"Like aircraft carriers and nuclear power plants": An Interview With Ruth Blatt

Ruth Blatt is a writer and social scientist who harnesses her love of rock music to glean lessons about social organization and business management through what she calls The Rock Band Project. Her regular column in Forbes magazine (and contributions to publications like Wired and Psychology Today) feature titles like "Why Success Can Ruin Your Team: The Case of Guns 'N' Roses," and "How Giving Builds Community: The Case of Sonic Youth." Although the express purpose of her work is to provide insight for managers and business types, her passion for music is undeniable, and her work holds plenty of insights for musicians and music lovers as well. She is currently at work researching a book on the history of the rock music industry, a surprisingly unexplored topic. You can learn more about her work on The Rock Band Project website, read her column in Forbes, and follow her on Facebook or on the Twitter @RuthBlatt. You can check out her Guest List here

JF: What’s your history with music? You’re kind of in this specialized vector of disciplines. I’m curious how you arrived at that crossroads.

RB: I always loved music. I grew up in a house where there was always classical music playing, and I always loved it and still do. But rock music in particular always moved me in a really intense way. I have a sister who’s ten years older than me, so I was exposed to stuff early on. You know, all the seventies stuff – Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd – I was listening to that stuff in middle school. I really got into it.

In high school it was a really exciting time for alternative rock, music that’s a little edgy. There were so many great albums that came out in ’88-’92. All my friends were united around our love for music. We would have listening parties where we would listen to all the Pixies albums in order, in a row. Go to Sonic Youth shows. It was a big part of my life.

Then I went to college and it kind of trickled off, in part because I got really busy with academics. After college I moved to Israel, and that’s when I got into electronica, and going out dancing. Then I went to grad school and wasn’t really involved in music too much, because you can’t work and read and write when you’re listening to music. And that’s all I was doing, so I just wasn’t listening to a lot of music.

The seed of the idea was when I was researching my dissertation, which I wanted to be about teams – I ran across this movie about Metallica, Some Kind of Monster, and it was all about their teamwork. I was like, “Oh, bands are teams.” I’d never looked at them that way. I thought that was really cool as a source of insight about teamwork. My committee wasn’t that excited about it, so I put it off and ended up working at UIC as an entrepreneurship professor, because that’s what I did my dissertation on.

When I left that, I was like “Now what?” “Oh, rock and roll. What else?” It was just a very difficult time in my life, it was busy and very intense. Reading books about music was great because it brought music back into my life. We started going to shows. I started meeting people in the industry, musicians and other people in the industry. There are so many kinds of jobs. I love that. I’ve made friends, I’m inspired. I love it. I listen to music, I write about music, I hang out with people who love music and want to be around it like me. It’s great.

JF: How did you get involved in business and entrepreneurship?

RB: My undergraduate degree was in psychology, so I’ve always been a social scientist. I’ve always been interested in people and wanted to advance humanity’s quest for self-knowledge. When I went to grad school it was an organizational behavior program, rather than a psychology program, because I wanted to study behavior in context. Psychology looks for universals across contexts, which is why so much of the research is in the lab – where you remove the context. But our behavior is in context. One of my gut observations is that we’re so different depending on the context. Work is a huge context for us. Many of us spend more time there awake that we do anywhere else.

So, what do we know about behavior at work? Really, not that much. It’s a growing field, and it’s grown a lot since then. I approach it as a social scientist, not necessarily because of any interest in business, in the money-making aspect, but more in the fact that we’re human, we’re social, we’re behaving – and we’re doing it in the context of work. It was something I felt we could use more understanding of. I’m still about advancing our quest for self-knowledge, but using rock bands and the music world as our gateway to that. Because those are people who are working, and they’re doing really interesting work, and they’re very inspiring.

JF: Have you found your taste in music, or your relationship to music change at all through the work that you’ve been doing?

