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How Playing Drums in a Rock Band as a Teenager Influenced My Business Management Style Today

By: Jesse Johnstone, President at Fibrenew

When I was 15 years old, all I wanted to do was bash a drum kit. At the time, I needed an outlet for all my pent-up teenage testosterone, so three buddies and I formed a rock band and became inseparable for the next seven years.

As it turned out, the experience of playing in a rock band as a teenager and young adult served as an incredible vehicle for developing many essential business management skills that I use to this day as the President of Fibrenew. In no particular order, here are some of the valuable lessons learned and skills developed along the way:

To Get to ‘There,’ You Must Go Through ‘Here’

Playing in an independent rock band is anything but glamorous. There are no limos. There is no caviar. It’s a rusty van that burns more oil than gas. It’s corn dogs from 7-Eleven. But as I went through my critical formative years playing music, I was given my life’s baseline from which to start. A point in time where I was informed that ‘this is the beginning of ‘here,’ but in the future, I want to go ‘there.’

At the time, I wanted ‘there’ to be rock stardom. In my delusional teenage mind, it was to be playing in packed stadiums, flying in private jets, and participating in untold debauchery. While I never did achieve all those things, the idea of going ‘there’ was now hard-wired into my brain. Along life’s path, I redirected my trajectory from aspirations of rock stardom into the world of business, but the idea of setting and achieving big goals was put into full swing during my early days of playing music.

The Art and Skill of Resourcefulness 

It might come as a surprise that after paying for gas, beer, speeding tickets, and the sound guy, each gig we played didn’t net much money to reinvest back into the band. We didn’t generate the cash to hire a manager, a graphic designer, or a regular sound engineer. So we had to get creative and figure out how to design our gig posters, t-shirts, stickers, album graphics, and a website. We had to get on the phone to convince radio stations to play us. We sought out press opportunities in industry magazines and websites. We took it upon ourselves to get in front of promoters or put on our own shows and promoted them ourselves. We had to produce our own albums, shoot our own videos and take our own photos. It was the very definition of bootstrapping, and it taught me how to be as resourceful as possible. I learned the skill of covering as much ground as I could, how to juggle it all, and above all else – how to make stuff happen.

This skill to get things done is something that serves me very well today. How to pull the right people together for a project. How to figure something out myself. How to put the pieces of the puzzle together. How to maximize a budget beyond what seems possible. As a business leader today, these are all precious skills to possess.

The Veil of Success Isn’t Always What It Seems 

My band’s moment of glory was an opening gig with Motley Crue. Being teenagers and having the chance to play with one of our musical idols was the pinnacle of my band’s musical journey. For a brief moment, we felt like we had finally arrived. All the years of playing in dive bars, getting ripped off, and sleeping on floors were about to be justified.

Heading into the show, we were told we’d have green room access and use of all of Crue’s over-the-top stage production and gear. Excellent, we thought! Motley Crue spared no expense, and we were convinced there would be endless amounts of beer, liquor, food, and groupies waiting for us backstage. Roadies would set up our gear, and we’d have the best sound and light production ever!

In reality, the green room was nothing more than an oversized janitor’s closet with a 12 pack of warm Bud Light unceremoniously plopped on the floor. We had to scramble at the last minute to put together our stage gear and sound equipment. It was an embarrassing mess!

We had arrived all right. Arrived at reality station of rock stardom wonderland. It was a pinnacle in its own right, just not the one we’d imagined. We went with the flow and played our hearts out for the largest crowd we’d ever play for in our time together. As memorable as it was, it was humbling, and it taught me that things at the top aren’t always what they seem.

Always Remain Cool Under Pressure

Author Chuck Klosterman has written about the difference between what we want to see in an athlete and a rock star. We want to see the athlete grind it out and give it their all. Athletes are supposed to extend themselves and show us that they’re on the brink of collapse while doing what they do. At least that’s what audiences respond to and love to see.

As Chuck writes, with a musician, on the other hand, we want to see them make it look effortless. Even if they’re on the outer edges of their playing ability or outside of their comfort zone while on stage, it should never look that away to the audience. As a musician, you have to stay cool and relaxed – especially as a drummer. As the beat keeper in my band, it was up to me to count us in and set the tempo, keep the groove, call out breaks, dynamics, and when the song would find its ending. Panicking, losing your cool, or drifting off focus halfway through a song is not an option as a drummer. I had to keep it together and keep going no matter what.

