This year marks the 40th anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death, and yet his long shadow continues to influence today’s entertainers, creators and social marketers. Here at the Institute for Creative Entrepreneurship at Berklee College of Music, we recently hosted a week honoring not just Elvis’s music, but also Elvis as a platform for inspiration and learning for the next generation of creative entrepreneurs.
As the first “artist as brand,” Elvis instinctively recognized that it took more than just raw talent to be successful. His insane drive and entrepreneurial mindset were unique for his time, and it’s fair to say that music and pop culture are divided into two distinct eras: BE (before Elvis) and AE (after Elvis).
So, what can my fellow entrepreneurs learn from the King? Turns out, lots.
1. Take care of business.
Elvis famously gave TCB ("Taking Care of Business") necklaces to his entire inner circle, reminding everyone what mattered. But, more than just a slogan, Elvis exemplified this through his career-long partnership with his manager, Colonel Tom Parker. Yes, there have been accusations that the Colonel exploited Elvis, though closer examination of history and records shows that their partnership was one of the most successful joint ventures in modern business, and one that has continued to pay dividends 40 years after Elvis’s death and 20 after Parker’s (the Elvis Presley brand continues to be one of the top grossing entertainer brands in the world, routinely generating up to $55 million a year). Elvis understood that the key to success is both through focusing on one’s own unique strengths, as well as partnering with others with complementary skillsets in order to maximize impact (and revenue).
2. Act local, think global.
Elvis’s in-person performances are legendary (the ‘68 Comeback Special is likely one of the greatest rock performances of all time and the inspiration for MTV Unplugged), though he famously never toured outside the U.S. (there are many conflicting accounts as to why this is, but that’s a topic for a different article). That, however, did not stop him from becoming a global icon, whose influence has likely done more for international American diplomacy than most U.S. Secretaries of State.
Elvis always thought big and global. His 1973 concert, Aloha from Hawaii, was the first ever satellite broadcast of a live event, shown to more than 1 billion people around the globe. Even the Super Bowl can barely command that type of audience in 2017. Yet, in a grand irony, the concert was not shown on U.S. television as it conflicted with Super Bowl II.
3. Diversify and conquer.
It was Elvis who truly ushered in the modern record business in the mid-fifties, becoming one of the industry’s first multimillion album sellers and thus extending his reach far and wide, away from simply performing live. But, not content with just income from record sales, and long before Disney, Toy Story and Star Wars, he and the Colonel recognized that the transferability of his brand to other mediums such as film and merchandise would result in a more steady flow of income that was even more profitable and leverage-able. And whereas some may associate his merchandise with cheesy 1970s velvet Elvis rugs, the resilience and transferability of the Presley brand led to one of the all-time best brand partnerships of 2017: the pairing of Revlon’s American Crew men’s grooming products with the image of Elvis Presley.
4. Be agnostic when it comes to inspiration.
Most people today think of Elvis as a “rock” artist, though a deeper dive through his vast catalogue of songs shows him astute in interpreting just about any type of music: gospel, R&B, blues, rock ‘n’ roll, Brazilian bossa nova, swing, crooner jazz -- even covers by artists as diverse as Simon & Garfunkel, The Beatles and Neil Diamond. Elvis was not trapped into any kind of persona when it came to music, neither was he dogmatic when it came to what he listened to. He was an avid student of all types of performers and saw himself as a channel through which music flowed, rather than being trapped as a specific type of singer and performer. Listen and watch closely to Elvis and you can hear all kinds of musical, stylistic and even spiritual influences, as well as someone who was a supremely gifted and versatile musician.
5. The message is the medium.
Pop quiz: When I mention Elvis Presley, what comes to mind? 1) Elvis the Pelvis on 1950s TV sending teenage America into a frenzy; 2) Las Vegas Hilton jumpsuit-clad Elvis putting on karate moves; 3) wholesome Viva Las Vegas movie Elvis wooing Ann Margret; 4) The King with President Richard Nixon in the White House photo-op Elvis; 5) All of the above. (Hint: the answer is all of the above).
Elvis had the uncanny ability to understand that each medium had its own rules, reach and impact. Whereas many people see his movies in the ‘60s as campy sub-artistic products, he saw them as full-length music videos -- a full 20 years before the launch of MTV -- that helped him reach a broader audience and guaranteed him steady income flow after his U.S. Army service. And decades before Cirque Du Soleil, Celine Dion and Britney Spears made Las Vegas residencies the norm for pop shows, the King pioneered that avenue as well, once again extending his brand reach and maximizing profitable income (a show that does not travel is far more profitable than a full-on tour).
Now, go ahead, learn from the King, and try these strategies at home. Viva entrepreneurship.