Most producers in film, music, or theater would be happy to have one smash hit, ensuring their fiscal success and artistic legacy. Robert Stigwood, the legendary producer who died at age 81 earlier this week, had too many smash hits to count.
The short list of his biggest hits includes the films Tommy (1975), Saturday Night Fever (1977), and Grease (1978) and the musicals Jesus Christ Superstar (1971) and Evita (1978). In addition, under his record label, RSO, he managed the Bee Gees and promoted David Bowie and Rod Stewart when the latter two were young stars, according to his obituary in the New York Times. The obituary did not cite a cause of death.
It can be a tricky proposition to derive traditional business lessons from someone's success in the entertainment industry, which has its own set of rules and risks. However, Stigwood's staggering track record makes his career worth exploring. Based on the info in his Times obit, here are two actionable takeaways from the music legend's life:
1. He did not believe in high-end customers or low-end customers, only happy customers. The best evidence of this is Stigwood's success with what you could call the rock-opera format. The very term "rock opera" is a fusion of musical forms which were traditionally separated. One was geared for mass culture (rock), while the other was geared for high culture (opera). In Stigwood's oeuvre, it was all just powerful, emotional music that told a story.
There's some dispute over whether The Who pioneered the term "rock opera" with its 1969 album Tommy--the band certainly popularized the term, not only with Tommy but with its rock-opera follow-up, Quadrophenia (1973). Stigwood's movie version of Tommy did not come out until 1975. But the high-low formula still worked like a charm, as the film garnered several award nominations and was highly profitable. (It cost $5 million to make and grossed $34.3 million at the box office.) Jesus Christ Superstar is another version of a rock opera, using rock music to tell a story which, because of the biblical subject matter, would've traditionally been told musically as an opera.
2. He believed in the power of cross-promotion. The Times obit notes that Stigwood "recognized the cross-promotional power of pop music and theatrical spectacle." Another way to look at this is that he knew his strengths. He owned a record company. He'd sell more records if the music appeared in hit movies. Throughout his career, Stigwood seldom veered from this formula. In his long list of credits as a film producer, the vast majority of his films involve music on a soundtrack from his record label.
To take it one step further, you could argue that the songs in his productions are more memorable than the movies themselves. Long after you forget the plot to Saturday Night Fever, Grease, Tommy, or Jesus Christ Superstar, the catchy songs continue to linger in your head.
That, too, is no small legacy to leave behind.