Yes, you read that right. Roll with me, folks.
So here’s the deal. Ever since I was the kind of nerdy 10-year-old future librarian who got punished by being grounded from her books, I have had a soft spot for the Monkees. Yeah, those guys—the “Hey Hey we’re the Monkees!” folks, the “pre-fab 4” who eventually staged a very 60s revolution in the name of artistic freedom, and who seem to pop back up in the cultural consciousness every 5-10 years. Like most things in life, The Monkees as a phenomenon and as people are way more complex and interesting than appear on first glance. Because they’re having a bit of a Moment right now with a 50th anniversary tour and the release of their best album since love beads were a thing, I’m going to explore six leadership lessons that can be drawn from their 50 years as a TV show, recording and touring band, and cultural phenomenon. These lessons, some of which I’ve been steeped in since childhood, informed my practice as a library leader. You might find some gems that help you too, even if you don’t listen to the band.
Leadership tip 1: Hire raw talent, then refine it: 51 years ago, two young TV producers by the names of Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider (later to bring the world some little-known indie flicks like Easy Rider) placed an extremely odd job opening in the Hollywood trade papers. Bob and Bert weren’t looking for the people with the right pedigrees, or with resumes that met some sort of bureaucratic checklist. They were looking for four attractive, natural comic actors who were also musically talented, had a knack for improvisation and who had a natural chemistry with each other. When you watch the screen tests of Michael Nesmith, Micky Dolenz, Davy Jones, and Peter Tork, each of their personalities explode off the screen, and you can also see how their strengths and weaknesses might complement each other as a team. By picking the team as a team, Bob and Bert accidentally created a group that would perform together in various combinations and permutations for the next 50 years.
However, you also see in those auditions that Davy Peter, Mike, and Micky were relatively unpolished talents in need of some serious professional development to shine their brightest (not unlike many eager new MLIS graduates). So they hired another relatively young talent in James Frawley, an improvisational actor who helped the Monkees polish their comedic talents, work as a group, and who directed many of their most classic episodes, like this one, which was filmed about a year after those raw screen tests. You can see why Frawley earned an Emmy for his work on the show.
Bob and Bert wound up looking like leadership geniuses (and in due course got the kind of opportunities given to leadership geniuses) because they hired well and got out of the way of their rising stars unless they were needed. Unfortunately, the leader they originally tapped to run the musical side of the project had a somewhat different leadership style…
Leadership tip 2: Nurture your rising stars as emerging leaders (before they punch holes in your wall)
In the beginning, the Monkees didn’t have very much artistic say in their music, which was organized by famed Brill Building executive Don Kirshner, to the point that they weren’t even allowed to pick songs or even play their instruments on the first two albums. This was annoying, but not unexpected to Davy and Micky, the two actors in the group. But Peter and Mike, the two members of the band who were primarily musicians, chafed under those restrictions. Mike Nesmith, a young man whose raw leadership and artistic talents were apparent even then, years before he invented country rock and decades before he invented MTV and the home video industry, was willing to do more than sulk. He pressed for more artistic input, but the musical powers that be weren’t interested in embracing a new era of singer-songwriter musical integrity with a multi-million dollar, multimedia project on the line. However, rather than looking for some sort of compromise, they essentially told Michael Nesmith and his bandmates to sit down, shut up, and enjoy the ride.
And then Michael Nesmith put his fist through a wall in front of the record executives and threatened to quit.
And then Bob and Bert fired Don Kirshner.
And THEN, under the guidance of Chip Douglas, a young but talented producer (sensing a theme here?), the Monkees took the reins of the music machine and played almost every note of Headquarters, an album that spent the summer of 1967 in second place on the charts right behind a little album called Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn, and Jones, recorded later that year, achieved just as much commercial success and is widely considered the band’s artistic peak. That said, the downfall of the old musical leadership was that their egos got in the way of their good sense. The Monkees, talented as they were and successful as they were, would soon prove to be susceptible to some of the same forces that toppled Don Kirshner, and which can topple any leader who’s had maybe a little too much success.
Leadership tip 3: Don’t get too big for your britches
The Monkees had gained control over the music being released under their names, produced all of it, played and wrote much of it (though they gradually brought studio musicians back into the fold to assist them over the next few years, much like the Beach Boys, the Mamas and the Papas, and most other pop bands of the era). However, as is known to happen with literal or metaphorical “rock star” leaders, all the acclaim got to their heads. They became more and more focused on impressing their musician friends, and less interested in creating crowd-pleasing pop hits. After their high point in 1967, their work, while remaining artistically interesting, became less and less culturally accessible. The TV show was cancelled after its second season by mutual assent, and after a poorly received movie, Head (that later became a cult classic) and a out-and-out terrible TV special, one Monkee after another bought out their contract and left the group, until it finally dissolved in 1970. Like too many hot shot bands (and hot shot leaders), they peaked quickly, lost touch, and faded from the scene just as rapidly. In most cases that would be the end of the story, but it turned out it wasn’t. Because the Monkees, though they didn’t realize it yet, had a secret weapon.
