The Kurt Cobain Guide to Startup Success

Kurt Cobain

There’s no doubt that rock stars can be creative entrepreneurs, just like entrepreneurs can be creative rock stars.

But Kurt Cobain?

It may seem a stretch to call Kurt Cobain and Nirvana entrepreneurs. After all, Cobain was so disturbed by fame that he ultimately took his own life to escape the pressure.

The success of the album Nevermind was an accident of creative genius by punk rockers who reluctantly hit it big, right?

Not exactly.

The Deliberate Creative Genius of Nirvana

I didn’t want to be a fringe alternative band… I’d rather be a rock star. ~Kurt Cobain, About a Son

An entrepreneur is successful because his passion for an outcome leads him to organize available resources in new and more valuable ways. When you look at it that way, Kurt Cobain was definitely a creative entrepreneur, and he and the other members of Nirvana knew the outcome they wanted.

They wanted to be rock stars.

Now, that doesn’t mean they wanted to be rock stars like the crop at the time, such as Bon Jovi, Mötley Crüe, or god forbid, Warrant. Ironically, Nirvana’s success quickly knocked the hair bands off commercial radio.

The innovative mix of punk, pop hooks and 70’s guitar rock allowed Nirvana to change the face of popular music forever. And even though it’s likely they never imagined how big it would get, Cobain candidly reveals it was all according to plan in the 2006 documentary About a Son.

Take a look at the three elements that propelled Nirvana to the top of the charts. They just might help you succeed in your own entrepreneurial endeavors.

1. Break the Status Quo

It wasn’t cool to play pop music as a punk band. And I wanted to mix the two. ~Kurt Cobain, About a Son

To innovate in epic ways, the first step is to rebel against the status quo of the industry or community you belong to. In Nirvana’s case, the music scenes in Seattle and Olympia, Washington, were notoriously anti-commercial.

Nirvana’s indie debut Bleach showed promise, but that abrasive, relatively unstructured noise rock was considered “acceptable” to the Pacific Northwest music scene. Cobain wanted to create hybrid songs with pop elements—along the lines of the Pixies—but met resistance from the community and even from Sub Pop, the label he’d worshiped such a short time ago.

So Nirvana made the heretical move of signing with a major label, releasing Nevermind with Geffen. Once Smells Like Teen Spirit broke through, the grunge gold rush began, and Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Alice in Chains crossed over onto mainstream radio next.

Takeaway: Be a leader, not a follower. You’ll certainly annoy the status quo, but only until you’re reaping the rewards of the innovative pioneer.

2. Mix Innovation With Fundamentals

I don’t think we’re better than the other bands… We got attention because our songs have hooks, which stick in people’s minds. ~Kurt Cobain, About a Son

Most of the songs on Nevermind were written before the band went into the studio. While the music is no way conventional, the tracks possess catchy hooks that are psychologically pleasing.

In other words, Cobain’s desire to add pop hooks to punk compositions is a classic way to “organize available resources in new and more valuable ways.” This is creative entrepreneurism at it’s finest, and Cobain got the rock star outcome he hoped for (be careful what you wish for, etc.).

The band chose producer Butch Vig, whose work with Sonic Youth Cobain admired, and selected Andy Wallace to mix the album. The group walked a fine line by combining polished production with punk aesthetics, and they nailed it (even though Cobain complained years later that Nevermind was too polished).

Takeaway: This is the fine line all creative entrepreneurs walk. Ignore market desire and human psychology, and you fail. Diminish the innovative elements that set you apart, and you become another unremarkable “me too” effort.

3. Bake the Marketing Into the Product

We didn’t do anything. It was just one of those ‘Get out of the way and duck’ records. ~Geffen President Ed Rosenblatt

When Nirvana signed with Geffen Records, they got a tried-and-true marketing machine. Radio promotion and retail positioning had been boiled down to a science in the days before digital distribution turned music marketing on its head.

The selection and release of singles was classic record-label strategy. Smells Like Teen Spirit would go first, which would introduce the band to radio listeners, DJs, and programming directors. This would pave the way for Come as You Are, which would be the more likely hit.

That’s where the plan fell apart.

