Road Band or Session Players: A Leadership Challenge

Alison Brown

I recently had the chance to interview Alison Brown and Garry West, the husband-and-wife team who run Compass Records in Nashville. I’ve known Alison since I recruited her to speak at a Harvard Business Publishing Burning Questions conference in 2003 — who could resist the story of an investment banker-turned Grammy Award-winning banjo player-turned record label founder? It was a tale of a passion for music that would not be denied and that turned not into a lark but into an ultimately more rewarding career.

I also interviewed her for Worthwhile magazine (Worthwhile A Brown interview).

I was in touch again recently because I am working on a book on leadership and wanted to get Alison and Garry’s insights into what it is like to lead people over whom you have little authority — musicians certainly fit the bill. While I have to save most of the leadership insights for the book, I did want to share part of the conversation that I found fascinating: the decision on whether to use an artist’s road band or session players when recording an album.

The road band will give you an original sound but there may be egos and agendas to manage. Session players will show up, and get it done in a couple of takes — but the sound can be a bit generic because they move from studio to studio all day playing what they are asked to play.  The road band will be invested in the music but they may also be interested in pushing themselves forward rather than serving the music (this is their big chance to record, too). Session players are expensive, but they’ll get job done fast (and studio time is costly) and can adapt easily to changes made during the session. Road band members are less expensive may not have a lot of formal training — or may not even read music — making it hard to adjust during the session.

The producer — the leader — must make these decisions and unite whichever team is assembled into a unit that will create the best end product that will satisfy the label, the artist, and the listener. This may include convincing the lead talent that some tough choices have to be made.

The next time you listen to a song think about all that had to go in to making it worth listening to. It is more than a catchy melody and a lyric that resonates. It takes real leadership.

Photo: Wikipedia Commons

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