15 Sept 2014

For Cars Companies As For Rock Bands

I often write articles in my head during long journeys. Not many of these end up getting written and published as they're often rubbish or I forget what the crux of it was.  This time, however, the idea stayed with me and, in hindsight, it doesn't seem too mad.

The car industry is long established. The market is made up of a few majors players who have survived world wars, recessions, mergers, poor product and mega-recalls to exist in 2014.  Similarly music has a handful of stars who have defied the odds just by carrying on.  This column looks at the similarity between car manufacturers and their musical counterparts.

Let's start with an easy one.  Iggy Pop first came to prominence in the 60s. He was innovative and influential, his work appealed to a niche audience but everyone had heard of him.  His sound was spiky and raw but other musicians were influenced by his style, and even ripped off his songs, which helped grow the Iggy brand.  He would have faded away a long time ago had not several collaborations and outside influencers revived him at various points in his career.  For Iggy read Lotus cars. Both of them are still around today, everyone has heard of them and admires them but few buy the actual product.

Moving on to a bigger name - Porsche.  Again, hard edged but with more of a commercially accessible nature than Lotus.  Porsche has evolved glacially, growing steadily, until mega-success saw them become one of the biggest players in the worldwide car market - despite their core product, sports cars, being very much a niche.  Metallica has a similar career path to Porsche. They've been around a long time but have stuck at the same formula, with little derivation, yet they've grown to become one of the biggest bands in the world - witness their recent headline slot at Glastonbury for evidence of that.

Back to a smaller player - Subaru. Once a worldwide name they made a few disastrous choices and, despite the fact the cars are good, slipped into relative obscurity, just as Prince has done.  Both Subaru and Prince are still plugging away with new stuff but neither seems to be able to make their way back to the top.

The next pair have both seen huge success and have both been wildly hyped, for good reason as they were both great.  They were loved by journalists and the public alike and are still remembered fondly.  But that greatness has faded into a shadow of what it once was as the components of what made them brilliant have disappeared so that today only a fraction of the substance still exists. Guns N'Roses and Alfa Romeo - we all want you to be as good as you once were but sadly you are not.

How about Jaguar and Iron Maiden, surely I can't find a link between those two?  Oh, I can.  Both have several distinct phases to their careers.  Both had a period when they were considered the best in the world at what they did. Their stars shone bright and what they produced back then is still considered classic and brilliant.  Then due to infighting, lack of new ideas and trading on the same old same old for too long they fell into a period not so much of obscurity but certainly of inferior product and fallen sales.  But they both pulled through spectacularly to achieve a third phase with the best cars and music they've ever made, eclipsing their earlier work and making them more money than they ever had before.  It doesn't hurt that Maiden's drummer is a huge Jaguar fan and had a bespoke XKR-S built for him by Jaguar's SVO.

Volkswagen has been around for donkey's years. Aside from in the beginning they've never been particularly innovative but have always been there and have sold cars by the bucketload by sticking to a tried and tested formula to become one of the world's biggest brands, just like the Rolling Stones.

Another band who've been around for a long time and have ploughed the same old furrow is Motorhead.  Everyone's heard of them, but by not making mainstream product hardly anyone bought their records.  Perseverence and sheer will, with a large dose of belligerence, has meant they've never been signed by a major label and are still resolutely independent. Their core audience, though, adores them and keeps coming back for more despite the fact the formula is largely unchanged.  That's pretty much the formula that has kept Morgan in business for decades.

I could do a lot more of these but it is probably time to end. Despite what I said at the start of the article it probably was a mad idea. Hope you enjoyed it.
A detail from Nicko McBrain's Jaguar XKR-S

By Matt Hubbard