To say Smells Like Teen Spirit did better than expected is a monumental understatement. A song recorded in three takes with lyrics penned minutes before turned Cobain into the reluctant voice of Generation X.

Geffen hoped that Nevermind would sell at least 250,000 copies, which is what the Vig-produced Sonic Youth album sold. Nevermind has sold over 10,000,000 copies to date, and is critically-regarded as one of the best rock albums in history, just as Smells Like Teen Spirit is considered one of the greatest rock songs ever recorded.

Takeaway: These days, creative entrepreneurs of all stripes can use the Internet to spark their own viral success stories by creating remarkable products and services. Home runs like Nevermind are rare and unexpected, so you still need a smart marketing plan. Just know when to “get out of the way and duck” when the audience decides to market for you.

In Summary (Plus One More Crucial Tip)

Kurt Cobain can definitely teach us things about starting our own business, whether big or small:

  1. The first key is always a new and better approach, or a fresh and innovative way to do the tried and true. If the “do it the way it’s done” crowd tells you you’re wrong, crazy, or stupid, you may be onto something.
  2. You can’t ignore the realities of market demand and human psychology, but often the market doesn’t realize what it wants and the mind craves something new.
  3. Create things that people naturally want to market for you.
  4. Be careful who you marry.

About the Author: Brian Clark is a new media entrepreneur and co-founder of Lateral Action. Subscribe today to get free updates by email or RSS.

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Responses to this Post

Sites That Link to this Post

  1. Nirvana's Success | October 28, 2008
  2. The Kurt Cobain Business Model | November 1, 2008
  3. Hoinareli: | February 13, 2009
  4. Me too | August 23, 2009
  5. “Me too” « | January 8, 2010


  1. Makes me think of a discussion I had this weekend with someone.

    Them: “Do you really want to do that? I mean, people expect XYZ.”

    Me: “Maybe it’s time to show them that we do things a little differently around here. Besides – haven’t I already created an expectation that I’m *not* like everyone else?”

  2. I love especially point #2. It reminds me of the concept of assumed constraints. Our experience of the limits and realities of our world often keep us from pushing into new territory, so we constrain ourselves because we assume these things are true, or that they are an obstacle, or that they are real. In other words, some things are simply restraints we have to work around or with or through (what the market wants) and some things aren’t constraints (we think that knowing what the market wants is unattainable) so we have to navigate our pathway through and push past assumptions.

  3. Good points especially number 4! 🙂

    Point two is right on the mark. People often don’t know what they want, so create something that they simply can’t say no to.

  4. >The selection and release of singles was classic record-label strategy. Smells Like Teen Spirit would go first, which would introduce the band to radio listeners, DJs, and programming directors. This would pave the way for Come as You Are, which would be the more likely hit.

    I sort of wonder if they went against the grain on this as a convention.

    To me, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” has more hook, and the video is burned into my mind.

    I don’t know that I ever saw a video for “Come As You Are”. If I did, it didn’t leave any impression, and I love the song.

  5. This post reminded me of this favorite quote:

    “The only way to test the limits of the possible is to go beyond them into the limits of the impossible.” ~Unknown

    What hasn’t been done… is just the “next big thing” waiting for a fearless creator.

  6. point # 4 is so well taken.

    don’t marry anyone that doubts your flow, your quirkiness or even just your boring old ideas,

    but for the purposes of this blog,

    its funny because none of this advice is really new either.

    but with information overload and the eagerness to jump on every opportunity often the obvious is left behind.

    so thanks to copyblogger…

    i devour your site and insights as i manuever my way through web 2.0

    good day!

  7. It’s so true about needing to break convention and get outside of doing the “me too” technique. Whenever I have written something on my own site and winced a little when I have hit publish as if to think “Am I really going to say THAT in such a public forum?” I always get the best and most genuine response from people.

    Thanks for the reminder that being straight with what you really think and offer as an entrepreneur is the way to go also. I’m so glad to have found your site- thanks!

  8. I always thought the video to “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is what broke them into the stratosphere…but perhaps my memory is affected by a grunge-induced haze.

    Still, excellent post with lots of good takeaways.

  9. Shawn, I was surprised too when I found out they thought Come as You Are was the hit. It’s a great song, but compared with SLTS, it’s B Team.

