Bob Marley is famous across the world. His brand, even all these years after his death, continues to generate millions of dollars every year. Yet, Bob Marley never set out to make a profit. He set out to follow a passion. There is a lesson in Bob Marley’s career for businesses to take note of.
When Marley started making music in the early 1960s, the word reggae didn’t even exist! Bob and his friends simply made the music that was in their hearts, a reflection of their lives, religious beliefs, and cultural heritage. People used words like ‘rock steady’ and ‘blue beat’ to describe the new sound these Jamaican artists were making, but none of those names stuck. But it didn’t really matter to the musicians that their music didn’t have a name. All that mattered was the music.
The true story behind the origin of the word reggae is up for debate to date. The first printed use of the word in reference to music was a 1968 song called Do The Reggay by The Maytalls. Some say the word came about because it mimicked the sound that the guitar and organ made when played together. Others claim that it originated as a variation on the Jamaican slang word straggae, a word used to describe people, primarily young women, who looked raggedy in torn clothing. Meanwhile, Bob Marley himself has put forward a somewhat more royal story into the mix. Marley claims that the word reggae is derived from the Spanish phrase for ‘the king’s music’. That story is unproven, but it does make sense considering that the Latin word regi is translated as ‘king’.
By the time the word reggae became a part of music lexicon in the late 1960s, this unique island sound was starting to catch on around the world. Artists such as Paul Simon, Johnny Nash, and Eric Clapton came to Jamaica to absorb the island’s influence and record their music with Jamaica’s richly talented musicians. Bob Marley did become wealthy beyond his wildest dreams, but had he started out on a mission to get rich, he would have quickly been pressured to compromise the powerful set of values that he represented.
After all, the new reggae sound was, at the time, just a small niche market outside of the Caribbean. If Bob wanted to quickly get rich, logic would have directed him to become more like the popular American and British performers of the day, leaving his Jamaican roots behind. That quest for money would have resulted in Marley making music that wasn’t true to his heart, a path to short-term profits with terrible long-term results.
The world fell in love with Bob Marley’s music and bought millions of copies of his albums because of the powerful values that he passionately sang about and stood for. His songs captured the spirit of Jamaica, and proudly shared its “one love” attitude around the globe. He sang about his heritage, his upbringing, and his family.
Bob sang about peace, togetherness, and unity. He wasn’t afraid to declare his Rastafarian beliefs and his pro-ganja stance, even if those attitudes risked alienating some potential fans. On every album he poured out his heart, never compromising to please anyone. His fans rewarded him by making his Legend album the best-selling reggae album in history, with over 25 million copies sold across the world.
Throughout the history of music, there have been plenty of examples of artists who have compromised their sound in order to cash in on short-term fads. The most obvious such trend was the rise of disco music in the late 1970s. As disco music became more popular across the world, many rock ‘n’ roll artists were tempted to alter their sound for a change in order to cash in on it.
The fad managed to suck in Rod Stewart and he ended up releasing Do Ya’ Think I’m Sexy. Paul McCartney recorded an ill-fated disco song called Goodnight Tonight. Even the Rolling Stones took a shot with songs like Miss You and Emotional Rescue. But perhaps the most glaring was hard rockers KISS, who consciously decided to try create a fusion of rock and disco with a song called I Was Made For Loving You.
While I Was Made For Loving You became a major hit, it also divided KISS fans bitterly. Many long-term fans felt abandoned by the new disco sound and accused their favourite band of selling out. Meanwhile, a wealth of new fans were hearing KISS for the first time when they heard I Was Made For Loving You. But when they heard other KISS songs, they were no doubt unimpressed by the fact that none of the band’s music sounded like the hit they were hearing on the radio.
To this day, I Was Made For Loving You remains a controversial moment in the history of one of America’s legendary hard rock bands. While it made the band tremendous amounts of money, it also seriously eroded their original fan base. In the years following their disco hit, the band’s popularity took a serious decline.
In business, we need to remember that our profits come about as a result of our passion, not the other way around. When you do something that you are passionate about, and you do it passionately well, people are far more likely to support your mission. Businesses built on passion have values, and customers identify with those values. When business decisions are filtered through the ‘passion’ filter, the answers become much clearer. Tempting opportunities that present short-term financial gain but go against the passionate core values of the brand (like KISS recording a disco song!) become much easier to walk away from.
One of the top airlines in the US is Southwest Airlines, a company that has built its brand upon low prices and a fun attitude. Achieving the lowest prices for their customers, while, at the same time, providing them with a positive experience was their passion from day one. Every decision at Southwest, from the early start-up days until today, was put through the ‘low price/great service’ filter.
New routes and new planes are added only when they contribute to offering the Southwest customer the lowest price with the best possible service. If proposed new routes or new planes offer short-term financial gain, but fail to contribute to their passionate goal of giving their fans the lowest prices and best service, they walk away from them.
As a direct result of their passionate dedication to low prices and great service, Southwest rose to become America’s leading low-cost carrier, and steadily ranks as one of the country’s top airlines in terms of passenger traffic. Those fliers keep coming back, according to the American Customer Satisfaction Index, which consistently ranks Southwest Airlines as the leading airline for passenger satisfaction. It would have been easy for Southwest to compromise along the way in order to make quick dollar, but they wisely stayed true to the passionate values upon which they were founded.
Music fans around the world can be thankful that Bob Marley did the same thing. By always staying true to his passionate values, he created a legacy of music and storytelling that has enriched the lives of people of all nationalities, races, and faiths.