RB: My taste has expanded a little bit. I probably listen to more hip-hop than I ever used to, but mostly it’s the same. What has changed is that I definitely get more out of music because I pay attention to more things. I don’t have a music background, so I’ve always been a “forest rather than trees” kind of listener. I’ve never been able to be like “Oh, that’s a this-and-that chord progression or time signature.” And I’m still not. But I do notice more, and it actually enriches my experience. I can have a conversation with my husband like, “This line – you really expect it to go down at the end, but it doesn’t. So it creates a sense of anticipation, which fits with the meaning of the song.” I don’t think I could have said that three years ago. Being around anything, you start paying attention more. It enhances my experience tremendously.

And now that I’m writing a book about the concert industry, I get so much more out of concerts, because I’m noticing the lights, I’m noticing the sound, and I’m noticing all the decisions that have been made about the production – and it actually does enhance the experience. Because I used to just mostly focus on the music, and the singer, and the people around me – but now it’s, like, more going on.

JF: Do you find that that way of paying attention to music, to sound, to the details of what’s going on leaking into your experiences in other parts of your life? Like walking around downtown, or being in the car?

RB: I don’t know if it has or hasn’t, but I wish it would. Because, as a writer, you’re always trying to improve your powers of observation.

JF: How did you get started writing? That’s a whole other side of what you do.

RB: For many years all the writing I did was in academia. Writing didn’t necessarily come easily to me, and I didn’t even really enjoy it that much, because academic writing is very tedious. But I was getting feedback from people that I’m a good writer. My co-authors would tell me things like, “Wow, you’re a good writer,” or, “You write very clearly,” or  “Why don’t you write this part? You’re good at that.” I did do some work in between my degrees as a freelance editor and translator. So, I got my chops up. Although, I didn’t like that I was doing other peoples’ writing. I thought, “I have things to say.”

When I left academia and decided to do this more popular type of writing, I thought, “Well, I want to write to a more popular audience.” I realized I had to completely change my writing. It needs to be more engaging for people to connect to it somehow. There needs to be more storytelling, more character. So, that was really hard for me. And it still is. But it’s so much more fun.

JF: It’s hard because it’s unnatural?

RB: It’s hard because I have to unlearn my academic habits. There were so many years of writing in the supposedly “neutral” voice. And now I have to try to write with my voice and my personality. So my first drafts often still read academic-y. Then I have to undo. Unlearning is harder than learning.

JF: For sure.

RB: I can do it. But, because I’m still writing about the same topics that I used to do my academic writing on, it’s sometimes harder for me to make the switch. If I were to sit down and write a pure “story” story, without trying to bring any social science into it, I think it would be easier for me. Because I just revert to my overlearned response. But it’s getting better, I’m working on it. And it’s nice that I write for Forbes, because I write so often that it just keeps my…

JF: You don’t have time to mess around.

RB: Yeah. I just have to keep moving forward. I can’t freeze, and be like, “I can’t do this today.”

JF: Are the articles that you are writing a natural extension of the research that you’re doing for your book?

RB: They’re complementary. The book came out of articles that I’ve written. I was initially interested in the musicians. But, I’m always looking for interesting intersections between business and rock and roll. I wrote a few articles about the production side, and I was blown away by the complexity. I had no idea. You have these really huge, complex structures that have to be built and then taken apart in a day. 100,000 lbs. of equipment hung 80 feet in the air, all ready for sound check at 4 o’clock. And it’s very dangerous, so there’s this whole reliability component. Then repeating your performance as a production team reliably night after night without anybody dying.

I wrote this article about Madonna’s MDNA Tour, and I was just like, “How come there were no casualties?” It just was amazing to me, and it related to literature on high-reliability organizations. Like aircraft carriers and nuclear power plants. I mean, it’s rock and roll, but it’s very similar. Because it has to be. You wouldn’t be able to do what they do otherwise. Safely.

I wrote a couple of articles related to that, and I really enjoyed talking to the production people, the people who build the stage sets. All those folks, I just found really smart, interesting, and fun.

Then I wrote an article about the philanthropy that they do. I found out that they were doing disaster relief, and that to them it made perfect sense, because what they’re good at is rapidly mobilizing, building things fast out of scratch. And they were moved by compassion because they visited some of the places that suffered disasters. You know, they visit a lot of places. So they’re like, “Oh, I stayed at that hotel that just got flattened by an earthquake. What can we do to help?”

