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7 Iconic Bands that Changed the Business of Music

These trailblazers all sparked major changes in the music business. Use their examples as inspiration to shake up your industry.
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Forget musical tastes. Ignore critical accolades. Set aside arguments about the merits of the music they created.

These seven bands--and one individual--sparked major changes not just in music but in the business of music.

Use their examples as inspiration to spark major changes in your market or industry. Someone has to be first--why not you?

(For fun I've also included my favorite song by each artist--although in one case "favorite" is a relative term. Feel free to guess which one.)

Led Zeppelin

Prior to Zeppelin, concert promoters typically kept the lion's share of gate receipts. Gross receipts at the Beatles' legendary 1965 Shea Stadium concert totaled over $300,000 (which might not sound like much but that's $2.1 million in today's dollars). The Beatles only took home a fraction.

Peter Grant, Zeppelin's manager, leveraged his band's growing popularity to negotiate better deals, with Zeppelin eventually able to take as much as 90% of the gate.

Other headlining acts soon followed suit, and the "balance of power" shifted dramatically in the favor of the artist--where it should reside.

Favorite song: The Rain Song

The Rolling Stones

Sure, the Stones win the longevity award. But early on they also were at the vanguard of artist ownership and control.

The Stones leased their master tapes to the record company, which then manufactured, distributed, and marketed the product but had no say in the content, creative process--and the record company did not own the copyright. Their deal with Atlantic Records was based on Led Zeppelin's contract as well as the approach taken by people like Phil Spector, who recorded his artists at his own expense, free from interference or input.

The Stones also set up their own label at Atlantic, taking advantage of its production and distribution infrastructure while retaining creative independence.

Oh, and they also created the Rolling Stones Mobile Studio, using it to record outside the traditional studio environment and also hiring it out to bands like Zeppelin, Deep Purple (who immortalized it in "Smoke on the Water"), Fleetwood Mac, Bad Company, Wishbone Ash, and Iron Maiden.

And don't forget their lips and tongue logo, a classic brand icon.

KISS

According to bassist Gene Simmons: "...I saw that we were a rock and roll brand, not just a rock and roll band."

Over 3,000 product licensing categories later (including coffins), who can argue with him?

Even the band's name was designed to be memorable. Paul Stanley said, "What about KISS? It felt so right... it really embodies so much of what we are. It's heavy, it's passionate, and it's a name that no matter where you go in the world, people know that word, so in the beginning when we were nobody and nobody knew who we were, people would go, 'Oh, KISS, I've heard of you,' because it's just a word you hear all the time."

As Stanley also said, "It's undeniable that the (non-traditional) revenue streams can be enormous, and to not maximize your potential outside of music would be absurd. It is the music business, and the business element doesn't negate or detract from the other end of it. We're a band, and we're a brand. And without one, the other suffers."

The next time you slip on your Beats by Dr. Dre or splash on some of Justin Bieber's Girlfriend cologne (okay, maybe not) remember that KISS was there long before licensing was cool.

The Grateful Dead

In the 60s, 70s, and 80s touring was primarily seen as a way to promote new records; in fact, tours often served as loss leaders for record sales.

The Dead took the opposite approach, touring almost year-round and by the 80s only occasionally releasing new albums.

Unlike other bands, the Dead also encouraged fans to bootleg and share performances in a "sneakernet" version of peer-to-peer sharing.

They also were social long before social media: selling tickets directly, creating an extremely engaged fan club, sharing personal details as well as fan-generated artwork and content through their mailing list, and creating an ecosystem of small businesses that traveled with the band and had a vested interest in the band's long-term success.

And they were at the forefront of the "brand experience" phenomenon. Dead shows weren't just performances; to their fans, they were events.

If KISS was licensing before licensing was cool, the Dead foreshadowed a number of seismic shifts in the way artists interact with and engage fans.

Journey

Journey is a great example of an early 80s bands that focused on business as well as art by plowing earnings back into stage, sound, and lighting equipment; purchasing their own trucks and transportation gear; and providing their label (CBS) not only with finished records but also with artwork and merchandising material.

Journey also made one of the first promotional deals by teaming with Budweiser: In exchange for posing for ads and creating radio jingles, they received posters to give to every concert ticket buyer. (Until a story connected Journey to teenage alcoholism and the band decided to end the relationship. Clearly the times were different.)

Moby

His album Play was ignored by radio and MTV, and early on so was his tour to support the album: He played his first show in the basement of a Virgin Megastore (remember those?) to an audience of about 40 people.

Desperate to find a way to get his music heard, he licensed every song on the album (many multiple times) for ads, television, and movies. According to Wired, the licensing efforts were so lucrative the album was a financial success long before it sold millions of copies.

Can't get noticed? Moby did the previously unthinkable. Maybe you should too.

(Why this song? Two words: Jason Bourne. If that's not enough, skip to the 1:00 mark and tell me you don't feel a little chill when the music starts.)

Metallica

Drummer Lars Ulrich may not have been the only artist upset about file sharing services like Napster but he definitely fired the first public shot. And he took a beating from music fans that evidently felt Metallica had made enough money and shouldn't be picking on them, thank you very much.

The early stance is often the unpopular stance, and Lars was right. Just ask the thousands of musicians who struggle to make a living now that content is freely available in a variety of ways, both legal and illegal.

While Metallica's suit against Napster did eventually make an impact, digital music sales didn't take off until...

Steve Jobs

Not a musician, not a band (unless you consider him the front man for the band called Apple), just the guy who realized that even in a world of "free," millions of people would pay for music if the service and player were easy to use, convenient, and extremely user-friendly.

Jobs and Apple and the iPod and iTunes changed the music business almost overnight--and the ripple effects are still being felt.

Last updated: Jan 30, 2013

JEFF HADEN | Columnist

Jeff Haden learned much of what he knows about business and technology as he worked his way up in the manufacturing industry. Everything else he picks up from ghostwriting books for some of the smartest leaders he knows in business.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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