The story of Led Zeppelin underscored my conference trip

I just got back from Sao Paulo, where I ran Private Equity World Brazil, a financial conference which brought together institutional investors, private equity firms, and the banks and law firms that service them. Brazil is considered to be one of the safer markets these days. Investors there are affected by the world economy to be sure, but the Brazilian market promises to weather the storm better than other countries because there was no bubble in the first place, I was told.

It was a long trip – a 10 hour flight – and an intense three days of workshops, panel discussions, keynote presentations, Brazilians to keep on schedule, and networking events to facilitate. I wrote the agenda six months ago, booked the speakers four months ago, prepared the panelists two months ago and marketed the event for the whole time.  I knew this was going to be a good show – and it was. I had booked all the top Brazilian private equity firms along with directors of the country’s largest pension funds and representatives from two multilateral banks.   

Now, as I finally prepared to enjoy the fruits of my labor, I was delighted to have recently acquired the book Jimmy Page, Magus, Musician, Man by George Case as a gift. Some light reading for a 10 hour flight and in the evening (so to speak) during this heady event was just what I needed.

I was a big Led Zeppelin fan as a kid – one of the legions of teenagers who was inspired by the legendary Jimmy Page to take up the guitar. Those days are long past, but it was a bit nostalgic to read about my former hero. As a kid, I was inspired by his music, exploits and image. But as an adult, I was impressed at his approach to forming the band.

A seasoned session player, Page had spent years playing in bands and on records, and learning how the business worked. He was a guitarist’s guitarist, gaining an esteemed reputation. He learned and innovated his own recording techniques, observed the hustle that occurs between managers, producers, and musicians and absorbed what crowds responded to.  I was impressed by his patience and wisdom to stay quiet, listen and learn. After years of insider observation, Page knew what would work. He had seen how Americans responded to the new trend of long guitar solo oriented songs, and added a few of his own ideas to a model that he believed would lead to success. He made a wish list of five singers, five bassists, and five drummers. It was similar to planning a conference.  Create a vision based on what works, add a differentiator for market advantage, add trappings to make it your own brand, and begin contacting potential participants from a wish list.

He had saved his money by living at home this whole time, and had acquired the rights to the name of the band The Yardbirds by joining the band as it fizzled out. (Some Zeppelin fans know that Zeppelin first toured, pre-album, as the New Yardbirds to practice and fulfill contractual obligations)

The entire story struck me as entrepreneurial  – quite in the spirit of a private equity conference. Page acquired a band that was fizzling out, changed its direction, and brought in in new management (or rather writers/performers) to run it. He then played hardball with the record company.

After a successful first conference day, I went upstairs to the bar at the Hotel Unique where I was staying for a dinner and a drink. I pulled out my book, and the bartender asked if I was a Led Zeppelin fan. It was fortuitous timing to meet someone who recognized the depth of the music that Page and company created, and of course, being halfway through the book, I had a fact or two to impress him with. (He was able to impress me too. At one point, he said, “Sean Lennon once told me…..” “Wait, who?” I said. Turns out he used to work at some posh European bar where such people frequent.  Look, I don’t do much, so I’m impressed by a person who once met someone who is related to someone famous)

Somewhere along the course of this conversation, occurred to me that when the members of Led Zeppelin were my age, they were done with the band! They had finished being Led Zeppelin and had the rest of their lives ahead of them.  When I was a teenager, I never considered that being in a band was just one part of a person’s life.  I assumed it was everything. To me it was. Not because I’m an obsessed fan, but because I’ve never been particularly concerned with celebrity gossip. I just wanted rock and roll, and enjoyed the mystique that these entertainers surrounded themselves with. But at the age of 35 I’d like to think the best is ahead for me, and that I have a lot of my life left to live.  As a teenager, it had never occurred to me that this is no different from these musicians – worse, because they had just lost what was most important to them (or at least what was most important to me!) What is there to look forward to after creating a definitive cultural phenomenon before middle age? Gardening? 

I love coincidences, and it so happened that  I read the book on December 4, which is actually the day Zeppelin officially disbanded.  Also, I read this book in Brazil, only to find that Jimmy Page’s wife Jimena is Brazilian, and that he founded a children’s charity in Rio.

The main idea I took from the biography was that, talent aside – and make no mistake, Page is preposterously talented, easily mastering all the basic blues licks that most guitar heroes live on while bringing so much more to the songs in terms of guitar, in addition to writing, producing, arranging, recording, performing, and packaging the music – Led Zeppelin was not the inevitable result of inborn talent. Of course that was necessary, but the catalyst that made Led Zeppelin happen was Page’s vision, careful planning, and insistence on keeping creative control within the band. It’s an entrepreneurial story that a teenage rock fan can bring with him through adulthood, and if kids are going to look up to people like Jimmy Page as role models, perhaps his discipline and intelligence should be more well known.  It was refreshing to reach the understanding that my Private Equity World Brazil conference was pure rock and roll, Led Zeppelin style. 

The book also lead me to some vault material, the album Burn Up featuring pre-Zeppelin tracks of Jimmy Page as a session player. I recommend the last seven tracks where he’s joined by John Bonham.

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One Response to The story of Led Zeppelin underscored my conference trip

  1. James says:

    As a former Turtle and journalist, I’ve enjoyed your musings. You write well, and interestingly. Whilst I can’t share your interest in Buddhist non-attachment (for me passion, which requires attachment, is what makes a fleeting life precious), I think your analysis of the process of conferences, and the imaginative power of Greg’s mindmapping coupled with the entrepreneurial approach that Terrapinn’s events tend to embody, is spot on. Good luck for 2009!

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