What the music industry’s people need next

As the music industry’s resurgence continues, its people need support now more than ever. There’s opportunity to further embrace a contributor to success in tech, sports, and other industries.

We’re now living in a world that’s more prosperous than at any time in history. Standards of living are increasing. Extreme poverty and child mortality are down. Literacy levels continue to rise.

Much of this has to do with innovations in the ways we do things: the techniques, and particularly the technologies, we employ.

Despite these steps forward, during the past year in particular it’s been difficult to ignore the groundswell of concern about our relationship with technology, and how everything from fake news to the rise of machine learning affects the ways we approach our work, our relationships, and our lives.

When taking stock of where we find ourselves today, the economist and global living conditions analyst Max Roser surmises “the world is much better; the world is awful; the world can be much better”.

Despite all the added layers of convenience in our lives we seem to find ourselves working harder, and in spite of seamless methods of communicating with one another we’re becoming more isolated.

There’s a nagging sense of there never being quite enough, and always wanting or needing more. Many of us find ourselves falling headlong into the comparison trap and its close cousin imposter syndrome.

These feelings are now commonplace, and for people working in the creative industries they can be almost omnipresent.

Dive in and you’ll see some commonalities across creative disciplines: long and often unsociable working hours; the constant balancing act between art and commerce; and more than a fair dose of unpredictability.

There are many reasons for this – from the subjectivity involved in creative fields, to the deep intertwining of life and work that inevitably comes when developing what often starts as a passion into a sustainable career.

While working in these industries can be immensely rewarding, the accompanying tension, imbalance and uncertainty can lead to overwhelm, stress, and sometimes much deeper issues.

These challenges are certainly present in film, fashion, TV, and digital media. And they’re equally, if not more, acute in the music industry.

What’s perhaps a little surprising about this is that having been through some very difficult times the music business looks to be on the up again while a number of other creative disciplines are caught in a struggle.

Why would growing success lead to greater exposure to mental health issues?

I see three key reasons:

  • the rise of metrics
  • individuals carrying exceptionally heavy loads; and
  • a lack of appropriate support options

Multiple Metrics, Multiple Angles

We’ve known for some time that technology is affecting everything around us. As venture capitalist Marc Andreessen famously put it: ‘software is eating the world’.

But it’s only now we’re starting to see the second and third order effects of technology’s seemingly endless appetite.

In music, the rise of streaming, after much well-publicised wrangling, has began swelling the coffers of the industry again. And over the next few years the industry’s total revenue will likely exceed the peak of the CD era, something that seemed unthinkable a decade ago.

Where streaming’s financial returns are finally funneled is the subject of much discussion, but what’s less talked about are the knock-on effects of the enormous volume of data that streaming provides, and more specifically, its metrics.

Other areas of the creative industries are also increasing their use of metrics of course – from Slated in the movie industry to Artsy in the world of fine art. But something else is happening in the music business.

Because the talent, and particularly – but certainly not exclusively – performing artists, have so many facets to their careers there’s a different kind of multi-dimensional, multi-level game opening up as the metrics permeate at every angle.

First there’s recorded music: aggregated streaming figures; video views by platform; a multitude of charts and playlists filtered by genre, location and time. In the live arena there are the aggregate sales for a tour; or the time for shows to reach sell out status. Then there are metrics in publishing, merch, advertising.

Add to this an enticing and tempting trap that many of us are highly susceptible to: comparison. The arms race that can ensue on Instagram. This aspect of the game is ostensibly about sharing updates and creative ideas, but we all know it’s often really about two other things: the emotions – from pride and desire through to envy and inferiority; and the metrics – the likes, the followers, the ranking, the leaderboard.

It’s Alain De Botton’s book Status Anxiety in full, overwhelming technicolor.

Today it’s not just the cameras that are everywhere, the numbers are too. If, as the saying goes, the camera never lies, then the numbers shouldn’t either. But in a world of image retouching, machine learning and fake news, we don’t know what to believe. It’s overwhelming.

The real tension here is that these channels and metrics are now so embedded into the industry as a measurement of success. It’s about deciding whether the work, and by extension the humans, are worth investing in, worth paying attention to.

Artists are having to battle with this maelstrom of measurements on a daily basis, and by extension so are the people closest to them.


Pivotal Players

The modern music industry comprises a wealth of writers, performers, producers, A&Rs, PRs, publishers, playlisters, marketers, and engineers.

As with many businesses, closely gathered around each particular project or venture is a smaller core cluster of people.

One of the challenges in a creative business where people identify so strongly with their work is how much there is to take on for the people closest to the talent: delivering on hopes, dreams, and creative visions; and battling resistance, frustration, financial pressures, and the fear of failure.

It’s often not sustainable to take on such a weight, and the group arguably carrying the heaviest burden of all are talent managers.

And to quote the business management author Peter Drucker, “what gets measured gets managed”. In this brave new world of multiple metrics, there’s a lot to manage.

A friend of mine who works at a prominent global talent agency is often asked by the company’s film & TV agents why all the music artists have managers, and why the music agents are always on the phone to them. For the film & TV teams it just doesn’t stack up.

The main reason, my friend explains, is that unlike many other areas of the entertainment industry, talent managers in music are positioned directly alongside the artist as the co-CEO of the artist’s business. And alongside this key executive role they’ll likely also be the chief strategist as well as wearing any other number of hats – mediator, gatekeeper, marketer, or debt collector.

The importance of this relationship is why the manager is so closely anchored to the artist and everyone else in the team around them.

