Where’s the mentoring in the music industry?


Career fuel, career angst and passing the torch

this article originally appeared in edition 3 of The Manifesto, a publication for the modern music business.

One of my favourite articles from the past eighteen months is a piece in the consistently excellent Fast Company magazine by Brian Fetherstonhaugh, Chairman and CEO of advertising agency Ogilvy One. Entitled ‘Here’s what you really need to get right about work’, Fetherstonhaugh shares his views on career trajectories and says that most people only think about the immediate next step, not a pathway.

Simply put, the article suggests careers can be split in 3 chapters of roughly 15 years apiece, with a different strategy needed for each.

The chapters are;

  • Taking on Career Fuel (Transportable Skills, Meaningful Experiences, and Enduring Relationships)
  • Pouring Gasoline on your strengths (finding your sweet spot, and setting high ambitions);
  • Passing the Torch (mentoring and staying fresh).

There’s also an introductory section around ‘Career Math(s)’ which emphasises the need to think of careers as marathons rather than sprints, and the need to ‘fuel up’ right from the off.

The world of advertising isn’t always the most nurturing of places for career development but this piece really hit the spot with me, and I’ve referred back to it numerous times. The ideas in these three chapters are simple and effective and also actionable. Rather like the best advertising in fact.

However, one thing that he proposes that I’d challenge is that the passing the torch should only happen in chapter three (i.e. after fifty years of age). The vantage point may be higher then, but I believe it can and should happen much earlier. One industry that would benefit enormously from more torch passing, mentoring and knowledge sharing of all kinds and at all stages is the music business.


Same as it ever was? Or worse?

So what happens if nothing changes? In an industry shifting and writhing as much as music is, I’d suggest that some or all of these things are likely to happen if development of executive talent stalls:

  • executive talent goes elsewhere
  • executive talent doesn’t fulfil their potential
  • artistic talent doesn’t thrive to their potential
  • deals within the industry decline
  • there is a ripple effect to wider creative industries

These are pretty dire consequences, but they are imminently possible if the business talent within music doesn’t thrive and help create a supportive and connected ecosystem.

The best way I can think of to prevent these consequences is through effective mentoring and the building of a virtuous circle where the next generation are guided by those that came before them.


Mentor mumbo jumbo

One definition of a mentor is this:

‘Mentorship is a personal developmental relationship in which a more experienced or more knowledgeable person helps to guide a less experienced or less knowledgeable person. The mentor may be older or younger, but have a certain area of expertise.’

The first rule of mentorship is to understand why you want one, and that probably means taking a step back and properly thinking about what you really want. This thought process will help you identify who the right mentors may be.

Be respectful of a mentor’s time. Their time is often their most valuable resource and should be respected as such — it’s something all of us only have a finite amount of, after all. Ironically, if you keep to time when meeting with a mentor and know when to bring the meeting to an end, they’re more likely to give you extra time.

When I’ve sought out mentors, I’ve learned to ask clear, tightly formed questions. It took me a while to learn this but I noticed the results I got improved dramatically.

If you’re emailing them be specific about why you’re getting in touch, why you think they may be a good fit for what you’re looking to achieve, then ask no more than three well-formed questions. Only expect a call or in-person meeting as a bonus if they have the time. This gives the mentor a chance to politely pass on one or all of your methods of request with neither party feeling aggrieved or uncomfortable.

A mentor relationship can come in many different forms. It could be conversations once a week in-person or once a year via email; someone you met once ten years ago, or the person you haven’t yet.

Make the preparatory steps first, and as the saying goes ‘when the student is ready the teacher will appear’.

Mentoring myths

Let me dispel a few mentoring myths:

  • they have to be from your industry / area of expertise
  • they’re considerably older than you
  • you have one mentor, not many.

Myth 1 is sometimes the opposite of where a mentor should come from. This example from a friend sums it up:

“A few years ago I decided to reach out to my old thesis supervisor at University. We hadn’t talked really since I graduated. I remembered that he always pushed my analytical thinking and made me want to be better. So I just casually started the conversation. Since that time we meet whenever we are in the same city. we email every three months. And I always ask his opinion when I need that sort of critical eye.”

Regarding myth 2, mentorship is not necessarily about age or decades of experience. It’s important to put ego and fear to one side, and to be mindful.

I’ve been recently been getting advice from someone too young to get my cultural references but their guidance in a couple of specific areas I’m working in has been extremely valuable.

And as for the third myth, whilst having a huge number of people to call on occasionally for sage advice somewhat defeats the point, I have found that getting a broad number of ideas and perspectives both clarifies things and also brings up new questions to ask.

