Last Thursday, I finally got to see The Cars in concert at the House of Blues in Boston. The Cars hadn’t toured in 25 years, so this event was the buzz of the town – the band members being “local boys” after all.
I love live music – and over the years, I have slowly, but steadily, been checking off my huge “bands-I-need-to-see-before-I-die” list. There are a few bands that have been stuck at the bottom of that list for longer than I can remember – names like Pink Floyd, Nirvana, (the original) Alice in Chains. These bands fall into the “unfortunately, it’s not meant to be” category. The Cars were relegated to that category too – after all, the band broke up in 1988, and Ric Ocasek (the lead singer) had always discouraged talk of a reunion since then, telling one interviewer in 1997 “I’m saying never and you can count on that”. So this unexpected and intimate tour was a surprise to all.
As it turned out, thousands of people were as excited as I was to see them play. I’ve been to the House of Blues countless times to see way bigger acts – but I have never seen such a long line of people at the door. Fortunately, I was still able to inch my way to the very front. We were all shoulder-to-shoulder, packed like sardines – just the way I prefer it. The atmosphere was electric, and just past 8PM, the eagerly awaited show began.
Wow, did they sound good! Ocasek’s voice was absolutely sublime. They opened up with “Let’s Go”, one of their very upbeat classic. The crowd was pumped and very animated. But after the 3rd song, I noticed something very peculiar about the band – they were all anchored to their spot, and remained quasi-stationary throughout their performance. The Cars are possibly the least animated band in the history of mankind – turns out, they’ve always been this way. They have zero stage presence – and outside of their music, they’re an incredibly boring bunch – which is mind-boggling, given that this is what they do for a living. But this didn’t stop people from coming out in droves to see them play. And it didn’t stop The Cars from being one of the most successful bands of the 80s.
This reminds me of another band I adore – Dire Straits. I saw them play in Perth, Australia, circa early 1990s. The day before the concert, I ran into them inside a small second hand CD store (remember those?!) in downtown Perth. Here I was, flicking through obscure CDs, and right next to me was Mark Knopfler, the lead singer and inspiration behind Dire Straits. I didn’t want to be one of those annoying groupies, so I just glanced over at him and nodded. He was just a “regular guy” – in fact, no one else besides the store owner recognized him. Knopfler grabbed a few CDs, and was off. The next day, he’d be entertaining a crowd of 80,000.
A few days after the concert, the main newspaper in Perth printed an exclusive interview of him. At one point in the interview, the journalist asked Knopfler why he was so boring on stage. An irked Knopfler replied “I may be boring, but I’m very rich”.
Like The Cars, Dire Straits is very static on stage. There is zero interaction with the crowd – it’s all about the music. And what music! Brothers in Arms, the band’s defining album, is one of the best selling of all time – with over 30 million copies sold. The band toured furiously, playing 247 sold out shows in over 100 different cities. Boring or not, people loved the music – and the band was very successful.
Who you are and what you do ends up defining you. You end up falling in 1 of 4 quadrants:
- Very exuberant, and very good at what you do – it’s when you have something of great value, and you’re able to mesmerize the world in the process. This creates explosive growth. Lady Gaga and Facebook come to mind.
- Very exuberant, but what you offer is very unimaginative and has little value – you will make an initial splash, but will eventually fade away into oblivion. You burn through cash, and become the joke of the town. This reminds me of Milli Vanilli and Jobster.
- Boring, but very good at what you do – you won’t share the same spotlight as your exuberant counterpart, but you’ll outlast them all. People won’t be passionate about you, but they’ll miss you when you’re not around. These are the Dire Straits, The Cars and the IBMs of the world.
- Boring and not very good – those that crash on takeoff. The startup world is littered with those.
As a business, you can’t really choose your quadrant – you become it. It’s a combination of your core principles, your values, your ideas, your execution and so forth. But one thing is certain – be good at what you do, or you’ll eventually fizzle out. You cannot be successful without producing something of value – but it’s OK to be boring.