Yaffa Phillips via Flickr
In 2014, Billy Joel became the first musician to ever be awarded a residency at Madison Square Garden after performing a whopping 46 concerts there — including a stint of 12 consecutive sold-out shows. Since then, the 68-year-old performer has done monthly shows, keeping pace with the other MSG franchises the Knicks, Rangers and Liberty, at what is considered the world’s most famous arena. Remarkably, his shows continue to sell out — especially amazing if you consider the fact that Joel’s career spans more than four decades.
As my fellow 20,788 concert-goers and I sang along with Joel’s classic hits at a concert over the summer, I started to think about what goes into sustaining a lifelong career and what keeps people of all ages coming back year after year, decade after decade.
I also started to piece together overall career lessons we can learn from the Piano Man.
Keep your sense of humor
Joel began a July show with a bit of self-deprecating advice. “We’re the house band here” at Madison Square Garden he said, encouraging his audience that they ever find themselves with a similar opportunity, you should “take the gig.” After selling out stadiums for decades, Joel doesn’t seem to have lost his ability to marvel at his own good fortune. He seemed to be in on the joke and wanted the rest of us to know it.
Longevity lesson from Billy: It’s okay to sometimes let your colleagues and co-workers know that you take your work seriously — but not always yourself.
Age ain’t nothing but a number
Joel said he never thought he’d be doing this at 68, playing a sold-out show to an audience singing along to every song. The most interesting part though, was the age range of his fans. Aside from the more expected demographic of Billy fans, there were parents there with small children, and group after group of teen girls dancing and singing along to every single song. Billy Joel at 68 seemed to connect with every person in the audience no matter their age or stage.
Longevity lesson from Billy: Stop focusing exclusively on your age as a deciding factor on your career worth, you truly never know who will champion your work or cause.
Like most musicians, Joel has had No. 1 hits and other songs that never quite made it. He referred to the latter as “album track no-man’s-land” and explained that “not every song can be a radio hit.” And so, at certain points of his concert, Joel opened up the concert to requests, allowing the audience to pick which song they wanted to hear with sometimes surprising results.
Longevity lesson from Billy: You may be studying demographic materials and reports so intently that you miss what your audience truly wants. Sometimes the smartest thing to do is give them a choice and see where they take you.
Dress the part
While Joel’s bandmates were dressed in appropriate rock star-ish garb, Joel himself was dressed in a black suit jacket, button-down shirt and matching tie. He could have worn a ratty old T-shirt and been fine, but he dressed up instead, and I, for one appreciated it.
Longevity lesson from Billy: While people always remind us to dress for the job we want, Joel has reached the pinnacle of any musical career- and he continues to dress up for every single show. It’s a nice way of respecting both the audience and the gig.
It’s okay to be subtle
Many celebrities use their fame to hammer their audiences over the head with their own political or social beliefs, which can turn off people who might just want to watch a movie or listen to a song- but Joel opted for a subtler approach. When he spoke about the 50th anniversary of The Beatles release of Sergeant Pepper, Joel reminded the audience that it was also the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love. “We can use more of that now” he said meaningfully to the audience, referring less obliquely than some to the current political climate.
Longevity lesson from Billy: It can be tricky to share your political or social beliefs while also trying not to alienate your co-workers or core demographic- but that doesn’t mean you have to be apolitical. Find subtle ways to respect your own beliefs when possible.
You don’t have to be Beethoven
In a Rolling Stone interview, Joel mentioned a quote from Neil Diamond that inspired him: “I’ve forgiven myself for not being Beethoven.”
Joel said “I realized my issue was I haven’t forgiven myself for not being Beethoven.” While he’s spent the past decades composing classical music, Joel still performs his classic pop and rock music. But that doesn’t mean he’s forgotten his inspirations. During Moving Out, there was a snippet of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy sneaked in. I’m not sure much of the audience noticed it, but it doesn’t matter — I suspect that Joel included it for himself.
Longevity lesson from Billy: Respect your idols and keep learning from them, but realize that you might just be able to create masterpieces for your own era—or office.
Know your best work
Joel revealed a lot of candor during the show, telling the audience, “I’ve had more not hits than hits” as the band performed a song few of us were familiar with. Yet while Joel hasn’t released any new music since 1993, he keeps filling stadiums.
Longevity lesson from Billy: While resting on your laurels can be a career killer, understanding your best skills and professional crowd pleasers can keep clients happy year after year. Don’t try to reinvent the wheel, just keep doing your best work.
Enjoy the connection
During “Piano Man,” Joel allowed the audience to sing the final refrain: “Sing us a song, you’re the piano man /Sing us a song tonight/ Well, we’re all in the mood for a melody /And you’ve got us feelin’ alright”
His eyes were closed reverently as he spun slowly around the stage taking in the moment. It seemed to recharge him and remind him why he was there after all those years. It was a powerful moment.
Longevity lesson from Billy: Recharge when you need to before a big project. Remind yourself why you do what you do. Let others help you if needed.
Sell out but don’t be a sellout
Joel intends to play as long as he still sells out shows. And with all that and with playing his songbook year after year, he still delivers a powerhouse performance.
Longevity lesson from Billy: Respect and keep doing your best work, and while you’re at it – respect the smart people who will continue to pay you for it.
Deal with your past professionally
Some of Joel’s most famous songs were inspired by past loves. And while he still performs “Just the Way You Are” and “Uptown Girl” among others, there’s a sense of acceptance for what was. Unlike Taylor Swift’s ex-boyfriend tunes, there’s more of a sense of closure than contempt.
Longevity lesson from Billy: Don’t put other people down to build yourself up. And while you’re at it, try to leave the past in the past when possible.