Originally published in Performing Songwriter Magazine
Issues #29-31, May-September 1998
Normally, when I write a "how-to" article, I canvas my peers for information. I send out dozens of emails, make lots of phone calls, and ask for their feelings on the topic - are there any areas they think should be covered Do they have any tips for the readers, or war stories to share? I always get a good response.
The frightening thing about researching this article was how little response I got, and how little thought anyone had given to the subject of being a boss. Most of the war stories had to do with ungrateful bands, thieving road managers, or how much they hated the concept of being a boss. This is not good. This is not good at all.
It's hard being The Boss. It's lonely. It's frightening. It's a huge responsibility. But sometimes it's necessary. And we don't like to look at that.
But somebody has to be the boss! There's always an Alpha. So don't take it on if you don't want to, but realize that if you decide not to be the boss of your own career, someone else will be the boss of it over you. Rent Bette Midler's The Rose for a really good illustration of what happens when this occurs.
The problem for us, as bosses, is that we get no schooling. Every other business teaches its people how to manage other people. Even in the other arts - classical music, ballet, theater - artists have mentors. They learn from their instructors. You must take lessons in order to dance ballet, conduct an orchestra, play a classical instrument... and from those teachers, you learn by rote, by practice, and by example.
Folkies, pop stars, and jazzers stand alone in this regard. Often our only teachers are the records we play, the television shows we watch, and the performers we idolize growing up. We spend little or no time with our elders at the start of our careers; by the time we meet those who could help us, we are usually well on our way, and already overseeing a multitude of people.
In fact, for most of us the only important thing about being a boss is learning how to be one while still staying creative. Once we feel we can juggle the two roles, we give the employer-employee relationship no further thought. Day jobbers and managerial types work their way up through the ranks while emulating those above. They take seminars in The Art of Management, spend weekend retreats learning to connect with their inner selves and other would-be-CEO's. Us? Your local drug dealer probably has a better effective management style than you do. In fact, we're encouraged not to think about it, as though the very word "boss" were a dirty thing. As I've said before, it is in many peoples' interest to keep us ignorant.
People may be born leaders, but no one is a born boss. No matter how well you lead, if you can't also be a boss you will end up the head of a firm of one - yourself.
The American cliché "Good help is hard to find" is usually said with a snicker. Like many hackneyed images, it's a cliché because it's true. How difficult has it been for you to find a good manager, road manager, sound person, let alone a bass player who can also drive without riding the brake, or a guitarist who can check you into a hotel?
Most of us travel in small groups, living out of each others' pockets. We're trapped together in vans, buses, hotels, dressing rooms, onstage. There's usually only one vehicle, so if two people want to go shopping, they're forced to go together. That's a lot of time for people who aren't in love to spend in each others' faces.
And when you spend that much time with one group of people, it's nice to relax. But as much as you would like to be "one of the guys" and be treated equally, you are not one of the guys. You are The Boss. The longevity of your staff, their loyalty, their morale, their job performance, all relate directly to how well you are doing your job as boss. And it's a difficult job to do well.
As you move up to the likes of a Bette Midler, touring with a staff and crew of over eighty, the atmosphere becomes more rarified. The artist rarely deals directly with hiring and firing, or the day to day problems of crew and staff. The hierarchy becomes obvious; production managers deal with crew, musical directors deal with band, lighting directors have assistants who deal with riggers, and so on down the line. Huge tours even have daily newsletters to update everyone on changes and events. However, the feel of the entire organization still comes from the top, and you are at the apex of that pyramid.
Some performers manage to keep the same staff for decades - Elton John and Joan Baez come to mind. Their sound people and road managers stay with them for decades. One may argue that these exalted figures can afford to keep their people on year-round salaries, but as an employee of mine said to me bluntly "You can only work for an asshole so long, no matter how much money you're making". You can't pay someone enough to put up with a daily dose of humiliation, fear, or general craziness. Performers you see who behave badly to their staff wind up with the staff they deserve, when they can get staff at all.
Most of us don't make the kind of money that will let us pay people when they're not working. We muddle through as best we can, networking when we need someone new, often staying on the road more than we'd like in order to keep them. We depend on our staff for a myriad of things, from keeping our business lives straight to putting on a good show. We mourn their departure (or rejoice at finally getting rid of them) and go back to square one, usually with no idea of why things didn't work out beyond "He was a jerk". Making it still harder, we face a multitude of problems that most people in the workplace never deal with, things like:
In this article we'll try to make some sense of why things work out, why they don't, and what you can do to improve your lot.
Let's begin at the beginning. One day you're driving yourself to gigs, setting up your own equipment, maintaining a mailing list, and checking your answering machine every hour in the hopes of a booking. The next day you have a manager and bass player. A week later, you've got a lawyer and road manager, too. Suddenly there's an entire band - hey, credit cards for everyone!
You wake up one morning to find yourself head of a small corporation. You are a CEO now, my friend, and the product you're marketing is yourself. All those people you've been acquiring are your staff, and your tendency is to turn to the familiar - to try and make it into a family unit. After all, that's the only multi-tiered relationship you're familiar with, so you try to duplicate it. You get to know your staff's families, you discuss their personal lives, you gossip behind their backs, and you wonder where the lines should be. They ask how much you're earning and you tell them, then wonder why they resent their salaries.
They expect you to understand and forgive, because you know their problems. And suddenly, they show up two hours late for rehearsalbecause the babysitter didn't show. They're late for departure because they tied one on the night before when their boyfriend walked out. Little things start to slip, then bigger things begin sledding downhill. Deadlines are missed, hotels aren't booked, and on and on. One day you find your life completely out of control, tied to a bunch of people whose self-interest far supersedes any interest in making your life work. The only way out seems to be firing everyone and starting over. But you can't, because you've come to depend on them. And you're scared - what if you can't find someone else? Or your old staff bad-mouth you so no one wants to take the job?
That's the problem with being one of the guys - you're not. You can't walk away from your career and get another job; they can. As long as you're paying the bills, you're the Boss. And being the Boss requires a certain amount of distance.
The "folk ethic" demands that we behave in an egalitarian manner, which is fine. Unfortunately, it spills over into confusion when it says "We are all the same". Not as long as you are paying them you're not! We may be equals under the law, but we are not alike. A perfect example of this is a folk festival I did recently where more than 500 volunteers were all allowed Complete Access passes. That meant the single small performer's tent, the only space we had to change, tune, get ready for the show, was filled morning until night with volunteers on their breaks, asking for autographs, taking pictures, studying guitar licks. And I mean filled; there wasn't enough room to lay a case down, much less talk to another performer. When several of us complained to the festival manager, she informed us that we were "all humans, all entitled to share the same space and privileges". One performer snorted and said "Fine. Then they can do the show, and I'll go serve popcorn."
This holds true in the confines of your own small world. We can say "my partners" or "my associates" all we want, but the audience are still coming to see you. The bass player and accountant are paid by you, not vice versa. When they can do your job, they can pay someone else to do theirs.
I tried for years and years to run my organization like a family, with equal treatment for everyone. If I went first class, so did they. If I had a large room, so did they. I did it because I was embarrassed to have so much more than everyone else, never realizing that people take for granted what is given freely, and then expect it to continue forever. But it all came to a screeching halt two weeks before a tour of Australia, where I had a huge disco hit and a show built around it with backdrops, computerized lighting, and loads of sound effects. Suddenly my band and crew all demanded immediate pay raises, threatening to quit if they didn't get them. They figured if I could afford first class air travel for everyone, I could afford to double their salaries.
