Andy Warhol, The Velvet Underground and the Innovation Factory

Andy Warhol, The Factory and The Velvet Underground were synonymous with a groundbreaking synaesthesia in music and art in the 1960’s.   Their influence has been pervasive over nearly 50 years on people such as The Sex Pistols, The Doctors of Madness, The Cure, The Psychedelic Furs, Patti Smith, Vaclav Havel, Bill Nelson, Iggy Pop, The New York Dolls and many more.  Simply stated:

“The first Velvet Underground album only sold 10,000 copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band.”

Today I’m looking at the qualities that led to the success of The Factory as a music innovation incubator, with parallel lessons for businesses wishing to make innovation part of their business as usual activity.  See also the post on Lou Reed.  My epiphany came about after many years of teaching an MBA programme in creativity and innovation for the Open University Business School.  I noticed that the example of The Factory has useful parallels with the four ‘P’s of innovation: Person; Place; Product; Process. To help tell the story of Andy Warhol and The Factory to the uninitiated, I’ve linked these to music from the great retrospective album by Lou Reed and John Cale “Songs for Drella”.  Note “Drella” was a nickname for Warhol – a combination of Cinderella and Dracula!

Person – The song “Open House” makes reference to the grating tension between the Velvet Underground’s personalities – e.g. Reed – Cale and Warhol’s role as a creative leader – demonstrating permission giving behaviours and creating a climate where different things could happen.  Many creativity experts only emphasise the positive aspects of creative people, yet much creativity comes out of struggle, sometimes with the task, but sometimes through tensions between the people.  This also occurs in corporate life:

Because of the trust and respect we’ve built up, like an old married couplewe are able to rubbish each other’s ideas. Yes we have to kill our babies – it’s the only way to arrive at a viable idea

Simon Kershaw, Creative Director for the Land Rover Discovery

Check “Open House” out and listen carefully to the words:

Place – For me, the idea of ‘Place’ refers to the physical and psychological environment that encourages innovation.  The parallel is in seeing The factory as a business incubator or ‘innovation hothouse’.  John Cale said:

It wasn’t called the Factory for nothing. It was where the assembly line for the silkscreens happened. While one person was making a silkscreen, somebody else would be filming a screen test. Every day something new

Andy Warhol clearly understood what business schools would call ‘innovation climate’, building a physical and psychological environment where people would be inspired to think great ideas and then convert them to finished product.  The principles behind innovation climate are neatly summed up by a rich picture designed by one of my MBA Alumni.  Mail me for more background on this highly condensed view of innovation research.

Precepts for developing an innovation climate

Warhol cared less about traditional boundaries of art and this is what the rich picture calls ‘explore the givens’.  This is epitomised in Reed and Cale’s piece “The trouble with the classicists.”  Take a listen:

Product – The Factory produced uncompromising real life ‘art’ that dealt with subjects largely untouched by the art world – at the same time Warhol’s protégé’s produced an unending supply of sensational pop art, such as the images of Marilyn Monroe and Campbell’s Soup.  Despite the huge diversity, whatever emerged was instantly recognisable as coming from The Factory.  In effect, The Factory was an ‘anti-corporate brand’ much in the same way that punk rock and punk clothing quickly became mainstream music and fashion.

Cale and Reed epitomised The Factory’s unending art production line in their words and music to the wonderously grating and dissonant piece “Images”

Process – Andy Warhol was a workaholic, contradicting the view that creativity was about waiting for inspiration to arrive.  He favoured perspiration above inspiration and this is poetically summarised in Cale and Reed’s words to their song “Work”:

Finally, we finish with some questions to provoke your own innovation factory:

  1. Have you got the right people in the right balance to make innovation regular and frequent?  Inventors, Innovators and Entrepreneurs?
  2. Have you got a physical and psychological environment that encourages creativity and calculated risk taking?
  3. Do you seek constant innovation in the products and services that you provide?
  4. Have you got reliable strategies and processes for divergent thinking (creativity), convergent thinking (deciding) and converting decisions into innovation (implementation)?

In the spirit of pop art and punk for punk’s sake, my latest micro book “Punk Rock People Management – A no-nonsense guide to hiring, inspiring and firing staff” is available for FREE.  Simply e-mail me with Punk in the title (peter@humdyn.co.uk) for your copy.  Our new full size book “The Music of Business” is available to order via the links in this presentation:

We cannot conclude without visiting Lou Reed’s classic “Walk on the Wild Side” which tells stories of many of the personalities at The Factory – Holly Woodlawn, Joe Dallessandro, Candy Darling etc.   Coming up soon an interview with the illegitimate Godfather of Punk and confirmed Velvet Underground fanatic Richard Strange.

15 responses to “Andy Warhol, The Velvet Underground and the Innovation Factory

  1. Person and grating tension. Most of the best improvements I have seen come through the tension between individuals in teams I’ve been in.

    One of the biggest improvements involved swearing, lots of manly gesturing but after that, wow, teams went from being the quite the worse to one of the best in the company.

    Sometimes you need these things to happen even if its to find out that yes, everyone is passionate about the same thing… and we need to sort it.