As creative talent branch out into more areas than ever before and the entertainment landscape continues to evolve, this co-CEO’s role is becoming exponentially more complex and challenging.

With this comes increased competition, pressure, and uncertainty.

Add in these broader technology and society-induced anxieties, not to mention leaderboards like the ‘Power 100’ and ‘30 Under 30’, and it’s no surprise that issues arise.

What’s more, managers are entrepreneurs. Hundreds of them are simultaneously operating and growing their own businesses alongside servicing their clients, and even those working within larger organizations need to apply entrepreneurial thinking to a lot of their work. This work requires grit, fortitude, and courage – resources that aren’t always easy to develop, or replenish.

It’s not reasonable to expect anyone to be able to deal with these pressures alone, but a lot of people either don’t know where to turn for help, don’t feel they have the time or space to do so, or are maybe unable to overcome the feelings of embarrassment, inadequacy or shame that can paralyze action.

Herein lies a vicious circle. A slowly suffocating spiral.

And while they may often carry the most weight, these challenges certainly aren’t limited to talent managers – they’re industry-wide.


Support Structures

Two of the most popular articles I’ve written over the last few years are on depression and mentorship in the music industry.

In the time since I first published them the industry has clearly taken steps to increase support for mental health issues and created more opportunities for mentorship and community.

But let’s be honest, there’s still a lot to do. In fact, these problems seem to be getting worse. Why are things not progressing more rapidly?

One viewpoint to consider is that of power and incentives. The music industry, like many others, is still largely controlled by powerful white men in their 50s, 60s and 70s.

Many of them may well have good intentions to instigate radical culture change, but when there appears to be little incentive to do so, why bother?

The status quo seems to be working just fine, and the uptick from streaming is generating sizeable financial returns, so everyone’s happy – right?

Perhaps it simply comes down to avoidance. As Ogilvy vice-chairman Rory Sutherland* suggests, much of corporate culture is about sticking with the status quo and avoiding blame.

* Note: It’s important I acknowledge Rory is a white man in his 50s who occupies a powerful position in the creative industries.

For example, if you choose Accenture to do your accounting and it goes wrong, you blame them. No one blames you, as Accenture are the status quo. However, choose to do something different and hire a less known firm who you feel are more innovative, effective, or efficient and it goes wrong – everyone blames you.

In tough times for business, avoidance is inevitably rife, and employee benefits are often among the first things to get stripped back. Music’s lean years don’t excuse the lack of care shown, but now the industry is beginning to show significant signs of growth there needs to be proportionate reinvestment to help its people effectively manage this rapid growth and change.

One way of doing this is through leadership coaching.


Although the term ‘coach’ was first used at Oxford University in the mid 1800s, it’s only been in the past 40 years that the broader business world has utilized it as a practice. Initially the preserve only of the C-suite at large corporations, in recent years coaching has become far more accessible to professionals of all levels, backgrounds, and industries.

Coaches have now become a key component in a number of fields, including sports, tech, retail, and finance. Fred Wilson, co-founder of Union Square Ventures (an investor in the likes of Twitter, Zynga, and Kickstarter) states he is:

“a huge fan of coaches…they can be game changing for leaders and their teams.”

So what is coaching all about? At its essence, coaching is a powerful partnership between a coach and a client to help the client clarify their thinking, overcome obstacles, realize their visions and goals, and better understand both themselves and their peers.

Topics can cover just about any aspect of a client’s life: some of the topics I’ve coached on with clients recently include assessing the impact of ending a long relationship with a key partner; finding balance between the personal and professional after a big life change; and most common and pressing of all – developing leadership skills.

While there are numerous flavors and styles of coaching, some key principles used by the majority of professional coaches include asking powerful and thought-provoking questions, acting as a mirror or sounding board for a client’s choices and decisions, providing structure and accountability, and exploring deeper agendas a client may not have previously identified.

And as well as 1:1 sessions, some coaches also offer facilitated group coaching for cross-functional managers and executives to exchange experiences and develop together as a cohort.

It’s important to distinguish between coaching, therapy and consulting – while they’re all related there are some important differences.

Therapy tends to focus on the past, while coaching is focused on the present and future. And the advisory or fixer role taken up by many consultants doesn’t tend to apply to coaches – while they have a point of view, the coach is primarily there to enable a client to find answers and solutions for themselves.

It’s worth noting that coaching is unregulated as a discipline. This is not necessarily a bad thing as there are some excellent coaches without certifications, but it can present a challenge for potential clients to equip themselves with the knowledge and understanding to help them choose a coach.

If you’re thinking about working with a coach, here are 3 quick tips:

  • Know yourself and what works best for you: coaching is a very personal experience, and the personality fit with your coach is crucial. Most coaches will offer a no-obligation discovery session free of charge. Take some time to explore a few options before committing.
  • Look for a coach who is invested in their own development – they should be able to share their own journey as a coach and what they’ve learned along the way. They may also have a coach themselves.
  • Coaching is action-oriented: consider a small number of key outcomes you’d like to see from a 3-6 month coaching program, and remember that a coach won’t do the work for you – at the end of the day you’re primarily accountable to yourself.

An added bonus of coaching is that it’s good for business. The coaching process can enable clients to learn valuable coaching skills they can apply elsewhere in their work; well-supported team members are less likely to leave an organization; and being able to offer professional coaching to client rosters or employees is a significant value-add and differentiator for a company.

Companies and individuals across sports, tech, retail, finance and the non-profit sector now embrace coaching, so why shouldn’t the music industry?

In these exciting but uncertain times, it’s surely more important than ever.

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