Fifty years ago today, on February 7, 1964, the Beatles made their first famous appearance in America. To commemorate the historic event, experts and fans alike are examining their many contributions to music, art, fashion, design, and the cultural landscape.
But hidden in their well-documented history is also invaluable business lessons. Even though their actions are now a half a century old, today’s business leader could learn from The Beatles’ tour-de-force in building creative environments, alternative market strategies and teamwork cultures.
Are there any better words to describe the out-of-the-box approach the Beatles took recorded music? After playing it straight and gaining tremendous popularity through their first two years of recorded pop material, the band took to questioning everything they did.
Beginning with the Rubber Soul album in late 1965, the Beatles started ignoring the rules of the recording industry by introducing techniques and sounds that included planned feedback, backwards guitar, heavy echo, vary-speed recordings and alternative instruments.
Suddenly, "just a nice tune with a good beat" would not be the criteria for a top-10 chart hit. The mother of invention was awakened by all the new demands put upon the engineering staff at London’s Abbey Road Studio. The knock-on effects would produce an array of technical inventions (Artificial Double Tracking (ADT), STEED tape loop signal delay) that were the forefather to the recording methods used in today’s digital world.
The Beatles turned the music business upside down by creating the double-sided single. In the days when the 45 record was the format for product, the band set a strategy to put out a B-side song that could rival the lead A-side song. Using this strategy, they produced phenomenal combinations like: "I Want to Hold Your Hand" backed with "I Saw Her Standing There," "Eleanor Rigby" with "Yellow Submarine," and "Hey Jude" backed with "Revolution."
These records were seen by their fans as offering two great songs for price of one, solidly cementing their customer loyalty. Further, the Beatles strategically self-set targets as to the numbers of singles per year that would not appear on an album, assuring that they always had something fresh on the radio airwaves in-between their album releases, thus shutting-out the competition for chart-space. Of course, other artists of the era could have attempted to compete on this level, but there were not many that could match the song output (quantity and quality) of the Lennon-McCartney-Harrison song factory.
Having session musicians play along with an artist was nothing new to the recording industry by the mid-'60s, but in the Beatles case, it took on a new meaning. Back then, rock and roll bands were hired and recorded in an effort to capture their sound during a live performance that would eventually end up on a record for sale. The notion that a "sound-picture" could be produced around a band was a foreign concept.
Quickly in their recording career the Beatles seized upon a strategy to augment their limited two guitars-bass-drums sound. In order to do that, they needed to bring in other expertise (known today as "outsourcing"), not in an effort to join the band, but to ultimately add to the sound output that could still be sold as a "Beatles" record.
Various professional classical musicians including the London Sympathy Orchestra, the Mike Sammes Singers, along with famous rockers such as Eric Clapton, keyboardist Nicky Hopkins and Rolling Stones' Brian Jones all appeared on Beatles recordings.
This enabled the Beatles to mix and match their specific sound needs without ceremoniously adding or dismissing members.
Beyond the electricity that crackled between the song writing partnership of John Lennon and Paul McCartney (two very competitive artists), the Beatles would utilize their infectious charm and success to draw in anyone who crossed their path to add to their ingenuity.
By building an atmosphere of collective creativity, ownership of ideas took a back seat to the importance of producing a good outcome. Soon Martin, the studio’s engineers, technicians, and even their two roadies had a hand in suggestions, opinions, and sometimes even performing on recordings.
George Harrison, who was generally regulated to recording only one of his written songs per album, had the heaviest influence outside of the Lennon-McCartney power base, as he was able to veto things he didn’t like, come up with alternative suggestions and drive the band to other directions, such as the addition of his Eastern Indian sitar in 1966. When the Beatles were in the business of believing in the Beatles’ product, it didn’t matter who made the suggestion, as long as it advanced the team’s creation. Once that goal died, it was soon the end of the band—and the teamwork engine it produced. Business leaders, take note.
Of the hundreds of books and films documenting the Beatles history that has been released over the past 50 years, the one theme that runs consistently throughout their story was that the Beatles’ aim was to do something different every time they made music. Although they were just following their collective instincts, in business terms, they realized that their market was constantly changing. By managing to be that change, the Beatles effectively stayed ahead of the '60s "Revolution."
— Steve Valvano is Vice President of Human Resources at Panalpina Inc.-USA, with 30+ years in several HR executive roles both US and Europe. He is also an adjunct instructor for the MBA program at Centenary College. Email Steve at Valvano@optonline.net.