Over the course of nearly 30 years as frontman of alternative rock act Better Than Ezra, Kevin Griffin has experienced highs and lows running the gamut from gold and platinum records to lawsuits and bankrupt labels, continually diversifying and evolving in an effort to not only survive but thrive within a volatile industry.
Key to Griffin’s success has been in wearing a variety of hats, writing and producing for artists like Blondie, Barenaked Ladies and Howie Day while continually pushing forward his comprehension and embrace of new sounds.
As co-founder of the Pilgrimage Music Festival, Griffin has carefully curated unique fan experiences since 2015, this year’s fest including headlining performances by artists like The Lumineers, Black Crowes, Zach Bryan, Nathaniel Ratefliff & The Night Sweats and Ashley McBryde September 23 and 24, 2023 in Franklin, Tennessee.
With BTE Fest set to celebrate Better Than Ezra at 30 May 5 and 6 in New Orleans, a summer tour alongside pop rockers Train and a new Better Than Ezra album coming this fall, Griffin kicks off a busy 2023 with the recent release of his first book, a business parable entitled The Greatest Song: Spark Creativity, Ignite Your Career and Transform Your Life.
Griffin, who performs corporate bookings as a member of the group Ezra Ray Heart, routinely adapts the lessons he’s learned along the way during business speeches for companies like Nike and Disney.
With The Greatest Song, Griffin, who majored in English at Louisiana State University, breaks down “the method,” a series of five daily steps applicable to any endeavor which have served him well, enabling his deft navigation of the music industry.
In the new book, now available via Brown Books, fictional journeyman songwriter and musician Jake Stark interacts with characters like Sir Daniel Smith-Daniels, AKA Sir Kid, a billionaire with a background in mathematics and economics who applies his curiosity to music via Nashville publishing house The Row, helping Stark to look deep within himself and reinvest in his potential.
The business parable describes five collaborative writing sessions for Stark, breaking down in detail the tracks constructed. But Griffin actually completed those songs, which are now available for online streaming via platforms like Spotify.
“There’s the physical book and it’s also available on Audible as an audio book,” Griffin explained during a recent phone conversation. “During the book, in the five different writing sessions, there’s five different songs written. Well, we’ve actually written those songs and produced those songs. So, in the audio book, at the end of the chapters where the songs are written, you will hear the song that is written in the story. And that’s really never been done before,” he said. “So, my hope with the book was, ‘I’m going to share some of the things that work for me.’ They’re not absolute rules. They’ve worked for me and I’ve seen them work for others. I’ve seen them work in people that I admire,” Griffin said. “I think that anybody can take something from the book. I know they can.”
I spoke with Kevin Griffin, who embarks upon a book tour April 30 in Los Angeles, about not only achieving success but maintaining it, the dangers of cynicism and his approach to business. A transcript of our phone conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity, follows below.
Jim Ryan: Simplest question first. Why the book?
Kevin Griffin: About six years ago, I was asked by a friend to do a speech for a YPO group — Young Presidents’ Organization. They asked me to speak. I’m never one to shy from an opportunity and I said yes. As it got closer, I was like, “What am I going to talk about?”
I knew this was a business group. So I thought, “What are the things that I do in my business?” which is writing songs and producing and being in this very fickle world of music. I started to see these kind of commonalities — these things that I had to do over the course of my 25 plus years in the music industry to stay successful. And I put those into a speech.
It was really these five practices that I try to do on a daily basis. I’m not always successful. But, as I say, progress not perfection.
So, I started doing these speeches. And the speeches were performances as well — playing the songs I’ve written. And it really resonated with people in the business world. I started doing the speeches for Nike, Google, Disney, Which Wich, Live Nation. And it’s really been something that’s taken off for me.
This speech had this structure and this message that I knew resonated. But I was like, “How do I put it in a book?” I didn’t want it to be dry and prosaic with these steps. I’ve always been a fan of business parables, books like Tuesdays With Morrie, The Five People You Meet in Heaven, Who Moved my Cheese?, Rich Dad Poor Dad. As I read them, I was like, “Wait, Who Moved My Cheese? sold 14 million copies? And it’s 80 pages? I can do this.”
One day during a jog, like most things in my life, the idea came. “I’m gonna do a story. I’m gonna come up with the protagonist Jake Stark, this journeyman performer and songwriter. He’s going to meet people who will teach him these steps that I’ve spoken about that I live by professionally and a lot of times personally.”
And that’s really why the book. Because this story, for me, of Jake Stark, needed to be told. And I wanted to share it with people and have it be digestible as a story.
Ryan: You quote the unlikely duo of Pablo Picasso and Warren Buffett to open the book. Picasso in particular was intriguing. Picasso said, “All children are born artists. The problem is how to remain an artist as we grow up.” The Sir Kid character comes back to that quote again later in the book. So how do we go about remaining artists as we age? Because that’s hard…
Griffin: I think it has to be with intention. I think as you get older, if you don’t think about it, then life, and it’s hard won lessons, tend to drain the artist out of you. It tends to make you cynical sometimes. The wonder of life — that glow, that pink cloud that we all have as kids — starts to wear off. Everything was new then. Kids don’t have any boundaries. “I’m gonna paint this. I’m gonna be a rock star. I’m gonna be a fireman!”
So, I think that to remain an artist, it’s just filling the well. It has to be an overt thing. I’m gonna seek out inspiration, whether it’s listening to music or reading or continuing with wonder and that lack of cynicism. I always say cynicism is the kiss of death in music or in writing or in anything.
