How To Survive The Music Industry In 2017
"The music industry can really fuck you up," writes David Emery, VP Global Marketing Strategy at Kobalt Label Services in this important essay/how to guide. "It’s all well and good to talk about it … (but) breaking it down into some small things that might make working in the music industry slightly less likely to cause more stress than it really needs to."
Let’s take stock, shall we? By all accounts, the world has gone crazy. Not as bad as when it’s been really bad, but, you know, bad. Facts are dead. It is entirely possible that some people genuinely think up is actually down, and to say anything different is unpatriotic. In an effort to prove that politics is just as cyclical as fashion, by different turns we seem to be simultaneously reviving the Nazis and the Cold War. We are metaphorically wearing a Hugo Boss suit with leg warmers, and look just as stupid.
Let’s put all that to one side though. It is, I think we can all agree, too much. But what I want to write about is how to best handle the year ahead, and to ignore the looming doom of the modern political landscape would be remiss. The elephant is there; let’s all look at it, puzzle for a second at quite what it’s done with its hair, and move on.
After all, we have records to sell.
Of course, I don’t just mean records. And of course – of course! – I don’t mean sell. Such simplicities are the luxury of a different time. I have written at length before about how the changing nature of the music industry is turning most things on their head, so I’m not going to rehash that again – although it’s probably timely to note Ray BLK winning the BBC Sound of 2017 poll, given she isn’t signed to a traditional label and is currently working through exactly the story I wrote about in my last piece.
What all that means, though, is that things are tough. The industry is in flux – not in a bad way, hell it’s even growing – but that means that the people in the industry are in flux. The structure of companies is in questions. Some jobs need creating, other jobs need downsizing, streamlining, restructured or however else you’d like to refer to being made redundant.
There is a general air of positivity in the air, I think, but with that comes a note of insecurity. That is nothing new, though, for we all, deep down, know two sacred facts about the record business: 1. We’re not doing this for the money, and our bosses know that too (because they didn’t get into music to make money either) & 2. There’s a queue of people lining up that would love to do our jobs (they’d be good at it, too, and they’re actually really, really nice).
So we’re all going to lose our jobs to someone else cheaper and better and hungrier, or get restructured into oblivion, which is cool I guess. Happy New Year.
That first “sacred fact” – that we’re not doing it for the money – is important, as well, because it means we’re doing it for the passion, which as it turns out it really fucking dangerous.
I’m not exaggerating for comic effect, here; the combination of deep set industry-wide job insecurity along with an utter passion for the subject matter that we’re working on is dangerous. As in, dangerous for your health sort of dangerous. As in, I know of more people then I care to think about that have “burnt out” and had to take medically enforced time off, and worse.
The music industry can fuck you up.
I’ve written about this before, as well, and I’m writing about it again because it’s still more important then anything else I could write about. It’s all well and good to talk about it – and we need to talk about it, and keep talking about it – but I thought this time maybe breaking it down into some small things that might make working in the music industry slightly less likely to cause more stress than it really needs to.
1. When you’re off, you’re off
One of the key issues if you’re talking about improving working practises in music is the utter lack of definition between your work life and your home life. Going to gigs, listening to music, grabbing a bite to eat before a gig – all these things are what most people who like music do as a social activity, and, if you work in music, all of these things – and much more – are things you do as part of your job.
This is by equal turns brilliant and terrible.
It means that no one has a solid sense of when you’re at work, and when you’re not. Evenings are frequently work time. The same with weekends. Which means that all the time ends up being work time. You are permanently on call.
“But”, I hear you think, “I’ve got to be working because [insert thing that is urgent/important/etc.]”.
It turns out though that we’re not ambulance drivers. Things can wait. If it’s the weekend, resist the temptation to be on email. If you’re on holiday, set an out of office and turn it off so you can’t even see it. Sometimes shit happens, or needs to happen, out of office hours, and you have to jump on it. That’s ok. I’m talking about the 99% of times, when there aren’t things that are critically urgent.
Doing this will make you better at your job. Everybody needs space and perspective. Head down, nose to the grindstone isn’t the best way to be the most productive, even if it feels like you have to do it just to get everything done. This is a creative industry, filled with creative problems that need solving, especially at the moment. Creativity needs space, and varied, stimulating inputs, to blossom.
2. Email is not your job
Say it with me: “My job is not to do email.”
I catch myself being guilty of this all the time. The first thing you do when you get into work is fire up the inbox and start wading through emails. And as quickly as you clear them, more of the fuckers start flying in. So you do email until someone emails you about a meeting that’s about to start. You go to the meeting – keeping an eye on your email on your phone whilst you do – until you get back to your desk and try to get across all the email that came in whilst you were away from you desk. Repeat until you go home, where you can have some quality time at home, watching the TV, doing email.
Unlike some, I don’t actually hate email. But it’s important to remember all it is is a tool for communication. Nothing more, nothing less. How good you are at your job is not related to how good you are at email. If it were, you’d see it more on CVs. There would be awards for Best Email Subject Title, or Quickest Reply.