I learned from this that when you’re on the stage and the pressure is on, you always have to keep your head about you. Business is like a stage, and as a company leader, everyone in your organization is watching and listening. You can’t drop the beat. You can’t speed up or slow down or stop playing halfway through what you’re doing. You must keep going and keep it together during every ‘song you play,’ so to speak.

Trust Yourself and Learn to Go With the Flow

One rare weekend when my band wasn’t playing, I was offered a chance to sit in for a group coming through my home city. They needed a drummer for the night, and someone gave them my name and number. I jumped at the chance to play with these seasoned veterans who had been on the road longer than I had been playing drums.

When we were setting up and doing soundcheck, I grew increasingly curious about what the setlist would be. The show started in less than an hour, and I had never played with them, let alone had any idea what songs they expected me to play. I finally asked the band leader at the end of the soundcheck. He looked at me and said, ‘just go with the flow, man. Sometimes, the colder, the better, you’ll do fine, man’.

After taking a big gulp to calm the sinking feeling in my stomach, I had no choice but to trust him. Upon getting up on stage for the first song and having no idea what I was about to get myself into, I fell into the moment as best I could. I followed the band’s lead and played from my instincts and knowledge, song after song all night – it felt amazing.

It was a huge learning moment and taught me that sometimes you have to just go for it, trust yourself, and ‘play from the heart.’ Planning for the future in business and life is important, but sometimes you’re forced to go off-script. If you practice for those off-script moments, you’ll be better equipped to handle unrehearsed situations when they arise.

Life & Business is a Marathon, Not a Sprint

Being a drummer means you have an internal clock. You have to understand the nuance of timing and pacing. You have to know ahead of time how long a movement will take to progress. You always have to be thinking ahead to make sure you nail the change from the verse to bridge to chorus.

In business, being ahead of the curve and knowing what needs to be done at the right time is what can make or break your success. The way my brain is wired to think about what’s coming next and how everything connects and interrelates is something I learned from my musical experiences. And playing 40 or 50 songs a night taught me the skill of pacing myself. I couldn’t play like a madman for the first 4 or 5 songs of the night and burn myself out before we were only 10% of the way through the setlist. I needed to learn to space out my energy and extend my focus for the long haul. To this day, I find myself doing this in my work and project schedule so I don’t burn out. It’s been an essential skill because a burnt-out leader who’s down and out is of no use to the organization they’re supposed to be steering.

Never Rest on Your Laurels

My bandmates and I could play, really play. We prided ourselves on showing up to practice each week and to each gig with some new trick we had cracked, a new song idea we dreamt up, or a new idea to reach new fans. We pushed each other without actually ever saying it. The four of us were learning, growing, adapting, moving forward together as musicians, and no one wanted to be the one to break that cycle. So week after week, for seven years, we pushed the envelope and each other to become better and better, and it worked.

Today, I still operate on a week-by-week framework. What can I bring to the business this week? What new ideas can we introduce to improve our processes? What one thing can we reveal right now that will propel us forward? It’s an operational mindset that I can directly trace back to my days of playing music with guys who wanted to constantly improve as a band and enjoy the process of building something together.

Life Can Be Stranger Than Fiction

That long-haired rocker I was at 15 would never have predicted that I would be where I am today – the President of Fibrenew, a leather, plastic & vinyl restoration franchise business with 275 locations in 6 countries. It wasn’t until 20 years after my high school buddies and I called our band quits that I realized the incredible experiences that we forged together would serve as the building blocks of my career in business management today.

Thank you for reading. If you have a similar life experience from your younger years that you later realized positively influenced your life or career path, I’d love to hear about it. Maybe it was a sports or school-related experience. Perhaps it was a specific person who took you under their wing. Maybe it was a book, or a trip, or a place you lived that helped set a new course for your life. Leave a comment below or shoot me a note at [email protected] with your experience or observations. I look forward to hearing from you, cheers!

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Meet the author

Jesse Johnstone

As the President of Fibrenew, I have the privilege of working with an exceptionally talented team at Head Office and in the field with our franchisees. Witnessing the achievements of our Franchise Partners in their businesses is a source of deep fulfillment and gratification.

See other posts by Jesse Johnstone