I talk about that in the book. A lot of people have success. But how do you keep success? How do you keep that artist going and nurtured and nimble as opposed to getting ossified and set in stone? Because I see it happen all of the time. With music, I’ve got to go out and listen to new music all of the time. It’s that process of osmosis — where new music and new chord progressions and new production techniques come into me.
By the same token, whatever business you’re in, you’ve got to continue it. Some businesses, like doctors and stuff, have to do continuing education. But, for the most part, most of us in the business world aren’t required to do that. But you’ve got to go out and continue. And it’s all there at your fingertips: it’s podcasts, books, trade journals and just always knowing what’s happening in your business.
Stay inspired and challenged. And then it just happens: you stay an artist.
Ryan: That we’re all artists in some way lies at the heart of “the method” as you describe it in The Greatest Song. But not everyone feels that way or recognizes that. How does someone go about channeling that inner artist?
Griffin: Picasso didn’t mean that we’re all Keith Haring or Basquiat or Jackson Pollock doing a drip painting. What Picasso meant is that, whether we’re a musician or an investment banker or a baker or a plumber, all of us bring artistry to our daily tasks. Someone may say, “I’m not creative.” I’m like, “Yes, you are.” Whether it’s a business plan or a recipe, it demands you create something — it inherently demands creativity.
When you start to see that everything we’re doing demands creativity, and that you are creating stuff, it’s not a stretch to say that what can help one person stay a musician, or engaged and artistic, can also help somebody else.
Ryan: Usually, I’d ask you how you go about the idea of telling a story within the confines of three and a half minutes in a song. But here you’ve got a few hundred pages. You’re developing characters, establishing plot, resolving conflict, driving narrative. What was it like telling a story this time around, fleshing things out in longer form?
Griffin: It was a lot of work, you know?
I have such a healthy respect for novelists and writers. Maybe I put my toe into the waters of the business parable because I really saw that the message of “the method,” the five steps and five rules, is the framework of the whole book. I knew that based on the successful business parables that I read, the narrative and the normal high bar of character development, you didn’t have to do that as much in a business parable.
So, I knew that, first and foremost, I had to get these ideas across without cluttering them up too much. You can get away more with jumping to the point.
Ryan: You mentioned a few of those business parables. Whether it’s a novelist, a screenwriter, songwriter or anything else, who are some other writers over the years you’ve found particularly inspiring?
Griffin: Wow. The first book that made me love reading was Madeleine L’Engle — A Wrinkle In Time, that trilogy. Tolkien. I loved A Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin. Through college, it was the classic writers: Faulkner, Hemingway. I got into my Milan Kundera phase — The Unbearable Likeness of Being. Keirkegaard, Nietzsche. I’m a massive Ken Follett fan. I love Ian McEwan, all of his books. Graham Greene. I love Erik Larson who did The Devil in the White City, The Splendid and the Vile. I’m not above reading great Stephen King. I read all sorts of things. Mostly fiction. A lot of science fiction. I had my Harlan Ellison phase. Philip K. Dick. James Elroy. So it really runs the gamut.
All of that really conspired to help me write The Greatest Song.
Ryan: I pulled a quote from the book that stuck out to me. You were kind of describing the way in which music inspired the Sir Kid character. Sort of describing music, you wrote, “The fact that music, more than anything, existed between the lines of rigid thought and dogma, that it refused to be cornered by anything approaching the scientific method.” What does music mean to you today after all these years and how has it prepared you for everything else you do?
Griffin: Sir Kid’s background is in mathematics and economics and these formulas and the uniform economic equation that he uses in the book. I went down the rabbit hole with that stuff! But what I mean by that quote is that, what Sir Kid finds fascinating about music is that it defies quantification.
Now, there are certain mathematical principles to musical bars and beats and measures. And it’s really amazing how mathematical music is and the actual physical sound waves. But what makes a song successful, what makes an idea successful, is that can’t be written down. You can’t explain it. Because it plucks at the heartstrings and the emotions. Nobody has had the golden ear or the golden key to figuring that out. There are certain people that are better than most: Paul McCartney, John Lennon. But, for most of us, I don’t care how smart you are or how great of a musician, it’s really just hit or miss all of the time with what’s going to work. Novelists too.
I think that’s why somebody as accomplished as Sir Kid, a knighted billionaire at 28, still sees music as that elusive thing that can’t be figured out. And that’s why such an inquisitive brain as his is drawn to it.
Ryan: It’s a concept that lies at the heart of the book: the music industry is continually evolving. How important is it that we do that as people too in any business or line of work?
Griffin: It’s critical. I’ve seen it in my own life. I don’t think there’s just a second act. I think there’s a third, fourth and a fifth act. They say, youth is wasted on the young. I don’t think that youth is a requirement of continuing to evolve — and getting better and taking that wisdom and continuing to discover new things about yourself.
I’m living proof. Since I turned 45, the things that have happened in my career, when I could’ve just been written off, have been amazing. And it’s because I think to myself, “I’m going to continue to seek things out and stay wide eyed.” I think that in any business, in any endeavor, you can always pivot — and discover new things about yourself. But it requires intention. And it’s not a passive thing.
So, my hope with the book was, “I’m going to share some of the things that work for me.” They’re not absolute rules. They’ve worked for me and I’ve seen them work for others. I’ve seen them work in people that I admire. But I wanted to share that.
I think that anybody can take something from the book. I know they can.