I went to my new road manager in a panic, convinced I had to do it. But he just smiled and said "Let me explain something to them. We'll book one tour with posters saying 'Janis Ian Live' and another tour saying 'Janis Ian's band and lights live'. Then let's sit back and see how many people each tour draws."
It was a good lesson for me, on many levels. I learned that I was the only person who never got time off from my career, and I honestly did work harder than everyone I employed. I discovered it was okay to fly first class when everyone else flew coach, because I'd get off the plane after a fifteen hour flight and walk straight into television cameras and a press conference. I learned that while I'd stay in the same hotel as everyone else (it's bad for morale otherwise), I didn't have to be ashamed to have the best room. It didn't matter how high the bass player's mortgage was, or that the guitarist's daughter needed braces - those weren't my problems. I had enough problems of my own, thank you very much!
Most important, I learned that once I had my own ground rules straight in my head, I could bend them as necessary. I could loan the guitarist money predicated on the length of a tour, and deduct it from his salary as we went. I could ask if the bass player wanted an introduction to my banker. I could help; I just couldn't be family.
The big lesson I learned from all of this is that the only person the show depends on completely is me; everyone else is expendable. That's the big luxury of starting out a singer/songwriter - you can always get up there and do it yourself. Knowing that, down to your core, gives you an internal leverage most artists don't have.
Who are we talking about?
I've been on tour alone, arriving at airports dependent on the kindness of strangers to get me through the gig. I've also toured with two semis, two buses, two trucks, tour manager (in charge of everyone), production manager (in charge of stage), assistant tour manager (in charge of me, I suspect), 4 riggers, lighting and sound people, drivers, merchandisers, spot operators, instrument techs, six band members, publicist, record company rep and backline people. That didn't include the theater crews, nor the support system of travel agents, booking agents, management and the like, or any of the "luxury personnel" my pop compatriots brought along like personal makeup artist or masseuse. So I've seen it from both sides.
I don't say all this to toot my own horn, but to make you aware that if you're ever lucky enough to have a "big hit", you'll have dozens and dozens of people on the road with you all the time, and you will be The Boss. For purposes of this article, I'm speaking about all the people who work for you, including people like your agent or manager, folks who might be better termed your "partners" because you're trying to operate as equals. The bottom line, though, is that agents and managers et al are normally fired by artists, not the other way around. They earn their living from your efforts, just as your drummer does. All those people are paid by you, not the other way around, so in the broadest sense they are all your employees.
If I were you, thinking as a boss, I would include my manager, agent, accountant, lawyer, producer, engineer... in other words, anyone you pay and anyone you can choose to stop paying. Anyone who makes money off you directly. Anyone you can fire.
Who'll do the hiring?
I know many of us stumble onto everyone from bands to management, but it's good to know how to hire people. Face it, most of us leave it up to management and karma - do you really want someone who takes a percentage of your income also ruling who works for you and what they get paid? Likewise, if you don't hire and interview yourself, you can get stuck with problems - a bassist whose facial contortions drive you crazy, a guitarist so young he literally has never been away from home before, even a tour manager who hates working with women and didn't realize that means working with you. I've had all those things happen to me.
Will you do your own firing?
Ouch. Tough one. No one likes doing it, but there it is. Doesn't matter if it's the person who cleans your house, or your manager of twenty years - it sucks. And it's remarkable how timid most performers are. But the rule of thumb is "You hire 'em, you fire 'em". It's one of the hardest things you'll learn to do, but it's also one of the fairest.
What kind of organization do you want to create?
While we all like to pretend we're one big happy family, that's a sad state of affairs if it's true. Just look at your own family. Are they functional?
I don't want my staff to be like my family - I can choose my staff!
Have you been on the other side?
Most of us go from school straight into performing, with a few day jobs between that we discount because they're not really "what we do". Those day jobs can be invaluable lessons for you as a boss. One of the hardest personalities to turn into a good boss is one like mine - I had a hit record when I was fifteen years old, quit school, and have never had to seriously work under a boss in my life. Oh, I've done scut jobs, but always as a freelancer who could walk away. I've never had the experience of my entire financial stability resting on another person; I don't know what it feels like to constantly watch what I say for fear of being fired, or cope with an erratic overseer, or be denied vacation time at someone's whim. That makes for a bad boss, because I had no training by a good boss.
What kind of boss do you want to be?
Is there anyone in your world that you can look at and say "That's my idea of a good boss?" A good boss thinks about things like these: Are you willing to actively participate in your career? Do you want to be hands-on for every little detail, or delegate a lot? How much time do you have available for supervision? Will you only hire people you like? Do you want longevity from your staff, or do you prefer quick turnover and little accountability?
Try to answer all those questions for yourself before continuing on with this article; it will make a lot more sense if you do your homework!
And now, ta-daaaaaa!
Below are my ABC's of being a boss. They are things I've had to learn about over the course of my life, things most business people are taught in school, or in books with titles like "Ten Steps To Successful Leadership". Since I only read science fiction, I've had to learn them on my own.
Learn to do it. Learn to say "I'm sorry" out loud. Practice in the privacy of your bathroom if you must, but get the words past your teeth.
You'd be dismayed at how few people, particularly men, can do this with grace. Yet it makes all the difference in the world to people working under you if you are a leader who admits mistakes out loud.
I had a road manager recently who yelled at another staff member while they were both on stage, in front of a full house! The fact that the show was over and the house was leaving didn't change the fact that he yelled at someone in front of third parties. When I told him I thought he should apologize, he spent five minutes explaining why he'd been right in the first place. Well, in my book it is never all right to humiliate someone publicly, particularly when you are above them in the staff hierarchy.
Later on he explained to her why he was right, then went into "I guess I'm sorry I did it that way but..." and continued with excuses until she turned away. It was absolutely useless as an apology, and just made her angrier.
A good apology goes a very long way. And if you can't do it, you can't expect your staff to do it either.
Learn to apologize first. This is the most disarming thing you can do with an angry or defensive person (short of laughing in their face, which is counter-productive). Opening a conversation with "I'm sorry if I've done something that made you feel you had to behave this way", or "I want to apologize for what I said" creates an open door - since you've admitted your mistake, it's safe for them to do the same.
Teach your staff to do this. Many people don't take responsibility, or they "Yes, but" their way through owning up. Teach your people that owning up and apologizing are good things.
Conversely, don't apologize for things you can't control (like an audience of ten, or being sick), and don't apologize because you're being bullied into it.
Learn to consider your points before saying something you'll regret later. All the apologies in the world won't make up for mean-spirited, unwarranted words that are almost always the result of your own frustration rather than anything someone else has done.
Sometimes things are done in error, and sometimes they're done deliberately. Assume the mistakes those around you make are not deliberate. After all, no one wants to play a bad solo, or put on a bad show. And if that behavior continues, it may be their way of saying they want to quit but don't know how.
There's a tendency for performers to blame everyone around them for everything, especially when we're in the hyped-up state that comes just before or after a show. Learn to place blame fairly and squarely where it belongs, including on your own shoulders.
A case in point, if you've been encouraging staff to mis-report your earnings on merchandise so you can scam the IRS, and that same staffer starts pocketing portions of your take, who's to blame? You taught it's okay to lie.
It's usually better if you take the blame on yourself first when there's any doubt, particularly in front of outsiders. There are managers who come from the school of "The artist is never to blame", and that's sometimes convenient (you slept through a phone interview, your manager blames the phone company), but be careful about shirking your own responsibilities. Also watch out for staff who always blame someone else. People screw up, shit happens, and it's up to you to make your staff feel safe enough to take the blame when it's appropriate.