I wrote an article about that, and again just was blown away by what these people are doing. It’s all under the radar, the people behind the spotlight and under the stage. They don’t do it for any kind of credit. They don’t do it for glory. That’s not what motivates them. So there’s like this underdog element. Somebody should be telling this story, nobody’s writing about them.

Then, I thought let me start by researching the history of the rock concert, because surely there’s a book that gives a history of the rock concert. And, there isn’t. So, I was like, “Okay, I guess I better up the ante and just do that.” How did we get from the Beatles going into Shea Stadium and plugging into the house speakers and the house amps and lights, to U2’s 360, which is a hundred semi-trucks. How did we get from here to there? There’s no history of that. The innovations, the milestones. What problems were people trying to solve when moving lights were invented? Or the special stage that was invented so Michael Jackson could moonwalk.  

JF: Do you know when the book is going to come out?

RB: Oh, it’s slow-going. I mean, if I’m really going to do a history of the rock concert, that’s a lot of work. There are a lot of people that I need to talk to. A lot of wisdom that I need to capture. Many many decades that are not always clearly remembered by the informants. So, I see it as at least a year of just research. Just getting the stories, the facts, all those details. It’s still a ways away.

JF: One of the things I’m always grappling with on the blog is the question of the way that Spotify and other streaming services are changing the business model of being a musician. Particularly how musicians get paid. I’m curious if you have any thoughts on that, or any take away from the other work that you’re doing about how the concert industry is changing. Because I think the shrunken revenue stream for selling a product really does put more of a focus on live performance as a way to make money and connect to an audience.

RB: Yeah, I think it used to be that you went on tour to promote the album. So you would tour to sell more albums. Now you make an album to sell more concert tickets.

JF: That’s something you’ve seen people in the industry commonly acknowledge?

RB: I think so. I wouldn’t call myself the world’s expert on this, because I don’t focus so much on the monetary issues, I focus more on the management/people issues. But from what I see, artists are relying more on concerts because the other sources of revenue have all but disappeared. Where I see it is how they manage money on tour, how they make things more efficient. You know, they want to make the concert spectacular so that they can sell more tickets, but then they have to think about making it also cost-effective so that they can all make money.

Industries change. If you look at the history of finance, with electronic trading and high-frequency trading. It just is. Change happens. You’re never going to go back. So, you have to adapt and be creative. Every change comes with good and bad things. You have to figure out what to do about the bad things, and then you have to see it as an opportunity. You can either see it as an opportunity or a threat, right?

JF: Right.

RB: So, there’s no going back. It’s not productive to talk about going back, because it’s not going to happen. It’s all about moving forward. So then the question is, “Can you be ahead of that? Can you be creative?” I feel like this time that we’re living in is a very open time, because we don’t know what the next paradigm is going to be. It hasn’t set yet. So you see all these artists, like Thom Yorke and U2, people are trying different things. And these are established artists who can afford to not make a lot of money off of their albums, because they can make their money touring. So, they’re kind of the ones taking those risks and experimenting, and we’re all waiting to see where the chips are going to fall, and how it’s going to resolve.   

It’s hard for the lesser-known artists, because they can’t sell as many tickets as U2. I think that’s where it’s too bad. I’m not saying it’s good. I’ve suffered from this, because as a writer – or any kind of creative work – it’s really hard to get paid, because there are so many people writing for free, on the internet. Revenue has gone down from that. It’s a very similar thing. You have to get creative. Most writers get paid from speaking engagements. But at the same time if it weren't for the internet I wouldn't be writing about rock n' roll for Forbes. It has created a lot of opportunities that weren't there.

So, there’s no going back. We just have to go forward and think, “How do we deal with this new reality?”

(Editor's note: Since our conversation, Ruth has written several columns about this issue for Forbes. Check them out.)

JF: You mentioned concert producers thinking about streamlining in order to put on an equally dazzling show, but not have it be as pricey. Have you noticed any other trends in the way that those organizations behave, that are trying to address the changing landscape?

