Being a dick is hurting your career.
It’s hard, I think, to chill out about your art as a career. It’s not like you’re going to an office each day and working to support someone else’s ideas; your art IS your ideas, your art is your vision, it’s your soul. So success or failure has a massive impact - it feels like a success or failure of who you are as a person; you can’t disconnect it from your sense of self-worth; well, I suppose maybe some people can, but they’re rare and colloquially known as “fucking psychopaths.” The aftershock of each little micro-failure or micro-success feels like a world-shattering earthquake, for better or for worse. When met with approval, our hearts soar; when we are met with criticism, it feels like a million daggers. It’s not rational, right, I mean just because someone doesn’t like something you made doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. But the connection is there, and it can hurt like the devil.
But not only can it hurt, it can derail your art entirely - you get hungry, you chase that approval. Call it the Def Leppard effect - you make one song that everyone loves and all of a sudden you are driven to make song after song after song that is exactly the same, in search of that high again, which never comes (Youths, if you don’t know what I’m talking about, I’d tell you to listen to the entirety of “Hysteria,” but I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy).
So anyway, to shield from those lows, we get defensive, and we take certain precautions to protect ourselves from that pain. We might only show our art to those whom we know will approve of it, or we might avoid the comments section of YouTube. Though, now that I think about it, it probably makes sense to ALWAYS avoid the comments section of Youtube. Trolls patrol those waters.
But maybe we’re doing more subtle things as well. For some of us, our microaggressions toward people in front of whom we feel vulnerable might take on an unintended hue. You feel attacked, so you attack back, without really taking a minute to think it through or consider the meaning of the criticism you receive, if there’s even any criticism at all. We might think we’re just self-protecting, but others see us as insecure and, like, kind of a fucking dick. I don’t think any of us mean to be mean. But I think a fucking goddam lot of us are actually dicks and I’ve had enough, ok.
No, your talent won’t make up for your shitty personality. Because I know that’s what you were thinking.
Any asshole named Phil who goes to a fluorescent lit office in a nice flat front khaki his wife got him at Marshall’s will tell you that business is all about relationships. Yeah, of course, I know, Phil is a goddam douchebag and you’ll never forgive him for banging your sister back in 2004. But what sounds to us feral, bloodthirsty artists like Phil’s robotic corporate-speak is actually Phil’s good and universal point: business is certainly all about relationships, but also so is everything else, ever, that we people do.
For some reason I’ve recently had a lot of conversations about how certain brilliant artists are insufferable to work with, so you end up preferring to work with their less-talented but more amiable counterparts because you don’t want your fucking day to be miserable and sucky. It’s lamentable because I think about those folks a lot, and I think about my own career and the stupid chances I’ve blown by being an insecure bag of felch foam.
Like, this weekend, I was up in Orono at this tiny ass little club with my beloved SeepeopleS, who were lucky enough to be able to play with one of all of our idols, Jon Fishman. He was generous enough to sit down with me for almost an hour earlier that day to talk about Bernie Sanders, and he was a warm, kind person who had an honest conversation with me, with zero pretense. And I mean zero. He was just a genuine dude. And he’s successful as fuck. And yet here he is giving up his Saturday night to play with a band he doesn’t know any better than the bar of guest soap he unwrapped in his hotel that morning, and having a good time doing it for a good cause. He played with bands all over Maine last weekend. Amazing.
So early in the evening I’m at the bar trying to get a toothpick so the sound person can fix a guitar, and there are three people in front of me who I don’t recognize, two women and a man, all very young. They’re ordering drinks and giving the bartender a line about how they’re all in the band. My hackles of course go up because I believe that it’s in poor taste to max out your hospitality situation when you’re the paid entertainment, and I also don’t believe in ancillary characters drinking for free on a band’s tab. I always pay for my own shit at venues and clubs because it’s just tacky to be like, “I’m with the band” when they didn’t even see you load a single thing in, and honestly, people just look at you like you're there to dole out post-show blowies and I'd rather just not with all that. Girlfriends, boyfriends, pals, pay for your own shit. Don’t be gross.
The bartender of course is hip to this, and is questioning them thusly: “ok, so you’re all in the band? What do you play?” She ends up making the two people who aren’t in the band pay for their own drinks, which is clearly how these two people were hoping things would not go.