Likewise, avoid internal bickering and jockeying for power, but be aware of it and its effect on everyone. It always happens, but it doesn't need to get lethal. And bear in mind that occasionally your staff need to bicker. You don't have to step into every argument - let them settle it themselves. Conversely, it can damage the entire organization if you refuse to step in when necessary, so make sure your own motive is to let them work it out, not to avoid conflict.
3. Clarity and consistency
If there were two things every single person I spoke with who worked under someone complained about, it was these. The need for employers to be consistent in their needs and desires and behavior; the necessity of clarity in all areas of endeavor.
Be clear on what you want. Artists are notorious in this regard; we're volatile people with little patience for anyone else's needs, and we assume everyone around us is a mind-reader. Be clear when you don't know what you want, and make that clear to the other parties concerned.
Don't promise things you can't fulfill; it's inconsistent. Don't assume someone agrees because they keep silent; you need clear answers just as they do. Don't say "I wish I could work two shows a night and make double the money", then try to cancel all your two-show dates.
Everything changes, but when it does, make sure your staff know it's changed. For instance, I travel with a soundman/tour manager. When he leaves the hotel, I ask him to shove a note under my door letting me know when he'll be back or where he can be reached. When he wants to take the van, I ask him to check with me first. This became confusing until we agreed that if he was running out for just an hour, it wasn't necessary. I also promised to do the same for him, since I'd gone for a walk one night and caused him needless worry. I had been unclear, and he'd been trying to follow my instructions.
Let your people help you in these areas. Ask them to tell you if something is unclear; very often people are afraid of offending us (since our job is to communicate) by saying "I don't understand what you want or what you're saying". Ask for their suggestions when you lay down a rule, without feeling obligated to utilize them.
Save your ups and downs for your writing and personal life, not your staff. Drama makes life impossible for everyone around you. I know performers who demand band meetings five minutes after the show's over every single night, where they shred the band to pieces or fall to their knees in gratitude, depending on their mood. That's very disheartening for your staff.
Remember that in order to obtain clarity, you must be clear with yourself. Know where your lines are, and how far you'll bend them. Be aware of how the other person thinks, if it's inward or outward. Most artists think outward - we need to write it or say it in order to understand it, as opposed to people who think before they speak. But a lot of people don't operate this way, and you have to deal with them very differently.
4. Delegation and the chain-of-command
Everything has its hierarchy. Chances are you already have one but don't know it. Your chain-of-command is just that - a chain of people, linked together by actions supporting you, with commands handed down from one to the next as each person incorporates your original orders into their scheme in things. If you don't appear to have one, create one, especially before a tour. And once you've created it, respect it!
If you're the type who starts off telling your sound person "You deal with all the sound" then undo it by asking your tour manager to discuss the sound with the club rep, you will humiliate the sound person (the inference is you don't trust him to get the job done), irritate the tour manager (who doesn't understand why she's having to do this when it's already been done), and confuse everyone else. So when you delegate something, whether it's just part of the job description or a request to take in your dry cleaning, leave it alone!
As a performer I like to know everything, and I mean everything, about my world - to be introduced to every stage hand, thank the caterer myself, know why the gels are red and the sky is blue. It's in my nature. It drives people crazy. I have learned, however painfully, to say "Talk to my road manager". Let that person do their job. If they don't get it done, you can have someone else take it over, but if you keep interfering they'll never be able to accomplish what you want.
Be clear on the chain-of-command to those around you. My manager knows that although all deal offers from my agency go through him, I expect to approve each one before he signs off. The agency knows that the chain-of-command may look like Agency-Manager, but it is in fact Agency-Manager-Artist, with me as the final step in approval. My staff know their salaries come from my business manager's office, not me, and if there's a question about withholding, they need to take it up with that office first, then my management, and finally me as instrument of last resort. My record company know that all press goes through my management office, just like they know that all creative decisions go through me. Use delegation to save wear and tear on yourself.
Remember that once you've delegated authority, you must keep an eye on the people who are using that authority. Use turns to abuse far too easily when powerless people are given a taste of power. I recently had another artist bail on a joint tour just a short while before our start date; adding insult to injury, their manager let us find out through a third party, instead of calling himself. When I complained about it to my manager, he said "Hey, in their position I'd have done the same thing." Then he thought for a minute and said "No I wouldn't have, because you wouldn't have let me." He's right - we've worked together long enough that he knows his authority doesn't extend that far, and I would have shot him if he'd weaseled out of it that way.
Know your organization. Know who is in charge of what, and why. If you don't know who's handling an aspect of your career, you can be poorly represented and never know it. A chain-of-command is like a food chain, with everyone feeding off everyone else's work in order to survive their own. And you are at the top of the food chain.
As American performers, we got the short end of the history staff. There is no vaudeville anymore, where experienced performers were expected to mentor younger artists. Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontaine practically adopted Laurence Olivier for a while, teaching him everything from bookkeeping to philosophy. If I look back on the '60's and the unconscious guidance that went on from artist to artist in those days, then look around in the '90's at the separation that exists between us, the '60's were a whole lot healthier. Small airports where everyones' paths would cross, and time between flights without having to walk thirty miles to the next gate, time where we could chat. We all stayed at the same hotels, because the others wouldn't have us. We even ran into each other renting cars, or at airline shuttles; there were less flights, less people travelling, and more time to learn from one another.
There was a tremendous amount of cross-fertilization in those days; everyone knew which drummer had drug problems, whose manager stole, what artists could keep staff and what artists lost staff weekly. It was great.
Nowadays we rarely see one another for more than a few hours, and when we do we're busy catching up. It's a pity, but it's difficult to learn from your elders these days.
"An educated artist is a business person's best ally". I heard this from a number of people and agree whole-heartedly. Artists should be educated in all aspects of their affairs, be it writing, recording, business, investing, what-have-you. Educate yourself about being a boss. Learn everything you can about everything, chiefly because it's easier to get what you want when you know how it's done right. I bought an apartment in New York years ago, when I was flush, and asked the architect if he knew someone I could hire to clean. The next morning he showed up with cleaning solutions for everything in the apartment, from marble floors to brass banisters. When I said "I want to hire someone to do this, not do it myself!" he replied "How will you know if they're doing it correctly, if you don't know how to do it yourself?"
It's also easier to spot problems, from petty theft to grand larceny, if you have some idea of how it's done. I would never have thought some merchandise people get a kickback from promoters for over-counting (which means the promoter's merchandise percentage is a higher dollar than the correct count) if a merch person hadn't explained it to me.
Likewise, knowing the fundamentals of sound and lights will save you a lot of time in explanations when you try to explain what you want to a new employee. I was called in to a Laura Nyro session once by a frustrated producer who asked me to "translate" her desires to the band; I knew Laura just well enough to understand that when she said "Play it more purple" she actually meant "legato". If she'd known the word legato, a lot of time and money would have been saved.
Educate yourself, first and foremost. This is your world you're creating.
Educate your staff. This is part of your job. I don't care if you're a young performer just starting out, or a crone, those under you are dependent on you for knowledge. It's awful to hire someone with good references and a string of decent jobs, who honestly has no idea that airlines only allow three pieces of baggage (and only two internationally), then find that they expect you to pay their overweight for non-equipment-related luggage. Teach them to ask questions, encourage their curiosity. As they learn from you, you will learn from them. I had a new soundman once who, frustrated with the 110-degree-heat and sub-standard sound system at an outdoor gig, answered one of my questions over the loudspeakers with "Because these people don't give a shit about what it sounds like, they just hired a rinky-dink system and hoped for the best". Since about 200 audience members were already there, not to mention the local mayor, I took him aside and explained that his behavior was inappropriate. But I also learned that this particular person needed to complain about things, so from then on I made sure he could complain to me in the dressing room, where no one would overhear. That might sound like a lot of work, but he was really good at the rest of his job, and I wanted to keep him.
