John Lennon may have left us 31 years ago, but his legacy is not only alive and well – it’s making a lot of money.
• It has an annual income of over £10M which adds to the existing £400M already banked.
• Lennon is number one in the world for rock memorabilia. Any handwritten lyrics usually sell for in excess of £400,000. In June 2010, handwritten lyrics to A Day in the Life sold for £810,000. His simple line drawings sell for around £4000
• 1 million people visit Liverpool each year to follow the Beatles trail, spending around £48M while they’re there.
• There are over 5000 books on Lennon currently in print. There are numerous stage musicals, plays and tribute acts performing around the world.
You may scoff and say, “of course there’s money, he’s an icon, a legend, due in part to the obvious fact that he’s dead. It’s not like my business at all, a completely different thing.”
But you’d be wrong. Just think about what that really means…
The aim of any business is to make money and the aim of any business owner is for that business to make money without them being there. Lennon has achieved that.
He did, in fact achieve it in his lifetime and were he alive and well today he would be making even more money. The Beatles were repeatedly offered $1M in the mid 1970s to reform, even just for one day. They couldn’t be bothered. In one such offer, they were asked live on a television show, just to turn up to the studio before the show finished. Oddly, Paul McCartney was visiting John in New York at the time. The story goes, they got as far as putting their coats on, but then, feeling a bit tired, decided to stay in and order pizza instead.
But let’s put to one side the thoughts of Lennon and the Beatles being gods with the Midas touch, leave for a moment the wonderful music and the messages of peace and love and look at some of the practical aspects that have turned John Lennon from rock ‘n’ roll performer into a massive, profitable business empire.
Lennon’s legacy is a type of business that if we weren’t clouded with the magic and beauty of his original product: entertainment and the fact that so many of us equate creativity with some other purpose other than making money, we’d see what it is. It’s a franchise.
The Lennon franchise includes those heritage tours, the museums and exhibitions, the sales of his artwork and writing, the repackaging of his back catalogue plus the ever expanding business in tribute acts, musicals, biopics and books created by an ever increasing pool of fans, friends and relatives. They may all working to keep the name alive but in the process have created a branded merchandise franchise not too different to George Lucas’s ever expanding Star Wars (do you remember when it was just a film?) or even, if I can bring myself to say it, MacDonald’s.
There are some key choices that Lennon made, as part of the Beatles and after that helped to grow the Beatles, and then his own solo success. He also made more big, and more devastatingly bad decisions in his short career than the rest of us usually make in a lifetime.
Here are 9 great decisions and actions he used to great effect:
1. Choose one niche, do one thing really well, irrespective of what everyone else is doing
It’s hard to believe now, but when the Beatles performed their peculiar version of Rock ‘n’ Roll to audiences in Liverpool and then Hamburg in 1960 to 1962 they had chosen an obscure and almost irrelevant out-of-date musical style. Rock ‘n’ Roll was a fad that had lasted from 1957 to 1959, mainly imported from America by the likes of Bill Haley and Elvis. Many of the other acts we know about today in the pantheon of the genre were not too widely known and by 1960, rock ‘n’ roll had all but vanished to be replaced by crooning pretty boys singing safe, boring Tin Pan Alley formula songs. The Beatles chose what they liked and what they were good at, irrespective of market forces. They were told by the record company Decca, “groups with guitars are on the way out…” and they took no notice.
2. Appoint people to your board who are better than you
The American author and speaker Bill Stainton puts it best in his book about the Best Decisions the Beatles Ever Made where he points out what bigger and decision could a teenager like Lennon could make than to allow a cleverer, more talented, prettier musician into his own band with whom he’d have to share the limelight with? Lennon knew that the Beatles would be better with McCartney. His ambition and decision making process was not clouded by pride.
