Thursday, February 28, 2008

Plant and Kraus: how singing a different tune inspired music--and business--innovation



When looking for examples of business innovation it's not difficult to to find some stellar samples. I wrote about how the innovative pairing of Lego branded children's toys with the Star Wars "empire" (pun intended) has culminated in a joint brand strategy with epic potential (Lego Star Wars video games, toys, online presence, etc.). I stumbled recently upon another unique pairing that illustrates the genius creativity and risk-taking audacity often behind the most truly innovative ideas. Coupling the one-of-a-kind singing styles of legendary Led Zeppelin front man Robert Plant with the luminous voice of the undisputed goddess of bluegrass Allison Kraus brings, imho, true music--and business-- innovation.

This inspiring story all started when renowned music producer T-Bone Burnett contacted Plant and Kraus to work together on a tribute concert. Neither artist had ever considered working with the other, and it was Burnett's out-of-box thinking that led to this monumental collaboration.

When watching coverage and concert footage of their collaboration from the show Crossroads featured on the MusicHD channel--originally aired on CMT--I was struck by how transformative the experience was for each musician. Both artists clearly came from rich musical backgrounds with their roots firmly planted in both blues and bluegrass heritages. But together they were able to make music that neither of them had imagined possible.

Robert Plant contrasts the bluegrass/country style of singing with his own masculine, ego-driven renditions of Led Zeppelin songs and seems to expose more of his personality in the process. He steps out from behind the microphones and high-tech music production techniques and finds his voice again. In contrast, Allison Kraus discusses how her previous musical experiences had remained primarily acoustic. And in her singing you notice that the addition of drums and an ethereal electric guitar echo elicit a uniquely confident sound not often found in her classical bluegrass songs.

This new combination is utterly stunning. Burnett expertly combined Plant's smoky and sultry singing with Kraus' clear and contrasting voice, and as a result produced a rich, complex sound whose texture transcends the music categories that follow these celebrated artists, thrusting them into a whole new genre of music I've playfully labeled "soulgrass." It's this new sound that makes this creative combination not only musically innovative, but innovative from a business perspective as well. By combining artists with two decidedly different sounds--and fan bases--the project widened its appeal and will undoubtedly cross sell into both the rock and country categories. I've even heard some of their songs played on local popular music radio stations.

The lesson to be learned here is this: to inspire innovation it's important to step outside our comfort zones and explore new and creative combinations of ideas. We too often get stuck in our think holes (a concept adeptly explored by my friend and innovation consultant Chas Martin in his article titled Think Holes: How Predictability Undermines Competitive Advantage).

So next time you're out of jelly to go with that peanut butter, reach for a new ingredient. You may just find that peanut butter and peppers are the perfect pair to inspire the next craze in food fusion.