What Ad People Can Learn From the Implosion of the Black Crowes

My chat with drummer Steve Gorman

At the risk of dating myself, I will, because #ageism can bite me: I graduated from college in '90. Meaning, 1990—not a hundred years earlier during the Benjamin Harrison administration. Just to clarify. 

In your defense, this was 30 years ago. Before the "internet." Before "OK boomer," "influencers" and TikTok. Before "cellular telephones." Back when my most mind-blowing tech purchase was a "compact disc" player that played—brace yourself—ONE DISC AT A TIME. 

But it wasn't a CD that I blasted incessantly starting that early winter in central Pennsylvania. It was a rectangular plastic thingy called a "cassette." Shake Your Money Maker, the debut from an Atlanta band called the Black Crowes. 

They were so new that Sam Goody's or Coconut's or wherever I bought it didn't even have the CD yet. Just the tape. But that's all I needed. I wore that bastard out, from the opening, starkly raw, bone-shaking riffs of "Twice as Hard" to the crescendo of "Stare It Cold." 

Remember—or try to forget—this was the "Phil Collins/Paula Abdul/New Kids/Vanilla Ice/hair metal/dance-pop/gouge your eyes out" era. Not a single rock band had hit No. 1 on the Billboard charts that year. (But lip-synching mannequins Milli Vanilli sure did! Sigh…)

It was a pathetic state of musical affairs, to which Money Maker was a welcome kerosene-filled bottle, soaked rag and Zippo lighter. And the Crowes quickly became arguably the biggest act in the world through their triple-platinum debut, their 1992 follow-up The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion, and their commercially polarizing yet artistic-pinnacle third effort, 1994's Amorica. 

(I'll still Footloose-dance-fight anyone saying Money Maker didn't take the baton from trend-rocking American '80s classics like R.E.M.'s Murmur, NWA's Straight Outta Compton, Prince's Purple Rain, Violent Femmes' Violent Femmes, Guns & Roses' Appetite for Destruction, Public Enemy's It Takes a Nation of Millions…, The Replacements' Let It Be, and others. It flouted "popular"—blending straight-up-ass-kicking rock, R&B, soul, gospel, Allmans, Stones, Faces, whiskey and weed. And Southern Harmony was arguably even better!) 

But predictably—typical when youth-meets-lightning-in-a-bottle fame—meteoric rise soon became Spinal Tap-esque implosion. Specifically due to brothers Chris and Rich Robinson, a historically combative rock sibling trainwreck that made the likes of Ray and Dave Davies or Noel and Liam Gallagher look like a Norman Rockwell holiday scene. Add to that drugs, booze, ego, greed, combustible recording sessions and tours, tireless bickering, physical brawls, and myopic, self-destructive, forehead-slapping creative and business decision-making ... and, rock cliché, game over. 

Every note of which is personally, candidly and humorously detailed in Hard to Handle: The Life and Death of the Black Crowes, the first-person, VIP all-access memoir by the Crowes' original co-founder and drummer, Steve Gorman—with noted rock author and critic Steven Hyden. Gorman was the lone consistent force, behind the kit from the first riff in the '80s through the final "official" note in 2014. 

I devoured this book in about three days. It's the proverbial "impossible to put down page-turner," detailing the slow-motion car crash in exquisite detail. But it was the band's ever-simmering combustibility, devotion to straight-on rock/R&B and volatile unpredictability that also made them a face-melting tsunami when you saw them live. As I did for the first time at Lehigh University in June 1990. They opened for Aerosmith, and while they were still a fairly raw "bar band" and a tad out of their element in a larger venue, they kicked the erstwhile "Boston bad boys"/now tamer (i.e., sober) bubblegum-y pop-rockers' asses.

I'd go on to see them five or six more times in the '90s. But then, like the rest of the world, as the decade ended, I soon moved onto other things, like finding a career and a wife and stuff (in no order). However, I've always retained a certain nostalgia, respect and admiration for the Crowes' original, throat-punching, stripped-down "two guitars, bass, drums, keys" rock 'n' roll onslaught, devoid of any bullshit techy, dance-y gimmicks. I miss that in today's music. But at least Gorman's memoir gives fans the definitive backstage pass to the "life and death" of the band. 

