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What Keith Richards Taught Me About Business

I recently read Keith Richards’ memoir, “Life.” It’s a rambling, insightful, frequently hilarious and often outrageous telling of the tale of the Rolling Stones’ lead guitarist and musical bedrock. The Stones have long been one of my favorite artists, and reading the book inspired me to break out my old Stones’ concert tapes and to watch “Hail Hail Rock and Roll” the documentary concert film of Chuck Berry’s sixtieth birthday celebration. Richards was one of the producers of the film, served as musical director for the concerts, and discussed the concert and film at length in the book. Both the book and the film provide some lessons for any entrepreneur or business owner.

1. Practice, Practice, Practice. Malcolm Gladwell’s theory that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to excel at anything certainly applies to the Rolling Stones. Richards describes how he, Mick Jagger, Brian Jones and a few friends lived in a squalid London flat where they spent all of their waking hours practicing music and scrounging for food. After the full band formed and began to get paying gigs, Richards estimated that they played one thousand live shows — sometimes three per day — in their first three years together. He was so dedicated to his craft — mastering the blues and converting them to rock and roll — that he often slept with his guitar, claiming that he wrote the basic riff for “Satisfaction” in his sleep, waking up to find he had recorded it in his bedroom overnight.

This type of dedication and push to excel is familiar to many entrepreneurs and business owners driven to take their business to the next level.

2. Don’t Be Afraid to Spend Money to Make Money. Richards describes at length the financial straits the Stones found themselves in in the early 1970’s between bad management and recording agreements and tax problems in England. When the band brought in Prince Rupert Lowenstein to manage their financial affairs, they decided to leave England’s high taxes behind, maximize recording revenue by issuing numerous compilations of previously recorded songs, and to emphasize touring revenues. This strategy eventually led to the massive tours of the past three decades, where the Stones became the most financially successful touring act of all time.

Richards also describes how his personal manager was able to open new revenue streams for him through advertisements, personal money management and his roles in the “Pirates of the Carribbean” films. Similarly, his relationships with others on his personal payroll, including his guitar tech, security and members of his other bands allowed him to focus on making music, which is what he does best. All of these professionals cost money, but Richards makes clear that they have helped him to succeed and are well worth the costs.

In contrast, the film points out how Chuck Berry spent years keeping his expenses to a minimum, traveling by himself with only a guitar and a bag of clothers, working only with pickup local bands who were expected to follow his lead and were paid a minimal fee at the conclusion of the show. (Bruce Springsteen spins a telling anecdote about how he and his band backed up Berry for free after the E Street Band had opened the show). Richards concludes that Berry spent so many years playing with sidemen who could not match his skill level that his own playing and songwriting suffered and that he relegated himself to a novelty act during his 40’s and 50’s when he could have achieved new heights by riding the wave of popularity that the Beatles, Stones, Elvis Presly and others had given his songs.

3. You Need a Business Lawyer Who Has Your Back. The Stones, like most major rock acts of the sixties and seventies (Grateful Dead, Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen) entered into a horrible deal with their “trusted” manager. In their case, Allan Klein, the band’s longtime manager, got the Stones to sign a new contract that granted him rights to most of the band’s 1960’s catalog, costing them millions of dollars.
(On the non-business lawyer front, Richards begins the memoir with a hilarious tale of a near-disastrous arrest on drug charges in Arkansas during the Stones 1975 American tour, where he and bandmate Ron Wood were freed through the efforts of the band’s well-connected on-call attorney. Throughout Richards’ numerous legal run-ins, he makes clear that his attorneys saved him on many occasions.)

Similarly, Richards tells of talking with Johnnie Johnson, Chuck Berry’s pianist in the 1950’s, and learning that Johnson actually cowrote many of Berry’s biggest hits. Because Berry took the entire “writer’s share” of the copyright in these hits, Johnson was deprived of millions of dollars in royalties over the years. When Richards located Johnson to ask him to play in the band celebrating Berry’s 60th birthday, Johnson was working as a bus driver.

In each case, a savvy business lawyer could have saved the artist millions of dollars. While business owners are sometimes reluctant to spend money on attorneys, in many cases the amounts saved or found by a lawyer will dwarf the actual fees paid.

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