Keep On Rockin In the Free World

In 1980 music mogul David Geffen struck out on his own to form a new record label Geffen Records. Soon after Geffen signed folk-rock star Neil Young. Not long after signing with Geffen and releasing several albums, by the end of 1983 Geffen sued Neil. The reason – the albums Neil Young was releasing did not sound enough like Neil Young. Young’s albums with Geffen were experimental and uncharacteristic of his earlier work. They were commercially unsuccessful and the concepts Young was pitching for future releases were only venturing further from the genre that made him so famous.

Neil Young was an artist, stretching his art in new directions with new inspiration. David Geffen was a record executive who was investing heavily in an artist he thought would sell records – but wasn’t. Geffen sued Young arguing that his records were musically uncharacteristic of his previous recordings. Young counter-sued arguing that Geffen was breaching his contract.

Who do you work for? Who do you invest in?

Its easy to look at this lawsuit from the perspective of both parties. From Geffen’s perspective, he was “hiring” Neil Young to write Neil Young records people would buy – he wasn’t hiring Neil Young to explore new uncharted territory and reinvent himself as an artist. However, artists can’t keep writing the same songs with the same sounds and the same themes. Consumer and artist alike will get bored and go elsewhere.

Are you investing in new ideas and creative concepts to advance your craft or your organization? Or are you investing in what has worked in the past, expecting it to work again?

Every organization needs a little bit of Geffen and a little bit of Young. Experimentation is a means to an end, not the end itself. Experimenting without an appreciation for where you have been or a vision for where you would like to go can be expensive and destructive. But, experimentation is critical to innovation. It is risky, it is costly, there are more failures than successes, but the greatest cost comes from not changing at all.

The rest of the story – Young and Geffen parted ways. Geffen eventually apologized to Neil and admitted that the lawsuit was one of the worst professional decisions of his life. Neil eventually reinvented himself – and is still rockin’ [for] a free world.


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