Today Pearl Jam reissued their vintage album “Ten”, including remastered songs, unreleased material, a concert DVD, and the album on vinyl.
When you look back at the past two decades, it is hard to fathom that Pearl Jam was initially labeled as an alternative rock sell-out by Kurt Cobain. In the early days of the grunge explosion, Cobain lashed out at Pearl Jam because of their classic rock influences.
Eddie Vedder and Kurt Cobain reconciled before Cobain’s death, and Pearl Jam went on to embody the alternative spirit both on stage and off.
It is pretty easy to see the model of consistency that Pearl Jam has been in terms of music. They have always taken on new directions, but always returned to their core sound. They have never strayed so far from the expectations of their fans that they would risk losing them. But it is Pearl Jam’s off-stage dedication to living up to those expectations that provides brilliant lessons for business.
Being an “alternative” band comes with a heavy label. It is nearly impossible to be alternative while simultaneously making record companies, ticket agencies, venues, merchandisers, and others filthy rich in the process. Pearl Jam nearly broke up under that pressure.
But they didn’t. They lived up to the label. They rejected making Ticketmaster rich. First, they put a cap on ticket prices, and eventually refused to play concerts in venues where Ticketmaster issued tickets. The result was several years in which it was nearly impossible for the band to tour in America, resulting in lower sales of their CD’s. Eventually, after a failed anti-trust lawsuit and under pressure from fans, Pearl Jam returned to playing Ticketmaster venues. Would Pearl Jam have made more money by cooperating with Ticketmaster all along? Absolutely. But standing up for the fans was important to Pearl Jam.
Since long before it was fashionable, Pearl Jam has allowed fans to record their concerts, making their own “official bootlegs”. In 2000, they took that concept a step further and recorded every show on their tour professionally. The plan was to provide them to their fan club members, but their record company contract prevented it. So instead, Pearl Jam took the groundbreaking step of releasing every concert on their tour as a live album. In 2000 and 2001, Pearl Jam released a total of 72 live albums. Would they have made more money releasing one live album? Almost certainly. Yet that commitment to doing right by the fans, even at the band’s expense, that was vital to Pearl Jam.
The band’s debut album “Ten” included the song “Jeremy”, and the video for that song won “Video of the Year” and “Best Group Video” at the MTV Video Awards in 1993. It would be one of the last music videos Pearl Jam would ever make. Despite immense record company pressure to release videos and singles, Pearl Jam refused. The band has also regularly forced their record company to release its albums on vinyl as well as CD, even though the profit margins on the vinyl releases have been non-existent for years. Could Pearl Jam have gotten filthy rich and famous by releasing singles and videos like every other band? Definitely. Yet by not doing the expected and usual, Pearl Jam struck a chord with their fans, who remain with them today. Pearl Jam has managed to get filthy rich their own way.
High concert ticket prices aren’t the only cause that Pearl Jam has supported. Since the beginning they have been socially active, supporting Crohn’s Disease research, pro-choice causes, and the environment. The band spoke out against US President George W. Bush, supported the Green Party, and played charity concerts in support of the victims of Hurricane Katrina, United Nations efforts against world hunger, and the memory of those lost in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Did they need to potentially alienate fans of differing opinions by being vocal in support of causes they believe in? Definitely not. But they chose to, because part of being alternative is speaking out.
Pearl Jam has wisely realized that in order to create a group of passionate fans, you need to get noticed… to stand out… to be different. That might get you in trouble now and then, and it will certainly result in some people not liking you.
But those actions reinforced the image that Pearl Jam was cultivating as a truly alternative band. With every decision they endeared themselves to fans who felt the same way; that record companies and ticket agencies were ripping them off, that big oil companies were polluting the earth, and that children shouldn’t go to bed hungry at night.
Business lessons from Pearl Jam:
1. Exceed the expectations of your customers.
2. Stand up for what you believe in, especially if it gets you noticed.
3. Bravely abandon old-world rules and set your own course.
4. Passionately align yourself with causes that fit your image.
5. Be consistent in everything you do.