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Creating passionate fans


Musicians know a lot about making and keeping fans. Last night the four Headrush bloggers (me, Eric, Beth, and Bert) went to a sold-out Finn brothers concert at the Boulder Theater, and two amazing things happened:

First, the show was nearly cancelled because Neil had a severe case of the flu. He was in the hospital in San Francisco the day before. But they pumped him full of drugs (and apparently a single-malt scotch) and he somehow managed to get there, arriving minutes before the show was to start. I hadn't even been a Finn fan prior to the show (Eric and Beth talked us into it), but I have a really soft spot for those who leave a hospital rather than disappoint the customers/fans. : )

But something more important went on throughout the night...

They played the songs they've been playing for twenty years as soulfully and passionately as though it was their first time. As though we were their first and most important audience.

Think about how damn many times over the years they must have played Neil's biggest hit, "Don't Dream It's Over". Thousands. But it was achingly beautiful last night despite what might have been, like, the 3,042nd time they've played it live.

But I'll come back to that in a minute.

It got me thinking about how good some artists and bands are at loving their fans. Or at least getting their fans to love them. I've seen Coldplay three times in the last couple years, in three different venues. (I love live shows). Each time was amazing, and Chris Martin was always inspiring. But the last time was incredible--it was at one of the most magical concert spots in the country, Red Rocks Amphitheatre. Red Rocks is outside, and the concerts are held during the summer when it should be warm and gorgeous. But not this night. It was pouring rain, from start-to-end, and near freezing.

But the fans stuck it out, shivering and huddling under plastic tarps, blankets, and trash bags and everyone was drenched. Chris Martin kept mentioning how grateful he was that everyone was there putting up with this. He even apologized for the weather!? But at the end, when he should have been as anxious as anyone to just get the hell out of there, he said he was going to do something they never do... an extra encore. He told us that he felt so bad about what we'd been going through that he wanted to do something special for us, so they came back out again after their last encore, and then did something they'd never planned on... and started playing.

We felt like we were the most special audience they'd ever played for. Here we all were, completely miserable, and still thinking we were lucky to have been part of that show, and that we experienced something nobody else would.

Skyler is a fan of the UK indie band Travis. They don't tour the US much, so it was a big deal when they came to town when she was 14. We got there hours before the doors opened to get a good spot, and before lining up we went around the back of the building, and there stood the band's frontman/lead singer Fran Healy. What happened next was astonishing (keep in mind that while Travis is mostly unknown in the US, they're HUGE in the UK. This is not your local bar band):

Fran: "Hello there, I'm Fran." (as if she might not actually know that!)
Skyler: "Hi, I'm Skyler".
Fran: "Hey, you're from the message board!"
Skyler: (stunned) "Yes! Wow!"
Fran: "It's great to meet you in person Skyler. Is this where you live?"

(On it goes, with two of the other three band members coming out of the bus to say hi.)

Think about that... it means the band actually reads their message board posts, enough to have recognized Skyler as a frequent poster.

So you probably all have a ton of stories about a band or artist that really made you feel like they cared deeply about their fans, but I wanted to come back to that part about singing a song as though it were the first time. I've thought about how many times I've taken classes from teachers who you knew had been teaching this class forever. You knew because it showed. They were barely present. You might know it as the "phoning it in" effect. You've almost certainly been there.

So that's the question... how do you keep your work feeling inspired and passionate? Fresh? If you're a manager, what can you do to help your employees stop sliding into the phoning-it-in stage? Obviously putting them under constant stress isn't the right idea, but what about making sure they have chances to have variety in their work, or at least occasional chances to work on a different kind of project or role, at least temporarily, to step back and look at their work differently.

How can you keep your own work from suffering from phone-it-in? What can you do so that when you sing to that audience after twenty years, you leave them feeling as though this was your debut night, and they were the most special audience you'll ever play to?

Posted by Kathy on February 17, 2005 | Permalink


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Like so many other things in life, and often mentioned here, you have to be *passionate* about what you do to keep it from eventually being phoned-in. In a worker-bee environment, such as IT/Operations (my chosen torture device), there has to be opportunity to *be* passionate. If you're persistently in fire-fighting mode (aka, reactive), as so many in IT are, passion is generally the first thing to go because there's simply nothing to sustain its existence. It could be said that if you're not jaded, you're just new. For any manager, this is an extremely difficult paradigm to shift because, as you said elsewhere, entropy sucks and one person (and a new one at that) rarely has the ability to change their environment so radically.

Posted by: Jim | Feb 18, 2005 1:32:24 AM

Just reading that made me love Coldplay more. I can't wait till they come down to Australia again.

Posted by: Jack | Feb 18, 2005 2:35:21 AM

Passion itself is not enough. I can be passionate about something for a short space of time then forget it and never go there again. Like following a pop band.

There is something deeper than passion. I could call it Love. It is something that touches you and is part of you. In my experience when I love doing something it is part of me. I cannot get enough of it. I read around it, inside it, I will follow anyone writing or talking about it. The bottom line is I want to do it. And what is more it stays with me and I stay with it.

I think this power frightens us so we focus narrowly on the "band" and how it inspires the audience rather than focus on the band loves to play. The band loves to play, they love to play the music they write, This is what gives them that "first time".- feeling. If they were constantly attempting to recreate the situation in order to please their fans there would come a time when they are sick and fed up. And fail to please their fans.

