November 22, 2017

Some Rock Bands Have Figured Out Incentives and Aligning Behaviors

Last night my wife and I watched a very moving documentary called Long Time Running. It was recommended by a friend whose opinion I most definitely value so it was easy jump in even though we didn’t know what to expect. It chronicled the final tour of legendary Canadian rock band The Tragically Hip. I didn’t know much about their music or the band members before watching the movie. What I didn’t expect was that the final tour was after the band’s lead singer Gord Downie was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. Heavy. They literally removed part of his brain and through sheer determination and force of will, he was able to defy the odds and get back to a level of function to do one final tour. Really incredible on a number of levels.

In watching the film there were several things that stood out to me as worthy of sharing. These guys were together for thirty years. Like any great relationship they were willing to do the hard work. The trust and love they had for each other is evident. In fact, the band was willing to get together for rehearsals after Gord’s surgery with no pretense of actually doing a tour. It is something they realized that Gord had to try despite the odds. They were there to support him regardless of the outcome. They moved past probability and were open to possibility. Besides, they loved their bandmate.

At one point in the film they discussed how one of the smartest things they ever did was to split the publishing equally five ways. In their wisdom they knew early on that one person driving a Porsche and the rest of the band barely getting by was not going to be healthy for the band dynamic. Other bands that we view as special who go the distance like U2, REM and Coldplay all subscribe to the idea of splitting the publishing equally. For them it is a way to ensure that the band comes first. Perhaps for the Tragically Hip it was a way of everyone being “all in”. Having been in the primary songwriter in a band that toured and made records, I can appreciate the noise that got eliminated by this strategy. Beyond the obvious petty jealousy not having a chance to survive, the strategy eliminated the opportunity for any band member to place a greater value on any one contribution. That is a rabbit hole that only causes discord. After all, who is to say big or small what one thing can be the game changer? As a result everyone was motivated to contribute and give their all in a way that was healthy and sustainable for 30 years.

I know what some of you reading this might be thinking. They are Canadian and that is congruent with socialism. Everyone is equal. I’m not suggesting that there isn’t a place in the mix for individual recognition or achievement. For great bands it is a this and, not a this or. What’s important is that they invested in each other and made a commitment. They individually and collectively put their money where their mouths were and it paid off. The band was always first. Not any individual. What makes it work is that the right band members won’t sit back and reap the rewards without contributing. The right band members have a passion and drive to contribute because they are allowed to. They are incentivized to do whatever they can to help the band be as great as possible because they believe in the work and ultimately they realize they will profit from their efforts. The ego driven burden of the size of the contribution becomes irrelevant.

Aristotle once wrote, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts”. Great bands and organizations understand this and know how to bring that idea to life in a way that eliminates scarcity and yields abundance. Sadly, Gord recently left this world at the young age of 53. He will be missed. I am grateful that I got to learn about him and the band.

Rock On,


November 22, 2017

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