    Just proves the old adage in entertainment… No one knows anything. 🙂

    And good call on the video–it had a lot to do with building awareness for the song. It debuted on MTV’s late night alternative show 120 Minutes, and got so many requests that MTV put it in daytime rotation.

    Come as You Are has pretty good video too:

  10. I love to read marketing advice with the bottom-line message, “just make a really freaking good product.” There go all my hopes of producing more garbage! I smack my forehead in frustration!

  11. I watched this movie this weekend when it was on cable. The Azzerad interviews used in the documentary made me think about similar issues you have so eloquently addressed in your post here.

    Kurt et al knew what they were doing. How interesting that the overall feeling 14+ yrs. later is that he left this earth primarily due to his disgust and distaste for fame. Although I believe he got more than he ever bargained for on that level there had to have been more going on beneath. Be careful who you marry is right. 😉

    The first key you list holds the real genius here. Please the alternative kids without reinventing the wheel. Conform without conforming.

    Thanks for an insightful and grungified post.

  12. It takes a brave soul – or a really stupid one – to venture into unknown territory when all the “guiding lights” are telling you you’re crazy. But example after example shows us that the rewards can be huge and well worth the effort.

    The risks are also high that you’ll fail. Perhaps point #5 should be “Don’t give up after your first failure.”

    Great article with some unique insights, and a nice flashback for me to the days-back-when. 🙂

  13. Funny, I just read a big biography of Kurt Cobain by Charles Cross and it reinforces a lot of what you are saying.

    Except the marriage part. Cross’s view is that Courtney Love got a bad rap. And I believe it.

    Cobain had a lot of things to struggle against: chronic pain, which led to drug abuse, a history of suicide in his family, a rough childhood, and an insane amount of sudden celebrity. I don’t think the marriage was the problem.

  14. The three elements that defined Nirvana’s success were fueled by an even more elemental driver: fearlessness. Innovation can’t occur without it, and if we aren’t willing to scare ourselves and others with our ideas we’ll struggle to achieve it.

    Just recorded a vlog about this very subject

  15. @ Creativist – I disagree that taking a different path than the others do creates high risk of failure.

    I feel that what creates a risk of failure is acting impulsively and stupidly, doing something just because one can or completely ignoring all the signs that say, “Bad idea, dude.”

    Ignoring nay-sayers when all the signs point to a calculated risk in which all possible outcomes have been covered would not lean towards high risk of failure.

    It would lead to an educated, informed decision to be different because the chance of success is worth it. My opinion, of course, for what it’s worth.

  16. Nice paradigm…Nirvana changed the music industry when they emerged and although Cobain’s career ended short, they made a giant impact in a short time.

  17. I just went to the gym – they were playing the video to Come As You Are on all the TV screens.

    Who says blogging has no impact in the real world. 🙂

  18. So many true points. Great article. I also thought Teen Spirit was the start…

    Lisa K

  19. Kurt Cobain decided to actually make an effort to use sound marketing techniques in his music and it payed off big time for him.

    Goes to show you, that being stubborn about your art can give you results that suck.

  20. @James,

    Ignoring nay-sayers when all the signs point to a calculated risk in which all possible outcomes have been covered would not lean towards high risk of failure.

    It would lead to an educated, informed decision to be different because the chance of success is worth it.

    If, in fact, the scenario you just described exists, then I agree there probably would not be a higher risk associated with an action. However, a case where ALL the signs point to success, and ALL possible outcomes have been covered AND the consensus would STILL nay-say the notion isn’t very likely to occur in the real world. If it were that obvious then you’d be more likely to be stampeded by the mobs who want to go for the all-too-obvious brass ring. That would be logical behavior.

    Concept of what is “stupid” and “impulsive” are highly subjective. One person’s stupidity is another person’s genius. I’m sure Kurt Cobain, Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, Henry Ford, and the cave dude who came up with putting things onto round objects so they could be rolled all heard those comments from their less enlightened contemporaries. In hindsight, we see that genius that was there. Certainly at the time those folks came out with their ideas they BELIEVED they were right and others were wrong.

