Jack White as a brand

jack white

Kevin last week sent me this message, “Jack White was so good on SNL.” Since my bedtime has moved to ~8pm since children entered my life (no joke), I hadn’t seen it yet, so I pulled it up on my big TV and took a seat.

Meh. I wrote back, “Is it bad that I just think he should do guitar solos for a living? Like, just guitar solos. That over and over song was a snoozer, except for his little guitar flurries.”

He responded, “It’s more his presence. I think he’s generally transcended “musicians/guitarists of the 2000s” to something more.”

So this is an interesting thought experiment. Jack White, in the White Stripes era, was a rocketship. He was driven, focused, and making music that was pretty innovative for the time. And he banged out hit after hit for a decade.

But then the focus shifted as he transcended the sound he spent his life perfecting. He wondered to other things like his record label, philanthropy, and other sounds (and that’s ok) — it’s just the nature of success. You fight, you fight, and you fight, but then you move from necessity to wonder. Your attention goes from laser focus to dabbling in the bigger picture.

Like, what does Jay-Z have to rap about anymore? Being rich? Rap just isn’t his laser focus — his fingers are in everything. Rivers Cuomo is so burned out he’s literally assembling songs from spreadsheets. In 2000, when Bill Gates stepped down as CEO, he was wise enough to know that Microsoft needed laser focus at the top, and he just didn’t have it anymore. George Lucas very clearly a talented director and writer, but then became more interested in movie tech. Then he lost a bazillion dollars in a divorce and yakked out some questionable films for near-guaranteed money.

If compared to a brand, Jack White almost seems like Valve. A pioneer. A smashing success. But then, you know, the art kind of gave way to the business and the classic games stopped arriving. It’s fine, but it’s different. They’re probably making more money now than ever, but I’ll always remember running around Black Mesa as Dr. Gordon Freeman.

Fortunately, brands have the gift of merging multiple minds together. Once a single person loses their laser focus, it’s hard to shift that same creative focus to something new (not many people pull off a new sound successfully). But a brand is made of many people, and as long as focus flows from the top down (and the focus is on the right thing), greatness can always be on the horizon. Instead of the focus fizzling in any particular area, the baton can just get passed.

I see this sort of thing in all walks of life. Restaurants lose their quality focus all the time and flounder under the direction of burned-out chefs. Yahoo! forgot to focus on anything and went from a search giant to a legacy brand people don’t want to own. Once upon a time Loren Brichter’s (amazing) Tweetie was bought by Twitter, then was left to rot because it wasn’t a priority.

Focus. The best things come from laser focus. As an individual, you’re only holding yourself back if you try to force it on something you don’t love anymore — and if you know you don’t have it doing what you’re doing, find it elsewhere. Instead of going through the motions with the White Stripes, go find a new sound that speaks to you. Embrace your inner Bob Dylan or Robert Plant, head to Nashville, and get weird… you know, if that’s what speaks to you.