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The Stax Records Guide To Overcoming Setbacks

In 1968, Al Bell, president of Stax Records, the pioneering R&B music label, learned that the expiration of his company’s distribution arrangement with Atlantic Records would deprive Stax ownership of its own back catalog of music – all of the songs and albums the label had released since its founding in 1959.

Since much of the worth of a record label comes from its back catalog, Stax Records was, in effect, starting over as a business without the steady residuals a large catalog could provide. Confronted with this reality, Al Bell decided to create a brand-new catalog.

He alerted all Stax artists, writers, and producers. To refill the company’s catalog, Stax would simultaneously release 27 albums and 30 singles. (Why the target is 27 albums rather than 22 or 32 is lost to history.) There was much music to be created.

One member of the Stax stable was songwriter and backing musician Isaac Hayes. He had released one solo album, “Presenting Isaac Hayes,” which had underperformed. It was unclear when he’d get another shot – until he learned of Bell’s audacious plan. Opportunity presented itself. Bell needed Hayes to help produce the torrent of work he had promised. Hayes said:

“Sure, but can I have an album?”

“Yes, sure you can.”

“Can I do it like I want to do it?”

“Sure, you have carte blanche.”

Hayes told David Dye of the World Café radio program, “We had 26 other albums released, so I didn’t think mine mattered. I didn’t have any pressure, so I did it selfishly.” In this case, “selfishly” meant a full-length album with only four songs, including a 17-minute cover version of the easy-listening classic, “By the Time I Get To Phoenix.”

The album, “Hot Buttered Soul,” went to number one on the Billboard soul charts and sold more than three million copies. The album made Hayes a superstar and inspired other R&B artists such as Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder to break with the standard three-minute single formula, resulting in such classics as “Got To Give It Up” and “Living For the City.”

This story has stuck with me because it provides general lessons we can use as leaders and as professionals. Sometimes you will be a leader facing a significant setback like Al Bell, and other times you’ll be a creative force with something to prove, like Isaac Hayes.

If you’re a leader, like Al Bell, who’s just had a big setback…

  • Focus on what you can do, not on what happened. Bell, by all accounts, didn’t dwell on the loss of the back catalog. Instead, he faced reality – his catalog was gone, and so he needed to create a new one. Bell saw the assets he had left – creative people, distribution and marketing relationships, and used those in his plan to rebuild Stax.
  • Collect talent. Bell’s experiment proves that you can never have too much talent. Without a deep roster of writers, producers and performers, the 27-album project wouldn’t have even been a possibility.
  • Set a “stretch goal. They didn’t use the term “stretch goal” much back in 1968, but that’s what Bell proposed. He didn’t have a detailed plan, just a vision of what could be. And by committing to the vision, he was able to bring his talented followers along with him.
  • Let them try. Bell gave his talented team room to take risks. He let Hayes do what he wanted – “Sure, you have carte blanche” – and the result was far different from anything he foresaw.

If you’re talented but stuck, à la Isaac Hayes…

  • Remember your objective. Hayes yearned to be a successful solo artist. And while he dutifully wrote and produced records for other Stax artists, he never gave up on that dream.
  • Use timing to your advantage. Hayes understood the opportunity that Bell’s project provided him; there wouldn’t be time or manpower to micromanage any of the 27 albums being made in 1968. This would be a chance to do it his way, and a better chance might not come along again.
  • Ask for what you want. “Sure, but can I have an album?” Hayes asked Al Bell. If not for that question, “Hot Buttered Soul” might never have happened.
  • Do it ”selfishly,” i.e., follow your bliss. If you invest passion into the work, it has a chance to be great, or even break barriers, as “Hot Buttered Soul” did. Sometimes, even most of the time, we will have to work on projects that don’t move us. So look for the opportunities to jump on projects that scratch your deepest itches.

It can be hard to recover from a big setback. But such moments can free you up to take risks, create opportunities for others, and create something great. How do you find the opportunities in the aftermath of a failure?

More insights on: Failure

John Caddell

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John Caddell is the author of “The Mistake Bank” and contributed to the most recent 99u book. His latest project is 3-Minute Journal. John also organizes the New Tech Meetup of Central PA. You can reach him at or @jmcaddell on Twitter.  
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