Educate other performers. Who taught you to plan a set? book a motel? put on stage makeup? It's the responsibility of those who know to pass on their knowledge. Teach when you can, as painlessly as possible, but teach. An educated populace is our best defense against incompetence.
6. Fear and humiliation
All artists feel like employees, and it's true that we have a lot of other people pulling our strings. We live in a scary world, where annoying the president of a record company may result in a stiff record. But in the context of being The Boss, you are the final word. You are the president of the company. Within your world, what you say and what you do rings louder than what the other people say or do. I cannot stress this enough, because if there is any area artists abuse, it's this one.
Artists who rule by fear make cowards of their employees. It's not hard to fall into the habit - one evening everything goes wrong and you rage offstage, yelling at your staff as you walk by, snapping "I want to see you now" at the band, all in front of the local crew.
There is nothing that creates resentment faster than public humiliation. And there is never, ever, any excuse for it. There is no problem that can't be discussed privately, even if it means going into a corner and speaking in whispers. It's always possible to say "Let's discuss this over here", and lead the person away.
There is also no worse working atmosphere than an atmosphere of fear. I've seen it in bands, in crews, in offices, and it's always awful. People tiptoe around, messing up their work because they're in such terror that they can't think clearly.
I watched a classic case of this one night when Nina Simone was performing at The Roxy Theater in Los Angeles. Now, I really love Nina; I learn more from her shows in ten minutes than from most people in two hours. However, this was not one of her good days. The band was a pick-up band (locals hired for only that gig), who'd had just one short rehearsal with her. They were obviously nervous and excited - after all, for three unknown musicians to be playing for several thousand people over the course of two nights is a big deal.
Nina began the first song, and by the second verse she was glaring at them. At the start of the second song, she counted the tempo out loudly, stopped, then said to the drummer "You do know what three-quarter time is, don't you?" She began the song, but halted before the chorus, saying "Apparently you do not. So let's start again until you get it right!" By the third song she was glaring at all the players, muttering things into the mike like "Boy, didn't your mama teach you anything about music?"
I sat through the first three songs, then realized that by staying I was tacitly accepting the behavior, and I left.
"Oh, I'm not like those people!" you say. Really? Check with those around you - you'll be surprised what comes to light. Because public humiliation and fear were the two things every band and crew member I spoke with complained about, and I spoke with over fifty. They usually followed the complaint up with "Of course, she's high-strung", or "Well, he's young", but the bottom line was that they began to resent the person doing this to them.
Worse yet, they began to feel incompetent, useless, unworthy. How can someone do their job if they have to be looking over their shoulder all the time, waiting for the next blow to fall? We've all seen abused dogs, the ones that cower and tremble when you come near to pet them. We all think that's appalling, but few of us are willing to look at our own behavior and recognize the abuser in ourselves.
Don't criticize people when you're angry. In fact, don't do anything when you're angry except work on your own stuff and cool off. There is a world of difference between criticizing something you want to make better, and yelling at your staff, or even speaking in a loud tone of voice. Remember, what you say carries more weight than anyone else's.
My favorite soundman, eyes downcast, asked to speak with me in private once. He then politely asked if I could wait to critique the sound until an hour after the show's end; I'd been walking off stage with a list of things in my head I wanted to change, and launching into them the moment I saw him. I wasn't even aware that he took it all as criticism, but he did, and it made him very unhappy. As he put it, "It takes the joy out of a good show, and makes a bad one worse". I learned to give him some time before we talked, and take some time for myself. So if you walk offstage with a list in your head, tape it, write it down, but don't hit everyone with it immediately.
And never, ever criticize someone in front of a third party! This is humiliating for the person you're coming down on, but it also makes you look like an undisciplined fool.
Remember, these people have lived through the same experience you just went through; they're upset, too. Attacking them as soon as you walk off stage just makes things worse. And which is your goal as their boss - to make things worse than they already are, or to improve the situation so it doesn't happen again?
7. Ground rules
Ground rules are rules you set for everyone to live by; they make business life possible, long relationships feasible, and your own life much easier. Their discussion is usually part of the hiring process, but it's one of the things you must get straight in your own head before reviewing it with others. Set them, remember them, live by them. If you're always late, don't ask everyone else to be on time; a boss teaches mainly by example. And when you set the ground rules, remember that at times you have to break them.
It's important to have ground rules because they give everyone a base to stand on. Keep them simple, easy to understand and enforce. Be clear on what the consequences will be if someone does not adhere to them. Whether it's telling your manager "Do not call me after 11 PM", or saying to an accountant "I always want to know if I'm running short", your ground rules allow the people around you to fulfill your instructions without confusion.
Ground rules are even more important when people start having problems. I have a "three strikes and you're out rule", meaning there will be three warnings, then that person will be fired. An ex-employee of mine began drinking too much; one night he waltzed out of the gig before load-out and into a bar across the street, where he promptly got robbed of that night's pay. He'd been with me a long time, and I was confident the behavior would stop, so I gave him a first warning. A few weeks later, drinking again, he rolled into my accountant's two hours late and reeking of booze, then explained that his briefcase had been stolen from his locked hotel room. All right, it could happen to anyone (if it happened that way), but combined with the drinking it made for a second, sterner warning. That warning was accompanied by the threat that if I saw him drinking once more on tour, he'd be fired.
Well, he made it to Europe sober, and a week later I walked into the hotel bar and found him on his third drink. I said "Guess your habit is more important than your job", and replaced him the next morning. Because anyone can get drunk, anyone can have a hard time, anyone can have a few bad weeks. But when that sort of behavior becomes consistent, and a person is repeatedly warned, letting them slide does no one any good. It leaves you with a problem employee, and it leaves them thinking you'll tolerate anything from them.
For performers on the road this becomes even more important, flung together as we are with all different types. One performer I polled sent me this little speech she gives when she hires people; she repeats it just before every tour. It covers a lot of areas.
"If I hire you, I don't want to see drugs - not on the vehicle, not on your person. I do too much international touring to risk it, and I have too much at stake. If you're busted for drugs, I don't know you. If I find out you're carrying and jeopardizing me, you will be fired immediately and left in whatever town we happen to be in. I don't like drinking until the show is over. If you're a tour manager or driver, I don't allow drinking until the night's work is completely over and I am back at the hotel. I also won't tolerate chasing skirts, sleeping with my fans, bringing people other than my immediate staff into our vehicle. Backstage is closed to everyone but essential crew and musicians until after the show, and then it's by invite only, cleared with me. In return, I guarantee that you'll be treated with respect, you will always be paid on time, your checks will always be the correct amount, and I will trust you completely until you give me a reason not to do so."
While this may seem like overkill to some, it does clearly state what the performer will and will not tolerate, so everyone knows the rules.
8. Hiring & Firing
Again, we are back to clarity. Be clear, first of all, on what you're looking for in each staff member. A road manager must also be a morale builder. Merch people need good backs. Musicians need good hearing.
Be very clear on their job description and duties. It's one thing to hire a sound person who turns out to be gifted on lights and agrees to supervise setting and gelling; it's another to hire that sound person to load-in and load-out, run the board, set the stage, break down the equipment, and then suddenly ask them to set the lights and oh, by the way, please change my guitar strings too.
