Regarding wellbeing working in the music industry…

by Darren Hemmings — M.D., Motive Unknown

Its rare that an article prompts me to immediately write a post of my own, so hats off to David Emery whose latest blog post has prompted me to do just that. Equally I feel compelled to write this because I think it is important to stand up and show support on something eminently deserving of more awareness.

Before we continue, please go and read David’s post, which discusses wellbeing when working in the music industry, and the need for a wiser approach to working in general.

It won’t come as shock to anyone who knows me to hear that I agree with David wholeheartedly (except on the “never file email” bit — that’s just crazy talk!). So, let’s lay down some hard truths here:

Of all the people I know who work in music, more have suffered with severe anxiety issues and depression than have not.

This isn’t just at a certain level within music either; anyone from junior staff to senior VPs to managers of globally-known artists all fall into this, and that is a horrible, horrible thing to realise. I’ve heard tales of people hiding from family when on holiday, sitting in their room checking emails on their phone, right through to comments from colleagues realising they have no life whatsoever beyond music: no friends outside of the industry, no hobbies and nothing to actually delineate one’s work life from their personal one.

Across many music companies, be it labels, management or beyond, the sad reality is that the working culture is frequently toxic. Often there’s an expectation to be on call 24/7, with personal devices ensuring that you can be contacted by any means such that escaping from work is all but impossible.

Unsurprisingly then, the upshot of this is burnout. First may come insomnia, often thanks to checking emails before bedtime and generally not catching a mental break for work. Then eventually anxiety will kick in; a sense of panic as one feels cornered by all the work piling up and the never-ending flow of it all. Subsequent to that, if unaddressed, this may well then spiral into depression — and once you’re there, you are in a very, VERY dark place indeed; one in which your means to enjoy happiness of any sort is almost switched off, and one may even find themselves calmly contemplating drastic, horrific measures to escape this utterly horrible situation.

Sounds dramatic right? Well sadly, this is the reality too many people face within the music business.

The MUSIC business! Not the nuclear disarmament business. Not the cancer treatment business. Not the aid-work-in-Aleppo business. Music. That, when you consider it for even a small time, is completely, utterly ridiculous.

So, let’s lay down another hard truth:

Most music businesses do not do enough to address this.

Based purely on the breadth of people I know working in music, it is clear that the majority of music companies do very little to ensure their employees are properly protected in any way. Few rules are put in place and it is almost a given that one should be working 24/7. Furthermore, operating a “you can come and talk to HR” policy isn’t good enough. The failing of that logic is that any employee should suffer at the hands of poor working practice and then come and flag it, rather than simply addressing the issue at source. Sorry, but that’s just not good enough.

The bitter irony to me is that a more simple truth lies in plain sight and yet remains unaddressed, specifically: happy workers do better jobs.

It sounds blindingly obvious, right? And yet, very little is done to address this in my opinion. Now let’s be clear: work cannot be a never-ending round of laughs. There will always be stressful periods, and there will always be bad days for whatever reason, or occasionally even the odd late night as one works to get things finished. But — and this is a crucial but — there is a world of difference between the occasional stressful moment and an ongoing cycle of over-working that affects people’s mental health.

“But this doesn’t just affect the music industry!” I hear you cry — and you’d be right. However that response offers some kind of get-out here; it is the kind of view that says “well everyone else is as bad, so that’s just how it is”. That does not make it right, sorry.

I feel strongly that change should begin with one’s self, and so a few months ago I committed to ensuring that at Motive Unknown the wellbeing of my staff is paramount. I’m not perfect by any means, but I am trying to ensure that my team are happy and that nobody feels like they are being drowned in work such that they’re working consistently long days with no time for a personal life. Monstrous profit is not my sole intent as the business owner: yes we have to make money, but that should be balanced with a generally happy and healthy life.

As stated above, I actually think this also ensures that my staff do a much better job in general. Creativity is ridiculously high. Clarity of thought is fantastic, and the level of organisation in the team has led to a running joke that the most poorly-organised person in the company is now me, the guy who owns it. We commit time to figuring out how to work more intelligently, and now make good use of things like Slack bots and other platforms to remove some of the “donkey work” tasks, which in turn ensures we have more time to get work done within standard hours and generally work to a higher level.

And therein lies the irony: by focusing on having happy, healthy staff wherever possible, I firmly believe Motive Unknown operates to a significantly greater level. Put simply: we are a much better company because the staff are all in good shape.

Is that such a strange notion to grasp?

So I would like to ask one thing of every music company out there, whether you employ 5 people or 500: send around an anonymous questionnaire to your staff asking them how they feel about their working life; their thoughts on things like their working hours, whether they’ve suffered panic attacks, anxiety or sought help for depression should all be asked. Do that — and if you get happy, healthy responses, I will congratulate you.

And if you don’t? Ask yourself what you can do to address this, because if nothing else you have a moral duty of care to your staff. Additionally though, you will get a better working culture, lower staff turnover and — dare I say it — most likely a better-functioning organisation on the whole.

Let’s not allow this debate to go away. Change can — and should — be made.