At this point, you've either dozed off or are asking, "OK, Lester Bangs, why did you just write 700 words on the Black Crowes and their drummer's book ... on a site about advertising?" 

Fair question. Gorman's memoir is a weird lead-in. And I'm not trying to help Steve sell more copies (although it does make a great holiday gift for that rock-loving friend or relative!). But while reading, I couldn't ignore all those "professional/creative/business" decisions the band made. Literal clashing of art and commerce, right brain and left brain, emotional and rational, with which we all struggle to some degree in our business, right?

Which got me thinking: What lessons or advice can we advertising/branding pros poach from the demise of a legendary band like the Crowes? What can we glean about leadership, collaboration, creativity, deadlines, clients, managing divergent personalities, navigating agency politics, and especially, surviving "toxic" work cultures? 

Who better to ask than the man with the drum-kit's-eye-view of it all—Gorman himself, an actual rock star, versus the "rock stars" we often call ourselves in this industry. Check out our Q&A below. (No spoilers, but I will touch on some of the book's broader themes.)

Mark St. Amant: Ad agencies, like bands, are a collision of art and commerce. How did you guys balance both?

Steve Gorman: We balanced both successfully in the early years, 1990-94. There was a pretty simple mindset: Let's make the music we want to make without any commercial concerns, but then, once it's done, let's do all we can to reach as many people as possible. And it worked perfectly. We had a manager who we trusted and who had proved immediately to be adept at protecting our integrity while building our fanbase and our opportunities. 

Chris and Rich Robinson made decisions that were straight-up destructive (see: Chris wanting 75 percent of the band's income for a 25th anniversary tour, etc.). Many in advertising are at the mercy of "leaders" whose ability to lead is suspect at best. What advice would you have for them?

If you realize that the people leading your job/career/world are not suited for it, and have both an inability and an unwillingness to deal with reality … leave. As soon as possible. Just get out. No matter what short-term gain or benefit you see, you'll never get the time back. 

Agencies talk a lot about culture. As a survivor of perhaps the most toxic "company culture" in music history, what would you tell someone trying to navigate such an environment?

See previous answer. An understanding of team concepts—such as identifying and utilizing each individual's strengths while serving the group vision—is literally useless in such an environment. Even if you manage to drag the team across the finish line, your efforts will not be recognized, acknowledged or appreciated by the people who are creating the toxic environment. 

Sad truth in advertising: You're often a replaceable commodity unless you're a founder/partner. While you were a founder, it was clear Chris thought of you as "just" a salaried employee. How did you work with him knowing this? Is it as simple as compartmentalizing? 

Yeah, I guess so. But at the same time, he couldn't do anything about it. He didn't have the authority to change my status on his own, so it didn't upset me that much. Plus, I eventually realized that his opinions meant nothing. Literally nothing. They changed with the wind, and they were rarely if ever based on anything I recognized as reasonable or rational thought. 

At various points in your career, you guys either had a) little or no money, with no real delivery deadline, or b) tons of money and very specific deadlines/album deliverables. Which did you prefer for the "creative process" and why? 

We actually had very few situations where B came into play. If there were hard deadlines, or expectations from a record label, we honestly didn't care, for better or worse. Generally, though, the band operated very well anytime we felt cornered. At least, in terms of finding cohesion. We had an easier time aligning our ideas when we felt attacked. Make of that what you will. 

Advertising creative departments have often tolerated the "most talented asshole," the gifted creative force who could also be a monster. Chris and Rich fall into that category—gifted to varying degrees, but jerks who were tolerated and enabled because the end product was great. Do you think with #MeToo, #TimesUp and other movements, the "talented asshole" is a dying breed in rock as it—hopefully—is in advertising? Or will rock always be ... well, rock?

Well, I never thought of the brothers, collectively or individually, as the reason for the end product being great. Chris was certainly a catalyst and, at his best, could pull some incredible things out of himself. Rich came up with some amazing parts and riffs. But their songs were ultimately brought to fruition by the band as a whole, and the producers we worked with. There is no "Wonderwall" or "Bittersweet Symphony" in TBC's songbook. What we had were good songs made great by the whole. And that type of greatness is what is so rare, and so impossible to recreate. Chemistry is everything, and TBC had an undeniably special chemistry at times. Their solo efforts are a clear indication of what they're capable of on their own. As for the "talented asshole" dying in rock, or music in general ... nah. That's never gonna change. 