Best Use of Emoji in an All Company Email. Etc.
It is just a tool, and it’s up to you to use it how you want, and not feel obligated to be tied to it, because if you are you end up having no time to do actual work. Ration your use. Don’t check it every minute of every day, or at the very least don’t reply the minute you get an email. It is so easy to jump out of whatever thought process you were in the middle of by quickly replying to whatever email just came in, and you’ll lose so much time trying to get back to it. Replying quickly doesn’t save you time, it actually costs you time, by making you less efficient at the task you were doing already.
And another piece of advice, probably one that’s more controversial: don’t file email. The idea of filing (or deleting) every email that hits your inbox comes from a time when we all got so much less email, a time when email storage was tiny and a time when email search was terrible. But now we get so much, a non-stop deluge, that the idea of doing something – spending a little bit of your precious time – on every single email that comes in is pretty crazy if you think about it. The whole “Inbox Zero” fad has got a lot to answer for – what benefit, exactly, does having an empty inbox actually give you, other then needing a lot of work and the crushing, inevitable disappointment when, 10s after you’ve cleared it another 5 emails come in that you’re then duty bound to do something with.
Inbox Infinity, then, I guess is what I’m proposing. Leave everything in your inbox, flag emails you need to reply/read more/do something with, and move on with your email-admin-free life.
3. Not everything is important
Remember earlier when I said we aren’t ambulance drivers? I want to reiterate that again. It is blindingly obvious if you write it down, but not everything is important.
There seems to be a habitual escalation of almost everything to being urgently important. Mission critical. If you don’t act now, someone might die. Or, at least, get fired. My hunch is this root cause of this is the record label <-> artist management <-> artist relationship, where the manager is trying to keep the artist happy, the label is trying to keep the manager happy, and they’re all trying to achieve similar, but slightly different things. When everyone is trying to keep someone else happy, things that aren’t really that important tend to get exaggerated beyond belief.
The only way to be productive, however, is to prioritise. There are never going to be enough hours in the day to do absolutely everything, so it’s up to you to choose which of the things you could do are the most important. That rarely correlates with the latest email in your inbox, which is why the point above about email is so important.
4. Don’t be afraid to get help
I mean this in two ways.
Firstly, don’t be a martyr. The whole concept that by taking on something all by yourself, working long hours, resisting collaboration, so you can “look good” is, quite frankly, bullshit. You will do better work if you work with others. You will do better work if you work with others.
If you remember back to earlier in this piece I talked about how there’s endemic job insecurity in this industry, and the tempting reaction to that is to work in way that helps you “claim” things, making yourself look good and keeping your standing as a valuable “asset”. The amount of inverted commas in that sentence should be a give away that it’s probably not for the best. Of course, from a cut-throat business point of view this is great – having your employees compete against each other, work long hours, and generally put their progression at work above anything else is, if you’re pretty heartless, perfect.
I’m not writing this for them, though.
If you’re struggling with something, this is not your failing; it’s your bosses failing. If you need more resource with something, say so. If you can’t figure something out, ask somebody. Don’t bluff it. Ask. Everybody puts “works well in a team” on their CV, but honestly, in music, the competition – and egos – seem to make that pretty darn difficult, for no good reason.
You will be better at your job, if you ask for help. It is not a failing, it is a great, great strength that all of the best people I’ve worked with share in abundance.
The other way I mean this is outside of work.
As stated previously, all of this can seriously screw you up. This industry, and the way we work, is not conducive to good mental health. And if you don’t feel like you’re coping, you do not need to try and cope on your own. Again, this is not a failing, this is a by-product of the ridiculous way our industry has ended up working.
It can be utterly overwhelming, but it shouldn’t feel stigmatising. Go and see a councillor, or start with your GP, or at least talk to a friend or partner – fundamentally though, don’t be afraid to talk about it. Your mental health is the most important thing there is – it sure as hell is more important then going out 5 times a week to shows that you don’t want to go to, drinking through them, staying out until 2am because you have to see the artist at the aftershow, and then doing it all again the next day, week and month, isn’t it?
Yeah, it turns out it is.
5. Be passionate
Finally, this is the balance. If you don’t care about what you’re working on, you shouldn’t be working in music. All of the above takes its toll, enough of a toll that you need to think about coping strategies on how to manage simply doing your job.
The passion is vital.
When I say, “when you’re off you’re off” it would be easy to interpret this as “stop caring”. Same goes for “Not everything is important”. If I don’t care about the details, if I stop working all the time, then do I even care any more? If the answer is no, then this is the wrong line of work for you, because I hate to break it to you – albums will still get released without you, the world will still turn.
We all have to break away from the fact that we owe the music industry anything, because we don’t. We all have the luxury of working within it, but that doesn’t mean we have to be slaves to it. We should care. We should be passionate. It should be fun.
If it’s not fun, then stop doing it. If it is, and it should be, then do it on your own terms, and no one else’s.