    But belief isn’t certainty. There is always some degree of uncertainty in any course of action because we’re human beings and do not have perfect foresight. We don’t have the ability to predict ALL outcomes or see ALL the signs. We can shave the odds by informing ourselves as much as possible, but in the end there’s always going to be some probability that we are wrong. It may be because we missed something, our conclusions were faulty, or it may be just bad luck.

    It is uncertainty that creates risk, not “stupid” or “impulsive” behavior. Some things are pretty certain, like gravity, or the fact that we’re all going to die some day. Others are less certain, like my latest-greatest money-making idea, and involve taking a bet or chance that I’m right. If I bet on an idea that has a failure probability of anything greater than zero, then I’m taking a risk no matter how much homework I’ve done or how strong my belief is.

    The greater the uncertainty about the outcome, the greater the rewards for those who push forward and prove the consensus wrong AND their idea was a good one to begin with. If there is no uncertainty, i.e., no risk, then there is no information advantage to exploit because everyone is already doing whatever it is. THAT would be stupid behavior to replicate because there would be no reward.

    Taking a chance and blazing a trail always involves a risk of being wrong because we can’t predict the future. If I’m going to assume that risk then I expect to be rewarded for it. It’s the carrot that we’re all chasing after, isn’t it?

  21. I agree with everything except one point (which further validates your story): Kurt did not take his own life, it was taken from him – there’s been a plethora of scientific evidence to prove so.

    Also, Nirvana’s follow up to In Utero was marketing to the indie crowd in order to save his reputation as many were labeling him as a ‘sell out’ for the polished sound of Nevermind. He wanted to create a loud, noisy, dirty sound in order to save face. The result was probably their best album.

  22. Great post, I especially like point #2. Not an easy thing to accomplish, mixing inovation and fundamentals, I guess that is why it pays off so well when someone finds a way to do it.

  23. This reminds me of how my boss considered my approaches to certain tasks of my job as irrational. Now that I read this, I feel pretty good about my irrational approach.

  24. Great article! I had heard Kurt in interviews and had been very impressed by the way he talked; he definitely seemed very intelligent and down to earth. His musical genius is surely missed.

  25. is it just me or did that picture of Kurt Kobain look eerily a lot like Sawyer from Lost?

  26. This is an interesting blog but I disagree with the tags of genius and the mystic aurora that gets surrounded with Nirvana and their success. I think a closer look at the music scene of the time has a more valuable lesson.

    What you have to remember with Nirvana is that they had been playing and touring the underground indie scene in America for a long time before Nevermind, with little success. It is true that they bridged a gap between Pop melodies with American indie rock stylings but this was hardly innovative at the time, nor where they in anyway the first to do it. If you look at the many other bands other underground pop indie/punk bands of the scene at the time and ask why didn’t they become supermassive?

    For example Husker Du who were one of the first underground American bands to sign to a major label and release 3 albums with warner before breaking up in 1987.
    Husker Du were a massive influence on another pop punk/indie bands such the Pixies and Nirvana – they were gods of the underground scene in the mid 1980s.

    Another great pop/indie/punk band The Pixies who were playing around a little earlier than Nirvana and released brilliant music but never broke into the super mainstream like Nirvana. Kurt Cobain sites the album Surfa Rosa by the Pixies as a major influence but they were never super massive like Nirvana. but why?

    Both the pixies and Husker Du were examples of 1. Breaking the status quo 2. Mixing innovation with fundamentals 3. Baking the marketing into the product And Kurt widely says how he took so much from these bands but why were they not famous and the like Nirvana????

    Steve Albini (who recorded nearly all the prominent and notable underground bands on that time including the pixies, husker du and Nirvanas in utero album) once said in a question and answer session that no one was expecting Nirvana’s huge success. And it had more to do with freaky luck; mtv and the radios desire to move on from hair metal bands.
    Nirvana was just the first lucky band fruit to be picked from a tree full of already ripe fruit…so they were just really lucky

    I personally think that Nirvanas success was not so much about their creativity but a combination of good luck, timing and being ready with the product. To take a lesson from Nirvana it would be just do your thing and love doing it (whether with or against the status quo) and maybe you will get lucky when your time comes…but just be ready in case your fruit is picked.

    The 3 lessons of this blog I think ring true with beastie boys first mainstream album license to ill (considered the first white hip hop album) and illustrate your points far more clearly.

