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Journey In Concert: What I Learned

I love rock music, especially when it features a skilled guitar player (a music teacher introduced me to Hendrix and once I’d heard “All Along The Watchtower” I never looked back). Over the years, I’ve been to a good number of concerts and been privileged to see some of the greatest guitarists of our time: Eddie Van Halen, Angus Young, Tom Scholz, James Hetfield (and Kirk Hammett, obviously), Ted Nugent (the loudest show I have ever seen), and Mick Mars to name a few. Recently my wife and I saw Journey in concert for the second time, and that meant Neal Schon’s talents were on full display.

When people think of guitar heroes, they seldom include Schon, probably because of the band’s silly pop image from the 1980s (watch the music video for “Separate Ways [Worlds Apart]” if you want your daily allowance of mullet-flavored cheese). What you may not know is that Schon is a string bending, fire-breathing guitar virtuoso who played with Carlos Santana before Journey and has released quite a few albums of instrumental guitar music that show off his high-speed playing.

When I first saw Journey 15-or-so years ago, their singer was Steve Augeri (listen to him here), who had a great voice and excellent stage presence. That made it all the more confusing when it was obvious during the concert that the band – especially Neal Schon – treated him more like an employee than a bandmate. His voice was so low in the mix that it was impossible to hear (I remember feeling sorry for him as he desperately motioned to the sound guy to turn up his mic as the dude at the board acted like he was the world’s first invisible lead singer). Augeri’s job description seemed clear: pose for photos, then introduce Schon so he could relentlessly play guitar solo after guitar solo. It was like a Neal Schon concert with Journey as the opening act. Often the rest of the band would actually leave the stage as he stood by himself and fired out notes like a perm-topped machine gun.

We all know that Journey’s newest (and longest tenured) singer (even longer than the legendary Steve Perry) is Arnel Pineda, a vocal powerhouse from the Philippines discovered by the band via YouTube. He has become something of a sensation. They made a movie about his journey (no pun intended) from poverty to rock stardom. I’ve seen him referenced on ABC’s hit comedy Blackish. He sounds so much like Steve Perry that it’s creepy. So I was very excited to see the new dynamic between him and Schon in concert.

Guess what? The vocals were mixed a little better and the light show was a lot bigger, but Neal Schon still dominated the evening with bloated solo upon bloated solo. Several times Paneda would simply walk off the stage (who knows what he was doing – watching the news? eating a meatball sub?) while Schon stood in the spotlight and wrestled with his Les Paul like Ice Cube fighting that giant snake.

As an amateur guitar player, I can appreciate his talent, but my wife and the other 10,000 women at the show who wanted only to see a faithful rendition of “Faithfully” were left wondering who this narcissist with the guitar was who kept interrupting their concert. A coworker who was also in attendance kept texting me “zzzzzzzz” and funny gifs every time Schon would start to show off. I got a lot of texts.

It reminded me of another legendary group that I saw in concert a few years ago: Styx. They played their hits but stubbornly ignored the iconic “Mr. Roboto” because guitarist Tommy Shaw still has a beef with former lead singer Dennis DeYoung. After the show I overheard a dejected young man next to me ask “What happened to Mr. Roboto?” like his pet hamster had been sucked into the vacuum cleaner.

To Neal Schon and Tommy Shaw I ask: who is your target audience? Who pays for those $10,000 guitars? Who pays for your beach house and your first-class airplane tickets and your kids’ college educations? News flash guys: YouTube is full of guitar players who are better than you are, but they don’t have $10,000 guitars or beach houses because they don’t have millions of fans. But you do – and instead of playing what those adoring fans want to hear, you play what you want to hear. Does that make any sense?

Journey was once the biggest band in the world (they had their own arcade game for Pete’s sake!) because Neal Schon’s obsession with Neal Schon was balanced by the incredible talent of singer Steve Perry. For millions of fans, Perry WAS Journey, so Schon had to treat him like an equal. The results (18 songs that reached the Top 20) speak for themselves, but unfortunately Schon seems to have forgotten.

There’s a lesson here for our own businesses. Don’t be a diva. Put your customers first, and they will be more loyal. Treat your co-workers with respect, and they will be more productive. Put others ahead of yourself, and you can become a true rock star no matter what industry you are in.