There’s no litmus test or bar or SAT you must pass to hold an influential job in the music industry that affects the lives of many others. The industry doesn’t require years of schooling or the ‘daunting’ requirements of being psychologically sound and thinking carefully about your decisions. I would even argue that this industry attracts those of us who are slightly delusional, self-centered, under or over medicated, and rebellious. In fact, those exact things could allow you to excel in this industry. That is what makes it a pretty futile environment to work and live in – because being a skeezy asshole could in some cases get you further ahead than being kind and generous.
I remember when I first started my own business I was waiting for things to get more official. Like there must be some small business owner police service that comes around to make sure you are running your business properly, that your staff are getting paid on time, that your taxes are being filed truthfully, and that you’re not screwing over your clients. It was a wake up call when I realized that this type of imaginary task force was only something that exists in my head. We keep each other accountable – for example if X small business were to steal money from me I could sue them and they would be governed not to do business that way. Well… hopefully. The legal system is a tricky and fickle beast at best. But on smaller daily things, do we really keep each other in check? I would argue not really. When was the last time you asked a partner for true and honest feedback? What about someone who doesn’t answer your calls anymore, when was the last time you asked them?
We end up avoiding people and not working with them again once we realize we don’t like the way someone handles their business. So no one really learns anything unless they really make a huge mistake. But as we probably notice, a lot of sketch bags skate by with no more than a slightly struggling business to act as a sign of their lousy ethics. And that can be covered up with, “Oh, it’s so hard these days, the economy is rough.” They build their business on the backs of A) other people with lousy ethics or B) even worse, innocent victims who don’t yet have the experience to know what these scumbags are capable of (or aren’t).
But without any kind of outside measure or standard (and everyone’s ability to just avoid you if you’re untrustworthy), it really rests on your own shoulders to decide to do business ethically and always maintain being a good person. It’s up to you to know when to not go too far and harm others on your path to success.
We are competitive in this industry and our wins are usually at the heels of someone else’s loss. But sure, it’s not as if we are physically stealing something out of someone’s hands (usually). How you go about competing is up to you. Will you play dirty and stomp someone in to the ground in order to march on top of them? Or will you build value and look inwards and know that if you deserved an opportunity you would receive it?
We can’t control others and the way they work or make decisions that affect you. But we can manipulate or as I would rather call it “inspire” good things. Negative business practices breed more negative business practices, but positive ones inspire more positivity in our industry too.
I’ve heard the saying “We are but selfish creatures” and I’ve always had a hard time embracing it. I, for one, have been known to be selfless to my own detriment. I have had to learn the hard way to protect myself and be careful, yet I have embraced this quality about myself and decided it will likely never change. But, I have seen selfishness overcome those around me and force them down roads that make me cringe. I have seen them choose themselves over other’s suffering with such disregard for how their decisions affect others.
Sure we can say these are systemic bi-products of the culture we choose to work in. Sometimes individuals of good intentions get swept up in the idea of “that’s just how it is”, especially when it comes to back-handed deals, screwing people over, and looking out for “#1”. It doesn’t really have to be that way. They wanted so badly to be close to the music and industry, a bold and respectable goal we all started out with, that it overrides any decency they originally had weaved within their moral fabric. Ultimately, the people who want to be ethically sound and make a difference in music/business/entrepreneurship need to lead by example and show the unethical ones that the old ways aren’t viable anymore.
In the music business you have a million teeny tiny choices to make every day. Every ringing phone call could be someone’s future, especially if you are in a place of leadership. A quick decision or rushed thought, or bad mood, will cause a ripple effect, touching down on a number of people’s careers. So in the midst of the calls, emails, yapping, flying, hotels and texting, you have to keep your head straight. You have to remember who you are, assuming you know who that is. You have to remember what your standard for doing business is and treating other people. No one is going to remind you other than yourself. And you must understand fully the affects your decisions have on those around you.
And I’m not saying don’t be brash or heavy handed in your business dealings. By all means fight for what you believe in and fight hard. Be aggressive and bold and don’t give yourself shit for needing to be. But know your line. At which point does your intense focus and aggression go against your ethics? At which point does it turn ugly? Will you go as far as to lie and cheat? Stop yourself there because chances are no one else will. They will just avoid you and you will find yourself only able to do business with other liars and cheaters all stuck toiling in the self-created BS.
