Monday, July 20, 2009


There’s no doubt that rock stars can be creative entrepreneurs, just like entrepreneurs can be creative rock stars.

But Kurt Cobain?

It may seem a stretch to call Kurt Cobain and Nirvana entrepreneurs. After all, Cobain was so disturbed by fame that he ultimately took his own life to escape the pressure.

The success of the album Nevermind was an accident of creative genius by punk rockers who reluctantly hit it big, right?

Not exactly.

The Deliberate Creative Genius of Nirvana

I didn’t want to be a fringe alternative band… I’d rather be a rock star. ~Kurt Cobain, About a Son

An entrepreneur is successful because his passion for an outcome leads him to organize available resources in new and more valuable ways. When you look at it that way, Kurt Cobain was definitely a creative entrepreneur, and he and the other members of Nirvana knew the outcome they wanted.

They wanted to be rock stars.

Now, that doesn’t mean they wanted to be rock stars like the crop at the time, such as Bon Jovi, Mötley Crüe, or god forbid, Warrant. Ironically, Nirvana’s success quickly knocked the hair bands off commercial radio.

The innovative mix of punk, pop hooks and 70’s guitar rock allowed Nirvana to change the face of popular music forever. And even though it’s likely they never imagined how big it would get, Cobain candidly reveals it was all according to plan in the 2006 documentary About a Son.

Take a look at the three elements that propelled Nirvana to the top of the charts. They just might help you succeed in your own entrepreneurial endeavors.

1. Break the Status Quo

It wasn’t cool to play pop music as a punk band. And I wanted to mix the two. ~Kurt Cobain, About a Son

To innovate in epic ways, the first step is to rebel against the status quo of the industry or community you belong to. In Nirvana’s case, the music scenes in Seattle and Olympia, Washington, were notoriously anti-commercial.

Nirvana’s indie debut Bleach showed promise, but that abrasive, relatively unstructured noise rock was considered “acceptable” to the Pacific Northwest music scene. Cobain wanted to create hybrid songs with pop elements—along the lines of the Pixies—but met resistance from the community and even from Sub Pop, the label he’d worshiped such a short time ago.

So Nirvana made the heretical move of signing with a major label, releasing Nevermind with Geffen. Once Smells Like Teen Spirit broke through, the grunge gold rush began, and Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Alice in Chains crossed over onto mainstream radio next.

Takeaway: Be a leader, not a follower. You’ll certainly annoy the status quo, but only until you’re reaping the rewards of the innovative pioneer.

2. Mix Innovation With Fundamentals

I don’t think we’re better than the other bands… We got attention because our songs have hooks, which stick in people’s minds. ~Kurt Cobain, About a Son

Most of the songs on Nevermind were written before the band went into the studio. While the music is no way conventional, the tracks possess catchy hooks that are psychologically pleasing.

In other words, Cobain’s desire to add pop hooks to punk compositions is a classic way to “organize available resources in new and more valuable ways.” This is creative entrepreneurism at it’s finest, and Cobain got the rock star outcome he hoped for (be careful what you wish for, etc.).

The band chose producer Butch Vig, whose work with Sonic Youth Cobain admired, and selected Andy Wallace to mix the album. The group walked a fine line by combining polished production with punk aesthetics, and they nailed it (even though Cobain complained years later that Nevermind was too polished).

Takeaway: This is the fine line all creative entrepreneurs walk. Ignore market desire and human psychology, and you fail. Diminish the innovative elements that set you apart, and you become another unremarkable “me too” effort.

3. Bake the Marketing Into the Product

We didn’t do anything. It was just one of those ‘Get out of the way and duck’ records. ~Geffen President Ed Rosenblatt

When Nirvana signed with Geffen Records, they got a tried-and-true marketing machine. Radio promotion and retail positioning had been boiled down to a science in the days before digital distribution turned music marketing on its head.

The selection and release of singles was classic record-label strategy. Smells Like Teen Spirit would go first, which would introduce the band to radio listeners, DJs, and programming directors. This would pave the way for Come as You Are, which would be the more likely hit.

That’s where the plan fell apart.

To say Smells Like Teen Spirit did better than expected is a monumental understatement. A song recorded in three takes with lyrics penned minutes before turned Cobain into the reluctant voice of Generation X.

Geffen hoped that Nevermind would sell at least 250,000 copies, which is what the Vig-produced Sonic Youth album sold. Nevermind has sold over 10,000,000 copies to date, and is critically-regarded as one of the best rock albums in history, just as Smells Like Teen Spirit is considered one of the greatest rock songs ever recorded.

Takeaway: These days, creative entrepreneurs of all stripes can use the Internet to spark their own viral success stories by creating remarkable products and services. Home runs like Nevermind are rare and unexpected, so you still need a smart marketing plan. Just know when to “get out of the way and duck” when the audience decides to market for you.

In Summary (Plus One More Crucial Tip)

Kurt Cobain can definitely teach us things about starting our own business, whether big or small:

  1. The first key is always a new and better approach, or a fresh and innovative way to do the tried and true. If the “do it the way it’s done” crowd tells you you’re wrong, crazy, or stupid, you may be onto something.
  2. You can’t ignore the realities of market demand and human psychology, but often the market doesn’t realize what it wants and the mind craves something new.
  3. Create things that people naturally want to market for you.
  4. Be careful who you marry.
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