3. Charm the media with natural wit – not a fake persona
One of the keys to the Beatles immense success was the way they charmed the World’s media. Lennon was the best at it. It worked because he was always himself. Whereas McCartney was always awkward and embarrassed in front of the cameras, Lennon appeared natural and honest. He could be cruel, cheeky and very funny. The Beatles became quickly seen as young men of interest and influence, not just grinning pop singers. Their opinions were sought on a variety of intellectual topics that before the Beatles appeared, would be unthinkable to ask a mere singer or musician. Lennon’s honesty and integrity came across and it connected people to him.
4. Bring your interests and expertise into your money making products and services to make them more unique and more compelling
The towering beacons of the 1960s were undoubtedly the Beatles and Bob Dylan. What’s fascinating is how they admired, hated, loved and influenced each other. Lennon inspired Dylan to expand his music arrangements into new areas and Dylan inspired Lennon to expand his lyrics into new areas. Dylan couldn’t understand how Lennon could write such interesting, deep, funny and clever prose in his two books (In His Own Write, 1964 and A Spaniard in the Works, 1965) and yet kept that use of language, wit and allegory out of his song lyrics. Literary reviewers had likened the poems in In His Own Write to Edward Lear. High praise. And yet Lennon was still writing songs about banal topics as ‘diamonds and rings’.
Lennon took this observation seriously. The first results were the introspective coded lyrics of I’m A Loser (Beatles For Sale, 1964) and You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away (Help!, 1965). These were followed by the creation of songs whose theme was not romantic love such as The Word (Rubber Soul, 1965) and the mighty Tomorrow Never Knows (Revolver, 1966). From then on, Lennon’s songs explored obscure themes of existence and thoughtful psychology with only the exception of songs directed inspired by his relationship with Yoko. Look at the internal questioning of Strawberry Fields Forever, the dreamlike Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, the wordplay of I Am the Walrus and the surreal imagery of Happiness is a Warm Gun.
5. Be prolific
From 1963 to 1966 the Beatles averaged every year two national tours and a world tour, 3 to 4 number one singles, 2 top charting EPs, 2 number one albums, a film and a few short promo films, a Christmas show, numerous tv appearances and a weekly radio show, every year. That’s prolific.
6. When you have nailed your first key product or service, move onto the next natural one. Constantly change by evolving
Having conquered the hit song, Lennon and McCartney started selling their spare songs and writing songs for other performers to sing. This increased their earnings considerably. Lennon then entered the world of book publishing with his collection of funny surreal verse, another win. Then they entered the movie business producing four hit films, A Hard Days Night (1964), Help! (1965), Yellow Submarine (1968) and Let It Be (1970). The Beatles left frustration and feelings of inadequacy with other rock musicians in their wake. Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys was frustrated with his own groups inability to change and evolve their sound as quickly as as unexpectedly as the Beatles. There was a secret competition to out-do each others albums that came to a head when the Beatles released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band causing Brian Wilson to give up and have a nervous breakdown. He shelved the Beach Boys album Smile (it was finally released in 2011) feeling it wasn’t enough. He knew that the Beatles sound was constantly evolving. “Each Beatle album sounded different” he said.
7. If it’s boring, stop doing it
Like everyone of his generation, Lennon wanted to be a film star, among other things. After getting the taste for it in the first two Beatle films, he agreed to be in Richard Lester’s How I Won the War in 1966. He described the experience as being “as boring as hell” and would not appear in a movie again (bar the Beatles own biopic, Let It Be.)
8. Marketing is simple if you keep it simple
Lennon was a genius at marketing. Just think about the ‘Bed in for Peace’ from 1969. It’s still talked about today, 42 years later.
9. Seek out new experiences and new muses
John had a number of creative breakdowns, each of which he recovered from with something new. The first was perhaps after the whirlwind of touring as a performing Beatle came to an abrupt end in 1966. He, like the others, felt defined by being a live performer with a full schedule. What was he to do now? After throwing himself into the red herring of film acting, Lennon and the Beatles found that experimenting in the recording studio wold give them a new direction. It worked and a new level of creativity was reached.
