What Can the Rock Music Industry Teach the US Military About Innovation?  “Walk This Way.”

“It’s not about standing still and becoming safe. If anybody wants to keep creating they have to be about change.” – Miles Davis

Many people probably do not initially see the parallels between the rock industry and the American military, and in fact, one might think they have been at odds with each other for decades.  However, as a bit of a disrupter, I find it interesting to look at opposites and find similarities.

Both rock music and the US military have had a massive impact in three broad themes of history.

1. Social innovation–social, political, cultural, race, class, and gender   issues 

2. Business innovation–development of an entire industries 

3. Tech innovation–development of new technologies

A more strategic view  to ponder.  Once an artist has a hit record, there are huge pressures from the fan base and music industry to repeat the ‘formula’ until it wears out.  Whereas music innovators have switched genres and styles, at times testing their followers’ patience to destruction; but, in doing so, they have built a lasting brand.

The same can be said of military powers.  Once a nation rises to power, or super power status, pressure rises. The nation continues to rely on a formulaic approach to engagements—concepts, doctrine, and weapons systems that worked in the past and will surly work in the future.  Adversaries continue to innovate, while the super power relies only on tried and true responses and eventually is dethroned.

photo-of-ramones-84843286-5accdcd5ae9ab80036ba9eedIn the music industry we have seen disruptive entrepreneurs, and at times the industry has pivoted hard to change things.  Think of the 1960’s music scene both early and late in the decade and of disco which gave birth to the disruption of the punk scene. 

The innovators mentioned below are known for their musicology, their leadership in the music industry, and their constant innovation in a world renowned for ‘repeat performances’. There are so many innovative musicians, producers, and music industry leaders throughout time with lessons for the military innovator.  Perhaps with careful consideration and research, the military can find answers in a place few have thought to look.

Courage to Adapt and Learn Continuously

It takes courage to be an innovator. When Igor Stravinsky introduced his Rite Of Spring in 1913 in Paris, the dissonant sounds caused a riot, but it ushered in the modern age of music. Most 20th century film scores are based on his ideas.

Many artists prefer to perfect and then repeat their sets night after night, because it is seen as a huge risk to make mistakes in front of a stadium- sized audience. John Howitt, a session musician who works with Anastasia, Celine Dion, and Shirley Bassey confirms this:

“The risks of jamming in front of a stadium audience are huge for a major artist and most of the people I’ve worked with have a set routine for passing solos round the band at the end of a performance”.

To innovate, learning is not a luxury, it’s a business essential. In a recent interview Google’s CEO stated the following:

One of the primary goals I have is to get Google to be a big company that has the nimbleness and soul and passion and speed of a start-up

il_fullxfull.294678165-58b8c32b3df78c353c1e49f0Sam Phillips of Sun Records was a true rock and roll visionary with courage to adapt and learn.  In Memphis, the birthplace of rock and roll and home to Sun Studios, Ike Turner and his band The Delta Cats recorded “Rocket 88” in the summer of 1951,  and it is widely regarded as the first rock and roll song. But, like so many visionary moments, it happened by accident.  The guitarist’s amp malfunctioned during the recording creating a distorted guitar sound that would become a hallmark of the genre. People didn’t know how to classify it, but they knew they loved it. The rest is history.

In order for the military to innovate, the practitioners need the space to adapt and learn.  Or course we see this in a big way at Air University. But are the students truly given enough freedom to discover their specific path toward learning, or are we allowing the bureaucracy to provide a too formulaic approach to learning and in turn crushing any adaptation?

Improve and practice—The 10,000 Hour Rule

Paradoxically, to reach a point of mastery in improvisation requires intensive detailed preparation. What looks like a seamless performance is the result of many hours of practice, and Prince was an artist who was meticulous in this respect.

“I used to be more involved with every aspect of everything onstage. I’m way more relaxed now. It feels like anything can happen” -Prince

The ’10,000 hours effect’ was popularized by Tom Peters and more recently Malcolm Gladwell.  The idea of prepared spontaneity contradicts what some so-called creativity and innovation experts say on the subject; yet, in the same way that improvisation without discipline rarely produces superb results in music, creativity without discipline rarely produces sustainable innovation in the military or business. The notion of practice is well understood in the military under the guise of training, but is it training by the proverbial book or training to a higher level of innovation?

c8b4d9b5dbe6ceaf6e877bf71a54a551Then there was Jimi Hendrix’s innovative use of feedback if he wasn’t already an excellent guitarist. Hendrix’s music followed tradition but he added something to make it different. He borrowed from various cultures; combining aspects of European and African music and further understood and utilized new technology to get his musical concepts across. What Jimi did came from extreme practice and training. 

“Mastery comes out of preparation.  In business circles, people talk of the need for 10 000 hours disciplined practice to master an art or discipline.   Contrary to what amateur musicians might think, to do what I do, it’s all about practice and preparation.  I have probably exceeded the 10 000 hours in my career as a session musician and still spend 5 hours a day playing an instrument if I am not actually engaged in a piece of client work”—John Howitt

Once students receive training and education through their military service, the nation must allow them the option to improv where possible.  The innovation ecosystem in the DoD is growing, but the practitioner must be allowed to explore the limits of their craft in a safe environment. 

