Business lessons from the life and times of Mark Knopfler and Dire Straits

Its a curious case about Dire Straits & Mark Knopfler. People who know them would die for their music. People who don’t know them don’t know them at all. When I tell the younger generation about them and make them listen to their music, they find it weird and boring. But when I go on the internet I see kids swearing by their music. The disparity is so vividly glaring. This is the legacy Mark Knopfler has created for himself and for Dire Straits.
The name of their band in itself defines their music. They were asked to give a name to their band during their struggling years and what came first to their mind was that they were broke and had no money with them. Dire straits actually reflected their situation at that time and was not put as a funky name like other music bands at that time. This honesty has always reflected in their music. Mark Knopfler has been in many ways the Steve Jobs of the English music world. As music evolved from jazz and rock and roll from the 1960s to fixed categories of rock, pop, blues, etc. towards the late 1970s, Dire Straits was inspired by all the different categories. Their music had everything going on together. In those times when heavy synthesizers, guitars, drums, long hair and crazy outfits came to be considered necessary to be successful as a music band, Mark Knopfler refused to throw in the towel and give up his dream of making music he wanted to in exchange for fame and money. This is essentially why they were initially in dire straits. For quite some time, Apple did not make computers for everyone to use. Steve Jobs waited for his computers to evolve in the market and its demand to build up. Microsoft makes Windows for everyone to use which is in fact the hardest business model to follow. It is simply not possible to have something for everyone which is reflected in the numerous updates Windows versions needs and the different Windows versions themselves. In the similar vein to that of Apple, Dire Straits made the music they wanted to make and let people evolve into their music. Commercially this is a huge risk to take. But thankfully, in the world of art and music, creative satisfaction always takes precedence over commercial success. What this translates into is how we should position ourselves and/or our products in the market. If what we have is genuine and can truly cause disruption and create it’s own space in the market, put it out there, keep working on making it better and be patient. Success will eventually catch up.

The second and the more important aspect is evolution. From the late 70s when they started off their music evolved as more and better musical instruments were added. Mark’s lyrical and singing skills became more silken with each album. Their popularity peaked in 1985 with the release of their “Brothers in Arms” album. After being on the road for almost 2 years on shows across most of the world, Mark seems to have realized that they were moving away from making music for themselves to playing music for the people. It might have sounded ludicrous to many at that time, but when the passion goes out, so does the creativity. He could not let fame and fortune take control over his passion for making music which was possibly why he disbanded Dire Straits. This is a massive lesson for the business world. No matter how successful a company or a product becomes, to continue to be successful it has to keep evolving and to evolve the passion for it has to remain intact. This is probably why Bose Corp. has never been on the stock market. They do not seem to want business and commercial success to take precedence over their need for creative excellence.
Dire Straits did come back together to make one more album “On Every Street” in 1991 but that experience also taught them an important lesson. It is a superb album by all means but unfortunately ended up being compared with Brothers in Arms which should have never happened. They were like two different products from the same company and should have been seen and evaluated as such. If Dire Straits fans are longing for their reunion which Mark is staunchly refusing to go back into, it is because people themselves killed the confidence he had on them. Mark disbanded Dire Straits forever and started collaborating with other great artists such as Eric Clapton, Elton John and Phil Collins among many others and eventually started to make music under his own name.
Here is the most critical lesson to learn. Be it with someone’s life or academics or jobs or business or products, the growth graph will hit a high sometime. But it won’t stay there for long. What goes up has to eventually come down. Many musicians and music bands shot through the roof initially and then disappeared without a trace. This keeps happening all the time. There are two aspects to consider here. The lessons we learn from our experiences as our graph grows up and realizing that our graph has hit the high. Mark seems to have realized this when On Every Street got compared to Brothers in Arms. Dire Straits had hit their peak with Brothers in Arms. Unless they created something better than Brothers in Arms, every album they released in the future would have had been subject to comparison with Brothers in Arms. That was a phenomenal expectation and disappointment to live with. Their evolution was complete with Brothers in Arms. The option was to either continue to exist in that painful situation or let it all go and mature as a musician by himself and give everyone else in the band the opportunity to figure out their life ahead on their own.
When businesses grow and hit their highs their evolution gets complete at that point. Then they need to settle down and mature. True fans of Dire Straits know what a gifted and amazing songwriter and guitarist Mark is. He has wisely and craftily used the reputation of Dire Straits to build his own brand name. Steve Jobs has always used this strategy with Apple products. Apple has a core consumer segment that will buy anything Apple sells. After establishing that segment they released a dazzling array of products to bring more customers into that group. Now they are in the maturing phase and are focused on improving their products.
Mark Knopfler still makes music and does world tours but at his own pace. His music has always been what his passion for music has brought out from him. We need to tread the same path, be it in our professional or personal lives. True passion will eventually bring in fame and fortune but the key is to hold on to that passion at all times. Fame and fortune will wither away with time. But everything we do and create with passion will have the hallmark of fine quality and it is the quality that always stands the test of time.