For a large chunk of your Crowes career, you felt "stuck" in the band, always on the verge of leaving ... but it was never the "right time." For anyone feeling stuck in their agency or job, when you finally bailed, how did you know that it was indeed the "right time"? 

Well, I knew it was the right time in 1997, but I was afraid to leave. I wasn't healthy, emotionally or spiritually, and quitting would have poured gas onto a fire in that regard. I needed to get my own house in order, and in hindsight that was very much the right call. I would have floundered had I quit then, so it made sense to stay until I felt like I was on firmer ground. And when I did quit, in 1999, it was literally the same day Jimmy Page let us know he wanted to tour. So, I un-quit within seconds. Again, that made sense, looking back, as it led to some of my most cherished memories of playing music. It also led to the band having an amazing opportunity to turn around our trajectory. Granted, we blew it as always, because we were the Black Crowes, but admitting to myself that I wanted out was the hardest part of the whole thing. It went so hard against my grain of being a team player. Once I accepted that, it made my life much easier. I could strategize on what was best for me, and work towards getting where I needed to be. So, the "right time" can come and go. The most important part is not to kid yourself as to what you really want or need. 

Guest question inspired by our mutual friends—and advertising chief strategy officer and chief marketing officer, respectively—Mitch Blum and Don Lane: "So much of what went wrong with the Crowes came down to the need for control and credit ... but when they were a team, they were unstoppable. I think account/strategy and creative [in an ad agency] is a lot like the rhythm section and songwriters [in a band]. What's the role of "facilitators" versus "creators" on a team?

Well, I think that in a band, anyway, those terms can be really limiting. Any group of people will have various strengths and weaknesses, and deciding early on who is a "creator" and who is a "facilitator" can very well be a setup for disaster. Pete Angelus was our manager, yet he was the most creative person in the group, in terms of how many directions his creativity could flow. That said, what is most important is the recognition and respect of everyone's individual strengths. To say "We write the songs and that's the most important thing" is kind of like saying "I'm the quarterback and I don't need an offensive line." You can say it. And you can think it. But you're gonna get maimed if you act on it. 

Anyone reading this could agree that creative collaboration requires compromise—putting the greater good above oneself and meeting halfway—without compromising the quality of the idea. What advice do you have for creatives who might feel they're not being respected, heard or "met halfway" as much as they'd like? 

Put every idea forward with conviction. But tamp down expectations. Treat the wins and the losses in the same manner. Just because your brilliant idea worked once doesn't mean your next one will. For an idea to succeed requires buy-in from so many other people. I'm guilty with an earlier iteration of my band Trigger Hippy of forcing square pegs into round holes because I knew my vision was right. And it didn't work. I was more focused on getting my way, or of being right, than I was on being successful. So, it didn't succeed. Your vision is only as good as its execution, ultimately. I put all kinds of things into sports analogies: Michael Jordan is clearly the greatest player of his generation, if not all time. And yet he has the exact same number of championships as Scottie Pippen. He couldn't get it done until he had the right team around him. Who's more important? Who cares? They won six titles. End of story. 

Everyone has his/her favorite bands and songs—some of which are probably by the Crowes ... but as an obvious student of pop culture beyond music, do you have any favorite ads/commercials/campaigns in your lifetime? It's OK to say no—we ad creatives are as fragile, angry and self-loathing as any skinny rock frontman. 

Off the top of my head, without overthinking it: The UPS dude writing on the whiteboard was pretty great. And the Dos Equis "Most Interesting Man in the World" always made me laugh. I'm usually drawn to that—if something makes me laugh, I'll remember it … especially if it's consistently funny. Those never got old to me. 

Thanks to Steve—for his entertaining memoir; decades of great songs with the Crowes and his new band, Trigger Hippy; and selfishly, for all the great answers that gave me an excuse to yammer about my love of rock music and somehow disguise it as an "advertising article." If you ask me, his answers hit harder than his snare shots on "Jealous Again." Seriously. Go back and listen to that track. THAT's how a snare should sound.

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Mark St. Amant
Mark St. Amant is a freelance executive creative director/creative director/copywriter and author based in Boulder, Colo. All his work and info is conveniently housed at markstamant.com.

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