Anyway, so I wanted to make sure that these guys weren’t trying to use SeepeopleS’ tab, so I asked one of the women, “is there more than one band playing tonight?” because I honestly didn’t know, it was such a last minute gig. She looks over my head and laughs haughtily and then smiles and says, “ummm… yeeeaaaah, so there’s two more bands tonight???” with that question-like inflection in her voice that tells me way more about her than she may realize (she’s insecure and needs to try to feel superior to others) and makes me instantly not like her and guess what, NOT LIKE HER BAND. And also, the intended effect is lost on me, her attempt at trumping me didn’t even work because it’s like, ok Pam, we’re not in fucking NYC at goddam Madison Square Garden right now, we’re at the fucking Roost in fucking Orono Maine, have some perspective, for shit’s sake.
She doesn’t know me, she doesn’t know that I am a crabby music writer or that my band is about prolapse her brain with a living legend sitting in, and she chose to treat a stranger like an asshole. I am not an asshole, she’s an asshole for being that way. Every interaction you have with someone should serve as a mirror to your own psyche: was I nice? If not, that means I am not nice, not that the person I was talking to isn’t nice, etc. etc. And if someone isn’t nice to you, it’s exactly the same - that person isn’t nice to you, and that has everything to do with that person not being a nice person and has absolutely nothing to do with you at all.
Well anyway, it turns out the band she is there with is from Portland and is on a little super-indie label here that has been asking me for press. I don’t hold it against the label rep who has been hitting me up, and I even liked the super new band’s songs despite the fact that they were jerks to my band and despite the fact that their lady-in-residence went peacocking across my dick. The band, I get why they were jerks, it was a super stressful changeover - all of the SeepersonS were being dicks to each other at that point too. I mean super stressful. Fine. The woman had no excuse though, she did nothing but stand around drinking and making sour faces like she just sucked a a lemon out of Ted Cruz's butthole. Like, ugh, dude, come on, who would even want to work with any of that? People want to hang with people they like, plain and simple. Be nice. You’re so young, everyone who has like any years on you at all thinks you’re being a douchebag and is basically waiting for that schadenfreude moment when they can be like, OH YEAH, HOW’S IT FEEL NOW, EAT IT, EAT THE PAIN OF LIFE and you’ll get no sympathy. For real, dog.
You know who will get sympathy when life kicks them in the ass? The dudes and dudettes who were super fucking nice to everyone.
This is not 1939, you know, like, members of the press are going to look like surly buttfaces in dirty clothes, lurking in the corners, not gophering out of the crowd with a hat with a little card in the band that says “press” on it with a microphone asking questions during a show. And big rock stars and media owners and label owners and talent buyers and other band members and anyone you want to get favors from down the road, you’ll never see them coming. They’ll always be in disguise, because they just do what they do and don’t give a shit what you think. Especially here in Portland. So stop trying to mount them like an alpha dog, it doesn’t work and it sucks to have to deal with all that humping.
So if you’re serious about making music your career, it would behoove you to consider whether you’re someone people want to work with or not. SeepeopleS and I had to learn this the hard way. Sometimes I think about how I acted when I was 27 and I cringe, it’s just so awful. I’m not shocked that we’ve made things harder on ourselves, and without speaking for Will the bandleader, I bet he’d tell you some similar things. So in the greatest example of “Don’t make the same mistakes I did,” I’m going to put my “sales training” hat back on, the career hat I wore for years, and try to give some of you fucking assholes some tips on how to get ahead in music.
One book we used a lot in sales training was The Speed of Trust by Stephen M. R. Covey. I love this book, I don’t think that the skills needed for good relationship building in a business context are native to most people, and if you read this book and can get through the sort of out-of-date corporate speak in it, the core tenets are pretty amazing and great reminders. I have a copy of this book on my desk now and I always have a copy nearby in all my workplaces. You should read it. I know you won’t.
So for the next few weeks we’re going to go through some of the core principles of The Speed of Trust, modified and contextualized to be relevant to the music industry specifically. Let’s call it The Hot Trash Charm Academy for Wayward Musicians. Sit down, get out your notebooks and let’s learn us some shit.
Lesson 1: Listen
“To Listen First means not only to really listen (to genuinely seek to understand another person’s thoughts, feelings, experience and point of view), but to do it first (before you try to diagnose, influence or prescribe).” - Please note all quotes in this piece are copyright Stephen M.R. Covey, The Speed of Trust. I have not been given permission to quote the book, so we'll see if these quotes can hang for a while or if they'll send me a threatening letter or some shit.