  27. @ Creativist –

    It is uncertainty that creates risk, not “stupid” or “impulsive” behavior. Some things are pretty certain, like gravity, or the fact that we’re all going to die some day. Others are less certain, like my latest-greatest money-making idea, and involve taking a bet or chance that I’m right.

    Well, now… if I had 12 beers in an hour and suddenly decided driving my car was a brilliant idea – without any uncertainty – I’d say I’d be creating a situation of high risk. Mmhm.

    I’ll also say that your latest-greatest money-making idea had some thought in behind it and wasn’t stupid or impulsive, even if you are taking a chance.

    If I bet on an idea that has a failure probability of anything greater than zero, then I’m taking a risk no matter how much homework I’ve done or how strong my belief is.

    Absolutely. What I disagreed with was the original implication that going against the current of what’s being done is *high* risk. That’s all!

  28. @ Angus: anyone who says that luck is no part of success is either a liar or a fool 😉

    Simply put no matter how good you are, if bad luck comes into play, failure is just around the corner. On the flip side, even those that aren’t particularly great can hit it big with a bit of luck.

  29. I am both muscian and marketing company, noting one other thing about the article and something that is so common and relates to every new and innovative idea In my experience some of the best ideas are lost due to not being ready for its success. Kurt Cobane is a typical example. His feel and commitment to his ideas were unshakeable. yet the one skill of coping with change was lacking. When success in any area happens there is a change. It is this carefull consideration married with creative genuis that is sustainable. a point missed in so many fabulous entrepreneurial ideas.

  30. As I like to say, “Make the status quo your ho.”

    Colorful, punchy article —

  31. Smells like a plan…

  32. I think as copywriters this is incredibly important for us to develop our own unique voices. Especially given that it seems like we all get the same products that focus on the same rules, that it’s important to challenge them sometimes as well. Great article — right to the point.

    … not to mention one of my favorite bands of all time

    RIP Kurt

  33. Kurt was an interesting guy for sure whether he was deliberately marketing himself is a moot point but he certainly knew how to manipulate the media such as his first appearance on the Word in UK when he described Courtney Love as the best “lay” in the world. What he had over Black Francis or Bob Mould was what Ian Curtis had over his peers – that whole photogenic outsider schtick. He also knew a good pop hook too. For an anti-commercial band they certainly sold a lot of magazines.

    The irony of him selling out – an atrocious phrase – is that so many people wouldn’t be discussing him nearly twenty years on. He would either have been a delicious memory to a few indie fans or he’d still be alive and releasing albums to an ever decreasing circle of 40 something fans.

  34. What a wonderful and insightful post! Really amazing! Kudos to you, Brian!

  35. This a great article. Inspiring and it shows how Kurt was so ahead of the curve, i can only wonder what he could’ve achieved with the Internet.

  36. Ha…Be careful who you marry! Brilliant man!!

  37. My daughter was a huge fan of Kurt Cobian (our African Grey parrot is named “Pearl” after the band Cobain nose-tweaked so much).

    Little did I know how appropriate Kurt’s modus operandi would inform my Internet Marketing efforts.

    Enough for now … too much Black Label … must watch Boston Legal

  38. If memory serves me right, the decision to use Andy Wallace was made by Geffen who felt Vig’s mixes were a little too raw. Obviously that worked out for radio play–despite Kurt’s objection to the final mix.

    However, then Nirvana took advantage of the success of Nevermind and released what I think is a far superior record, In Utero, with the sound that they wanted. And once again challenged the status quo–their own status quo.

    Lesson here: Be a leader, but then don’t sit back once you’re leading. Innovate again! Innovate more! Look at the design firm IDEO. They took successful industrial/product design techniques and are now applying it to services industry and management consulting.

    RIP Kurt. You made me play guitar in college and I still have a band to this date.

  39. This Girl. says:

    No offense, but i couldn’t really get through this whole thing. However, what did catch my sorry excuse for an attention was your introduction. It is pretty well known that Kurt didn’t kill himself, his crack-addicted; money-hungry; proven insane; sorry excuse of a wife got too much into the fame and money and attention to handle it. He was clearly too in-love with his daughter and devoted on providing for her to commit suicide- especially on his own property. I know that people say it “became too much” for him, but all he had to do was get out of it all.
    Please understand I’m just sharing my opinions.