Clarify your expectations (see "Ground Rules"). State anything else you expect - clothing style at gigs, for example, or whether they're expected to drive. Do they get their own room? How many days off do you normally take in a month?
Discuss whether they expect to fly in and out during time off, and make sure they don't expect you to pay for that. This is also a good time to discuss who you will allow in your vehicle or backstage. I've had situations where people's spouses showed up at every show, and the employee wanted to travel separately in order to be with them. If you allow one person to bring a spouse, you have to allow everyone, so discuss it up front. You can always change it on a case-by-case basis.
Try to find out if they have any prior convictions. I had a bass player who forgot to mention that he'd been convicted for marijuana possession a decade before; since he'd received a suspended sentence, he didn't think it was relevant. Unfortunately, the Canadian border guards did, and we couldn't get him into the country for our show.
How much do they expect to work? Most of us can't afford to go on tour for 6-8 weeks a pop; will they stick with the job if it means only five dates a month?
How much notice do you expect when they leave? Judge Judy recently featured Johnny (Rotten) Lydon being sued by a drummer who claimed he'd been unjustly fired; Lydon claimed the fellow had walked out. (Lydon won, by the way.) Ours is a litigious society, and the clearer you can be about things, the safer you'll be down the road.
How much notice will you give them? If you have to cancel a tour, will you give at least two week's paid notice? or pay them out the two week's salary if you can't?
We on the ground floor of the music industry ask a lot of questions during job interviews that are frankly illegal - are you married or cohabiting? have children? have a problem with gay people? do you have any prior convictions? Understand that you can actually be sued for asking these questions; use a little caution.
In terms of firing, do it in private. And be smart - don't fire someone you can't replace until you've had time to figure out what your next move is.
Don't fire people while you're angry. Decide beforehand what you will tell them, like "This is not working out, and usually when someone does so many things wrong for so long, my assumption is that they no longer want this job", or "I can no longer tolerate your behavior, so you're fired". Decide whether you're willing to give them references, or recommend them to anyone else you know - sometimes someone does a perfectly good job, but just doesn't mesh with the group, and they might be just what your friend is looking for in an employee. Don't be brutal, it's not necessary (unless of course they refuse to leave, in which event you call the police and have them removed).
Be careful. Be really careful. People get strange when they're fired. Equipment disappears, or suddenly stops working. Files don't turn up where they were left. Hotel and airline reservations get cancelled. People turn on you in an instant if they feel they've been mistreated or slighted in any way. Firing an employee can be a lot like getting a divorce - someone who was perfectly reasonable for the last five years abruptly turns into Godzilla.
When I fire someone now, after years of mis-judgements and assumptions, I am cautious in the extreme. Before I discharge them, I cancel absolutely everything of mine that could be abused by an angry ex-employee. I change the credit cards, telephone charge cards, void things like their AAA cards. I make certain I know where any equipment of mine that may be in their possession is, and I have a complete list of it on hand. When they turn over the equipment, it's checked against the list by someone else, so the ex-employee can't accuse me of trying to set them up. I let my management, accountant, agency, and bank know that they are no longer with me. And again, I do all this before I fire them. It may seem like overkill to you, but all it takes is one employee charging thousands to your account, or stopping by the accountant's to get tour files "for review" that never re-appear, to change your methodology.
Do it yourself if you can, especially if it's a small organization. I had a guitarist once who just wasn't working out - never quite got what I wanted, was really too young to be on that long a tour. Nothing personal, it just didn't ever feel right. I told my road manager that I'd decided to fire him, and we sent a live tape out to the replacement I'd chosen so he could learn the parts. I planned to fly the replacement in and fire the ex-guitarist on the same night, then tell the remaining band members myself. But when the replacement arrived, I discovered the road manager had decided to "save me the trouble" and had fired the guitarist on my behalf, then told the band.
I was furious. I'd intended to sit the boy down and tell him that he was a wonderful blues guitarist, that he should really have his own band, that our visions just didn't match. I would follow it up by recommending him to several friends who might hire him, then explain to the band that we all knew it wasn't working out, and everyone else's jobs were safe.
Instead, I had to confront a weeping kid who'd been told he wasn't good enough for the job and brutally terminated, whose self-confidence was destroyed and who'd remain scarred for life. I also had to face a band who were told only that the old guitarist was out and the new one was in, and who were understandably afraid for their own jobs. It was badly handled, and I've felt awful about it ever since. Being fired by me, personally, would have said to the guitarist that I really meant it, that I cared enough about his playing to do it myself. So be a hero and take the dive.
9. Instincts & Irregularities
Listen to your instincts. I can't emphasize this enough. Is something telling you that staffer is about to blow? listen to it and make provisions for the worst. Do you suspect someone of financial irregularity? Delve into it and demand that the people in a position to check do so immediately.
In the 1970's I was earning well over a million dollars a year, and by 1982 I figured that between my investments and my income, I could stay home and write for the rest of my life. A year later I started having a funny feeling about my accountant. I went to my lawyer and manager, who assured me there was nothing wrong. They should have looked into it, just in case, or suggested I have an outside firm conduct a full audit. Even if I'd been wrong, it would have made me feel safer. Unfortunately, I listened to them for the next four years rather than listening to myself, and in 1986 discovered that he had mis-appropriated funds, forged signatures, failed to make payments in taxes, completely wiped me out, and left me in debt for the next thirteen years.
It is a sad truth that when people are exposed to large amounts of money - and remember, to someone making $250 a week, $2,500 is massive - greed often takes over. Make sure you have a checks and balances system set up for anything financial. By way of illustration, I count the initial merchandise that gets loaded into the van; the merch person counts it again. She reports directly to my business manager, but I sign off each night on the sales reports. At the end of the tour, she is completely responsible for any missing merchandise. There's a space on our sheet for comps, and while it's one thing to say "Ah, the count's off by one CD, I must have comped it and forgotten to tell you", it's quite another when that happens every night.
Listen to your instincts about people. If something strikes you wrong in a hiring interview, do not hire that person! If you think someon's about to blow, act on it immediately, and give them the benefit of the doubt later. I watched a very good soundman/road manager do a slow slide into complete dissipation when I could have caught it at the beginning, perhaps preventing his downfall and certainly avoiding needless complications in my own life. Instead, because we'd worked together for years and I loved him dearly, I kept telling myself he'd pull out of it on his own. That's a bad boss.
Use yours. You're at the top of the heap here, and your judgement is what rules everyone else's lives. Develop a working "bullshit detector", and don't put up with it. This is, at the end of the day, your money, your show, your career. At the end of the day, your staff can all go off and work for someone else, while you're still stuck with you. People in star positions can end up the sad and lonely wrecks of Sunset Boulevard because they preferred hearing bullshit to reality.
In the same vein, once you've hired someone to do a specific job, you must learn to trust their judgement. One soundcheck my tour manager/soundman said, from the stage, "I can't work with this equipment anymore; I've fixed everything I can fix. Pack up your stuff, we're leaving". Since I'd never heard him threaten to cancel before, I knew it was serious, and I began to pack without questioning him. I trusted his judgement, either that we needed to cancel or that this was the only thing that would get us the equipment necessary for the show.
Yes, people take them, on every level. Agencies from promoters, accountants from insurance salesmen, managers from record companies. You may even take them, but you certainly don't want to encourage your staff to do so!
There are people who regard kickbacks as a necessary part of doing business - the road manager recommends a specific sound company, then accepts a "finder's fee" when they're hired. I knew a road manager for a very successful country singer/songwriter who was notorious for this; if you didn't kick back to him, you lost the job.
