Entertainment

Five Lessons From Music's Most Feared Manager, Led Zeppelin's Peter Grant


From left, manager Peter Grant with Led Zeppelin singer Robert Plant and bass guitarist John Paul Jones at Knebworth House.

Photograph by Ian Cook/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

From left, manager Peter Grant with Led Zeppelin singer Robert Plant and bass guitarist John Paul Jones at Knebworth House.

British music industry school Bristol Institute of Modern Music (BIMM) is launching a three-year music management course and offering a £16,000 ($25,593) scholarship named after the late Led Zeppelin manager Peter Grant. Grant—who also managed the likes of Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Jimmy Page’s earlier band, the Yardbirds—cut unprecedented bargains with record companies and tour promoters that altered the industry landscape and helped win musicians a bigger share of the profits. And his occasional use of violence to get his way made him one of the most feared businessmen in rock ‘n’ roll.

After drummer John Bonham’s death in 1980, Led Zeppelin disbanded and Grant effectively retired. He suffered from years of drug abuse and diabetes and died of a heart attack at age 60 in 1995. But Grant still remains one of the best-known band managers out there, a hard-rock Brian Epstein. “We often talk about turning points in rock music—Elvis, the Beatles, and the like—but the music business itself had similar sorts of turning points, similar awakenings, and in this area Peter Grant was a superstar of management,” says Cliff Jones, the former frontman of Britpop band Gay Dad who’s now the head of music business at BIMM. “We’ve decided to honor him and to work with his estate on this award so that others can gain the knowledge and professionalism that he learned over his career.” Here are five lessons the music industry could learn from Peter Grant.

1. Music comes first

Most stories about rock music’s most intimidating manager—the way he talked Atlantic Records into offering Led Zeppelin an absurdly lucrative record deal before it had even heard the band play, his demand that they receive 90 percent of all concert revenue, his fanatical pursuit of bootleggers—boil down to one simple fact: Grant loved his band and he loved their music. In 1974 he even headed the group’s Swan Song Records to give Zeppelin (and others signed to the label) more control over their art. He repeatedly sacrificed short-term publicity boosts for long-term appeal. In the end, his tactics worked: Led Zeppelin became one of the most successful rock ‘n’ roll acts in history.

2. What’s good for other bands isn’t necessarily good for yours

Led Zeppelin famously eschewed singles (thinking the full album was more important) and TV performances. While promoting the 1976 concert film The Song Remains the Same, Grant explained his television aversion this way: “You just cannot capture the magic of Zeppelin … on a 25-inch screen at home.”

He knew TV had its benefits (it had undoubtedly helped launch the careers of Elvis Presley and the Beatles), but Led Zeppelin had a fuller, harder, more electrified sound that didn’t translate well on 1970s-era TV screens. Because fans couldn’t see Zeppelin in their living rooms, they sought out concert tickets—which earned the band more revenue than a television appearance ever would.

3. No file sharing

Grant was so against bootlegging he often visited record stores in person and demanded that illegal copies of Zeppelin’s records and concerts be handed over or destroyed. Some of this fervor can be seen on The Song Remains the Same, when he berates a man for selling unauthorized posters at a stadium show. Of course, just as artists fail to stop album leaks today, so did Grant fail to stop illegal recordings. Led Zeppelin’s live performances were still some of the most popular bootlegs at the time.

Grant died in 1995, just a few years before illegal file sharing took off, but from his almost fanatical pursuit of bootleggers in the 1970s it’s pretty clear that if he’d ever experienced Napster or Megaupload, he would have punched its founders in the face. (Don’t believe us? See item five).

4. Go the extra mile

Grant was one of the first managers to tour extensively with his bands. He kept an eye on expenses and fought tirelessly to get his musicians the money they felt they deserved—even when it required him to employ a helicopter.

In 1979, Knebworth festival promoters reportedly claimed that only 100,000 tickets had been sold to the event. Grant believed the crowd to be much larger, so he reportedly hired a helicopter to take aerial photographs of the crowd so he could have them analyzed to see how many people were there. Grant was right; The crowd turned out to be more than double what Knebworth claimed. Led Zeppelin got their money.

5. Punch people in the face

Peter Grant beat people up. A lot. In his pre-Zeppelin days, the 6-foot-5-inch former bouncer and wrestler reportedly pummeled a promoter who tried to shortchange Little Richard. Another story has him allegedly breaking a Zeppelin bootlegger’s arm, and still another has him pouring water over an unauthorized tape machine during a concert. Once, during a Vancouver show, Grant mistook a noise pollution measurement device for recording equipment and, thinking the man taking the measurements was a bootlegger, beat him up. But his most infamous outburst occurred in 1977 when he, John Bonham, and two employees assaulted a concert promoter’s employee after he allegedly reprimanded Grant’s son. They were sued for $2 million, pleaded no contest, and paid a reduced fine. “This is a very exaggerated part of his life,” says BIMM’s Jones. “He had a reputation for strong-arming people but it usually wasn’t much more than that.” Regardless, the school won’t be teaching this part of Grant’s managerial style. “We won’t be teaching all of the business ethics that he used,” Jones says.

Actually, now that we think of it, maybe there are just four lessons the music industry should learn from Peter Grant. The fifth one is probably best avoided.

Suddath is a staff writer for Bloomberg Businessweek.

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