The management secrets of classic rock bands

Mysterious ways.
Mysterious ways.
Image: AP Photo/KGC-138/STAR MAX/IPx
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The world of rock music is an extraordinarily fertile laboratory for management techniques.

Corporations are bound by regulations and bylaws, and sports teams are constrained by the rules of the game.

But rock bands don’t need rules, man. They can be shaped and molded in almost infinite directions, following the whims of their members, managers, or svengalis. They range from tight, two-person outfits like the White Stripes to the sprawling 20-member Polyphonic Spree. Bands can be a disorganized shambles like Guns N’ Roses or a finely tuned machine like Kiss. They can be driven by love of music, fame, or money, but the bands that endure are the ones that figure out a management model that keeps them making music together.

Herewith, a sampling of the management models used by some of rock’s most successful acts.

Collaborative democracy: Radiohead

It’s hard to find a (successful) band where power is completely decentralized, but Radiohead comes close. The British band, beloved by math majors, shares in the decision making, and while singer Thom Yorke initiates the songwriting process, all members take part in the crafting of their intricate songs. “As a band, we’re all individually essential,” guitarist Ed O’Brien told Chuck Klosterman for a 2003 profile in Spin magazine. “In Radiohead, no one is replaceable.”

That all-for-one ethos made it easier for the band to take chances artistically, and financially. In 2007, Radiohead released an album for free online, asking fans to pay what they wish, a radical experiment at the time. The band is also shrewd about its money, creating more than 20 corporate entities for its various projects (giving them nerd-rock names like LLLP LLP) and starting a business to create its own tour merchandise.

Leaders among equals: U2

If ever there was a band that seems tilted toward one member, it’s U2. Bono doesn’t so much occupy the spotlight as devour it, using his energy and charisma to sell albums and tickets, while moonlighting as a social justice entrepreneur. As for the rest of the band, there’s the Edge, then, um, the guy with glasses, and, er, the drummer.

But while Bono draws the lion’s share of attention, U2’s profits are divided evenly, with no extra royalties for the songwriters. That decision, which defies common practice, came early in the band’s history, in the name of harmony and to prevent future friction. Unusually, longtime manager Paul McGuiness also received an equal share for many years, reflecting his role in the band’s business success.

Creative decisions are also shared, and all members take part in crafting their songs, thrashing them out in a process Bono calls “songwriting by accident.” Before starting a new album, all the band members recommit themselves to the project of U2. “It’s just about asking some very simple questions: Why do you want to be in a band, and what do you want to do with it? Are our four interests served?” Bono told Billy Corgan in Live! Magazine in 1997. “Because there’s no other reason at this point for us to make a record. It gets down to corny old words like self-respect.”

Hierarchy: Eagles

The Eagles projected a carefree spirit in their music and public image —“a peaceful, easy feeling”—but behind the scenes, the band was focused and driven by its founders, Glenn Frey and Don Henley.

Frey and Henley came to Los Angeles in the late 1960s to find fame and fortune in rock, and toured as backup musicians to Linda Ronstadt. They formed the Eagles with two more experienced musicians, Randy Meisner and Bernie Leadon, which helped the group secure a record contract. But what may have started as a four-way partnership evolved into a two-tiered structure as Frey and Henley took on most of the songwriting and, with it, control. Other band members came and went, but Frey (who died in 2016) and Henley set the direction and reaped many of the rewards.

That hierarchy was essential to working order, Henley said in a 2014 interview.

“The thing about bands is you have to have leaders in a band,” he said. “Everybody can’t be on equal footing. It’s like a football team. Somebody’s got to be the quarterback.”

The Eagles’ success is inarguable. Two of their albums remain among the best selling of all time, and their 1994 reunion tour was one of the top-grossing of the decade. But their autocratic style and uneven allocation of revenues led to bruised feelings, fights, and in the case of fired member Don Felder, a lawsuit against Frey and Henley.

Anarchy: Grateful Dead

For much of its 50-year history, the Grateful Dead were proudly and defiantly unorganized. With its roots in the anti-authoritarian counterculture of 1960s San Francisco, the band rebelled against rules, structure, and convention. Artistically, they converted that anarchic spirit into a unique brand of free-flowing psychedelic rock, and famously played concerts without a setlist.

Improvisation can work on stage, but it’s harder to pull off when the show is over. According to the recent documentary Long Strange Trip, the band would deliberately sabotage attempts by their record label to promote them, such as dosing a camera crew with LSD, and they toured Europe in 1972 with an entourage of 43 because no one was empowered to say “no.” Keith and Donna Godchaux were able to join the band in 1971 because they decided they wanted to.

On stage, Jerry Garcia (who died in 1995) played the role of talismanic leader, but he ran from responsibility off it. Tough decisions, such as firing an incompetent tour manager, were delegated to others. In the 1980s, when the band’s fans multiplied and swarmed their performances, creating a public safety problem, Garcia was urged to a record a message asking fans without tickets to stay home. He demurred. “Jerry just couldn’t bring himself to do one of those,” band publicist Dennis McNally said.

But the Grateful Dead thrived despite—or, more likely, because of—their haphazard management. While other bands zealously policed bootlegged albums, the Grateful shrugged their shoulders when fans taped their concerts, reasoning that once the musicians finished playing, they no longer needed the music. The tapes circulated widely, and without intending it, the band’s inaction helped build a passionate and loyal community of Dead Heads.