03/22/2011 02:37 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

What New Technology Firms Can Learn from Detroit Rock and Roll

Detroit is one of those mother pools of true rock and roll. When you look at what came out of Detroit musically it may lead the listener to say what's going on in Detroit? What was in the water? Why wasn't it New York? Why wasn't it LA?
-- Henry Rollins (2010 interview with Jason Schmitt)

It is an unusual juxtaposition. I'll give you that. But yes, I am in fact having the gumption to suggest the most modern of new tech startups, and iconic behemoths like Google and Microsoft, might want to peruse other creative ecosystems, like Detroit rock music -- and to investigate these sites with the hope of better understanding their continued market relevance. If we can dissect how the creative process plays out more clearly for a region like Detroit, who has had more than its fair share of creative success, we are getting somewhere in an information age where creativity is seemingly the king pin commodity.

Most new tech firms are hardly a blip on the longitudinal timeline of creative success. Inversely, Detroit rock music has employed and cultivated a solid stream of creative talent and cultural relevancy for six decades and running. In other words, the talent and creativity of this region continually replicates and maintains its inertia. Sure, other music regions have had 'flash in the pan' success and lots of correlating hits: a la Seattle. But the Detroit case is different. More complex. Continually creating without drying up -- and allowing creativity to flourish in opposition to the regional economic imperatives.

Is it OK that Google's gut is getting too big for its pants or that Facebook is being represented by Goldman Sachs? Let's be clear, I am not a media analytical guru -- and don't know the legitimate outcome for tech startups growing like Walmarts on steroids. But I do know that Keith Woolcock, a well-known technology analyst, said in a February 5, 2011 TIME article: "To me, Google has become the Microsoft of its generation: big, bad and quickly becoming irrelevant." I also know no one has ever said the word "irrelevant" about Detroit music.

I spent the last decade researching the unique Detroit musical ecosystem. I worked at Atlantic Records, owned a recording studio and became well-versed in the Detroit creative scene. I conducted my Ph.D. dissertation on understanding Detroit rock music success. My graduate work was in Media Studies. The correlations and similarities I see between new technology inventiveness and the music creation process are numerous. The following graphs show the similarity of Richard Florida's creative class (read as new tech workforce) "heat" and the spatial dynamics of the U.S. rock music scenes from 1971.


This graph was created by Kevin Stolarick, Ph.D. for Richard Florida's


Music geographer Larry Ford helps to identify the spatial dynamics of the US music scene in the 1971 article, "Geographic Factors in the Origin, Evolution and Diffusion of Rock and Roll Music"

Taking in the above graphs, it is fairly clear that creativity has relatively stayed put in terms of geographical distribution. If you are wielding around a Les Paul, or an iPad 2, that doesn't seem to matter much. The regions that are best at using tools for creative activities have remained fairly constant in doing so. This broad appeal helped me to justify blending together rock music cultivation and new technology success. It's not the industry: it is the people and it is the mentality.

The Creative Mental Picture

The pursuit of elusive creativity has been thoroughly dissected to the point of oblivion. We know creativity thrives in less homogenized, more diverse areas (Gordon Torr, Managing Creative People). We know creative synergy happens when lots of different people and ideas and heritages, and work ethics, come together and are motivated by personal desire (Teresa Amabile, Edsel Bryant Ford Professor at Harvard Business School). We understand that creativity is not taught well in school (Sir Ken Robinson, The Element). And we realize money and other reward structures have a way of inhibiting big creative ideas instead of spurring them into fruition (Dan Pink, Drive).

So where does this leave our conversation on Detroit's usefulness to new tech bottom lines? Here is my play-by-play on what the Detroit environment is doing right to stay creatively relevant:

(1) Detroit has pocketed communities. This concept seems negative at first glance as it is representative of white flight, racial unrest and the core problem that attacked Detroit as a viable urban core.

A theme that continually came up in my research is that Detroiters, especially in the 1960s and 1970s, could tell what suburb you were from based on the style of the music you listened to and the way you dressed. Specifically, suburbs such as Taylor and Flat Rock (20 minutes south of Detroit) have Southern-inspired blues music roots. Ann Arbor (40 minutes west of Detroit) has a prominent San Francisco/ Berkley psychedelic music, hippy-inspired texture. Communities such as Royal Oak and Birmingham (20 minutes to the north) possess British-inspired music and fashion. And Grosse Pointe and St. Clair Shores (15 minutes to the east) have a very East Coast conservative, nautical-inspired ethos.

Detroit had, and continues to have, a lot of distinct areas that don't commingle daily. The catalyst of this fact being a lack of a viable mass transit system, and an often readily misconstrued view of not driving through Detroit in the evening for safety concerns. This separation kept creatives in their respective suburbs. But the separation wasn't 100% exclusive. Detroit's downtown possesses the main music clubs and venues which eventually mingled the various ethnocentricies --but it was pivotal that the garages, practice spaces, studios, workshops and living rooms were far enough removed to inhibit daily homogenization.

