The Rolling Stones’ Guide to Business Success


By Rich Cohen, May 6, 2016 10:24 a.m. ET The greatness of the Rolling Stones—that stunning library of guitar licks and lyrics, the decades of tabloid feuds and imbroglios, the packed stadiums—obscures a more interesting fact: For the past 50-plus years, this band, formed in a London pub in 1962, has been among the most dynamic, profitable and durable corporations in the world. In the course of my lifelong study of the world’s greatest rock band, I’ve come away with five lessons—strategies that any CEO or entrepreneur should keep in mind while playing the long game.

Choose the right name. The band was originally called Little Boy Blue and the Blue Boys. It was Brian Jones, the band’s lead guitarist and first public face, who, on the eve of their first real gig, gave the band the name we know. His eyes fell on the cover of one of his favorite records, “The Best of Muddy Waters,” side one, track five, “Rollin’ Stone.”

It was the band’s early manager, Andrew Oldham, who completed the transformation some months later. “How can you expect people to take you seriously when you can’t even be bothered to spell your name properly?” Thus the Rollin’ Stones became the Rolling Stones, a name that told aficionados everything they needed to know about where the band came from and the sort of music they played.

Know what the market wants from you. When the Stones heard the Beatles first single, “Love Me Do,” on the radio, they were still living in the London dump where they slept three to a bed for warmth. By the time they broke through with a single of their own, the Beatles had already staked out the high ground as the cute, lovable, nonthreatening boys next door. It closed off one avenue but opened another.

“By the time we came along, the Beatles were wearing the white hats,” Keith Richards explained. “So what does that leave us?” Rather than trying to become new Beatles, as many other bands did, the Stones became their opposite: wholesomeness from the Beatles, sleaze from the Stones; love from the Beatles, sex from the Stones. They recognized a niche in the market and filled it.

Beg, borrow, steal. At a time when the British pop charts were filled with bubble gum, Brian, Keith and Mick Jagger turned to Chicago blues. The Stones started as a cover band, playing bastardized versions of the songs they loved. They tried to copy them exactly but couldn’t help dirtying them up with their own experience.

The first real composition by Mick and Keith shows this process in action. Recorded in 1965, “The Last Time” has all the elements that would become characteristic of their best songs: the opening riff, the groove, the lowdown subject matter. It closely follows a version of the gospel song “This May Be the Last Time” by the Staple Singers, but Keith reworked it, adding steel, speed. The biggest change was lyrical. A hymn about Jesus and the Judgment Day became a pop song about girls and teenage comeuppance.

Cut the anchor before it drags you down. The Stones were the creation of Brian Jones, who blew away Mick and Keith when they first heard him play in a London dive. But by the late 1960s, Jones was in trouble, an early drug casualty. He didn’t turn up for sessions, vanished on the road. On June 8, 1969, Mick, Keith and Charlie Watts drove to Brian’s country home and fired him. He’d be dead within a month, laden with booze and pills, drowned in his own pool.

Why have the Stones lasted while all others faded? Whenever I asked an old-timer, I got the same answer. It’s Mick—his clearheadedness, his lack of sentimentality. Kind people don’t make it.

Never stop reinventing. The Stones have gone through at least five stylistic iterations: cover band, ’60s pop, ’60s acid, ’70s groove, ’80s New Wave. At some point, they lost that elasticity and ability to reinvent—they got old—but the fact that they did it so well for so long explains their inexhaustible relevance.

The Stones have lived and died and been reborn again and again. It means that, for many different generations of adults, the sound of high school was the Rolling Stones. Though the Beatles probably surpass the Stones in hits, they don’t come close in reinvention. The Beatles reinvented themselves once, maybe twice. The Stones have reinvented themselves so many times that they might as well be immortal.

—Mr. Cohen’s new book is “The Sun & The Moon & The Rolling Stones,” published next week by Spiegel & Grau.