Lessons in Innovation from Sting
This week I had the good fortune to see Sting perform live with the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra not once, but twice. The show was designed around a re-working of some of the great hits and more obscure songs from the deep catalogue of Sting and the Police. While many artists have incorporated symphonic elements into pop or rock music, very few have opted to orchestrate a tour of three-hour performances where songs have been re-worked to suit a wholly different format.
Whether Sting’s music is your cup of tea or not, it is hard not to be impressed with this feat. One of the reason’s I’ve followed Sting’s music since before I was a teen was that he brings so many different elements into each album, both musically and lyrically. A sample of his catalogue will find music that has elements of punk, reggae, jazz, classical, country, Arabic, Celtic, and even an entire album tribute to 16th century “pop” musician John Dowland. His bands typically involve musicians trained in different disciplines, yet can work across formats to accommodate this broad spectrum of sounds.
As a former school teacher and fan of literature, Sting incorporates passages and themes from a wealth of literary sources. One will also find psychoanalytic references, political commentary, Biblical references, and even comedy. He’s been nominated for Grammy Awards, Academy Awards, and had top hits on the Pop, Country and Classical charts in the same decade. It’s quite impressive and also instructive for those looking to innovate and do so over a period of time as Sting has.
Firstly, Sting works with good people. His bands have featured some of the best musicians in the world, not only because of their ability to play their instruments well, but because they can play across different genres. For example, rather than recruit the best Rock drummer, he aims to recruit the best drummer who can play Rock music.
He also recruits people who challenge him and, sometimes, are better than him. Sting is an excellent guitarist and bassist, but will go out of his way to get musicians who play those instruments in a manner that improves his own play.
Another thing he does is provide ‘features’ for his band to showcase their work. Musicians like jazz trumpeter Chris Botti, sax player Branford Marsalis, guitarist Dominic Miller, and singer Joy Rose are just some of the artists that have benefited from this treatment having worked with Sting over the years.
Even though his various bands are made up of individuals, he treats each like an integrated unit made up of stars. Although some members get solos and great profile, these individualized moments pass quickly to allow the audience to remember that each person is part of a bigger entity. At one of Sting’s concerts you know you’re seeing great artists play, but you also realize you’re watching an entire band. Watching interviews with his players, you get the sense that they all feel a part of a team and as respected individuals.
None of this success would be possible without a vision, integration, discipline and the flexibility in the path to achieving that vision. In the case of Sting, the vision is tied to an idea of what a song could be by crafting a structure that allows words to come to life with the music, and the discipline to integrate these two parts of the song together. However, the manner by which the song is composed, its subject matter, and the length and tempo of the songs – including the instruments used to create the music — is always fluid and fits with the context. Sting discussed some of this work during the concert as he has elsewhere.
As an artist, Sting has entertained millions. As an innovator, he has the opportunity to educate millions more. The lessons from this former schoolteacher are many for those of us working with teams and hoping to create products that not only last decades, but transform and evolve during this time into something unique and special.