(2) Detroit has family-owned radio. Detroit has always been a family-owned radio empire. Even today. CHUM Group Radio and Greater Media are family-owned companies that own a significant portion of radio stations on the Detroit dial. With independent radio ownership on decline, Detroit radio is unique as it is not constrained by the same Clear Channel dictates as the majority of radio markets are in 2011. This allows the programming to be representative of what Detroiters want to hear and not national dictates. Michael Stevens, a former senior promotion manager at Atlantic Records in Detroit who now runs a recording studio out of Houston told me, "...coming back to Detroit for a quick trip and listening to the radio--there is nothing like it left, especially today with radio being homogenized the way it has. The talent on the radio in Detroit is staggering." Ted Nugent agrees with Stevens and told me: "all the radio in the country is controlled by a few people except WRIF, Detroit won't allow such an outside influence."

(3) Detroit audiences are second to none. DTE, Detroit's outdoor amphitheater, has been the most attended amphitheater in the world for 17 consecutive years according to Adam Graham of The Detroit News. I interviewed Alice Cooper and he elaborated on the uncommon artistic support in Detroit by saying, "We were playing with Steppenwolf -- Alice Cooper and Steppenwolf and across town was Savoy Brown and Fleetwood Mac, the other part of town was Elton John, and there was two other concerts going on the same night with big name acts and every place was packed--so that shows you what Detroit is."

Interviewing Slash brought out another unique avenue of Detroit artistic support. Slash told me: "It has been my experience since I started with Guns N Roses that Detroit was a great gig. From the first show on it became a known fact that every time you come through Detroit it is going to kick ass. When you have a supportive, energized, responsive crowd, like you do in Detroit, you don't have to work as hard to make the energy."

(4) Detroit has maintained the same direction. As a region, Detroit isn't easily homogenized. If you listen to a 1968 MC5 album or a 2008 White Stripes album, the song crafting, the musicianship and what is sonically appreciated, is all extremely similar. Eddie Vedder of the band Pearl Jam sings a famous line, "I change by not changing at all." And in theory this has become the unbeknounst mantra to Detroit music. To not get overly caught up in the fads and fashions. To hold true to the mission. To not change for change's sake. And in doing so, the Detroit market always looks a bit unique due to it not being 100% relevant to national trends.

Unpacking Detroit's Secret Sauce

If you are interested in corporate creativity, my first finding of pocketed communities takes the form of a "no duh." Nearly every creative-inspired leadership book I have read mentions the importance of keeping the creatives away from the nitty gritty. The importance of not micro-managing is brought up to allow the big ideas a culture in which to flourish. The interesting notion is to think of these ideas on a larger scope than the brick and mortar office. To zoom out and look at this as a more city culture than corporate philosophy. And to look at the ramifications that working from home can have on this process. Metro Detroit has enough room to allow distinct lifestyles to play out in separate Petri dishes. In a Second Life, 2.0, global access world, the dictates of "neighborhood" are changeable, scuptable, and extremely important.

Family-owned radio in Detroit is an interesting second ingredient to the homogenization kryptonite this region seems to possess. Plain and simple, Detroit is not as quick to pick up on national music trends. By not basking in the newest ideas, this region has maintained a more focused creative demeanor. Media that reflects the region's view and not national dictates, is extremely important. This finding makes reassessing your RSS feed content, and choosing what streams of information you want to seep into you, or your workforces' brain, more important.

The third finding is Detroiters make great audience members. This statement is two-fold and epitomizes the "chicken or the egg" philosophy. Is it because there are so many artists that play Detroit that Detroiters make extremely energized and supportive crowds? Or is it due to the energy and support of the region that so many artists flock to Detroit as a preferred tour stop? Regardless of the justification, Detroit audience support is massively important to cultivating this region's strong creative presence and allowing a more refined taste to develop and to continue.

Furthermore, it isn't as if Detroiters have a lot of expendable cash to spend frivolously on artist support. Detroit, with its dismal economy, still finds funds to support the tours that come to the region. And by support we mean hooting and hollering and general energized behavior more so than nearly any other region. New technology firms need to keep their workforce energized and excited (by other means than salary). By changing tasks and keeping fresh ideas constantly in the workplace, this component can be achieved. Attend web conferences, hire speakers, keep everyone in your organization questioning which way is "up."

Finally, Detroit has waded through the decades without majorly altering its course. Detroit has been able to keep its compass aimed in the same direction: making good, truthful, gritty rock music. To continually do this, Detroit acknowledges the most recent fads and fashions with a grain of salt.

What does all this mean? From February 2010 to February 2011, according to data from, Detroit is in fact leading the new technology job openings on a national scale. The above Detroit creativity variables have crossed disciplines -- and succeeded. But this piece isn't about how Detroit's foray into new tech has been successful -- it is about how Detroit's ingredients can help new technology firms grow and be relevant. By keeping your work force separated, (both physically and mentally), keeping information that is unique (and tailored to you) infiltrating your inbox, becoming excruciatingly supportive, and holding true to your mission. By doing these things your firm will become more relevant, hardworking, long lasting and more like Detroit rock music. In the infamous words of the legendary MC5, your workforce will finally "Kick Out the Jams."