'Ride the Lightning' the Way 1 of the Best Thrash Metal Bands Has Done

Find success as an entrepreneur the way Metallica has done for, yes, three-plus decades.
'Ride the Lightning' the Way 1 of the Best Thrash Metal Bands Has Done
Image credit: Kevin Winter | Getty Images
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Metallica is the band widely regarded as the founding fathers of thrash metal. It's also, arguably, the world’s biggest metal band. Ever.

Related: Don’t Be Afraid to Reinvent the Wheel

As artists, these guys have kept pushing musical boundaries, finding inspiration in different genres and discovering new sounds along the way. But we're not just talking music here; there’s also a distinctly entrepreneurial story behind the band’s incredible success.

The group’s entrepreneurial roots, in fact, helped create the subgenre of thrash metal in the 1980s, culminating with Metallica's 1986 iconic album Master of Puppets. In 1991, the group achieved mainstream success by embracing a heavier sound, on The Black Album.

More than 35 years since they got together, Metallica members James Hetfield, Lars Ulrich and Co. are still going strong. After an eight-year hiatus between albums, they released Hardwired . . . To Self-Destruct in late 2016. The album drew critical praise and had commercial success, selling, according to Headline Planet, more than 800,000 copies worldwide in its first week of release.

Here are some other entrepreneurial traits Metallica illustrates:

For whom the bell tolls

Some musicians manage to shift to a completely new sound -- quite an entrepreneurial accomplishment -- and find new markets for their creations. Much more common, though, is a scenario where a completely new band introduces audiences to a fresh sound.

We saw that scenario with Metallica and thrash metal, and with Nirvana and grunge rock. While incumbent companies (or bands) can bring new innovations to market, innovations typically happen via startups, as economist Joseph Schumpeter noted.

In the same way that musicians must either evolve or perish, entrepreneurs too are frequently forced to reinvent themselves because of ever-changing markets.

As market demands shift, after all, consumers are looking for new and different products or services. In fact, they often don’t know what they want and look to entrepreneurs to solve their problems. Wired once quoted Steve Jobs as having famously quipped that, “People don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”

This means that other entrepreneurs can quite easily undermine your offering and steal your piece of the pie.

No market lasts forever. People’s preferences can change without apparent cause, and you can satiate demand simply by selling your products. But you're hardly done at that point: You inevitably will satisfy at least part of the original demand for your product or service, and that means you must find new markets or develop new products to avoid downsizing. In this era of constant change, it’s increasingly crucial to reinvent yourself.

"Seek and destroy"

You can easily improve your odds of creating sustainable value by focusing on problem-solving -- constantly reinventing and improving your offering and broadening your customer base -- rather than manufacturing. Thankfully, we can learn a few things here by looking back at Metallica’s decades of success:

1. Be curious. Consider new influences, and draw from unexpected or previously neglected sources. The constant threat of market disruption means that entrepreneurs like you must live in the future. Because it’s impossible to perfectly predict that future, your best option is getting to know the custome.

What everyday problems can you solve? Don’t be afraid to experiment and see what clicks.

In the early 1990s, Hetfield and Ulrich loosened their stranglehold on Metallica and allowed other members more of a say in the music. The result was a more blues-inspired sound of the albums Load and ReLoad, which some longtime fans criticized, but which exposed the band to different fan bases.

By tweaking their sound -- though not too much -- the musicians likely lost some of their original fans but in the process attracted a much greater number of new fans. The aforementioned Black Album saw the group aim for a more mainstream audience, but that work wound up being Metallica’s commercial apex, according to Billboard, with more than 16 million copies sold.

2. Push boundaries. Take time to consider what you’re doing today that you won’t need to do tomorrow, as well as what you can’t do today that you should do tomorrow.

Figure out ways to improve your operation, and find a place for your business beyond the curve. When others have innovated products and services, you too should have something ready for customers hungry for something supplementary or different.

In other words, scale your business by broadening your market focus, as Metallica did when it ventured further into the business side of music, launching its own record label in 2012.

No artist excels by repeatedly creating the same album. This is partially because the demand for that original creation has now been satisfied and partially because fans’ music preferences change over time. Artistic evolution is a lot like ongoing entrepreneurship, requiring a balance between satisfying your existing customer base while attracting new customers.

Related: The 5 Biggest Reasons People Remain Stuck

3. Don’t take things too far. While it’s important to push into new areas, you should be wary of going too far. Consider the epic failure of the product New Coke in the 1980s, a cautionary tale of position amnesia: When a brand undergoes such a dramatic shift, it can lose touch with its roots.

Metallica stumbled, itself, with its releases of the unorthodox St. Anger and Lulu, the band’s collaboration with Lou Reed, which earned scathing reviews and fan ire. Companies similarly can  fall prey to brand ego by overextending into every possible product category though the mistake ofmegalomania.

According to Blabbermouth.net, Metallica spent millions of dollars staging its Orion Music + More festival, and the group’s concert film Through the Never ended up losing about $28 million after bombing at the box office.

In that regard, successful businesses are those that can identify a beachhead market -- an easily demarcated market segment with a specific type of consumer who values their products highly. These companies then expand by either offering the product in adjacent markets or supplying the same market with upgraded or new products.

Take, for example, how Facebook disrupted the SMS messaging market with Messenger, fueling the company’s rapid growth to 1 billion monthly active users in the adjacent market, according to the social media behemoth.

4. Upgrade your competencies. This can be accomplished through seminars and education, the purpose often being to keep pace with competitors. Another approach is adding people to the mix who bring the necessary skills, along with a different perspective.

Indeed, new hires often possess enthusiasm, ambition and expertise in cutting-edge technologies and business tactics.

I’d posit that Metallica’s evolving sound is a result of the band’s changing “human resources” over time. After kicking out Dave Mustaine and mourning the death of founding member Cliff Burton, the band grew to incredible heights with the additions of Jason Newsted and Kirk Hammett.

Both men brought unique perspectives and ideas to the group which eventually worked their way into Metallica’s music. Similarly, the band adopted a more raw, aggressive sound after replacing Newsted with Robert Trujillo.

Final thoughts

Economist T.W. Schultz argued that entrepreneurship is characterized by the ability to respond to change, whether in terms of market demand or new technologies. Successful bands like Metallica do this when they reinvent their sound, take inspiration from outside sources, capitalize on existing talents by shifting internal processes and replace members with dynamic new hires.

This entrepreneurial spirit has helped Metallica evolve and adapt for nearly four decades, fueling the group’s success along the way. It’s not a coincidence that Metallica is the only member of The Big Four -- alongside Slayer, Megadeth and Anthrax -- to top the Billboard 200, which they’ve managed to accomplish six times.

Related: The Key to Hiring the Best Employees 

By taking a few pointers from these gods of metal, your company can similarly achieve the staying power that few organizations enjoy.

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