    *love to Kurt always*


  40. T.G., it’s too bad you didn’t make it to the last line of the article. Sounds like you would have felt vindicated if you had.

  41. I agree with with Chokdee’s comment. Although a brilliant idea/product/mind is the basis of pioneering what would be a hugely successful trend, it takes constant innovation to stay on top of the game. Having loved the music of Nirvana and admired Kurt Cobain’s uniqueness, I’m quite sure his group would have sustained their lead in the grunge genre if not for his untimely demise.

  42. Awesome stuff. This actually made me think of the fictional Eddie Wilson from Eddie and the Cruisers:

    “I want somethin’ great! I want somethin’ that nobody’s ever done before!”

    “We ain’t great. We’re just some guys from Jersey.”

    “If we can’t be great, then there’s no point in ever playing music again.”

    I always thought that said a lot about the kind of attitude that’s required for success.

  43. I like your first point in the summary, it reminds me of what Seth Godin is always saying – be remarkable, create something that’s worth talking about, and people will market it for you. This is why me-too businesses have to slog along while innovative ones go vertical.

    Great post!

  44. Like they say… if you aren’t pissing a few people off or stirring the pot a little, you aren’t making your point hard enough.

    And I like to make my points hard.

  45. you know i love a nirvana fan, nice job brian!

    as the college/metal radio promo person for dgc that worked on nevermind, i must point out a few slight inaccuracies:

    butch vig worked w/sonic youth AFTER nirvana, but SY was the reason they chose their manager john silva and dgc as the label – we had done well with sonic youth.

    sonic youth’s dirty tried to capitalize on kurt having said they were his favorite band and hired vig to help. it didn’t work that well, for many of the reasons you wrote about in this post – i.e. didn’t merge two ideas or markets smoothly, etc.

    the goal at the marketing meeting was to sell 50K of nevermind, which would have been half what sonic youth’s goo had done the previous year.

    eddie’s being a little coy – we had some resistance to nirvana even though “teen spirit” was one of the hottest songs in history.

    those folks don’t work at radio stations anymore.

    thanks for a great post!

  46. I wish some band would come along that good these days!

  47. LOL “Be careful who you marry.” You are classic man! and you waited till the very end to throw that one didn’t you. Rock on!

  48. Great Post !

    There will never be another band or lead man like it !

    The world lost a great one…

  49. “#4 Be careful who you marry.” A real laugh-out-loud moment, ha! I’d probably be suicidal too if I married Courtney Love.

  50. I do remember those days… I was actually very lucky to have seen them in the local bars before they went bid…. Good times.

  51. Be Carefull who you marry

    Just a true Legend…

  52. Well, I just found your blog unexpectedly from the search engine. First time I saw it, I know it’s a very informative blog. I got so many something new from here. Good work and thanks for that!

  53. ya he didnt kill himself… prints on the shot gun were wiped clean, he had 3 times the leathal amount of hherion in his system (wouldnt be able to even pick up a shot gun) and the “suiside” note was made up of 3 different writing styles.. and out of the 3 writing styles in the note,.. non of them were his…

  54. I never imagined that I can read a post about Kurt Cobain as an entrepreneur. I came upon here from CopyBlogger because the title immediately caught my attention.

    I used to be in a rock band, as in hard rock band, that used to cover Nirvana songs and other Grunge bands. I wrote songs and sang. For this, I very much agree with everything you’ve said here; makes me even think you’ve read Michael Azzerad’s book Come as You Are.

    Anyway, the music of Nirvana was the revolution. Kurt Cobain’s creativity brought the entire corporate music industry into greater heights. I believe Kurt Cobain as a musician also associated himself as an entrepreneur because he already envisioned himself of what will be the outcome of his works. He knew it. He knew his unique music will bring success.

    Through Kurt Cobain’s exceptional creativity, passion, and dedication for music, can also be applied in all kinds of business, including blogging. 🙂

    Thanks for this post. It’s really awesome and so right. Cheers!:-)

  55. Hi Brian. My site has been moved to a new domain. Perhaps you can update the link that goes with my name from the old comment.

    Thanks a lot and rock on!