The problems he creates are these: 1) In eliminating anyone who objects to kicking back, from sound companies to musicians, that road manager eliminates a good pool of resources, 2) His employer doesn't get the best deal financially - it's in the kickee's interests to make sure the employer is charged a lot so that they can charge more in "fees", and 3) It encourages larceny.
I don't allow kickbacks on my tours, and if I find out they're going on, that person is fired immediately. No first warning; just fired. That's a personal preference, but to me that person is not out for my best interests - they're only serving themselves.
Don't. To anyone. Don't allow it, particularly not to you!
Lying to The Boss is never acceptable, under any circumstance, and it's a fool who creates an atmosphere that encourages it. Tolerance promotes bad behavior, and teaches people to be deceitful. If you don't want to tell somebody something, either say so outright, or hedge and say you don't know, or they'll have to check with someone else, but do not lie. And if you find out a staff member has lied to you about anything, I would issue a very stern one-time-only warning, and fire them immediately the next time I caught it (and keep a careful eye on them up until that point).
You see, as artists we live in a world surrounded by deceit. Everyone lies to us, from petty things ("I can't get those strings in for another month", when they're just too lazy to unpack the boxes) to medium ("Their openers are all in-house", when your manager knows perfectly well that club wouldn't work with you if you were Elvis returned) to momentous ("They're not signing right now", when in fact they're signing only 19-year-old blondes who look great on MTV). The problem is that without accurate information, you cannot exercise good judgement - not about your career, not about your life. So it's important that we insist the people closest to us - managers, agents, immediate staff - tell us the truth. I would much rather hear the truth, and find out why the club hates me, than be deluded.
Asking people to lie for you is asking for trouble, because if they'll lie for you, eventually they'll lie to you. I'm not talking about silly white lies; it does no one good for a manager to say "She won't do workshops with you because she thinks you suck". In fact, it's mean-spirited. But don't ask employees to cover up when you're sleeping around, or lie to management on your behalf.
And make sure your personnel know it! Otherwise management will say to tour manager "There's a camera crew on the way but don't tell her, it'll only freak her out", and the tour manager will get stuck between loyalty to you and the desire to stay in management's good graces. Make sure your employees know it's safe to tell you the truth. Ssome artists say they want to be surrounded by reality, then go ballistic when that reality hits. You would be shocked to find out how many musicians, crew, management and accounting firms just wish they could be truthful with you, and are scared to do so.
This is the single most important thing any staff member can bring to me outside of competence in their job, and the single hardest thing to maintain.
Face it, it's difficult to preserve morale after six weeks of skanky clubs and cheap, dirty-around-the-edges motel rooms. But that's part of your job as boss! You set the tone for everything around you. If you whine all the time, everyone else will. If you're miserable, everyone is affected. Don't make your staff responsible for your happiness or moods; you're responsible for theirs.
Consistency plays a huge role in morale; when you are inconsistent, people are confused, and that eventually destroys confidence, which destroys any esprit de corps you may have had in the beginning. The way you criticize is important as well; constant nagging makes everyone edgy and tired.
Say thank you. A lot. Demand it be said back to you. It's very good for morale.
Hire people who are good at building morale, particularly road managers. Billy Joel's band used to get together in the dressing room just before every show and pump themselves up, placing hand over hand until they reached the top and then giving a rousing yell. I know people whose walk to their jobs repeating "This will be the best show ever!" like a mantra. The road manager who can excite his people and knows when to crack a joke is a terrific asset.
I had a road manager a few years ago who almost destroyed my band and crew. He looked okay when I hired him, but things went wrong from the first date of our eight-week tour. He loaded the wrong merch, then refused to take responsibility for it. Each evening he would crawl into his bunk immediately after the show, emerging only when absolutely necessary. Eventually everyone started wondering what they were doing wrong, to have alienated him so. He carried an "equipment case" made of heavy metal, over five feet tall, that he expected the band to roll into every gig so he could pop out computer and printer, then stayed on-line by himself until showtime. During shows we would watch from the stage as he stood at the back of the hall, chatting up a local female and ignoring us.
I spoke with him several times about the necessity of being emotionally present, and issued several warnings after our discussions had no effect, but the situation continued to deteriorate. I'd been wondering why there were no flowers from my record company anywhere, no fruit baskets from the promoters, no wine in the dressing room. One day I ran up to his hotel room unannounced from my ground-floor single, and found him sitting at the dining table of a three room suite the hotel had thought they'd given me, surrounded by a beautiful bowl of imported fruit and several nice bottles of wine! When I asked sweetly whether he didn't perhaps check himself into the wrong room, he just said "Oh. I thought you had one too."
The point here is not that I didn't get my hotel upgrade or goodies, nor even that he was lying bald-faced to me. The point is that part of his job was to promote morale, and he was doing quite the opposite. Far from making everyone feel important, by taking care of his needs first and ignoring everyone else's he was constantly degrading every human being on the tour. Everyone needs time alone, but his aloofness left everyone feeling miserable. He was fired soon after.
Nature is inevitable. It doesn't care whether you want the wind to blow, or the rain to fall. It doesn't create "good" or "bad" weather. It just is.
Same with human beings. There's a part of each of us that is our Nature, as opposed to our Behavior. And like they say, you can change behavior, but you can't change nature.
It's in some people's nature to be hyper, and other people's to be calm. Some people are loud, some are soft. Some flare up in an instant and calm down soon after, others stew for a couple of days before explaining what's on their minds. Maybe it's even in someone's nature to be sneaky or truthful, brave or a coward. I don't know, but I do know that you can't change someone's nature. So when you have a staff member whose performance is unsatisfactory, ask yourself whether it's in their nature, or their behavior. If it's behavior (yelling at inappropriate times, or scratching themselves in public), try and work with them to change it. But if it's in their nature, you will have to decide whether it's worth putting up with something that irritates you - or jeopardizes your work - or whether you need to find someone else for that position.
Know your own nature. As boss, there are a lot of things you can correct or change, and knowing your nature will allow you to focus on what you can change rather than what you cannot. I know I talk a lot, and that's not learned behavior; I spoke full sentences at seven months and have been running off at the mouth ever since. I know it drives people crazy, too, so I have painfully learned not to interrupt, and to watch for the glazed look on their faces that tells me I've gone on too long. I get excited about things, and I like that part of myself, but I don't want to inflict it on the world.
15. Open Door Policy
This is a business term that means your door is open to your staff. Using it depends on how you run your organization. If you're going to insist on having the ultimate say over your career, be it stage plots, which gigs you take, or where your money goes, you must be available to people. Very few things inspire loyalty like availability. Sometimes it's disruptive - you have to teach people limits - but I would always rather be called a dozen times than not called the one time it really matters.
Some artists prefer isolation. Their staff are instructed not to approach them directly at any time. This is all right if you don't mind dealing with the complete lack of control over your life that it provokes.
There's a middle ground to keeping your door open that can prove very beneficial to you as a boss. In the long run, encouraging people to feel free about contacting you when there's something on their minds allows them to grow, under your direction, into the kind of personnel you need.
If you have an open door policy, you will need to set up ground rules governing it. In my organization, people don't bother me just before showtime, because I need some time alone then. I ask that people not call me when I'm in the studio unless it's urgent (and I define what I consider "urgent"), but leave messages instead, and I always make sure to return their calls as soon as reasonably possible. I encourage them to discuss problems directly with me when they relate to my work and show; if I think someone else can handle it better, I hear them out, then refer them to that person. This policy reassures them that I'm "in the loop", protects them from someone above them in the hierarchy distorting what they may have reported, and allows me contact with my staff that ensures a running dialogue in all aspects of my career.
