love : Business lessons from Peter Grant and Led Zeppelin

  1. I have a comment from Douglas Robinson via Linkedin:

    Peter Grant was autocratic and bullied his business partners, not to mention was a little greedy. Though a Zep expert and my #1 favorite band and drummer ( I’m a drummer), I don’t think I would use them as a business example. I would look at the bands creativity holistically and Page’s vision.

    Hi Douglas,

    Good point – indeed many managers are control freaks and I’m aware that he did strike some tough deals. That contrasts with the usual ‘exploitation of the artist’ that bedevils the music business. The London Business School chap who wrote this clearly focused on the management side of this rather than the artistic director, but you are right, an article on Page would make for an interesting article if there were someone to write a follow up.

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  2. I’d echo Douglas’ comments regarding some of the more extreme character traits/practices of Peter Grant and point towards Robert Fripp for a veritable goldmine of what was/is still bad about the treatment of artists by music company management and how to operate in the Internet age.

    He, before many others saw the implications of the internet and founded a record label DGM (Discipline Global Mobile) intending to both operate ethically (See Sternberg’s book on business ethics http://www.independent.co.uk/news/business/book-review–oneway-view-of-business-ethics-just-business–elaine-sternberg-little-brown-20-pounds-1448753.html) and in the interests of artist not corporation.

    He provides a great, if often voluble/erudite, diary at http://www.dgmlive.com/diaries.htm

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    • Did someone say Robert Fripp? DGM was born out of the rise of his dealings with EG Records (Endless Grief?), for the full account of this then the best place to read is actually in the liner notes of “Intergalactic Boogie Express” by the League of Crafty Guitarists.

      The best Fripp gig I saw wasn’t musical, it was the lecture that he gave at York University for the PRS Memorial John Lennon lecture, “Discipline and the Act of Music” (I was the second sane person in the asylum ;), let’s see who gets that one).

      If you are in the creative field, any of them really, then it’s worth a listen. In fact if you search on “Robert Fripp” on Spotify a given version of the basis of the talk is online to listen to or purchase.

      Robert was one of the first I know who really encouraged all on the label to blog regularly (with the exception of Tony Levin who was pretty much documenting things already). It also gave him a way to engage with his audience in a response that he was comfortable with as well.

      Musically I’ve listened through an awful lot of recorded stuff over the years and I’ve not come across a more consistent artist who that when the music arrives to play through him that he has to be ready, willing and available. There’s a life and management lesson right there.

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      • Indeed Jason, it was Fripp who encouraged Bill Nelson to start writing a diary, which can be found at DREAMSVILLE

        Jason forgot to mention that he has himself made music in this mode and is a talented musician on a par with these people. I met him at an event in Northern Ireland and an instant musical chemistry developed. We now have plans to write and perform some original music in the ambient jazz funk mode as part of our work mixing up music with business concepts.

        I hope Jon enjoys your comment. I have asked Jason to play some bass on my version of The October Man, as the bass playing on the current version could be much better. I will send you the result Jon.

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  3. Pingback: Whole Lotta Love : Business lessons from Peter Grant and Led … | Articles about the world

  4. Hi Peter, thanks for the reply. The book on ethics is a great read, thoroughly recommended.

    If that’s Bill “October Man” Nelson, wow! If you do speak, please pass on my regards and tell him I’m thoroughly enjoying the DVD of the gig at ITV Studios and hope that he’s not been bankrupted by the event costs!
    Regards
    Jon

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  5. Most top recording artists have formidable management behind them, more often than not driven by one charismatic individual. Tom Parker and Don Arden spring to my mind. Tom Parker took a different approach with Elvis than Grant took with Zep. Grant kept an aura of exclusivity, whereas Parker touted Presley around like a box of washing powder, available to anyone who would pay!

    I mention Don Arden, because he also had a reputation like Grant of not being afraid to throw his (literal) weight around.

    Is the personality of the leader as important as anything they actually do?

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  6. Spot on Gordon. Part of the success formula of music artists (and business for that matter) is the quality of the management – unfortunately there’s not a lot of it about ! :-)

    It’s also true that part of the ‘failure formula’ of some but not by any means all music artists is poor management. My personal experiences with John Otway are testimony to this. More on this at http://www.academy-of-rock.co.uk/tour

    Re your question, if we knew the answer to this, we would be able to test it in advance of hiring management talent. We are not at that point of human development yet.

    Like the idea that ‘size is unimportant’ as well! :-) Time for the gym.

    Peter

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  7. I remember when I worked at EMI, and managers of artists would be in the executive’s office having stand up rows,fighting to get their act on the priority promotion roster. Something I always say to bands looking for management, is that any candidates need to not only have the personality to do things like that, but need to be able to show they have the contacts and experience.

    Sometimes force of personality can shine through in an interview process, but it can be a fine edged sword – sometimes the potential of personality can be ignored in light of a weak CV, but likewise strength of personality can over dominate and mask weaknesses.

    That’s why so many people in hiring positions can get it wrong I guess!

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  8. I’m extremely impressed with your writing skills as well as with the layout on your weblog. Is this a paid theme or did you modify it yourself? Either way keep up the nice quality writing, it is rare to see a great blog like this one these days..

    Like

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