    Of course I was taken aside to be told it must never happen again even though they did agree all the major steps forward where made after such discussions.

    Not having a permission giving environment means things get gradually worse until something breaks, even individuals or the company. By having a permission giving behaviours tensions get addressed at a much earlier stage and your company is more likely to florist.

  2. Peter…Reed and Cale are an incredible metaphor for the role of simplicity in innovation. They stripped away the ‘noise’ of the music being made by their peers and delivered a brutally honest product that was able to be heard. For that reason alone it inspired a generation of musicians and fans.

    Thanks for gathering those phenomenal clips, made more interesting by the French subtitles! You certainly rock!!

  3. This from Linkedin:

    David Bickle • In modern times Dada combined music, art, interior furnishings and architecture, then many years later The VA et al came along and copied the idea.
    JJ Cale had his brand of country rock which Clapton copied and Reed had his New York rock which I now see as good but not innovative.

    The Beatles bought rock and roll into new genres that have spawned many bands – that is innovative. The Stones solidified Rock in the same way as Reed but BJH, Pink Floyd, Soft Machine and others were far more inventive in progressing modern music.

    I could probably put together ‘innovation cycle’ for the Beatles and the others above, but not synaesthesics. I certainly dont see anything synaesthetic about VA who, after all were just band a few years after DaDa – the synaesthetic movement.

    Peter Cook • Well David, I agree that there is little new under the sun. In fact I spent yesterday afternoon in a soho members club with the ‘godfather of punk’ Richard Strange who went so far to say that innovation does not exist, and ‘pop art almost literally eats itself’. Perhaps creative swiping is a better term than innovation?

    I’d love to see the Beatles innovation cycle btw and agree about Floyd and Soft Machine.

    By the way, we’re talking John Cale here not JJ Cale who Clapton did indeed swipe from.

    Thanks for adding to the debate. I’ll post this up on the blog.

    Peter

    David Bickle • Peter

    Take Soft Machine for example – Robert Wyatt and Kevin Ayers have each released say 16 albums since Soft Machine but none of them have the same inventive feel. Is the creativity formed by having a number of people coming together in a band, plus the scene at the time, plus new electronic
    instruments, plus their age? Pink Floyd is another example.

    Going back to 1967 with say ‘Waiting for the Man’. A great record BUT all the major Beatles and Stones records of that genre for example, had already been down that road. I watched a TV programme a while back that astonished me with their ‘birth of heavy rock’ story so possibly even the concept of
    progress, innovation and creativity should be questioned.

    Currently we have Peter Gabriel mixing Rock with Classical (again) but I think that this form of creativity has gone past it sell by date.

    Dave

    Peter Cook • I mainly spend my time writing about parallels between business and popular culture rather than music appreciation per se – that way lies danger as, in a way we are all ‘right’ based on our particular loves and hates (p.s. it is a great pity that the subject of business and management does not attract such fierce debate, but that’s for another time etc.)

    On the specific of Waiting for the Man, the Beatles and the Stones certainly did deal with drug issues. I would say what has characterised Lou Reed here is his willingness to write about the grim realism of the issue rather than a more romantic view of the subject (Lucy in the Sky, Dandelion and so on).

    But the demand on creativity is enormous by dint of the sheer volume of stuff out there. Is it creative to mix African rhythms with rock as per Gabriel, does the addition of classical to rock make it an innovation? Is the addition of new instrumentation the equivalent of adding a new technique such as 6 thinking hats to the management repertoire and so on. You have really set me thinking on this Dave.

    Is innovation in music now reduced to a series of ‘recombinant DNA’ approaches? – mixing genres (like management fads such as Lean 5S etc.). Is innovation ultimately as ephemeral as the ‘rise and fall of ladies’ hemlines’ every year as new fashions come out?

    I must sit down and have a cuppa now – thanks for provoking a brilliant debate.

  4. More from Linkedin:

    Jill Kettles • OK – lemme see if I can focus here: Based on your questions at the end: My answers are in CAPS

    Finally, we finish with some questions to provoke your own innovation factory:
    Have you got the right people in the right balance to make innovation regular and frequent? Inventors, Innovators and Entrepreneurs? YES – YOU HAVE TO HAVE THE BALANCE COLLECTION OF NUTS AND BOLTS TO WORK WITH ART/MUSIC TO UNDERSTAND AND HELP OUT THE ARTIST FOR ALOT TIMES THEY CAN’T DO IT THEMSELVES. NOTHING BAD, JUST DIFFICULT.

    IT WAS A HOUSE OF ARTISTS: DO THINK THE LIGHTS GOT CUT OFF, YES. DO YOU THINK THEY HAD NO HEAT:OF COURSE!

    Have you got a physical and psychological environment that encourages creativity and calculated risk taking? I THINK SO, YOU HAVE TO THINK OUT THE BOX SO MUCH NOW TO GET YOUR ARTIST ACROSS – BECAUSE WE ALL KNOW THEY ARE SPECIAL AND UNIQUE.. YOU KNOW HOW MANY TIMES PEOPLE IN THE BIZ HAVE HEARD THAT… AND IF YOU DON”T TAKE A RISK -HOW WILL YOU EVER KNOW THE OUTCOME?

