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Monday, May 31, 2010

What Marketers, Musicians, Artists, Salespersons…OK, damn near everyone can learn from Rush

Developing and maintaining an emotionally responsive and commercially supportive group of followers - a diverse, international group of brand champions willing to accept your stylistic refinements while embracing your rock-solid core values - is a marketer’s (and accountant’s) dream.  Achieving this level of success undeterred by detractors claiming your business model is flawed, and maintaining personal and professional integrity while experiencing one major personnel change in a 40 year collaboration is something quite unique. Certainly, an enterprise such as this would be both rare and influential.

Rush, the legendary Canadian rock band formed in 1968, is such an enterprise. Rush has sold 40 million records since 1974, when they released their debut full length LP (the only record featuring their original drummer). Eschewing the pop ideal they focused instead on superior musicianship and arrangements both complex and original joined to thoughtfully considered lyrical content. Today, Rush enjoys some of the most devoted fans in popular music with only The Beatles and The Rolling Stones garnering more consecutive gold and platinum selling albums. Just last month a film documenting their storied career won the prestigious Tribeca Film Festival Audience Award. These meritorious milestones were achieved on Rush's terms, over many years and against myriad obstacles. Rush differed from others within their chosen genre yet refused to bow to critics, methodically and unswervingly focusing on their strengths, abilities, and perhaps most importantly, their audience.

As is often the case with innovators, not everyone embraced their pioneering spirit. There are those that love the band unconditionally and those to whom the concept is incomprehensible. Those situated in the latter camp may dislike progressive rock in general or, perhaps more specifically, blame the shrill pitch of vocalist Geddy Lee’s early vocal style. Radio stations once considered Lee’s vocals "unsuitable for airplay", and some critics labeled the band unlistenable and pretentious; songs averaged 5-6 minutes in length with some clocking in at over 20. Crafting three-minute pop hits is indeed a difficult and skillful art. Writing and performing music replete with complex time signatures and changes is likewise challenging, with perhaps greater risks. A sub-genre of rock and pop music, progressive rock – the moniker indicates a willingness to explore and embrace diverse and sometimes challenging musical territory - lacks the often instantaneous mass appeal of hit-friendly radio. 

Rush’s influence as a group and within their respective instrumental disciplines cannot be overstated. Musicians in such diverse groups such as Muse, Metallica, Primus, Alexisonfire, Smashing Pumpkins, Soundgarden, and Foo Fighters, to name but a few, acknowledge Rush as a major influence. Lee handles bass, keyboards and vocals with equal facility, and collaborating with celebrated lead guitarist Alex Lifeson, crafts the band’s musical content. Both are highly regarded and respected by the music community. Drummer (and novelist) Neil Peart is the band’s lyricist. Peart has launched a million air drumming careers, motivated millions more to drumset creativity and over the decades been featured in influential drum magazines, winning countless fan polls and accolades. Rush have spawned more tribute bands than perhaps any other group – always the sincerest form of flattery.

Arguably Rush's most astonishing feat is their demographic differentiation. Listeners may come and go, or perhaps parachute in when a comely hit makes rotation on commercial airwaves. Rush fans, in contrast, are reliable and resilient. They are also an incredibly varied bunch: Rock fans, jazz fans, punk fans, metal fans, classical fans; moms, dads, old farts, and recent initiates.  Once considered “Heavy Metal”, Rush matured musically and lyrically, gaining worldwide acclaim. Similarly, their fans became more diverse and less prone to generalization. A common misconception that women don’t like the band and only begrudgingly attend concerts with their boyfriends or husbands is patently false. My wife loves the band, as does the wife of one of my music colleagues; she may be the world’s most ardent Rush fan (for the record: she is a very successful executive and a new mom). Recently, a business colleague told me she could hardly wait to see the upcoming documentary as she, too, is a long time Rush devotee. Actuaries may insist 3 women represent an insufficient sample size; extrapolate that number to the immediate circles of the millions of other Rush fans, including the women that produce RushCon, an annual convention dedicated to all things Rush, and I suspect the statisticians will be satisfied.

Now in their late 50’s the band's members could easily retire, reflecting on a career that spans 4 decades, 18 studio albums and least 16 compilation/live albums (24 gold, 3 platinum), and over 10 DVDs. Instead, Rush will soon begin another grueling world tour. With an award winning documentary about to be released and a new album in the works, Rush continues to write an enviable success story. Once passed over and/or reviled by critics, Rush nevertheless upended industry-dictated convention and grew an appreciative, worldwide audience.

Achievements of this magnitude are quite rare. In fact, they are just as rare as they were back in 1968. What’s stopping us from penning a similar tale today?

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