Posted: Apr 10, 2017
Category: The Musician Business
**Guest post written by Debbie Stanley, a professional organizer, South By Southwest 2017 speaker, and owner of the consulting practice Thoughts In Order. This post is an excerpt from her book The Organized Musician.
"Being organized isn’t just about having a tidy closet, being on time, or keeping up with email. The consequences of disorganization can be severe for indie musicians, including damage to or even destruction of your relationships, and, by extension, your career.
When people with whom you have a relationship feel good about you—like, love, trust, respect, appreciate, value, all of those things we want people to feel about us—what you have with them is called “relationship equity.” Indie musicians need a truckload of relationship equity to get the project off the ground and to find support at every milestone along the way. Even if you’re one of the lucky few who has plenty of money to buy help, it’s still not the whole story: Money doesn’t buy this form of equity.
Relationship equity is what you draw on when you ask for a favor, or for patience, or for another chance. Some people build relationship equity naturally: They’re the ones everyone wants to help because they’ve always been there for others. They tend to offer help more often than they ask for it. They’re almost always described as givers, even if they are so accomplished that they obviously must be devoting a lot of time to their own goals as well.
Of all the habits that either build or erode relationship equity, a surprising number are related to organization. Let’s look at some habits that are likely to undermine your relationships:
When the best of intentions meets an ugly end, this is often the reason. You might truly want and fully intend to do something in the moment that you promise it, but if you commit without considering whether you’re capable of it, you’ve set yourself up to fail. Simply wanting to do it won’t magically give you the power to do it. To be capable of keeping the promise, you need both the skills and the time, and only you can determine whether you have them. Deflecting blame by saying “you should have known I couldn’t do that” or “you should have known it would take too long” is a cop-out. It’s up to you to figure out from the beginning (ideally before you commit) whether you have both the skills and the time. If you’re not sure about either, don’t promise to do it. Promise to try, if that’s acceptable in the situation and if you will actually try; otherwise be upfront and say they should find someone else to do it.
If you need alone time before each gig, build in ways to ensure it for yourself. Make your needs clear in advance with your bandmates and any family and friends who will expect special attention at the show. Get procedures set with your volunteer or paid helpers before the day of the show and let them know you’re trusting them to be self-sufficient with setup. Create a sign for the merch table that tells fans you’ll be there for a Meet & Greet session after the last set. Patiently and preemptively setting boundaries is far better than trying to tough it out and ending up snapping at someone or being exhausted or irritated before you even hit the stage.
If you spend most days just trying to keep your head above water, you might be so focused on your workload that you forget to appreciate help when you receive it. Maybe you feel like what someone did is too little/too late, or it’s the least they could do, or the result isn’t exactly what you wanted. Maybe the other person is calm and methodical, and what they’re doing is simply what they always do, which makes it easy to take them for granted. Overwhelm makes people so reactive that they can forget to look at the big picture and notice who deserves a heartfelt thank-you.
Desperate people use desperate measures. They take advantage of people’s kindness or love for them, often say “I’ll make it up to you,” or take more than their fair share with the rationale that they need it the most. This is understandable in true emergencies, but if you live your life in perpetual crisis mode, or if you owe favors (or worse, money) to a lot of people, chances are your relationship equity is rather low.
Notice that I attributed the above examples to poor time management, which makes good people come across as unreliable or sometimes even selfish and thoughtless. We all know disorganization isn’t always the reason for these habits. Some people are just users. If any of the above habits apply to you, I’m giving you the benefit of the doubt, but not everyone will assume the best about you. That’s all the more reason that organizing your time is so important.
On the flip side, let’s look at some habits that help rather than harm your career:
If you regularly hear, “Oh, you don’t have to thank me for that,” you’re doing it right. It’s far better to say thank you as an extra courtesy than to fail to say it when it’s due. Even better is when you can name what you’re grateful for: “Hey, thanks so much for those photos. I love how you always capture non-weird facial expressions lol!”
Some people aren’t in the habit of expressing appreciation. It doesn’t mean they don’t think it or feel it … for whatever reason, they just don’t say it. If this is you, see if you can change this habit. Give some thought to why you might skip expressing gratitude. Was it used against you in the past? Some kids grow up in sarcastic families where saying “thank you” could get you a reply like, “Oh sure, I’m always happy to serve you.” Others have been in relationships where saying thank you often drew a “but”: “You’re welcome, but that’s the last time” or “You’re welcome, but you really should be doing this yourself,” etc. If that’s been your reality, no wonder you’re leery. It might take you a bit to learn that most people don’t respond to appreciation that way.
