Being a musician is more than playing the notes – it’s handling poor communication

Over recent months I’ve seen emails sent to friends of mine who work in the music world sent to them by their management. It makes for unsettling reading.

The exchanges aren’t perhaps that surprising, though they are incredibly depressing in their predictability. They also confirm what I’ve assumed to be the case for a tremendously long time – that the talent in organisations aren’t necessarily afforded the courtesy of having their position in a complaint, query or clarification acknowledged. Passive aggressive behaviour seeps through the carefully worded communication leaving me, as an objective reader, wriggling uncomfortably.

They are also exchanges I vaguely recognise from my own professional career, both as someone who has received them and as someone who has, in a professional capacity, supported others on the receiving end of them. From my own perspective, they are communications which have demanded a moment of critical calculation: is this a battle really worth fighting? The answer usually turned out to be no.

A blissful moment of elation quickly followed, after which the inevitable period of agonising self-reflection when I pondered whether I had caused my own downfall and that the behaviour was something that I not only deserved but actively sought out.

I understood how that would come about in an office/corporate environment. It was inevitable. Lots of people all thrown together. Different leaders bringing their own personalities to bear on a team or department, some unwittingly doing it, others less so. Move closer to a commercial environment and I imagine the churn was more and the sensitivities paid attention to even less. 

It’s my view that such situations are made worse by the style of communication which is adopted – almost certainly passive aggressive as a result of both parties adopting a defensive stance. The relationship undergoes a transformation – parties become distance by virtue of the fact that those initiating a change fail to know how to handle an effective conversation either in person or over email. A self-fulfilling prophecy is effortlessly created. Relationships break down irreparably. Management gets what they want – the person removed – and the individual who once devoted their life to their work now feels rejected, worthless and deeply hurt.

I know of five professional musicians and two broadcasting creatives who have experienced a similar thing. Of the musicians its prompted a growing disillusionment with the industry and the work they’ve spent nearly all of their lives training for. Three of them have since abandoned the industry. 

It is painful to see, because I recognise in the way they speak and the animated expressions on their faces as they do so, that the work that they do means the world to them. The reason they are good at what they do is because they’re doing what they’re good at. The reason they get so infuriated with the organisations they nominally work for is because not only are they are recognised for their contribution, but they see no acknowledgement of their own needs, only evidence that trust and respect isn’t a priority for those who are critical in delivering the organisation’s purpose. 

I’m a punter of the classical music world. I’m a listener and a concert-goer. I’m also an advocate – I write a blog about my experiences. I’m someone who wants more people to experience the benefits of the art-form. But to celebrate it when some of the talent are treated so contemptibly leads me to question again to what extent this is an industry that deserves its advocates. 

Us fans of the genre – like the parents of the next generation of potential musicians who are advising their offspring against a career in music – see the end product of the classical music: the performer on stage delivering the results of their hard work and talent. We see something which appears ‘easy’. It is a passive experience. We haven’t experienced the behind-the-scenes life which is at odds with the assumptions we hold about what its like to be a performer. Having some sense of what friends of mine experience behind-the-scenes leaves me less inclined to celebrate the work of the organisations they work for. 

Being a professional musician is far more than just needing to play the notes and play them expressively. It’s about dealing with the admin of professional life. It’s not unreasonable to expect that those organisations ensure that they treat their talent professionally. I’m in no doubt that if their jobs were on the line they’d demand similar treatment themselves.

The irony of our present situation isn’t lost on me. On the one hand, vocal passionate influencers in the classical music world are leading a charge against Brexit, seeking to protect the interests of the UK’s creative community in the years to come. Elsewhere, leading musicians seek to reinforce the importance of music education for the next generation. Higher education establishments seek to attract the finest musicians and help establish a global reputation. 

Why bother even picking up a musical instrument at all?

What the industry needs to commit to is training its business support function so that those who help deliver the product our UK performing arts scene is built upon are treated with the respect they deserve. 

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