What John and John Taught Me

A few years ago I had the honor of delivering the keynote address at the CMS high school Career Day event. I spoke about how I share a birthday with actor/singer Will Smith and how that connection  influenced my life and my career choices. Here’s a link to the text.

Well, it turns out that there’s another celebrity birthday connection in my family – between my father, John, and the late John Lennon.

I know: you’re thinking that I’m making this stuff up. What’s next, you ask, my sister has the same birthday as Hillary Clinton? My brother and Vladimir Putin? My dog and Samurai Jack?

No, I promise that this is the last one. And, to be completely honest, my John and ex-Beatle John Lennon don’t actually share a birthday. They are pretty close though – only a day apart. My dad was born on October 8, 1940, while John Lennon’s birthday was October 9, 1940.

But, like the Fresh Prince and myself, John and John were born spatially close together, one in Liverpool, England, and the other in Derry, Northern Ireland. The two cities are about seven hours apart, by car and ferry – less as the crow flies.

And, most noteworthy, these two Johns shared a common dream – to find success in the field of music. John Lennon, as we all know, partnered up with 3 friends and created the most iconic and influential group in the history of popular music. According to Wikipedia, they sold more than 600 million records.

My John? He and some friends partnered together and, after many gigs and years of hard work, failed.

Now, I must admit that failed is a strong word. My dad was able to leverage his musical talent and his hard work to get to the United States and, along with my mom, provide my siblings and I with social and economic opportunities that didn’t exist at that time in Northern Ireland. He put a roof over our heads. He put food on the table. He introduced me to the magic of music and classic Hollywood films. During my father’s music career, he was able to tour around the US with his friends and meet and perform with a variety of world class performers. Fun Fact: my dad is the saxophone player you hear on the iconic 1963 Lesley Gore track Sunshine, Lollipops and Rainbows

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My John is on the far right – with the saxophone.

So, my dad isn’t a failure. But, somehow, two Johns on the same path ended up in two different places. I wanted (needed!) to find out, and understand, why. After all, if my dad had ended up even half as successful as his Liverpudlian peer, I would stand to inherit a lot of Benjamins. As it is, I will actually inherit one-third of a small suburban house and one-third of a 2012 Chevy Malibu.

So, what was the crucial difference between The Beatles and The Emerald Show Band, besides the cheesiness of their respective names?

In my humble opinion, the fates of these two bands were determined when a single choice was made: do we play covers or our own original music?

The Emerald Show Band was a typical representative of Ireland’s show band tradition – groups of young men traveled around the country, playing dance music in dance halls. The goal was to play a wide variety of hits to get as many (ticket-buying) people dancing as possible. My father’s band, however, broke with tradition by leaving Ireland in the early 1960s, seeking fame and fortune in the US. But, despite that singular act of rebellion, The Emerald Show Band clung to the tradition of performing crowd-pleasing covers.

The Beatles, on the other hand, committed themselves early on to creating their own hits. According to h2g2.com, John Lennon and Paul McCartney began writing together as early as 1957. And, individually, the pair had been writing their own songs since the early 1950s.

How did this one simple decision make such a big difference?

First, playing covers costs you lots of money in the long run. Initially, playing covers has some big advantages. Playing songs that people already know allows you to be able to make immediate connections with your audience. And, when audiences are happy, club owners are happy – this makes it easier to book gigs. Leaning on covers does have a downside. According to www.grassrootsy.com, playing covers distracts artists from creating, developing, and promoting their own music and sound. And, your own music is where the real money is. Mike Podwal, a product manager at Amazon, wrote an article on Quora.com listing a number of ways that songwriters make money from their songs, including:

  • Mechanical royalties – a payment from the record label for each song sold
  • Performance royalties – a payment for whenever your song is played in public, such as on television, on the radio, in a bar, or in a stadium.

If you record someone else’s song, you make money as long as people buy copies of your recording, but you have to share the income with the original writer. If you actually write and record a hit song, you make all money and for many years.

The second reason why choosing to be a cover band had such a profoundly negative impact on my father’s future was the invention of new technology. DJ mixing consoles, devices that allowed one to seamlessly move from one record to another, were invented in the 1960s. These mixers meant that DJs could listen to tracks using headphones to pre-plan the upcoming songs to play. DJs could even play two records at the same time, leading to the creation of new sound effects. Dance club patrons liked what they were hearing. In addition, dance club owners realized it was cheaper to hire a lone DJ, rather than a band with multiple members.

So, what does all of this have to do with education?

Well, the story of my father provides two important warnings to young people when it comes to planning for the future. First, it is better to create than to copy. Second, you ignore new technology at your peril.

The decisions of John and John are strong reminders for young people to focus on being original in their thinking, versus following in the footsteps of others. Here is just one example: the 1% Rule of internet content. In the world of the internet, the 1% Rule states that only 1% of internet users create the content, while the remaining 99% simply observe/watch the content. This might work when it comes to online jokes and memes, but this ratio will be disastrous for developing future creative thinkers and problem solvers. 

Another lesson for young people is that new technology cannot be ignored. Yes, some ideas are gimmicks/stepping stones and do not provide long-term solutions (cough, cough…Betamax…cough). However, some new ideas and devices are real game changers, that may make a big difference on their own, or be the first step in new directions.

Sadly, The Emerald Show Band did not learn these lessons. And, they were relegated to the footnotes of music history while innovators, and those who embraced new technology, persevered and succeeded.

I hope the students of today can learn something useful from another tale of the family Deehan, besides the story of how one guy from West Philadelphia found success.

If you have any questions or comments, do not hesitate to contact me.

Ed X!

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