However, this policy does not mean you should let people take advantage! When people abuse accessibility, whether it's phoning the tour manager at 3 am with a stupid question they should have checked on the itinerary first, or taking up an hour of my time with nonsense just so they can say they spent an hour with me, it needs to be nipped in the bud. Gently remind them that open doors swing both ways, and are only useful if you're actually heading somewhere.
Argh... not my strong suit, but something every boss needs in copious amounts. Patience takes many forms. Explaining the same set of instructions to a staffer for the third time, and sorting through why they didn't get it the first. Watching someone make a mistake and deciding that since it isn't critical, you'll let them go ahead and make it, work through it, and come out the other end, instead of jumping in and solving it for them. Holding your temper in check when something goes really wrong, and knowing when to appear to lose your temper for effect. (A word to the wise - never really lose your temper with staff. If you need to lose it for some reason, be very conscious of what you're doing. Controlled anger is always more frightening and instructive than an ungoverned display of wrath.)
Patience is the hardest thing to learn, and the most useful, once you've attained it. Patient people are not milksops, or doormats; they're stronger than those who lose their tempers. They have more authority over their own lives, and therefore over the lives of others. Your composure will reassure and protect everyone around you, while your own nerves will get a well-deserved rest.
Learn to ask them, learn to answer them. Learn to listen. The person who keeps repeating the same question over and over is either not listening to your answer, not understanding your answer, or not getting a real answer.
My partner and I were having an argument one day because she asked a question. I agreed with her, and went on to my next thought. She asked the same question again; I continued to the next topic again. When she asked a third time, I complained. "Why do you always ask the same question a dozen times?!" I asked. "Because you don't answer!" was her retort. I replied that I did so answer; she countered that I did not. Eventually, I realized that because I'd agreed with her, I'd just gone on from there and never clearly said "Yes, I agree." I assumed she understood that if I'd disagreed, I'd have said so - in my own eyes, continuing on to the next thought was an answer.
But it wasn't. Answers to staff have to be very clear, very consistent (there's those words again), very thought-out. If you don't know the answer, say so distinctly. Try to find out if the question is the real question, or if there's something behind it ("Mmm, I was just wondering if you like Taco Bell? because we just passed one and you could get a bite to eat there....") Encourage people to ask questions, because the more information those around you have, the better they can fulfill their jobs. Don't ever snap at someone for asking a question like "What time do you want your wakeup call on your day off?" Your job is to explain to them that on days off, you sleep in.
Respect goes hand-in-hand with responsibility, and covers pretty much everything I'm discussing in this article. It is respectful to be honest. It's respectful to listen. Loyalty is grounded in respect. People who are not respected do not work well; that's human nature. There is a wonderful story about the famous Rabbi Hillel, a master of the Torah (the Jewish scriptures) in the times before Jesus, who was confronted one day by a Roman guard. The guard, meaning to trap him, said "Old man, if you can explain the entire Torah to me while standing on one leg, I will become a Jew." The Rabbi immediately stood on one leg and said "Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself. That is the whole of the Torah; the rest is just commentary." That's much better put than anything I can add here.
19. Sex & slobbering
It's embarrassing to bring it up in this day and age, but as I keep saying, Do Not Shit Where You Eat. Do not sleep with your staff. Do not fondle your staff. Do not come on to your staff. It's disrespectful, it destroys morale, it creates drama where none is necessary, and it will almost certainly lose you a good staff member.
Likewise, do not take sexual harassment from anyone, and I mean anyone. The music business has skated on thin ice in this area for years. I hear too many stories of women on the road who are touched, groped, and otherwise abused to have any patience with it. Likewise, do not harass people verbally! Calling your staff "Baby" or "Honey" or "Sexy" is stupid stupid stupid.
I recently had a staff member called "Sweetie-pie" and "Baby" by crew at a gig; my former road manager couldn't understand why she and I both resented it. If I'd been there when it happened, I'd have put a stop to it, but that was the road manager's job - he was her boss of the moment. We resent it because they wouldn't do that to a man, we resent it because it makes us into nothings, and we resent it because we've worked for years to be good at our jobs - just as they have - and we don't like being treated that personally when we're on the job.
If you are a boss, part of your job is to defend your staff against this sort of nonsense. I learned a good lesson about that from Walter Yetnikoff when he was president of CBS Records. I was twenty-two years old at the time, out promoting my first album for the label, and scared to death. I was scared of antagonizing radio people, terrified I'd insult a television producer, and totally intimidated by the many promotion people whose job was to cart me around for a day, then deliver me to the airport for my next city. And I'd grown up on the road, so I had very little experience of appropriate vs. inappropriate behavior in a dating or work situation.
The local promotion guy picked me up in an MG with the top down, and spent the trip into town patting my knee, calling me "Honey", asking what I wanted to do after work that night - hell, I just thought he was being friendly. We'd never met before, maybe this was how he treated all the artists. When we got to the radio station, he draped an arm over my shoulders possessively as we walked in. And after meeting all the radio people, with eleven of them watching, he told me to go grab my guitar, then pinched my ass as I walked past him.
I walked to the ladies room, face burning with shame, unsure of what to do next. Fortunately, I managed to stay far away from him for the rest of the day. When I called my then-manager, a woman, she just said "You're a big girl now, you should be able to handle a little thing like that!" A little thing? being treated like a piece of meat in front of eleven complete strangers? Still, she was older, and I trusted her, so I tried to let it go.
A week later I was invited to Walter's office to discuss the tour and what I felt I'd accomplished. We had a nice lunch together, but when he asked "So how did the promo go?", I burst into tears. When I'd finished telling him the story, I expected him to laugh, or tell me he was sure I'd mistaken an innocent gesture for something else. Instead he walked over to the phone and fired the man, then sat back down and said "That sort of thing has no place in this company. There's been entirely too much of that, and I intend to change it."
Well. The promotion man had a complete nervous breakdown a week later, or so I heard, and was institutionalized for quite a while. Walter went on to make CBS the biggest record company in the world. And I learned that a good boss, faced with a rogue employee who is abusing another employee, fires the abuser immediately. You might think Walter should have asked the man for an explanation; my assumption is that other complaints had occurred before mine, and enough was enough.
Don't think the ladies get off scot-free in this one either! Our sex is just as guilty as the men. Many women seem to think sexual behavior is the only way to show real affection; they move from guitarist to bass player to producer to manager with no thought of consequences. And those people are not free agents, no matter what you think. Their livelihoods depend on you, and that clutters the issue. How can you fire someone you've been sleeping with? It's ugly any way you look at it, so don't do it.
20. Time Off
Everyone needs time off from other people, be it a day alone in your hotel room on the road, or a week without talking to your manager. It lets everyone relax. Remember that for your staff, time spent with you is not generally time off. Meals with you are not time off. Hanging with you is not time off.
A road manager said to me recently "So he keeps saying to me 'This is great, we're just one big happy family'. Hell, it feels like family. I have to eat dinner with him, lunch with him, shop with him. If he's the dad and we're the kids, don't we get to grow up and move out some day?"
You are The Boss, like it or not, and you're stuck with that. Respect your separate roles, and allow them the luxury of enjoying that respect.
There is a tendency, when we hire someone who turns out to do their job really well, to keep promoting them. Upgrading within an organization is often a good thing, providing incentive to those on the bottom, and allowing everyone to rise to their highest level. Most tour managers started out as grunts or soundmen; managers were often musicians or road managers. People feel good when their work is leading somewhere better, and the promise of a higher salary and greater responsibilities usually makes them work that much harder. It's often a great tool for teaching and mentoring.