In a nutshell. The core is loving what you are doing. Whether writing, creating music,creating code or whatever and the result must be success and happiness.
I believe it is the love that is catching and as a result creates passionate users.


Posted by: graham | Feb 18, 2005 5:44:29 AM

I'd argue that you can't truly love something without being passionate about it first (mind you, something not someone) and ongoing, even if only at a low level.

Passion that is fleeting isn't passion; it's lust.

Posted by: Jim | Feb 18, 2005 10:54:40 AM

To managers:
Please give me room to learn, grow and explore. Let me take responsibility for myself and my work. If I make mistakes let me fix them. Let me also do for my audience (customer) the work that needs to be done without bureaucracy or politics getting in the way, and let me experiment and have fun. Then I will be present and passionate every working day.

Posted by: jay | Feb 18, 2005 10:56:09 AM

Another great example of this phenomoenon: I've seen Elvis Costello several times live and many times on TV: Every performance feels like it's the last rock show in the world. I've often marvelled at how he does it every night.

Posted by: Mike | Feb 18, 2005 11:27:51 AM

In the realm of music performers, Sarah McLachlan also somehow manages to make every show feel like it's just for you regardless of how big the audience is. She's said in interviews that this is, at least in part, because everything she writes comes from inside; from some personal experience she's had. When she performs, you can tell for any given song how wrenching it was to write and thereby get a hint of the passion that inspired it and this emotional connection draws you in.

It's probably fair to say that this is what enables many people to keep their material fresh and personal-feeling, be they stage performers, school teachers, or programming instructors (unless they work for Sun, of course, heh).

Posted by: Jim | Feb 19, 2005 1:23:00 AM

Once upon a time I was a non-profit manager in charge of membership services. One of the reasons I left was because of the monotonous repetition of the work. Not like doing the same thing day after day after day, but there's a sort of schedule that you maintain. Each month you know what needs to be done. What I craved was more variety.

Now as I reflect back on that work and reading your post, something interesting has entered my thoughts. I think love and passion are essential, but so is curiosity. I wonder if the Finns get curious each time they perform "Don't Dream It's Over" and ask whether they can add something new to it. Not like use a new lyric or sing a different note, but something deeper. Can I explore a new place in my soul when I sing this beautiful song?

And so it has me thinking about how I would moan about the fact that I had to keep doing the same work over and over again (I'll always seek variety, though). But if I ever find myself in similar situations or jobs, perhaps I can ask that question. Can I explore a new place in my soul, discover a new form of creativity, develop a new method for connecting with my customer/member when I do this task?

Thanks for bringing me back to a deeper place, Kathy.

Posted by: Christopher Bailey | Feb 19, 2005 6:44:16 AM

Many year's ago I worked for a radio station where, at the top of every hour, we would say "WMJI - Cleveland's Magic 105 point 7". The reasons were that ever station had to identify itself with its call letters and city of license and many stations hid it in a slogan like this. Hour after hour, day after day. In an average year each of us said this roughly 5 * 6 * 50 = 1500 times. Somewhere, someone was hearing it for the first time.

The program director took us to see Barry Manilow - it wasn't that any of us wanted to see him (or actively didn't) but he wanted us to see how Manilow performed songs that he'd sung hundreds of times over the years. The lesson wasn't lost on me.

As much as this helped me as a jock, it reinvigorated me as a teacher. Someone somewhere was getting the point of the mean value theorem for the first time on the hundredth time I'd taught it. Each time the discovery felt fresh to me and I hope to them. Thanks for this trip back.

Posted by: daniel | Feb 19, 2005 12:09:21 PM

This always takes me back to Joe DiMaggio's comment about always playing hard: "Today someone may be seeing me for the first time." Every time we speak to consumers, we're making a first impression on some of them.

Posted by: Mike Flynn | Mar 4, 2005 11:25:27 AM

This always takes me back to Joe DiMaggio's comment about always playing hard: "Today someone may be seeing me for the first time." Every time we speak to consumers, we're making a first impression on some of them.

Posted by: Mike Flynn | Mar 4, 2005 11:26:00 AM

Time for my Chrissie Hynde story.
Feb 6th 1980. The Pretenders on a college tour of the UK, have just had their first massive hit, Brass in Pocket, but they're already committed to the college tour.

Chrissie Hynde walks on stage. The lights are in her eyes.
First thing she says;
"Christ, this is the worst place I've ever played.
Are there any real fans in the audience?"

Gee thanks Chrissie. It's my birthday, and all you want to do is moan and whinge at the venue and audience, because you're now a big star, and rather not be doing the college tour.

Oops, you asked for positive stories!!

Posted by: Tony Goodson | Mar 4, 2005 4:04:04 PM

From an amateur actor: You go up on stage and deliver the lines. You do this in rehearsal, you do this in performances. As an amateur not necesariyl 3,042 times, but it adds up.
How do I retain the focus, the energy, the passion? It's a group effort, I don't want to let the other members down. It's a matter of personal pride, I want to do the best I can. It's a matter of curiosity: How will the audience react (each one is different!)? Will I discover some new nuance about my character, some other character, the story, the relationships? And, last but certainly not least, stage fright (the german expression 'Lampenfieber' - lamp fever - is more accurate I find. Acting is a kind of fever.)

It's a rather complex web of motivations that feeds my stage passion. And if one fails, the others still carry me through the performance.


Posted by: Jens | Jun 16, 2005 3:19:44 AM

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