I pulled off the N. J. Turnpike and stopped at a rest area. Two men in their 30s were standing near the building entrance. If asked to guess, I would have said they worked in accounting, or software sales, or tech. Normal, successful guys... except both were also wearing Metallica t-shirts.

I couldn't help myself. Pointing at their chests, I said, "Webster Hall?"

"Yeah," they said, almost simultaneously. "You?"

I nodded.

And smiled.

***

Ken Blanchard popularized the concept of "raving fans": providing such a high level of service and value that your customers can't help but tell, with genuine enthusiasm and excitement, everyone they know about you. Apple was, at least once upon a time, used as an example of a company with raving fans. In-N-Out Burger is definitely on that list, as is Starbucks and Amazon.

One "company" that is never included on that list, but should be: Metallica.

Think I'm crazy? Nope.

Metallica has sold over 110 million albums and ranks as the third-best-selling artist in the SoundScan era. Five of their albums debuted at #1 on the Billboard charts. They've won eight Grammies. And in a business where careers are often measured in months, not years, this August they played the first rock concert held at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, selling out all 66,000-plus seats in ten minutes -- thirty five years after the band was initially formed.

Plus, Metallica is a "company" in a more traditional sense. Unlike most acts whose record deals grant them a percentage of music sales in the form of royalties, due to a provision the band negotiated in 1994 with their then-label Warner Brothers, Metallica now owns the rights to all its music and videos and has formed its own label, Blackened Records. The result is a level of control -- both artistically and financially -- most musicians rarely attain.

Because of their popularity, Metallica typically plays arenas and stadiums. (It's easy to picture their manager saying to a hopeful promoter, "Your venue only holds 40,000 people? I'm sorry -- too small.")

But on Tuesday night, Metallica played Webster Hall, an iconic NYC venue that holds a maximum of 1,500 people, standing room only. The show was announced on Sunday and Metallica fan club members entered an online contest for a chance to purchase a $25 ticket. The proceeds benefit City Harvest, a non-profit organization that delivers food to those in need.

So I decided to check it out. (I know; the sacrifices I make.)

***

Steve Jobs said, "A lot of times, people don't know what they want until you show it to them." Yet people also want what they already know they want, even if you would prefer to give them something else. Many acts playing a showcase gig would have featured only new music, working hard to sell their latest release.

Metallica did little of the latter and plenty of the former. "We're here tonight celebrating a lot of stuff," lead singer James Hetfield said. "One of those things is, obviously, Metallica is still alive and well and, we think, kicking ass. We're all celebrating the new album... but here's some stuff from previous." The set list included fan favorites like "Harvester of Sorrow," "Sad But True," "Enter Sandman," "Master of Puppets"... and "Orion," in tribute to their late bass player Cliff Burton, who died when their tour bus crashed thirty years ago to the day.

They also played two new songs from their upcoming album Hardwired... to Self-Destruct: "Moth Into Flame" and "Hardwired." (The video for "Moth Into Flame" was released the day before the show, yet a sizable majority of the crowd already knew the lyrics well enough to sing along.)

So how was the show?

As Stan Lee says, "Nuff said."

***

An old adage says you shouldn't meet your heroes in real life; they're bound to disappoint. For the most part I've found that to be true. (Hi, Shaq!)

Not this time.

In their early days Metallica was the quintessential startup, inflected more by the punk rock underground than the "corporate" rock band scene of the '70s. They understood they had to make success happen and took that responsibility on themselves rather than hoping a major record label would magically make their dreams come true.

In an era when radio made or broke bands, their album "Master of Puppets" went platinum while receiving no airplay whatsoever. Metallica became the first band from the underground of the '80s to play stadiums -- and they achieved that level of success not through marketing or corporate backing but by grinding: touring, recording, touring, recording... building an audience through word-of-mouth and relentless touring rather than through massive promotional campaigns and slick, heavily-funded marketing.

Today, of course, their success means Metallica enjoys access to resources -- financial, managerial, infrastructure, etc -- that are the envy of their peers. They are no longer a startup.

But on Tuesday night they performed like a startup eager to prove its worth... even though the crowd was filled with raving fans, many having driven hundreds of miles to be there.

That's what a great small business does. That's what a great big business does.

And that's how you develop -- and keep -- raving fans, like Nick and Mark, who drove up from the D.C.area, dealt graciously with an unknown guy who accosted them at a rest stop to ask if they were going to the show, and who were once again friendly to him when he saw them in line before the show.

Published on: Sep 29, 2016
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