What Writers Can Learn from Duran Duran: 5 Secrets of the Fab Five’s 40-Year Success

The first song my husband and I danced to at our wedding was Ella Fitzgerald’s rendition of “If I Could Write a Book.” The second was Duran Duran’s “Pressure Off.”

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I’ll bet you didn’t know that Duran Duran is still around, did you? In fact, they’re celebrating 40 years next year.

Or maybe you didn’t know there’s such a thing as Duran Duran Appreciation Day. It’s today, in fact.

If you know me, however, you know how big a Duran Duran fan I am. In fact, I wrote a memoir about my thirty-plus-year-long “relationship” with the band. And so, I thought today would be the perfect day to share the tenets of that success, and how writers could learn from them.

 

Duran Duran Had A Definite Plan

Founding members John Taylor and Nick Rhodes had a vision—not only for the sound, but also for the look and trajectory of the band. They were among the pioneers of the fusion of punk and disco called New Romantic, a hybrid of David Bowie and Chic. In the way the Beatles had donned mop tops and suits, they had donned frilly shirts, leather pants, and makeup. They wanted a record deal with a major label. They wanted to play Madison Square Garden by 1984. And guess what—they did. In fact, some say they achieved the kind of stardom that hadn’t been achieved since the Beatles.

 

Writers can sometimes be vague in their intentions. “I just want to tell great stories,” they say. Or, “I want to be on the bestseller’s list someday.” The lack of a definite plan makes those goals more difficult to achieve. Telling great stories means learning everything you can about the craft—how will you go about that? By reading great stories. By reading about how to tell great stories. By learning from master crafters. How will you get on the bestseller list? By continuing to write great stories. By researching the benefits of getting a literary agent and a traditional publishing contract as opposed to the benefits of self-publishing. By learning everything you can about marketing and promotion. And so on. The more clear you are about what you want, the better you’ll be able to plan for it.

 

Duran Duran Endured Setbacks

In 1985, after having back-to-back #1 hits (“The Reflex” and “A View to a Kill”), coming off a mammoth tour, and being arguably the most successful pop band in the world, Duran Duran’s performance at Live Aid was the last time the original lineup performed together for almost two decades. The 80s, it seemed, had ended in 1985. Although the band produced another hit with the single “Notorious,” album sales dropped. So did their popularity. Princess Diana’s favorite group went from being a quintet of pinup stars and fashion icons to a trio trying to re-invent themselves musically and visually. They also struggled personally. For example, bassist John Taylor has talked and written openly about his cocaine addiction during that time.

No matter what, they didn’t quit. If an album failed commercially, rather than walk away from the music business, Duran Duran went back into the studio and made another one. They toured and played each venue as if it were Madison Square Garden. And something happened along the way. They matured. They improved at their craft. They persisted. Moreover, the teenage fans grew up with them. And guess what? They came back—first in 1993 with their hit “Ordinary World,” again in 2003 when the original five members reunited and toured, again in 2011 with their album All You Need is Now (produced by Mark Ronson), and again in 2015 with their hit “Pressure Off” (produced by Nile Rodgers).

 

Just about every writer/author goes through peaks and valleys throughout their careers. Whereas my debut novel Faking It has sold over 150,000 units, my seventh, The Second First Time, face-planted right out of the gate. That hasn’t stopped me from being proud of both novels and both efforts. I’ve seen changes in the industry and in consumer behavior in the last seven years. I’ve had four different editors since signing with my publisher. It would be easy to long for the years when I sold 5,000-10,000 units a month, or for another one of my novels to hit the way Faking It did. It would be even easier to quit altogether, thinking, “What’s the use? I’ll never be on top again.” But it’s better to persist. Persistence pays off—not always extrinsically, but intrinsically. It makes you a better artist, composer, musician, performer, writer. It makes you focus on what really matters—not the glory, but the work itself—and it makes you grateful for what you’ve learned along the way, as well as for those who stuck with you no matter what.