If you’re looking for mentors, they can come from almost anywhere — it’s more about being curious and discovering people who you find interesting and do work you admire.


My experiences then and now

Running my own company several years ago I looked for mentors, but coming into the business as a relative outsider I found it extremely difficult to identify these people. I was seeking a fellow entrepreneurial soul who had climbed up the ladder a few rungs further than me but my requests for advice were generally met with indifference or a tenacious PA who spurned my advances.

Through a bit of serendipity and looking in alternative places I struck up relationships with a couple of mentors outside the music business, but having an industry expert’s view to complement those other perspectives would have benefited me enormously.

In the middle of 2015 I made the decision to leave my role as a booking agent to explore my interests in other industries. As I sensed a career crossroads approaching I embarked on something of a discovery mission to help ascertain where my path would lead. The voyage of discovery comprised mainly of seeking out people in divergent fields to ask for advice and find out more about their career paths, challenges and forecasts on what’s going to happen next in their line of work.

Looking back on the approaches I made and notes I took from the meetings I had, there are a few ham-fisted early attempts (later remedied by the framing I mention earlier), plus some wildly differing opinions, a few bits of feedback that were cast-iron in their consistency, and several new doors opened.

Most importantly, my brain had to work harder — reaching out to someone smarter, more worldly, more experienced than you means going out of your comfort zone. This was pretty scary at first but has without doubt made me more open, confident and also mindful as a result.


Where the music industry is lacking

Running a small industry networking event and talking to lots of peers earlier this year, there was a strong sense that the music industry is lacking in the following key areas around mentoring and knowledge sharing;

  • influence from complementary and divergent industries
  • transparency, clarity and insight from those in a position of influence on what it takes to become a success (‘hard work’ is the party line, surely there is something a little more to it?)
  • knowledge gaps and also assets; an overly aggressive stance, or putting up the defences to avoid the perceived threat
  • support to those who are nearing the middle or end of the ‘Career Fuel’ stage (i.e. late twenties to mid thirties)

This is emphasised by a recent ‘brain drain’ among executives that has been highlighted in prominent industry publications. It seems this drain is most prevalent among people in their late twenties to mid thirties. To me it feels like the career equivalent of teen angst — fleeting success and trying to make your mark on the world colliding head-on with new pressures and growing frustration.

Being in the middle like this is hard — some of the reasons I’ve heard for people either stepping out or getting close to it include simple burn out, frustration with monetisation, frustration with major label ways of working, artist and executive demands increasing alongside an insular viewpoint, and negativity breeding negativity in the industry.

All the more reason for mentors to provide guidance through this difficult adolescent chapter in a career.


Where can the music industry can take note from other areas, and who’s doing it well?

I’ve been interested in technology since my teens, and having kept a keen eye on it throughout my time in both advertising and the music business, it’s only relatively recently I have pushed myself headlong into the world of startups.

Yes, startups are the hip thing right now, so there’s bound to be a buzz of activity around them, but upon getting more involved I was still surprised at just how many events there are each week in London devoted to both the wider startup scene and many smaller niches. Most of these events are free, many have prominent speakers sharing a few secrets, and the majority of attendees are happy to pass on useful information and make introductions. The openness and lack of fear around hoarding ideas and information is refreshing. As the saying goes, ‘a rising tide lifts all boats’.

Meanwhile in the hospitality industry, a new venture has started called Journee. It’s a collaboration space in the heart of Manhattan, offering a professional setting for a meeting, a place to study for a sommelier’s exam, or simply somewhere to connect with new friends and colleagues.

People may argue the music industry is consolidating more tightly than hospitality and doesn’t have the scale of tech, so why would we share important information, or be able to set up a collaboration space? I’d suggest that this is even more of a reason that things need to change.


Torch passing

I’d urge you to think about torch passing whatever stage of your career you are in. If you’re at entry level you can help a school/college student understand the paths available to them; if you’re in your late 20s/early 3os there’s ample opportunity to mentor interns and junior executives; if your age is around the forty mark there are a large number of thirtysomethings who could use your advice.

Why? It empowers the mentee, makes the industry more robust, and it’s good for your soul. In particular I’d recommend that perhaps you make a recommendation between two individuals whom you feel should meet with this idea in mind.

One of the reasons I left the music industry was the lack of mentorship and knowledge sharing; it shouldn’t be the reason for other people to do the same.

Let’s pay it forward and build for a stronger, more connected community of tomorrow.


Thanks to Michelle Sullivan, editor at The Manifesto, and Jacinta O’Shea-Ramdeholl for their feedback on the drafts of this article.

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