You can go so far in this industry, so deep into the belly of the beast, that you can lose a sense of human decency. You can turn in being a good-hearted person in order to “get ahead”. When you do that, and you wake up years from now at what ever level of BS success you’ve been able to weasel your way into, you will notice that you really aren’t ahead at all. In fact, you were left behind and the real business of music is alive and thriving and built on the backs of good and generous people who look out for one another and believe in hard work, paying your dues, and sharing. You my friend, will be alienated with your money and what’s scary is you might never wake up to this realization. You might never notice or understand the price your despicable business practices have cost you and those around you. But we sure as hell will know.
And so will all the people you stomped on along your way to the top. You may block it out – and we all do that for things which we can not face – but you, you see, can’t face yourself and if you can’t do that then you probably will never find true happiness and acceptance of yourself. I am no Buddha or guru, but you don’t have to be to know that the fiery depths of hell raging inside your skull day in and day out is no fun place to dwell. I see too often the hard-stern-back-up-all-the-time approach in this industry and I am often overcome with feeling sorry for these types of individuals. Why? Because I imagine something really shitty must have happened to them where they were taught not to trust people. Even the people that deserve to be trusted. And they will try to go it alone and it will be really hard for these people to move ahead without support and community. Worst of all they will forget why they started working in an industry they once loved. I have seen so many people in this business putting on a charade of professional distress and really they are void of all good reasons and goals that inform their day-to-day work, and thus they are just puppets to their own egos. It’s depressing. If you find yourself in this position please do us all a favour and leave the industry. You’re miserable and you’re making it unpleasant for the rest of us who want to do good things. Or please shake yourself and remind yourself that no one is putting a gun to your head. You chose to work in this industry because you love it.
There are regrets I have just as much as any good person. Times I should have been more vulnerable. Times I should have said thank you more often. And times I rushed in to decisions without enough foresight. Lines I foolishly crossed. But regardless of those, none of the mistakes are so grave that I am embarrassed. Everything I have ever done in this business has been underlined by genuine honesty and selflessness.
Now being a good person in the music industry, probably in any industry, is not going to be easy. In fact there are some times it is truly a real pain in the ass. There are times, many of them actually, I am faced with thinking ‘if i was just a sketchy shithead I could just not go back to them on this’ or ‘they probably won’t even notice’. But every time I think those thoughts I am reminded that’s not me and that’s not how I do things. And I pick up the phone and have the conversations that need to be had.
I think being a true boss in this business, and the kind that builds and grows and inspires and shapes, I think that it’s about not being thrown. I think it’s also about accepting yourself and embracing your own rulebook. Staying true to it despite the roadblocks and reasons pulling and tugging at you so intensely to stray. Being a leader in this business is about being hard and resilient, while never losing sight of the end goal and your values. And what you may find along that path is that sometimes being hard is not the right approach. Sometimes being soft, sensitive, and forgiving is exactly what will get you where you want to be.
The things I am writing about are not specific to the music industry. I’m sure there are people like this everywhere – too caught up in their own BS to be a good person and do a good job. But that doesn’t mean us hard working and honest types need to stand for it. We definitely do not. I find myself cutting these types out all the time and steering clear. I would like to think, and maybe it’s all wishful thinking, that as I continue to work my way up the ladder that I will find the people at the top – the visionaries, the game changers – that they too have decided to keep their practices healthy and they too are good people. And if not, if selling my soul to be successful in this business is what I need to do, then maybe I just don’t have the same self-loathing capacity as some of my peers and I will stay an entrepreneur with a small to medium sized business happy and honest, surrounded by those who value the same things. That future isn’t too bleak either, though I’m not ready to give up my goals of being wildly successful just yet.
I choose to believe we can have it all – us good people – and that the ones who throw it all away for a quick win will realize it was just that ‘quick’ and they will come to realize there is nothing worth winning that you don’t fight for as a good and honest person. And there is no one that deserves to be hurt or stomped on your way to the top.
So dear industry comrades, I beg of you, be good people to one another. Work together with dignity and grace. And for the love of god (or Kurt Cobain, or whoever you pray to) keep yourself centred.
– XO Sari
(and sorry for the swears)
Sari Delmar is the Founder and CEO of AB Co., a North American digital, lifestyle, and communications agency that specializes in music programs and events. Sari has spoken at international conferences (Big Sound, Canadian Music Week), sits on the Toronto Music Advisory Council and the Women in Music Canada board, and was profiled in the Globe and Mail Small business column (“from Music Fan to Music mogul”) in 2014. In 2015, Sari was awarded with an International Women Achievers’ Award in the Entertainment category and named as a Rising Star in ProfitGuide and Chatelaine’s Top 100 Canadian Female Entrepreneurs list. Learn more about the work AB does at: http://WeAreAB.co