Technology Lessons from the Rolling Stones

Opinion: What Jagger, Richards and company can teach you about building a lasting infrastructure.

Rock music and technology have more in common than might be apparent at first glance. Both require a high degree of creativity, both attract their share of eccentric practitioners and both involve a product that typically becomes obsolete almost as soon as it is released. Typically, but not always.

In the world of popular music, few bands have proven more durable than the Rolling Stones. Since the early 1960s, the Stones have been topping the charts and selling out concerts around the globe. You could say that the Stones have built a solid infrastructure that has supported their continuing success for more than 40 years.


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While the hard-partying Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards is the first to admit his life is not a road map to be followed, he, Mick Jagger and their fellow Stones can offer a few examples of how to make an infrastructure work. In honor of the new Martin Scorcese Stones documentary, "Shine A Light," released April 4, I have distilled the essence of their infrastructure success (and Keith surely knows a thing or two about distilling) into three main points:

1. Stay with what got you to the top. The Rolling Stones burst onto the music scene with brawny, riff-heavy tunes that liberally borrowed from the songbook of blues-rock maestro Chuck Berry. As opposed to the more genteel Beatles, the Stones offered a down-and-dirty sound forcefully rooted in three-chord blues.

While the Stones have tweaked and experimented with their sound over the years-more about that in a moment-they have always retained the sloppy, bluesy riff as the cornerstone of everything they do. Retail IT practitioners should follow suit. The UNIX mainframe you installed 25 years ago may well still serve as a highly functional core for your systems architecture.

Or how about that in-house-developed warehousing contraption you implemented out of desperation 10 years ago? If it has been delivering the goods the whole time, don't be in a rush to replace it with the latest and greatest third-party solution. Naturally, this doesn't mean you should never update or refresh your infrastructure, which brings us to point No. 2:

2. Remain current. This point may seem to be at odds with point No. 1, but it really serves as a complement. The Stones never forgot the deceptively simple three-chord blues structure that made their music popular the world over, but they also never hesitated to update that song structure to fit changing musical tastes and trends. Their early '70s hit "It's Only Rock n Roll (But I Like It)" fits in perfectly with the glam rock sound of its time, but also is a clear descendent of earlier blues-rock hits like "Jumpin' Jack Flash."

The Stones had some misses in their efforts to stay current-listen to the disco-era oddity "Emotional Rescue" or some of their attempts at psychedelia-but they always managed to embrace their heritage without being chained by it.

Likewise, retail technologists should always stay true to the strategies and tactics that brought them success but not be afraid to modify their infrastructure approach to take advantage of the latest developments. A new layer of middleware might dramatically increase the shelf life and value of legacy hardware, or a valuable software solution might produce an even greater ROI if it is deployed as a remotely-hosted SAAS (software-as-a-service) application instead of being maintained in-house.

3. Even the greats have slumps. For a good chunk of the 1980s, the Rolling Stones were in a professional slump. They released some mediocre albums, and a variety of health and personal problems kept them off the road for most of the decade. Many music industry observers predicted they would finally break up.

Instead, the Stones released the solid comeback album "Steel Wheels" in 1989 and launched a two-year world tour that broke all concert attendance and profitability records. Ever since, they have been releasing platinum albums and performing in front of millions of fans on a fairly consistent basis.

No matter how good your retail technology infrastructure is, you will also hit the occasional slump. A server will crash, or a merger will cause unexpected integration difficulties. Don't give up. Keep working at it and have belief in the talents that brought you all your previous infrastructure success. Keith Richards is still alive and kicking at 64 years of age. If that is possible, than anything is possible.

Dan Berthiaume covers the retail space for eWEEK. For more industry news, check out's Retail Site.