Some people think they’re expressing appreciation only to learn that it’s not coming out that way. One of my clients had a habit of reminding me to do things that I don’t need to be reminded of. Once when we were discussing the next phase of a project, we settled on the details and then he added one of those reminders. Somewhat exasperated, I said, “You don’t need to tell me to do that. I always do that,” to which he replied with a big smile, “I know you do. That’s my way of telling you I like that you do that.” If the people around you aren’t the type to speak up like I did, you might think they know that you appreciate them when, actually, they’re not so sure.
This includes little things like being on time for meetings, calling back if you say you will, responding to messages, and sending the link or article that you said you would send. In a way, these little things are harder to do consistently than the big, high-consequence stuff because it’s easy to believe it doesn’t really matter. But there are crucial moments when these tiny things can make a difference in whether you’ll receive an opportunity. If an overworked reporter needs a quote for a piece that’s due in 20 minutes, he’ll reach out to the source who will text or call right back and deliver an articulate response on the spot. If an event planner’s nightmare client demands the addition of a live band to a huge event two days away, that planner will call the band with a track record of responsiveness and reliability. Last-minute crises happen all the time, and in those desperate moments, it’s not about who might be the best person to quote or who’s the best band in town: It’s about who’s most likely to come through and be the solution to the problem. Frankly, you earn those opportunities with organization, not with talent.
If someone is waiting for information or an answer from you, send it as soon as you have it. As I’m writing this, a musician just texted to ask if I can make his show tomorrow night. I know I can’t, but I hate to disappoint him. It would have been easy not to answer and apologize later for missing it, but why? Why deprive him of known information that might impact his other decisions? There will be times when you need to withhold info from the public, for example some tour dates that are contingent on securing others or the impending departure of a bandmember, but unless it’s a situation like that, don’t keep people hanging.
This is related to the previous point. If your style is not to respond to messages and texts because in your mind it’s understood that you received it/read it/agreed with it/whatever, know that not everyone thinks this way. Sorry, it’s not enough that you have read receipts turned on. And don’t just chalk this up to a generational difference. It’s true that it’s a more common complaint among people 40 and up, but I’ve also seen millennial-age show producers freak out over nonresponsive bands. A simple “thanks!” or “roger that” or thumbs-up emoji will prevent countless episodes of stress and resentment.
This includes employees, interns, and volunteers anywhere you go, even if they got your order wrong; other musicians competing for the bookings you want; drunk fans acting like fools and grabbing at your setlist (or worse); and random people you don’t expect to ever see again and their kids and dog. If it’s got a heartbeat, put some respect on it. A stellar example of people living this value is the Peterson Brothers Band from Bastrop, TX. The group is fronted by brothers Glenn Jr. and Alex Peterson, ages 20 and 17 as of this writing, and despite their youth, you will never meet two more polite, courteous, patient, and appreciative musicians.
“Giving til it hurts” is not something to aspire to. It doesn’t get you more relationship equity—it just makes you less able to take care of yourself and have anything left for others. Far better and more sustainable than doing or giving more than you can spare is learning how to contribute one step that will help the other person to move forward and continue on their own. It can be as subtle as the difference between offering to track down a connection for someone vs. inviting them to call you if they want to pursue it. When you refine this skill, it will protect you from situations where you end up working harder on a person’s problem or project than they do (a common pitfall that causes people to give up on networking or mentoring others).
Explain your process to your closest people. If you’re an introvert and you need time alone, make sure your significant other knows it’s not about him or her. If you need even more uninterrupted time to concentrate when you’re writing or recording, explain this before someone disrupts your flow and causes an argument. If you’re a touring musician just starting a romantic relationship, get clear from the beginning that you are often out of town. If friends and lovers don’t go on tour with your band, don’t try to change that now. (And if they do, please email me and tell me how y’all make that work. Not kidding.) Help your people to understand and cope with your absences and silences. Let them know when you’ll be more available to them—Between tours? After the album comes out?—and keep any promises you make.
If you’re struggling with any of these issues, look deeper: Are you in control of your time, or do you need better systems to keep you from losing your relationship equity out of sheer exhaustion and overwhelm? "
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