Wellbeing: staying healthy in the music industry’s 24-7 culture


Mental health and wellbeing are increasingly prominent topics for discussion at music-industry conferences, and that’s a good thing: the ’24-7′ culture of emails and deadlines has taken its toll on a number of friends and colleagues.

We recently covered the session on mental health at AIM’s Indie-Con in London, but today there was a panel on the topic at FastForward in Amsterdam. Motive Unknown’s Darren Hemmings, Kobalt Music’s Silvia Montello and The Orchard’s Lucy Blair had the microphones.

Hemmings explained that the discussion was sparked by a blog post by Kobalt’s David Emery about the ‘toxic’ working culture of the music industry. “So many people he knew were struggling with stress, anxiety and depression,” said Hemmings. “We worked out that about eight out of 10 friends in our networks suffered in some way with this blight upon their lives.”

“What we fail to recognise is that not only is there a health issue here, but it does not help us work better,” he continued. “It’s led to us trying to bang the drum more. A lot of people in companies feel they can’t talk about this: it’s not a subject they can speak out about. And that’s a horrible thing.”

Montello talked about her experience in previous jobs – she joined Kobalt two weeks ago – agreeing with Hemmings that “this notion that if you manage to get into the business, you’re lucky to be in it, for every one person that’s there there are 10 people chomping at the bit who’d have your job in a heartbeat” has driven working practices that are unhealthy.

Montello remembered 12-hour working days early in her career at retailer Our Price. “I was young then, and even though it was exhausting, I was in my early 20s and had the stamina to do it… but as you get older and try to work at that level doing those sorts of hours relentlessly, something has to give.”

She talked about having her first panic attack: “Having gone for drinks with people after work when I was doing 12-13-hour days, day-in- day-out, and I was having drinks with friends and suddenly got up and said ‘I’ve got to run away’… I started hyperventilating and having a panic attack.”

Montello was signed off work with stress for six weeks, and remembered feeling like a “loser” who couldn’t hack her job, with no contact from colleagues, who when she returned to work avoided talking about what had happened. “This was 10 or 15 years ago probably. I’m hoping that people have more of an opportunity to talk about things now, and maybe some companies are better at seeing the signs of stress.”

“If you do start feeling like that, or if you see somebody who is struggling – a little bit hyper all the time and never switching off – then try and do something about it. If it’s yourself, try and confide in somebody in your working environment… and if you see somebody struggling like that, see if you can find a way to see if they’re okay, and check in with them,” said Montello.

Hemmings suggested that it’s strange that music companies don’t measure ‘happiness’ in their staff. “Happy people do better work. And if you’re a happy employee you work better: your mind is more open, you’re more creative,” he said. “In order to be creative you can’t be stressed. Stress and creativity don’t go hand-in-hand.”

Blair used to be Hemmings’ colleague at Motive Unknown, and experienced his struggle with anxiety at close quarters, including panic attacks. She noted that people define their happiness differently as they age: when younger it’s about getting as much done as possible, but when they’re older, they will define happiness as a good balance between their work and personal lives – being able to relax at home is a key metric.

“As much as I have worked in the past for companies who literally have the attitude, and have even told me face-to-face ‘You’re lucky to have this job, a million people would kill to work here’. And I always worked late… I remember the owner of the company coming to me and saying ‘I wish everyone worked like you’ and I was fucking dying inside. I was on the edge of a nervous breakdown.”

Blair said that she feels she has put herself under a lot of pressure too – it wasn’t just bosses pushing her into that situation. “As I got older, I’ve recognised I need to take responsibility for that too… I am part of the problem,” she said. Measures she’s taken is saying no from time to time – “you don’t have to be in every meeting and on every conference call” – and limiting the time being spent on work in the evenings and at weekends.

“I’m trying to schedule more personal time, which sounds nuts! Doesn’t that sound like more work? But it works well,” she said. “It’s my evening, it’s my weekend. I need a balance.”

Hemmings agreed. “Everything that happened to me occurred when I was running my own company. The joke was on me! ‘You fucking did it to yourself’. To some extent if you run your own company it can be worse: a sense of investment into it… but equally you do have the means to say ‘we’re not going to do this’… Okay, let’s focus on happiness and make it a thing we’re measuring in our daily working lives.”

Montello said that some companies – “at least the smart companies” – will start to realise that working people into the ground is not going to lead to a happy or creative workforce.

“You’re going to lose good, talented people through burnout. And on a purely commercial basis, that’s a nonsense for any business,” she said. “And frankly, if somebody’s left the business because they’ve been burnt out, and that spreads around the industry, how attractive is it to go and work at that business, where everybody’s miserable?”

“You’ve got to encourage other people to go on holiday when they’re on holiday. Switch the email off!” she continued. “You can switch your work email off, and still have your phone to piss about on the internet watching cat videos!” But she also called on managers in music companies not to email junior staff when they’re on holiday, expecting them to come back.

“We’re all managers, and it’s really important to try and look after your team as best you can,” agreed Blair, who added that she direct-manages colleagues in their twenties, and regularly reminds them to “have a life” rather than plunge towards burnout.

Hemmings and Blair both talked up the importance of confiding in trusted people if you are struggling: a lunch with a friend outside your company to talk things through can be hugely valuable to get your head back above water again. Hemmings also said that the more people feel able to talk about about these issues publicly, the less of a stigma there will be – which in turn will encourage others to open up.

Some practical tips from Motive Unknown. Hemmings has turned off all notifications on his phone beyond his family. “Everything about notifications is evil! There’s no upside to a notification at all. So turning them all off is key,” he said. Hemmings also praised communications tool Slack, which is providing an alternative to many tasks that would have been handled by email before.

“I do bollock my staff if they write emails out of hours. The only time I’ve told both of them off is ‘what the fuck are you emailing me at 11.30 for?’ Don’t normalise weird working hours,” he added. Hemmings also relayed a tip from Emery about never replying to an email instantly. “Funnily enough, the more email you write, the more email you get frigging back! Write less emails!” he said.

Montello: “Also encourage people not to cc the entire world… And if you are working with a team of people and you can see them with your eyes, you shouldn’t be emailing them,” she said. “And if it’s a short email, make it a one-line conversation… Nine times out of 10 those little queries don’t need an email chain. You don’t need to cover your arse by cc’ing people and filing it away.”

“Email culture has been really destructive. It’s allowed people to hide behind it, sit and not communicate in a face-to-face or even a voice-to-voice way any more. It’s faceless and personality-less, and this thing of cc’ing everyone just spirals the email culture out of control… and if you’re a manager, you don’t need to be cc’d in on every email.”

“I remember a conscious decision with one of our clients: ‘could you just not copy me on everything? If there’s a problem, call me’,” said Hemmings.

Montello had some tips for avoiding getting overrun by endless meetings. “Schedule it for half the time that everybody else would consider. Instead of putting an hour in the diary, put half an hour, or three quarters of an hour, or even 15 minutes. And ask everyone coming to the meeting to come with an agenda,” she said.

The panel wrapped up. Hemmings: “As a consequence of me and David [Emery] starting some shit, labels are listening, and some labels have got in touch… It has prompted conversations within their staff. So change is happening, but it needs to keep happening.”

Stuart Dredge

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