Leadership tip 4: Listen to your fans
The late, great Davy Jones was in many ways the face of the Monkees, especially after the 1960s. Also, for whatever reason, he seemed to be the one who had the best intuitive sense of what fans wanted out of the Monkees. Much as a good library leader needs to pay attention to patron needs, Davy responded to what his fans wanted with his innate charm, an eternal willingness to play the old hits, and to be satisfied with reconnect concertgoers with a simpler time in their lives. Maybe he could be a little corny at times, and maybe he didn’t chase after every shiny musical trend. But Davy Jones was probably the most important person in keeping the Monkees alive through various reunion albums and tours between their first breakup in 1970 and his death in 2012. Davy tried to give the people who were buying his product what they wanted while staying true to what made The Monkees The Monkees, and most of the time he succeeded brilliantly. Seems like a decent way for a librarian to approach leadership too, if you ask me.
Leadership tip 5: Balance your personal vision with outside perspectives
After several straight years of successful tours in the early 2010s, The 50th anniversary was looming, and it seemed like a natural time to put out a new album. However, we fans were nervous. The post-60s Monkees albums hadn’t really been artistic or commercial successes, and seemed to suffer from either too much or too little artistic control from the guys themselves. However, by 2016, a strange thing had happened. The fans who were children during their 60s heyday, or their revivals in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s had grown up. They didn’t have the same hangups about “artistic purity” that skewed older music industry insiders’ perceptions of the Monkees. And some of these people were now successful rock stars or record company executives in their own rights, thank to a love of music that may have been sparked in part by The Monkees. Those leaders saw an opening for a Monkees album that embraced the spirit of the 1960s but that also took advantage of the best songwriting talents of 2016. As a cohost of a podcast on the Monkees, I’ve had a ringside seat for this project, and I’ve been taking notes about the leadership themes that have emerged during the process.
John Hughes, a Marketing VP at Rhino Entertainment (The Monkees’ record label since the 1980s, whose intriguing history and business model might well rate a leadership case study of its own here at some point) pitched the idea, got the blessing from his higher ups, and once he got all three surviving Monkees on board (an impressive accomplishment of its own and one that I would really love to know how he pulled off), he began recruiting some of the leading power pop songwriters of the last couple of decades to contribute songs—folks like producer Adam Schlesinger (Fountains of Wayne, and the writer of “That Thing you Do!”), Rivers Cuomo (Weezer), Ben Gibbard (Death cab for Cutie), Noel Gallagher (Oasis) & Paul Weller (The Jam), Andy Partridge (XTC), et al. They also pulled out a few unfinished 1960s-era tunes from the likes of Boyce and Hart, Goffin and King, Harry Nilsson, and Neil Diamond, and spruced them up with new vocals and arrangements.
However, the leaders of the Good Times! project wanted to embrace the strengths of the Monkees’ recording past but avoid its weaknesses. Michael, Micky, and Peter each contributed songs, instrumentals, and vocals to the project, and also shared their combined 150+ years of music experience in the studio. The result was Good Times!, an album being hailed as an unlikely (to some) hit that is seemingly cemented to the #1 spot in the Amazon music charts. We won;t knwo for a few more days but it has a very good shot of debuting in the top 20 in Billboard, the first time the Monkees have accomplished that feat since the 1960s. Having watched this process unfold as a Monkees fan AND as a scholar of leadership, I think I know why the Monkees (as people and as a brand) cracked the code this time.
Leadership Tip 6: Have a good time! (and stick to your library’s core values)
The people involved in writing and recording Good Times! were all having fun (and achieving a lifelong dream in the case of many of the younger contributors), and my goodness does it show. There are a lot of lessons that can be pulled by library leaders from this 50-year old institution that has managed to hold on to the best of the past while reinventing themselves for the present, albeit with a few stumbles along the way. The Monkees of 2016, like libraries in 2016, faced an uphill climb and a lot of misconceptions from the wider world about who they are and what they do. But they were too busy singing to let those people put them down. The Monkees themselves and their leadership team had learned how to strike a balance between too much and too little creative freedom. In his life and death, Davy Jones taught the three surviving Monkees the importance of listening to their patrons (er, fans) and responding to the desires of the people who embraced their library (erm, I mean music). Finally, The Monkees figured out how to perform this complex balancing act while staying true to the core values of the group and its art.
(Is this case study starting to seem a little less random and self-indulgent yet, my fellow librarians?)
The title of the new album accurately describes the contents. A well-crafted blend of sunny power pop, neo-psychedelia, and wistful ballads, there’s something on it for almost every Monkees fan—or music lover for that matter. But more importantly, even the more thoughtful or downbeat songs come from a basic position of optimism, joy, and not taking themselves too seriously. This band has been through a lot in the last 50 years, from superstardom on TV and the record charts to multiple cycles of decline and rebirth. The loss of Davy Jones seems to have united the three surviving members more strongly than ever since the 1960s, maybe more so in some ways, and that connection shows on stage and in this new album. Through it all, The Monkees have continually reinvented themselves for new audiences while holding to a central truth—that they’re too busy singing to put anybody down. And that, my friends, is when I listen to the Monkees’ new album, I have absolutely no worries about the future of libraries. Because if those guys can grow and change with the times, we can do the same.
See y’all next week, with something a bit more typical. Do post on the Better Library Leaders facebook group if you checked out the new album though—I’ve linked to amazon above, but it’s available on CD, iTunes, and it’s streaming through all the usual places like Spotify and youtube. Oh, and as an FYI, next week’s newsletter will come out a little later in the week again—I’m going to see The Monkees this weekend. 😉