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Life, why would you want to be anyone else if you’re Keith Richards?

July 11, 2012

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the first Rolling Stones gig at London’s Marquee Club – 12 July, 1962, a group of raw young musicians performed at a dingy club in front of a small crowd of enthusiasts. If those young lads had not become the Rolling Stones, one of the biggest musical acts in history, that evening’s gig would have been relegated as an unimportant, mundane event and forgotten. But it was the start of something huge.

On that summer night, the Stones had no expectations that they could even make money playing gigs, much less become a global cultural iconic symbol of youth, creativity and licentiousness. In fact, the Stones were not even the headline act that night – they opened for Long John Baldry.

Introduced to The Stones by my wife, they’ve some ok tunes, but it was Keith Richards the man and musician, rather than the band’s music, which has subsequently interested me. His 2010 biography Life is a wonderful voice and narrative of his life, funnily enough, and in fact Keith actually has a lot to say. I guess I wasn’t expecting much more than some version of Get high, play music, crash…Get high, play music, crash…. but I found him articulate, witty, intelligent and thoughtful, and by far the most impactful aspect of the book are the business lessons.

Although most of us will never be rock stars, looking back over 50 years, there are some valuable personal and business lessons to be learned from the Rolling Stones. So get your headphones on, download Exile on Main Street from iTunes, and read on.

Start with the 10,000 hours. Nobel Prize-winning sociologist Herbert Simon calculated that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery in any field, a prescription further developed by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers. (

Richards does this in spades – in fact, he’d probably completed his 10,000-hour apprenticeship in his early twenties, so he’s now well past the level of mastery and into some other realm.

As Richards noted about the band’s early days, Benedictines had nothing on us. Anybody that strayed from the nest to get laid, or try to get laid, was a traitor. You were supposed to spend all your waking hours studying Jimmy Reed, Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Howlin’ Wolf. That was your gig. Every other moment taken away from it was a sin. They would sit for hours asking How the hell did they do that? How did they get that sound? How did they play that chord progression? How can they do that much with two chords? Etc. They were modelling the greats.

Choose your attitude Richards notes that his family didn’t have a record player for a long time, but because, rather than in spite of Richards’ humble beginnings, he was eventually able to buy and play music.

He doesn’t bemoan inequality in terms of opportunity, but Richards’ inspiring story reminds us that starting at the bottom is often a blessing. His first guitar cost £10. Notable is that Richards couldn’t afford an electric guitar, but his family’s inability to pay for an electric was instrumental in his rise as an awesome self-taught guitar player.

Rather than allow his reduced economic circumstances to act as a barrier to achievement, he accentuated the positive, that he had a guitar and proceeded to play every spare moment I got. Clearly Richards started at the bottom, and had less financial resources to fund his development but this was no deterrent. Richards’ view is that if you want to get to the top, you’ve got to start at the bottom. Our first aim as the Rolling Stones was to be the best rhythm and blues band in London, with regular gigs every week. But the main aim was somehow to get to make records.

Never compromise Richards’ stories from the recording studios blew me away. I never thought of the man as such a hard worker as he clearly is, nor, frankly, did I think he was such a perfectionist. I don’t suggest you call upon quite as much pharmaceutical help to do it as Keith did, but he is an incredible role model for standing up not just for quality work, but the best quality work – and not just mostly, but all the time.

It’s about putting in a shift The rock ‘n roll lifestyle gives off an air of nonchalance and a non-work ethic. This is all part of the charming and alluring mythology of rock ‘n roll hedonism, but the story is apocryphal. Richards is the ultimate professional rock ‘n roller but invested a big chunk of life rehearsing and performing with an appetite for perfection, whether to sell hit records, play the best gigs, or attain a high level of musicianship.

In their early years, The Stones released at least two, sometimes three, albums of quality material a year, while touring and writing new material. The Stones recorded more than fifty separate tracks in 1964.

Richards recounts that The gig never finished just because you got off stage. Particularly during the early years, the band worked nearly non-stop with concert tours, then would immediately go back into the studio to record another album that would beget another tour. This focus on, or perhaps obsession with results, is something I observed over and over again in Life rehearsals, sound checks, and recording sessions were relentless.

Partners, buddies Richards retains a deep conviction that the partnership produced magic that the individuals could not, he knows that he and Jagger have a chemistry that’s created because of their differences, not in spite of them. He acknowledges what his partner brings to the table that he didn’t have, and gives him credit for it. Richards celebrates Jagger as the best performer and lyricist in the business, he’s proud of him. He honours the shared history, the blood, sweat and tears have deep personal resonance and deserve respect.

We’re in a band. Creative partnerships in key positions are essential to success. Jagger doesn’t work well without Richards, and vice-versa. More broadly, teamwork is crucial. The Jagger/Richards partnership wouldn’t work well without drummer Charlie Watts, the core of the band has been together since day one. Good teams are stable over time but can cope with personnel changes. Wyman and Taylor are gone, Ronnie Wood joined. Backing singers have been added, but the quality remains the same.

Good teams like working together, but don’t have to be best friends. You sense tension between Jagger and Richards, but ultimately, respect.

Have an identity Branding is vital, and so is looking after your brand. If there is a red tongue on the product, it’s the Rolling Stones. If it’s the Rolling Stones, there’s a red tongue on the product. Image is everything.

Put on a show Top bands kick into a higher gear when it’s ‘show time’, similar to top performing sports teams who take-it-up a notch when it really counts. Great bands seem energized by deadlines and often write their best material in the studio at the eleventh hour, when it really matters.

Create and own assets. The Rolling Stones created their own record label to have more creative control over their music and keep a bigger share of the profits. This was at a time in the music industry when many artists were not able to attain that level of freedom and profitability – the history of the music business is full of stories of young musicians who never got a fair share of the rewards of their creative work.

Play-on Lastly, a frequent question posed to Richards is Why don’t you give it up? Richards’ response, one that is typical of very successful individuals is that I can’t retire until I croak. I don’t think they quite understand what I get out of this. I’m not doing it just for the money or for you. I’m doing it for me. Will you still have the passion Keith has at his age? He still talks with incredible passion about music, aged 69.

Rock music is, of course, a business: there are partnerships to consider, record deals to craft, intellectual property to protect, tours to organise and merchandise to sell. Of course there’s also groupies, drugs, and trashed hotel rooms that one doesn’t (normally) find in a corporate setting.

So what’s this got to do with you? Even if you’ll never strum a guitar like Keith, or write great tunes, you can learn a lot from the principles shown by the Rolling Stones. Who are you modelling? What greats do you wish to be like? What is your Number One goal? How hard are you really working? What are you doing to optimise your potential, your talent, your energy, your fulfilment, your joy, your love, your self-actualisation, your Life?

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