RB: Saving money has always been a concern. It’s become more urgent, I guess. Safety has become huge. But I think the whole concert business has become more corporate. It used to be a bunch of mavericks who just did it their way and it worked and it was fine. Now, we have insurance companies, and liability. All kinds of concerns because of past disasters, or other shocks to the industry. I think it’s a little bit more bureaucratic.

JF: There are more regulations?

RB: It’s more self-regulation. You get some people who are like, “Hey I’ve been doing this for thirty years and it was just fine. Why do I now all of a sudden have to change how I do things, just because there’s some insurance company document?” I think, like with any industry, as it matures it gets more bureaucratic, everything gets more formal. It just gets bigger. Everything’s bigger. There’s lawyers involved.

JF: I noticed that a lot of your writing and research seems to be in the highest sphere of really high powered, corporate-sponsored rock and roll artists and concerts. Have you done any work exploring the parallel world of indie artists, the DIY scene – the organizational structures that are happening there?

RB: A little bit. I find that, as far as my readers in Forbes, they want to hear about the big bands. I wrote about this thrash-noise-metal band from Winnipeg… Not a lot of interest in that. My goal is to draw management lessons. I write at the intersection of people’s love of music and their desire to be better at what they do. So, if I write about bands that they haven’t heard of, I don’t get to connect with their musical tastes. That’s why I gravitate towards the bigger bands. I think that the younger bands are interesting because they’re more entrepreneurial, and I often really enjoy meeting them and talking to them. Every once in a while I write a story about them. But it’s just one area. Just like I can only write every once in a while about the concert stuff. I wrote recently about a lesser-known reggae band and optimism, leading through hope. Every once in a while I do that. Then it’s like, well maybe it’s time to write about a big band.

JF: That makes sense. You said you go to a ton of concerts, is there a venue you frequent? What do you go see?

RB: I usually go see artists that I loved twenty years ago. I see the old geezers. Most shows I go to, the artists are like 70. Like, tomorrow I’m going to see Robert Plant. Next week I’m going to see Sinead O’Connor. It’s the stuff I used to love. There are a lot of great shows that I don’t go to that I wish I could. I love seeing shows at the Aragon. I love seeing shows at the smaller venues.

I don’t explore too much in my music. I mean, I don’t have the bandwidth. I have three small kids, I can’t be out at shows every night. As it is, I go out way too much for a mom. That’s just the nature of my work. Every once in a while a young band will be really exciting. I like to go to shows at Schuba’s, where there’s ten people there and you’re face to face with the musicians. I like it, it’s just I don’t have the bandwidth. In terms of the shows that move me, that I want to pay money and enjoy – it’s the stuff that I’ve been listening to for thirty years, you know?

JF: So where did you grow up? Where are you from?

RB: I’m from Israel. I grew up in the desert, in the south where there’s nothing there. Then, when I was ten my family moved to the States. After college I moved back to Israel for six more years. Then I moved here with my husband to go to grad school in Michigan.

JF: Okay. Huh. I’m thinking about how that first ten years informed your musical world. Clearly there’s probably a lot of the same pop music going on everywhere.

RB: Oh yeah yeah yeah. Everybody there was listening to Jethro Tull and all that stuff. It was all the same. Alan Parsons Project. I had all my sister’s seventies records. I still love Alan Parsons Project.

JF: That’s really great having an older sibling like that. There’s no replacing the value of that. I grew up with parents as musicians, so there was music around all the time, both live and recorded.

RB: Awesome.

JF: As I’ve gotten older, went to college and started realizing that I’d had these incredible experiences that nobody else had any idea about.

RB: I know. I know so many people who, when you ask “What do you listen to?,” it’s just whatever’s on the radio. That’s all they know. It’s like, “Ah, you’re missing out.” If that was all I knew, I would not be here. I wouldn’t feel like I do. That music doesn’t move me, the way, like, the Velvet Underground does.

JF: It would be weird if it did.

RB: Yeah, it would be. So, yeah, I do feel very privileged. And in Israel the radio’s different. The stations are very eclectic. You’ll have one station that’ll play all decades, all styles of popular music. In the ‘80’s, they might do “Papa Don’t Preach,” and right after it a Beatles song. Here, it’s so divided up by genre, and I guess market segment, in terms of listeners. But who only listens to one genre?