Rediscovering the Sandbox
Entrepreneur and music biz legend Dave Stewart (aka the other half of the Eurythmics) believes the key to success lies with your inner child. With The Business Playground: Where Creativity and Commerce Collide, he provides an activity book for the cubicled masses.
“Everybody doesn’t have to think the same way, and if they did we’d never have anything new,” says producing icon Dave Stewart from Blackbird Studio in Nashville, Tenn. The man behind the Eurythmics, a synth-pop duo responsible for making Annie Lennox one of the early faces of MTV, has never stopped working since that group’s breakthrough success in the early 1980s. Stewart has written and recorded with defining artists of every decade practically since rock & roll was invented, from the Beatles’ Ringo Starr to Bono, Jon Bon Jovi, and Katy Perry. At this moment, he’s recovered from two weeks of recording with Stevie Nicks long enough to start work on his forthcoming solo album.
Yet, for all his momentum, what’s really on his mind are concepts like “idea spaghetti,” “brainsailing,” and “bug lists”; they are the exercises and brain games that comprise Stewart’s new book (co-written with branding expert Mark Simmons), The Business Playground: Where Creativity and Commerce Collide (Peachpit Press, 264 pages). Through often uncomfortable personal anecdotes (Stewart’s trash-scavenging hippie stepfather, who Stewart admits “was quite lazy,” is used as an example of creative problem-solving), bizarre group board games (spin the “Wheel of Distraction” to find something to do other than work when you’re stuck … like “Look at yourself naked in the mirror”) and left-field pop-culture testaments to support his advice (listen to classical music in the office, just like Tim Robbins did in The Shawshank Redemption!), Stewart aims to make the case that if we let ourselves think freely, innovations and revolutions can come to us. Think of it as a kind of anthropological study of the mindset of those late-’90s Internet moguls whose idea of a business meeting was a game of foosball.
“Grown-ups often forget how to play,” says Stewart via phone interview. “They always used to play when they were kids running around. Give them a cardboard box, they’d make it a castle. Their imagination could run riot and no one would stop them. As they grow up, they get banged on the head: ‘That’s not a castle, it’s a cardboard box.’ In the end, I think having a space where people can just go crazy, play a bit, play music, basketball, draw on drawing boards, shoot for the stars, invent the ridiculous—you have to be able to do that. Producing lots of bands over the years, from the Ramones to Sinead O’Connor to Gwen Stefani, they’re all different but there’s one thing they always want to do: experiment.”
Vague pep talks like that come as second nature to Stewart, and The Business Playground showcases that ability deftly. He comes across as a man who thrives on idealism in action, and he’s lucky enough to come into contact with people—powerful and famous people, to be sure—who share that desire. He tells of being in a tree house in Jamaica with web inventor Brian Reynolds, an early programmer in the computer revolution, and of converting, alongside Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, an abandoned hospital in London into The Hospital Club, a studio and bar/restaurant so they could have a place “to sit around and talk one-to-one or have group conversations.”
“The more helpful you are to others, the faster you will rise to the top.
The more reluctant you are, because you think you’re a genius, the harder it will be.”
It would be easy to chalk these stories up as one more benefit of striking gold—or rather, platinum—back when the music business still produced superstars, but Stewart is quick to make the point that going out and finding creative people to surround yourself with is a crucial key to success in any field. That’s especially true, Stewart points out, of the music industry, where he feels that traditional modes of revenue are gone and it’s increasingly important to develop relationships with entrepreneurs, not only for funding but for survival.
“Music is never going to go away, obviously,” says Stewart, “but the way in which revenues can be generated from the music you’re making in order for an engineer to have a job are changing so fast. Kids used to think you needed a record deal with a record label. Well, BMG used to be a publisher. In fact, they started off by forcing Jews to print Nazi literature, so would you rather be signed to Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream or BMG? They should look at every company in the world—even the shop at the corner—as a potential distributor online for the music. Stop worrying about the idea of a traditional record deal.”
Of course, that’s coming from one of the few people still making a living from traditional recording in a high-end studio. Stewart, however, still sees a place for “playground” types who want to man the boards. The secret, according to Stewart, is not to be a “down with the man” artiste or behind-the-scenes worker; it’s thinking about how to be the man.
“It’s no different than [if] you’re a doctor studying [to be a] surgeon the first year; by the second year it’s already obsolete because they’ve now got more sophisticated ways of doing operations. If you’re passionate about sound and music, as well as studying how to do it, go out and look for a band or some artists that you feel passionate about and become their guy, their sound guy. Some people have made those relationships and stayed together for 50 years.”
“You knock on the door. They’ll say, ‘Well, you’re not ready but you can make the tea.’ Stephen Street will tell you he first had to make tea, but then while he’s making tea the engineer would say, ‘I’ll show you how to do this’ and on and on. Save up enough money and, in a room somewhere, a warehouse or in your bedroom, make a little studio. Believe me, people will come. At first you do some favors, but musicians, bands, they start crawling out the woodwork. The more helpful and creative you are at solving solutions in the job you have, whether it’s making the tea or whatever, the more helpful you are to others, the faster you will rise to the top. The more reluctant you are, because you think you’re a genius, the harder it will be.
“I’ve seen it a thousand times. The one that wants to listen and will stay up until 2 in the morning and go down outside to get that big metal pipe you want to bang on and get really excited ’cause he got it—20 years later, that kid’s producing Radiohead, you know?”
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