The (18x Platinum) Record You Almost Never Heard

Los Angeles, August 1987. A music industry executive who has spent the past 2 years cultivating what he believes will be the next big thing in music sits down with his boss for a high-pressure meeting. “We’re going to cut our losses and let them go,” the boss tells the man, referring to the band their record label had signed two years’ back. While shocking news to the executive, you couldn’t blame his boss — the band’s debut album had reached a peak position of 182 on the Billboard 200 chart, sold only around 200,000 copies, with a future that looked anything but promising.

“I’m sorry, but I’m going to have to go above your head on this one,” the executive tells his boss. “It’s nothing personal”.

The executive gets up and walks down the hall into the office of the president of the record label, a man who has built the company from a small, scrappy outlier into an industry powerhouse. “Why are you here without an appointment?” he asks the executive, who informs him that his boss is about to change the course of music by releasing the band he has nurtured for two years from their recording contract. Knowing full-well that not just his job, but his entire reputation (the currency of the A&R trade) is at stake, the executive asks the president of the company for a favor: call MTV and ask them to play the video we made for the first single off the album, as that will surely weight people’s appetites for the band.

The president agrees to do it and comes back later with news: MTV will play the video one time, at 4am EST that upcoming Sunday night. Take it or leave it.

The executive goes to bed Sunday night and wakes up Monday afternoon to see his answering machine blowing up. He calls his boss, the one who threatened to release the band, who informs him that for the first time in history, MTV’s phone lines blew up (literally) from the 10,000 calls they received from the video broadcast, and that they plan to put the video in heavy rotation from that point forward as they are confident the band can help build the still-fledging cable network’s audience.

The rest is history.

On the backs of the video for the single “Welcome to the Jungle”, “Appetite for Destruction” went on to become the best-selling hard rock album of all time and one of the best selling albums in any category of all time, with +/- 30 million units sold worldwide to date. It launched its creators, Guns N’ Roses, into the stratosphere as the world’s most popular band and made them household names (much to the chagrin of Tipper Gore).

Needless to say, the executive in this story, Tom Zutaut, didn’t loose his job. Having previously signed and built the career of Motley Crue, he knew a good band when he saw one, and he was convinced from the moment he saw Slash and Axl Rose on stage that these guys were the next big thing. So convinced was he that he put his job, reputation and welfare on the line, regardless of the final outcome.

And an album that likely would have died in the bargain bins at Tower Records becomes an all-time classic, simply because one person had the fortitude to stick his neck out for something he believed in.

There are two key takeaway from this story. First:

Great things can happen when someone believes in something so much they are willing to risk everything for it.

Some might argue that anything of value can only be created through such circumstances. It certainly begs the question, what would each of us be willing to fight for?

Second, the story illustrates the power of what one person can do for another. In this case, for fans of rock and roll at least, Guns N’ Roses were a great band, that much was universally agreed upon. But without Tom Zutaut’s willingness to go above his boss’s head, or chutzpah as some might call it, Slash and Axl would likely be tending bar or giving guitar lessons for $50 and hour, if they’d have managed to stay alive. But thanks to their A&R man’s heroic efforts to keep them from being pulled off of life support, they are Rock and Roll Hall of fame members.

May we all find something we are passionate enough about to put ourselves on the line for and may we all be given the chance, at least once, to help someone else achieve their dreams when we have the power to do so.

Equal parts Seattle and Los Angeles

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