Bucking the Trend

We live in a world of trends. Business trends, consumer trends, fashion trends, entertainment trends. Trends exert a powerful influence on how individuals make decisions. Trends also exert a powerful influence how decisions are made in the world of business.

If you want a lesson on how a trend can change the course of an entire industry, watch Country Music, the documentary miniseries produced by filmmaker Ken Burns. Each of the eight episodes covers a period of country music from its origins right up to what you hear on the radio today.

Country music evolved over the years, but never strayed far from the industry orthodoxy that was firmly rooted in Nashville. The brief and brilliant career of Hank Williams ended with his death in 1953 but his style established a trend that became a business model the industry adhered to for years.

That model still dominated Nashville when Waylon Jennings came to town in 1965. Jennings wasn’t a country music purist. He had toured as a bass player with Buddy Holly. As a radio DJ he played an eclectic mixture of genres that influenced his musical style. But his style didn’t conform to the Nashville model and his career as a country singer languished. He expressed his frustration in the lyrics of a song entitled Are You Sure Hank Done it This Way?

Lord it’s the same old tune, fiddle and guitar
Where do we take it from here?
Rhinestone suits and new shiny cars
It’s been the same way for years
We need a change

To paraphrase Mahatma Ghandi, Jennings became the change he wanted to see in country music. He co-produced an album in 1975 with the ominous title, Wanted! The Outlaws.  It featured songs by Jennings, Willie Nelson, Jessi Colter, and Tompall Glaser. It didn’t follow the Nashville formula but when it became the first ever platinum-certified country album it launched a radical new trend known as the outlaw movement. The result was a meteoric rise in the popularity of country music. According to Tompall Glaser, the Outlaw album was successful because, “People were so hungry for something different than what was on the radio that they just ate it up.”

The reason Nashville kept playing the same old tune was because it produced predictable returns on investment for record labels. But it also locked them into a business model whose time had passed. They had been stepping over dollars to pick up pennies. It took a bunch of outlaws to show them they’d been leaving a lot of money on the table.

Waylon, Willie and the boys had launched their careers in the rhinestone suit era, but the suit didn’t fit. They didn’t conduct focus groups or market surveys to determine what people would buy. They were just willing to buck the trend and do something different. Instead of changing to fit the industry they changed the industry to fit them. As Waylon pointed out in the second stanza of his song:

Somebody told me, when I came to Nashville
“Son, you finally got it made”
Old Hank made it here, and we’re all sure that you will
But I don’t think Hank done it this way, no
I don’t think Hank done it this way

Hank Williams made his debut at the Grand Ole Opry in 1949. At the time Roy Acuff was known as the King of Country Music. “I was a pretty good imitator of Roy Acuff,” Hank said. “But then I found out they already had a Roy Acuff, so I started singin’ like myself.” It turns out people were hungry for something different. The Opry audience demanded six encores.

The same year Hank debuted at the Opry, a 12-year-old singer debuted on a radio station in Littlefield, Texas. His name was Waylon Jennings. He would struggle for years to find the sound of his own voice. Waylon finally made it when he decided to sing like Waylon Jennings.

Today’s success can blind us to the opportunities of tomorrow. But we’ll never know what those opportunities are if we aren’t willing to buck the trend. Ask Dolly. Or Garth. Or Lil Nas X.

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