I know that the concept of listening seems overly simplistic, but I think that truly listening to another person is one of the most difficult and nuanced skills you can learn. There are words being spoken by another person, absolutely, that’s how we communicate. There is also intonation, pronunciation and emphasis at play on each word. There is the volume of the person’s voice. There is body language to contend with. There is eye contact and what that person’s eyes are doing generally. There are facial expressions. There are gestures of the hands. What else is the person doing? Pacing? Watching for someone else over your shoulder? Watching the game out of the corner of his eye? Is she talking fast or slow? Is his voice shaky or smooth? Anyway, there’s a lot to contend with, and most of us use a vast combination of indicators, including these and all the other ones I’ve missed, to tell us what’s really happening.
Additionally, most of us don’t actually like to listen - that’s why we’re so bad at it. Many of us feel more important, more influential, when we’re talking. So if you want something from another person, giving them the opportunity to feel listened to by you is a show of respect and interest. Don’t just wait for your turn to speak, your words don’t mean much if they’re not in response to what the other person just said. That’s not a conversation, you’re not engaging each other - it’s just two people broadcasting in each other’s direction.
“Ignoring other people’s need to be understood - often before they’re ready to listen to anyone else [is] self-focused, ego-driven behavior, and it does not build trust.”
So you have to pay attention. And there are a number of ways to do that, whether you’re talking to someone in person or talking to them over the phone.
The first step is to take notes. In any business situation, no matter what business you are in, taking notes is a sign of respect and opens up the lines of communication because it is a physical reassurance to the other person - your notebook says, “I am truly listening to you.” But don’t make the mistake of bringing a laptop or a phone on which to take notes. Electronic devices create distance between you and the other person and create a sense of anxiety in the speaker - is she listening to me or is she playing Candy Crush? Also fuck you, nobody can text faster than they can jot notes in a notebook because: autocorrect. So use a notebook.
The second step is to repeat back what the person is saying to you and clarify points that are not immediately apparent. I mean, be smooth about it, jesus. So like, if a person says to you:
“I need to be checked and ready by 6pm, you can call me at the club to get in.”
Then you can say:
“Great, thanks for that information. So what I’m hearing is that we need to load in to be set up by, say, 5:30pm for soundcheck, so can we access the club as early as 4:00pm to make that happen, and if so, are you the person we would call to get in?
That gives this person an opportunity to now give you all of the details you need to have accurately HEARD what they wanted. There is no gray area. You’ve indicated that you heard this person’s needs and are willing to do what it takes to meet them.
The third step is to respect the signals that someone gives you. Say you call someone up to ask them if they’ve had a chance to listen to your new album and if you can expect coverage. The person then says, with a tone of worry in her voice, “I’m on deadline right now, so I haven’t really been able to look anything new.”
That person just told you that she wants to get off the phone, that she is busy and doesn’t have time for you right now. The proper response isn’t, then, to launch into a speech on why she should listen to your album as soon as possible. The proper response is probably something like:
“Oh man, I know how that feels. Can I call you next week to follow up?”
That person will most likely say yes, or say something like, “I prefer email.” So you just made the situation a win/win. She gets to return to what she’s doing and you get to follow up at a time when she will be more likely to listen to you.
The last step? Practice. When you’re standing around outside a club smoking with your friends or out for coffee with your work buddy or whatever the fuck, pick their brains and see if they feel like you’re listening - especially if you are usually broadcasting and holding court. You can treat it like a fact finding mission, how much info can you uncover? Say things like, “Oh wow, I bet that was fun/weird/interesting, what did you do then?” or “that sounds cool, can you tell me more about that?”
If you know me IRL, then you know that “tell me more about that” is my favorite phrase and I use it in every conversation. You’d be shocked how effective it is in uncovering people’s motivations, feelings, stress points and needs. Come up with your own questions, and make new ones up as you go. Find something that works for you and keep practicing.
So that’s where I’ll stop for now, I mean I could go on with this shit for days, but let’s just wrap it up because your eyeballs are probably falling out of your head, if you even made it this far.
Tune in next week for Lesson 2 on my second favorite topic: honesty. Oh boy.
“Listen with your ears--and your eyes and your heart… Don’t presume you have all the answers - or all the questions.”