The next breakdown was sometime in late 1967. Sgt. Pepper had been a massive success, as had every other piece of music that had come from the studio experimentation. But by the end of the year Lennon was creatively drained. His home life was at its lowest ebb. The increased use of drugs was having an effect on his ego resulting in a massive loss of self confidence and feeling of failure. Added to this was the death of the Beatles manager and Lennon’s close friend, Brian Epstein. He was questioning the meaning of everything and losing his purpose.
There were two parts to his escape from this low. One was the getaway: the Beatles retreat to India. Intended as a spiritual retreat, it re-fueled each Beatle’s creativity, composing so many songs that their next LP would have to be a double, The Beatles aka The White Album (songs from India also made it onto the Let It Be and Abbey Road albums the following year as well as onto Lennon, McCartney and Harrison albums for many years to come.)
The other aspect to Lennon’s creative revival was Yoko. Many people cite Lennon’s pairing with Yoko as the worst thing that could have happened, and the reason for the Beatles split. The truth is more complex. It’s true that Yoko replaced Paul as Lennon’s main collaborator. It did mean the fab four would never be the same, but that had been true throughout their career anyway. Yoko started off as John’s new muse, his inspiration, then became his competition and then his business manager and finally Empress of his legacy.
After the Beatles split, each Beatle suffered heavily with lack of purpose, low self confidence, doubt and criticism. In many ways John suffered most, in part because George and Ringo came off, initially, so well in comparison. It must have confused and galled Lennon that Harrison, freed from the restrictions of two songs per LP in the dominated world of Lennon-McCartney, had just released a triple LP of critically acclaimed material. Ringo became (briefly) the highest paid actor in Hollywood. Paul carried on being Paul, now teamed with his new wife Linda, and was having melodic hit after melodic hit. And yet there he was, the instigator and powerhouse of Beatlemania, struggling to enter the charts, estranged from a hostile press, addicted to Heroin and within a few years separated from his second wife. (He and Yoko nearly divorced, their 18 month separation was re-branded as ‘The Lost Weekend’ by Lennon after their reconciliation of 1974).
His recovery from all this took the rest of his life to turn around. First, during The Lost Weekend, he was re-aquatinted with old friends and collaborators, healed old wounds and wrote and performed for fun. He hung out with Ringo, Harry Nilsson, Keith Moon, Bowie, Elton John and Mick Jagger, but it was his oldest friend that would seal his fate to create the final chapter in his life. He’d been seeing Paul McCartney on and off in 1974 (they even had a jam together with Harry Nilsson and Stevie Wonder). John was ready for a reunion and Paul had the choice, after a conversation he’d had with Yoko, that he could get the Beatles back together, or, relay how Yoko felt and what John needed to do to heal their marriage. Paul chose to help John and Yoko. They got back together in 1974. The Beatles reunion was postponed for the next opportunity, but by the time it was planed to happen in 1981, it was too late, John had gone.
But returning to John’s creativity breakthrough, it needed two elements, missing from the early 70s, which he finally found in the last years of his life. One was security. At last his finances were in order. His lifestyle was healthy, his home life was stable. He has a proud ‘househusband’ and father, bringing up his son Sean. The second was adventure. he sailed a boat single-handed through a storm in Bermuda and he thought of returning to the stage with new material (plus greatest hits of his solo and his Beatle hits) in the new year of 1981. The first fruits of his renewed creativity gave us the LP Double Fantasy and the posthumous tracks on Milk and Honey. There would have been much more to come if history had taken a different course on 8th December 1980.
In the next article I’ll discuss more of the best business decisions Lennon ever made plus look at some of the most devastating bad ones that almost brought the myth, and the money, crashing down.
Ayd Instone works with people to explore and unlock their creative ideas in ways they may never have thought possible, to inspire innovation in their lives, and their business.
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