    Do you seek constant innovation in the products and services that you provide?
    Have you got reliable strategies and processes for divergent thinking (creativity), convergent thinking (deciding) and converting decisions into innovation (implementation)? YOU HAVE TO. – AGAIN: THINK OUTSIDE THE BOX. GO LOOK AT ANOTHER ARTIST’S SUCCESS AND SEE WHAT THEY DID. READ ABOUT OTHER BUSINESSES TO HAVE BRAIN STORMING TIMES WITH PEOPLE IN ORDER TO COME UP WITH YOUR OWN IDEAS. YOU CAN’T HIDE IN A HOLE AND THINK IT”S GONNA COME TO YOU. ANDY WOULD’VE LOVED THE INTERNET… QUICK AND EASY AND PLASTIC!

    I really don’t see anything NEW to this kind of thought process but maybe since I do it all the time it comes naturally. I do have ruts I fall in to and I have to go some where -ie: talk to a friend, or watch a funny cartoon on youtube or something to get my mind back in focus. Andy Warhol was a great business mind he brought art to the masses (ie: soup and brillos). He basically provided everyday items, an image. He discovered that he could churn out paintings by doing silk screens of them instead of painting on canvas he could get them to more people. Hence: Mass produced. He was a jerk, he was full of himself, he was shy and he was quiet.

    Read the Philosophy of Andy Warhol, A to B and Back Again and watch the movie (which is probably half true) Factory Girl. Andy had great visions but they weren’t nothing NEW they just weren’t being used at the time. He kinda took what he had and what he wanted to have and made it work.

    SO if you are in the music biz, the art biz, or clothing or whatever… and you having a hard time doing the 4 P’s – get away from it and them for awhile… then you will find the innovation and rediscover it again. I like the connection but I don’t see it as a fantastic out of the world idea… because it’s not new. Good job though.

    Peter Cook • Wow – Jill – I will post this to the blog – thanks for taking the time to contribute to a rich discussion. re warhol, perhaps his skill was in encouraging people that were better artists than himself. That is tough in business.

  5. that is an inspirational and hugely useful posting, Peter. I hope you don’t mind if I reference it heavily with some Music Students I will be working with here and in Hong Kong. It addresses many of the issues and myths surrounding creativity in an original but wholly accessible way. Bravo and thank you!

    Richard Strange

    http://www.richardstrange.com

    (please delete the previous, similar post with its unforgivable typos!)

    • The truth is Richard that I had agonised for weeks about putting this post out, thinking that I had force-fitted my Open University Creativity and Innovation ideas just a bit to much to the ‘case’. I kept editing and delaying the release date. In the end, I thought ‘Screw it let’s do it’. It has turned out to be one of the most successful and appreciated posts. Strange indeed

      Of course, I’d love you to spread the post anywhere you wish. Quite by accident, it lays the tablecloth for your interview, which I’ve been working with on mainline trains to coventry…

      Typos forgiven :-))) Once we have the interview done and out there, it would be good to talk about creativity and innovation crossovers from our academic lives and so on. I do some work at Imperial College and am connected to the Royal College of Art via a Professor there.

      Just mentioned you to Bill Nelson by the way.

      Back to working on the interview – suddenly thinking about the words to ‘you will die’ – the verses on Tony Blair and Damien Hurst absolutely kill me :-)))))

      Peter

  6. If you look at music: you’re reaching for the past to bring it forward. Or you’re trying to bring the past to the surface to show the future. Arguments have been made over and over about early days of rock. who wrote what… etc etc. it goes as far as the blues and the field recordings of Alan Lomax and Robert Palmer.
    Andy Warhol wanted others to create just like him. ALL THE TIME. He was non-stop. The ideas of getting away in order to get back is nothing new, I have to do it all the time for my job. I get tedious, tired, and bored. Then something clicks and it ‘s up again.
    Lucky for me, I am both NUTS AND BOLTS… part crazy and part normal. And I don’t put up with drama.
    Music Biz has been evolving from the old school types to the Nashville accountants to the social media guys/gals, Found this article: (it’s awesome) http://indieambassador.com/articles/how-important-is-artist-management
    So carry on good subject: hopefully someone will take and get from it… to learn from.

    • Hello Jill,

      Yes, the good news is that quite a few people do get the parallels and are learning from it. Not everyone does and I’m quite comfortable with that – in life it is better to be exceptional rather than average, even if that divides opinion etc.

      Glad to see you here from Linkedin and thank you for the heads up on the Guardian article.

      Peter

  7. I fall into a never ending glitter splash of love and peace the walls around me spin into luxury chocolate bars wrapped in violet bows fairies dance across the room and the world drips rainbow colors of midnight groovy vibes each of your posts is excellent and i love your blog Keep It Up X Mercury Moonshine Dutchess “Spreading Love Around The Dublin Streets Since the Full Moon Was Born” Lets spread love in Georges Arcade and Throw Glitter in the Patricks Parade

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