Fusion creates innovation

Fusing musical genres and influences outside a core style is a must in innovation. This enables innovators to exert a major influence on artists of the 21st century, such as Lady Gaga, Beyonce, and many others. In the military as in business, the ability to cross mental boundaries is the parallel skill set. Fusion is a core tool used by great product and service innovators, such as 3M, Apple, Nokia et al.

youngsatchmoLouis Armstrong is a perfect example of fusion. In the 1800’s, New Orleans was a cauldron of Spanish, French, English, and African cultures that was unique in the world. For many reasons, New Orleans is where military marching music developed into jazz.  Armstrong emerged as the most powerful and lyrical jazz coronet and trumpet player just at the time the recording industry was getting started, but it wasn’t his playing that put him over the top- it was his singing. Most players of wind instruments strive to play like a person sings. Armstrong sang like he played, with syncopated rhythm and improvised melodies. His vocals were unlike anything ever heard before and that’s what the public latched on to. Louis Armstrong is still recognized by many as the greatest musical genius of the century and his early records are highly prized by collectors.  

Jimmy Rodgers was a contemporary of Louis Armstrong.  The two even recorded together. Rodgers was famous for his ‘blue yodel’ songs, an unlikely combination of Alpine mountain calling and African-American blues. Every facet of what became country music can be found in Rodgers’ 1930’s recordings. Original copies, especially of “Blue Yodel # 9”, the one he recorded with Armstrong, are highly sought-after collectors’ items.

Armstrong and Rogers fused culture, music, and unique vocals.  Military practitioners are allocated opportunities with businesses through formal educational fellowships.  There are also a myriad of less formal ways to fuse ideas, cultures, academia, business, and concepts together. 

Innovation requires diversity

Usually in the music industry, innovation runs as a meritocracy, regardless of gender, race, etc. An example being women taking on less traditional roles of bass and sax in bands. Different minds contribute to innovation through the dissonance that ensues from such combinations. Thus diversity is not a ‘nice to have’ quality in the A1, J1, or HR department, but it’s a strategic imperative if any industry wants innovation. Diversity can not always be seen either.  Cognitive diversity is of the highest value in innovation. Consequentially innovation leaders must be exceptional listeners, especially when ‘hard to hear’ opinions and ideas are being expressed.

Although not necessarily a rock and roll icon, Johann Sebastian Bach is the prototype for all modern innovators. He didn’t introduce any new forms; he worked in the old-fashioned baroque style, but he changed it profoundly. At the time, music was very insular; long distance communication was difficult so musicians were influenced by those immediately around them. J.S. Bach sought cognitive diversity and combined rhythms and textures from abroad; a radical idea in the early 1700’s.  His technique was so advanced, his music still influences jazz, rock, and pop performers today. 

hank2-abea9fc8acc3489670107e8493dc200bbebdd1df-s800-c85Hank Williams, another country innovator highly regarded by collectors, helped modernize country music in the 1940’s. He accented the rhythm and put more blues in the mix borrowing heavily from the African-American culture of Montgomery, Alabama, making his form of country more appealing to an urban audience.

The military is a culturally diverse entity, but a true ingredient to innovation is in the cognitive sphere.  The military culture might very well be norming cognitive diversity out of its members when it really needs to be encouraging divergent versus convergent thinking. 

A solution.  Adapt, learn, improve, and practice. Fusion and diversity are vital.  There are lessons indeed the military can take from the rock industry to encourage innovative thought—a culture of innovation to ensure freedom in the global commons.  

As my good friend Steve Tyler says- just Walk this Way. 


4 Replies to “What Can the Rock Music Industry Teach the US Military About Innovation?  “Walk This Way.””

  1. I admire your use of music as good analogy here, Colonel. The arc of human prosperity is largely principled on free exchange and specialization – the integral components of which you thoroughly touch upon here with wonderful illustration.

    Specialization (division and mastery of labor) being no less vital, it is nonetheless free exchange that is first and foremost (the driving observation by Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations – and it should not be lost that Smith was not an economist, he was a moral philosopher). Fusion and diversity, as you state, are essential precisely because evolution is as apt a construct for ideas as it is for genes (because IDEAS HAVE SEX too). In fact, it has commonly been instructive to trace the genealogy of ideas (e.g., Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morality, et al.) to better understand, anticipate, or intervene.

    When assuming the mantle of Innovator look to be less an inventor and more of a breeder I think. For ideas do not appear out of thin air – they are descendant. And whether by small step or giant leap, they are all what my good friend Chas Smash says – a mere “One Step Beyond” (quite cheeky that one).

    1. Such great works… thank you for the comment… I am going to have to back and read Adam Smith again. And the video is perfect—it is the tag line for AUiX—Air University’s Innovation Accelerator

      1. I saw that. In fact, upon seeing your AUiX tagline, this Madness song immediately jumped into my head. And on closer inspection, I could not help but also see where Chas Smash bears some likeness of to a young Cadet Spicoli (so cementing my mind’s association).

      2. I saw that. In fact, after seeing your AUiX tagline, this Madness song immediately jumped into my head. And on closer inspection, I could not help but also see where Chas Smash bears some likeness of to a young Cadet Spicoli (so cementing my mind’s association).

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