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The heroes amongst us

The other day, I was watching a movie in which the male and female protagonists meet, fall in love, get killed and are born again. The male protagonist is born as an immigrant worker, as a thug and then as a gaming software professional. It was a crazy movie with over the top emotional scenes and I watched it only for a while, but it set my mind into thinking about one thing. Our never ending search for out of ordinary personalities and our need to glorify them. 

Humanity’s history is littered with whom we call as heroes, people who have braved the odds and succeeded in their quests. If people of ancient times became heroes by slaying demons and dragons, unearthing wealth and by putting their lives on the line in gladiator arenas, today’s heroes are sport stars, rock stars and movie celebrities whom we drool over. But the thread that connects all of these people have remained intact through the ages. Our need to idolise and glorify some amongst us has remained undimmed with time. But the people we make our heroes are quite controversial.

 People who have fought and defeated evil, vanquished villians and chased away the bad guys. The movies we make are a simple reflection of this. But the fact is, we have also idolised those people who raped and slaughtered millions of fellow beings. We speak of Alexander and Genghis Khan with admiration. We even admire Achilles who as the legend says owed his alliegance to no one and fought wars at his own wish. Now we make movies out of their stories and glorify them even further. We book the tickets in advance to watch these movies and the producers of the movies make millions and even billions of dollars. Fast and Furious movie franchise is a great example. Even though we all know most parts of the movies in the franchise are made through advanced computer graphics, we still throng to watch them to see Vin Diesel and Paul Walker defy all impossible odds including gravity itself to pull through unimaginable stunts. 300 is another movie that comes to mind. Blood and gore all the way, but Leonidas and Xerxes are admired as powerful kings even now. When Greece won the Euro 2004 Soccer championship, their style of playing was compared to the tactics of Greek and Spartan armies during their heydays.

So what are we talking about here? Do we admire and glorify people who challenge the existing norms of society? Does that mean we throw our weight behind the underdogs? No. We have always sided with the ones who have had more power and more power has always come with more influence and control over people. We have owed our alliegance to the ones whom we have empowered and we have let them rule our minds and bodies. I have never been able to wrap my brain around the fact that black skinned people in Africa allowed white skinned people to control their minds so much as to enslave them. But what disturbs me more than anything else is that we admire and look up to people who have amassed wealth. Bill Gates might be a well known philanthropist but what is the first thing we remember and talk about him? Microsoft and Windows. What does that translate into? Revenue. Ditto with Steve Jobs. Apple and it’s unbelievable horde of profit. Warren Buffet is admired as the best investor and what does that translate into? Money. In an ever expanding capitalist ecomony around the world, money is fragmented in such a way that some have most and the rest have few or nothing. The objective is to maintain the world this way so that everything can be bought with money, even the choice of the people to elect the representatives to govern them.
This leads to one simple question. Who are our real heroes? The ones who show us how to make money? The ones who have money and shows us how to live their snazzy lifestyle? Well, these are the two categories of people who are always in the limelight now. What about someone like Narayanan Krishnan who is devoting his life to care for every destitute he comes across? I have never come across anyone who learnt to cut hair for the sole purpose of cutting hair of street dwellers he cares for. What about Johan Eliasch, the Swedish millionaire who bought 400,000 acres of Amazon forest land just for preserving the forest? We make heroes and Gods out of everyone we could find, including politicians and film stars. Why have we left people like these out? The only logical reason I could find is, these people are spending money and have no lust for power which completely contradicts the expected behavior of the ones we idolise. 
I have wondered for long why Indians have so many Gods. When I understood about Lord Rama, Krishna and many more, I saw the connection. They embodied strong personal characteristics like patience, perseverance, focus, conviction, self belief and most importantly, the courage to stand up to what was right, not only to them, but for the greater good of beings around them. This is why they came amongst us, to teach us these virtues and these virtues are what we need to seek when we pray to them. All true leaders only expect us to learn their virtues and rise to a higher consciousness where we can coexist with our fellow beings and with Mother Nature. None of them have wanted us to glorify them. Jesus did not create Christianity and Buddha did not create Buddhism. They saw that all of us are heroes in our own ways and all they tried to do was to make us enlightened with this knowledge and show us how to reach there. But unfortunately, we are stuck too deep in the world of wealth and the seven sins to see their true message. When all of us find the heroes within ourselves will be the time all sufferings will end on our planet.