Depeche Mode and Mute: A Question of Trust

If you’re a long time follower of Talking Logistics, you know that I am a huge Depeche Mode fan.

(If you don’t know who Depeche Mode is, I’m sorry for your loss.)

Last Friday, the band released its 15th studio album titled “Memento Mori.” I agree with many of the fans and critics: it is their best album since “Ultra,” their 1997 release. To the dismay of my wife and kids, I’ve been listening to it nonstop since it came out.

Over the years, I have featured Depeche Mode videos and song lyrics in my posts. I have also used them as an example of how creating Vested business relationships can create win-win outcomes — in Depeche Mode’s case, selling over 100 million records, playing live to more than 30 million fans worldwide, and being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2020.

They accomplished this without having a contract with its first record label (Mute, a very small label at the time) for more than 20 years. Here’s how Daniel Miller, Mute’s founder, described the relationship in a September 2016 interview with Yael Chiara:

[Depeche Mode] put their trust in me and I wanted to return that trust by doing the best that we could do. I was determined to make it a success… I was convinced we could do it on our own. The [major record labels] were so arrogant and condescending, I thought: ‘F–k you.’

The band were offered quite big advances [which they turned down to stay with Mute]. We didn’t have a contract, no lawyers, no managers: we sold a [heck] of a lot of records and they made a good amount of money without any of them.

In an interview last week with Zane Lowe for Apple Music, band members Dave Gahan and Martin Gore talked about their relationship with Daniel Miller and Mute. “Isn’t it true that he never asked you to sign a contract?” Zane asks Dave and Martin. Watch the short clips below for their comments.

“We trusted Daniel,” said Dave Gahan, “and we had each other…and he never guided us the wrong way.”

To borrow lyrics from an old Depeche Mode song: “It’s a question of trust / It’s a question of not letting what we’ve built up crumble to dust / It is all of these things and more / That keep us together.”

Unfortunately, trust is in short supply in supply chain management these days (see “Addressing The Trust Problem In Supply Chain Management”).

Yes, the business relationship between Depeche Mode and Mute is a rare example. In most business relationships, a handshake is not enough; there are contracts and lawyers involved. But as Kate Vitasek and her research partners have highlighted in several books and articles on Vested business relationships, contracts and lawyers are not inherently bad; the problem is with the mindset and approach each side has traditionally taken. To quote from Kate’s book “Getting to We: Negotiating Agreements for Highly Collaborative Relationships”:

“The focus needs to be on developing evolving and mutually beneficial relationships that create shared value, solve mutual problems, and get both parties to a place of ‘we’ rather than the usual ‘us vs. them’ tug of war.”

What happens when you focus on getting the best deal instead of developing the best relationship? There are plenty of “cautionary tale” examples out there (see General Motors and Clark-Cutler-McDermott Co. and Apple and GT Advanced Technologies). The short answer is that these deals often end in failure. (For related commentary, please read “The High Cost Of Poor Supplier Relationships.”)

What if Depeche Mode had taken a big cash advance from a big record label in those early days in return for signing a contract with them, a contract that undoubtedly would have benefited the label much more than the band? What if they had focused solely on getting the best deal in the short term instead of developing the best relationship for the long term?

I’m glad we’ll never know.

For related commentary, please read “How To Turn Low-Trust Business Relationships Into High-Performing Partnerships” and click through to watch my conversation with Kate Vitasek and Karl Manrodt. 

And here’s my favorite song from Depeche Mode’s new album: