Four Lessons on Resiliency from Butch Vig

Butch Vig is a legendary musician and producer, who has had a huge impact on the music industry. He’s worked with some of the biggest names in alternative music (he produced Nirvana’s Nevermind, Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream, etc.) and himself is a member of the successful band Garbage.

I recently listened to an interview that Vig did on the Nerdist podcast (which is consistently excellent, by the way), where he discussed some of the challenges he’s faced in his role, and it got me thinking about some parallels with the digital space – and in particular about resiliency. This is a topic that I’ve discussed a fair amount over the last couple of years as digital and social continues to evolve at a lightning pace, so I thought I’d capture those thoughts here.

Get comfortable being uncomfortable

One of the things that people in the digital space often wrestle with is the inherent instability of such a fast-moving environment.

When Vig was working with artists like Sonic Youth, Nirvana and the Pumpkins in the early ’90s, the Grunge movement wasn’t ‘a thing.’ He knew that the music they were producing was different to the other popular types of music around that time (electronica and 80s hair metal), but didn’t realize they were on the edge of a movement. As Vig said in the interview, “When you’re in the middle of it, you don’t know where things are going.”

The digital space isn’t all that different right now. Things are changing rapidly and it’s anyone’s guess as to where they’re going. We can all make educated guesses on where things will land, but there’s a new development every day and no master plan by which the platforms are playing.

Lesson: To work in the digital field, you need to get comfortable being uncomfortable.

You need a team around you

Vig told a story about a song off Garbage’s latest album (I believe it was “Even though our love is doomed”). He’d been working on ideas for the song for a while and just couldn’t get it right. He worked on a few different demos for the band, with different styles to the song but eventually got frustrated and set it aside. A little while later, Shirley Manson – Garbage’s lead singer – asked him what became of the track, which he’d mentioned to her previously, and pushed him to pick it back up and to come at it from an acoustic angle instead of one of the others he’d tried. He did so, and cracked the song within minutes.

I’ve found this myself over the years – whenever I try to go off on my own and do something solo, I struggle much more than when I enlist the help of others.

Lesson: Don’t try to be a one-person show – you can’t know it all.

Flexibility is key

Vig reflected that his original plan for an album would change near-daily as the artists he collaborated with had their say. Needless to say, he has worked with some strong personalities over the years so the way he responded to those moments was key and he learned to be flexible with his approach as a result.

The analogy here goes beyond purely digital reflections. Marketing is equal parts art and science, and much of it can at times be subjective. As you work through programs, you will encounter people with different perspectives on the work who may push you from your preconceived notions. Sometimes that will be a good thing (ideas that build or course-correct can be helpful); other times less so (we’ve all worked with clients who inflict death by a thousand paper cuts on every program).

Lesson: Balance the resilience to ensure that program objectives remain intact, with flexibility to incorporate good ideas that build to a better outcome.

Sometimes you just need to step away

Lastly, Vig noted that sometimes his best efforts weren’t enough, and he just hits a block. His advice: step away, sleep on the issue and come back to it tomorrow. More often than not, the problem looks different in the morning.

Lesson: Know when to take a breather and approach a problem anew later.

  • Butch Vig was also part of “Garbage”, wasn’t he? Does “Garbage” still exist?