 

Duran Duran Never Look Back

The band could have easily become a “nostalgia act”—going on tour year after year and capitalizing on their catalog of 80s hits. (And I’m not knocking those bands that do—they make their fans very happy and put on great shows.) Or, they could have capitalized on the sound that made them so popular (their albums Duran Duran and Rio) and made various incarnations of them over the years. But Duran Duran has never looked back. Regardless of an album’s commercial standing or what’s trending in music, when they go into the studio, they strive to never repeat themselves. The result is 14 albums and counting—the fans love some more than others—but each album is different in theme and design and production while still retaining the Duran Duran musical identity and brand. That is the sign of musicians who are in touch with the creative process. And yet they still aim to be trendsetters and produce music that people will dance to when the world around them is dull or discouraging. Every show echoes this.

Even All You Need is Now, which was touted as “the follow-up to Rio,” contained the perfect blend of modern and retro. It wasn’t a throwback to or repeat of Rio as much as it was an evolution.

 

As an author, I don’t seek to write a repeat of Faking It—I don’t think I could even if I wanted to. I can, however, identify those traits that keep readers coming back to my novels and turning pages. Crack dialogue. Engaging characters. A good, entertaining story with a sound structure. I want to keep evolving in my creative process. From a place of craft, I want each book to be better than the last. And I don’t want to dwell why some books exceeded expectations while others greatly disappointed them. Like Jed Bartlett on The West Wing, when I’m ready to get back into my writing studio, I say, “What’s next?”

 

Duran Duran Appreciate their Fans

We’ve stuck with them for a long time. And some are just discovering them in the last year or two. Regardless, the band has always expressed gratitude, be it in their performance onstage (like playing a deep cut or a classic B-side), at a record store signing, or in an interview. Today may be the official day for Duranies to appreciate Duran Duran, but it’s also the day John, Nick, Simon, and Roger (and Dom!) honor and appreciate us right back.

 

My husband recently had this to say about readers:

Readers are wonderful. Readers are a gift. If you want to write, and you’re actually audacious enough to think that your words should be printed and bound and distributed, readers are who you want on your side when it’s all done. Absolutely, you want your agent to be your champion. You want an editor who’s in love with your book and can persuade all the other people who have to say yes to love it, too. You want booksellers who adore your book so much they put it in the hands of their customers and say, “You HAVE to read this.”

If a reader loves your book, she shares the love. She tells her friends, and her brother, and her mom. You end up getting these messages: “I bought five copies and gave them to all my friends for Christmas” or “My aunt gave me your book for my birthday, and I loved it!” And you’re so touched by that, you cry. Why wouldn’t you? That’s an amazing thing.

Here’s another amazing thing: If you have ten readers or ten million, you have gold.

He’s right in every way.

 

Duran Duran Always Puts the Music First

If you came of age during the 1980s, you probably couldn’t walk five feet without seeing Duran Duran—on a teenage girl’s t-shirt or pinned to her denim jacket, on MTV in one of their videos shot in Sri Lanka or Antigua, in the record stores or pop magazines or on the radio or at the top of the Billboard charts. An outsider might think they were all about image. But an insider knows they’re all about music.

They wrote and played their own music. Became masters of their instruments (“Roger uses two hands for his!”). They famously said they wanted to be the band everyone was dancing to when the bomb dropped. When they play “Ordinary World” in concert, they dedicate it to “lost friends” or someone who has passed away, or a group in need of comfort. “The song is no longer ours,” singer Simon LeBon said. “It belongs to all of you now.” I still have my pin-ups and posters and pins and scrapbooks from those teenage years. Saved all my ticket stubs, and still collect memorabilia every now and then. But what has kept my torch burning all this time has been the music. I listen in my car. Or when I’m on the treadmill. When I need inspiration. When I need a pick-me-up. The first song my husband and I danced to at our wedding was Ella Fitzgerald’s rendition of “If I Could Write a Book.” The second was Duran Duran’s “Pressure Off.” (I think they would have approved.) In their hit song “(Reach Up for the) Sunrise,” which has become something of an anthem, the lyric that has summed up everything about the relationship between the band and their fans is “The music between us.” Andrew “Durandy” Golub showcased this in his book of the same title.

 

As writers, publishing contracts and literary agents and Amazon rankings are great, especially if things are going in your favor. But never forget what got you there. Never forget why you got into this racket in the first place. It was the writing. You couldn’t not do it.

Wishing you all a fab Duran Duran Appreciation Day, and happy writing!

 

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FoM title page signed by the band!