Beware, however, of upgrading people beyond their capabilities. It's a good idea to offer someone a higher position on a trial basis, to say "Let's try this for two weeks and see whether it works for both of us. During that period you can find out whether it's a job you really want, and I can find out whether you're suited to that job within my organization." You've left a door open for both sides to back out without loss of face, and at the end of the trial run, no one has to be ashamed that it didn't work out.
When you upgrade someone, keep an eye on them for signs that they're in over their heads. Take them aside occasionally and ask how it's going. Ask whether they need help, or if there's anything you can do to make the transition smoother. You might also ask whether the new person doing their old job seems to be all right. And judge for yourself whether either is capable of optimal performance in this new position.
I had a lighting designer who also turned out to be incredibly competent at bookkeeping, personal relations, and detail work - the perfect tour manager archetype. So when my tour manager fell apart one day, I asked her if she would like the job. She took it eagerly, and did a very good job of it for the six weeks remaining of that tour. On the flight home I asked if she would like to continue in that position, or needed more time to consider. She heaved a sigh of relief and said that if I didn't mind, she'd really prefer to go back to lighting. The extra money hadn't made up for losing the thing she enjoyed doing most.
People do remarkable things with their resumes. I was very impressed by an actress whose resume listed Lady Macbeth, Ophelia, and a host of other difficult roles she'd played. "You're awfully young to have all that experience!" I said. She laughed and replied "Oh, no, I haven't acted them in a theater or anything - I've just done the monologues in class."
Likewise, people anxious for a position will bend the truth in order to be hired. Be extremely cautious about this. Any legitimate reference will be available for checking by telephone, email, or fax. (And remember, the only one of those that's pretty definite is by telephone - you can call information to make sure the number you're calling is real, and not your possible-employee's girlfriend!)
Particularly in the financial area, network with everyone you can about that person. I had a woman running my fan club who became a real scoundrel last year; I had to take her to court and win a judgement against her to begin recovering my lost funds, not to mention spending hudreds of dollars in mailings to make sure my fans knew she was no longer representing me. I also wrote to every business she'd used on my behalf, telling them she'd been fired. I heard recently from someone that she was still using my name as a reference.
Instruct your staff in what steps to take when someone you would not hire again uses you as a reference. You may want your manager to say "My artist has asked me not to comment on that person", or "They did a good job but were wrong for this organization", but always make sure they're clear on what references you are willing and not willing to give.
Anyone can type out a resume listing everyone they've worked with, and providing no other detail. I've had other singers present my name as someone they "opened for through 1996", leaving the impression that I booked them for an entire tour, when in fact they were hired by a local promoter for one gig. Tour managers, musicians, drivers, anyone you're interviewing for a job can be guilty of promoting this sort of misinformation. The only way to avoid hiring someone without good references is to call the references they give - and to make sure those references are legitimate! I heard of someone actually renting a cellular phone in another name, then putting that name down as a manager who would give them references. When the employer called to verify the information, this person answered the phone and gave themselves a glowing report.
If that person is going to be handling large amounts of money, I have heard of people checking their criminal records. While I'm not sure this is legal, it certainly makes good business sense. I would also ask to see a valid passport, and flip through it to make certain any foreign tours they noted were actually in there.
Be clear about wages from the start. I usually prefer to discuss this myself - I like to know what my people are paid, and like them to know that I know. This holds true with managers and musicians. Make a checklist to go over them, or with the person who's negotiating for you. Make sure it includes things like:
Webster's 3rd New International defines xenophobia as "Fear and hatred of strangers or foreigners or of anything that is strange or foreign". For a boss travelling with staff who are going abroad for the first time, xenophobia can be a real problem. I have found (and this is a sweeping generalization) that people raised in multi-cultural environments adapt more quickly than those raised in mono-cultural surroundings. In other words, someone raised in a mixed area, around people with different skin colors, religions, and/or ethnic backgrounds from their own, will tend to be more tolerant of other cultures than someone who was raised only around their own color, religion, and background.
It's important to educate your staff about the culture they are entering before they enter it, and to keep close watch on them while they are there. In many cultures, you are judged by the staff you keep, and an insult to your host by a staff member is exactly the same as a direct insult from you.
I spend a great deal of time in Japan, and before my first trip there I read voraciously about the culture. I learned that slurping your noodles was polite, that spitting on the street was common (whereas blowing my nose at the table was taboo), that the word "No" was highly offensive and should be replaced by "Maybe" or "Perhaps", which would indicate "No" without being rude. On one trip to Japan I took with me someone I was considering as a manager; weeks before we left I discussed the trip with her, lending her books like Businessman's Guide to Japanese Etiquette so she'd be prepared. I told her how to avoid eating sushi if she couldn't stomach it (become allergic to fish), and warned her repeatedly not to judge manners by her own standards. Because one of the great things I've learned in my travels is that most codes of behavior are learned, and applicable only within your own milieu.
Things went well the first few days; she was too jet-lagged to notice much. But she began to fall apart around the little things; we'd be in a noodle restaurant with people slurping noisily, and she'd go red in the face, muttering "I just can't stand it, they're so rude!" She insisted on shaking hands rather than bowing, asserting that her way was the only polite way. She drank too much, something women in Japan are absolutely looked down for doing, and got very silly with a bunch of businessmen when my publishing career was resting on the success of the evening. She wound up being so contemptuous of everybody we met because "they had no manners" that she left a bad taste in everyone's mouth, including mine. And at the end of the week it all came out - she hated "that ugly little country", couldn't wait to get back home "where people act like people", and hoped "the whole island would fall into the ocean".
That's certainly an exaggerated reaction, though the story is true. Most people are a little xenophobic their first time overseas; it's frightening to suddenly be thrust into contact with people where you can't read body language or facial expressions, not to mention street signs. As a boss, though, you must be aware of this and guard against it, in others and in yourself.
Compromise. Concede. Give up. Know when to bargain, and when to stand firm. Many people regard every encounter as a war they have to win. Nothing is worth that sort of unilateral life. You don't always have to win the war in order to win concessions; you just have to keep a clear head, and be willing to work with the other side. Employees often feel everything is fait accompli, that if they won't or can't do something you want, they'll be replaced. Know when it's worth losing an otherwise good employee, and when it's worth giving in.
Know when to be firm. It's your show, your vision. Because most of us grew up with people laughing at our dreams, we tend to be very rigid in pursuit of them. It often serves us in good stead, but it can become wasteful. I was recording with John Jennings co-producing; we'd booked musicians the caliber of Steve Gadd and Matt Rollins. When I started doing the charts, I automatically began writing in little things I heard in my head and arranging the tunes. John stopped me and said "It seems a shame to book players of this magnitude and tell them what to play. Why don't we see what they come up with first? You can always go back to this."
26. Zip. Zest. Zeal.
At the end of the day, being a good boss is useless if you're not enjoying yourself. If you lose your zest for what you were doing that originally put you in the position of being a boss, then you're doing something wrong.
Don't try to do everything at once - tackle your problems one by one, trusting that more will arise to challenge you as your life evolves. Leave yourself time with friends and family, people who don't depend on you for their living. Develop a circle of contacts who have nothing to do with your life as a boss, hard as that may be. Talk over your problems as the person in charge with other people in similar positions who do not work for you. Allow yourself the luxury of time off from this wearying aspect of your job and life. All these things will help to refresh you and remind you of how much fun having a career as an artist really can be.
And you can enjoy yourself, and your work, while still being a good boss. I promise!
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