Why Honesty Is So Expensive
I have a confession to make.
Six years ago, I was being employed to make it look like emerging artists had a lot of “organic buzz” and “strong word of mouth”.
I did this by getting them featured on every blog (apart from my own unless I genuinely loved their music), indie radio show and live showcase possible either to get them signed to a record deal, or when they’d already signed but their deal was yet to be announced.
This was great for the labels and managers, because it created the myth of the overnight sensation - I’ll write about that another day - and the budgets were tiny because it was meant to look DIY. It was great for the artists, they had the chance to test things out before they hit the big time.
The only person it wasn’t so great for was me.
The budgets were small and no one knew about the valuable work I was doing. It made no sense for my clients to refer me, since they wanted me to remain a secret weapon. Most of all, I didn’t like the feeling I was helping to perpetuate a myth that makes creatives (myself included) feel bad. It wasn’t my finest hour and it didn’t last long.
This is a pretty mild example of when my silence and participation in a less than transparent system hasn’t worked out.
The truth is, although there have been a lot of wonderful experiences, over the years there’s A LOT I’ve been silent about when I shouldn’t have.
My WTF List:
I’ve helped artists fundraise thousands, often without a real thank you or payment. I’ve been cheated out of payment by clients. I’ve quit jobs due to sexual and racial harassment. A company I worked with asked me to help prove they weren’t sexist to the press, and once I agreed were mind-blowingly sexist towards me. A wealthy DJ I worked for tried to stop me getting the funding I was going for (and seemed genuinely shocked and disappointed when I got it anyway). Friends have praised and continued to collaborate with people within the industry who threatened my safety. I lose count of the people who’ve pretended to be friends to access my contacts and audience, guest list, get in to shows, or asked for free advice on fundraising, PR, strategy etc.
It’s an embarrassingly long list, and I’ve left plenty out. I challenge you to write your own WTF list.
Truth be told, I was inexperienced and very naive. I either believed the best in people, or I believed that because the vitriol for breaking your silence or telling people they were wrong was so enormous, there must be some kind of reward for being silent in the face of bad behaviour. There wasn’t, I just felt bad about keeping quiet.
Yet I didn’t believe all of this for no good reason…
Silence and Mystery Provide The Fertile Soil In Which Mythologies Grow
The goal is always to appear authentic and transparent, whether you are or not. For those who are inauthentic, which is not an insignificant number, that impression is impossible to achieve if everyone is walking around telling the truth.
So we’re discouraged from speaking up, in subtle and not so subtle ways.
Honesty comes at a price, and at the very minimum that price means we won’t be included in certain clubs. We know that those clubs are full of people willing to stay silent when they shouldn’t. We know we wouldn’t be happy or fit in there, yet it still hurts not to be included.
If we’re real about it, those clubs are often pretty powerful, and a lot of people feel they either can’t afford to leave, or not sign up in the first place.
The Hardest Work
Doing the work of building your own clubs, platforms and audiences with authenticity and transparency is far harder.
You don’t get to pretend you’re doing better than you are, to work with people you know are hurting others even though they’re really talented or powerful, or to take shortcuts and do the wrong thing because it’s easier and hopefully no one will find out.
At times it will feel like you’re in a fight with one hand tied behind your back. You’ll screw up and wonder if you’ve ruined everything. You’ll wonder why the hell people aren’t supporting you and if they ever will. You won’t get to stay silent just because speaking up is hard and costly. It won’t be easy.
But every crappy thing that happened on my WTF list happened when I was trying to be part of some club.
When I was too afraid to say “I don’t need you, or this ‘opportunity’, and I’m going to tell the truth”. And they knew I wasn’t going to. How about you and your list?
You end up cultivating an environment in which you’re likely to be mistreated because you’re afraid of going it alone or doing it the hard way.
It’s Your Environment, Stupid
If you want to live in a world where you can be honest and real, start by surrounding yourself with people who want you to be.
Steer clear of those who spin fantasies and powerful people who use or hurt others. Set up the expectation that you will say what you think. Cultivate an environment in which you’ll be backed up and praised instead of isolated for being honest.
It might be harder to follow this path, to heed your beliefs and your moral compass, but it’s not impossible. There will always be some compromise you might regret, a bridge you’re afraid to burn, a doubt that you’ll say no and miss your big chance.
A few months back, a journalist friend of mine was approached by a large organisation he was highly critical of. They wanted to commission him, and they waved a life changing cheque under his nose. He didn’t accept, but he worried about it. I didn’t, and I imagine he’s knee deep in far more fulfilling opportunities by now.
One of the first things you learn about corporate sponsorship, is to be careful who you say yes to. If you say yes to Soundcloud, you’ve closed the doors to Bandcamp, Spotify, Apple Music etc. If you say yes to Red Bull, you’ve closed the door to Coca Cola, PepsiCo etc.
When you say yes to something you don’t believe in, you are closing the doors to the things and opportunities and people you do believe in.
Write a list of the ten most honest, trustworthy people you know.
It’s possible they’re not seen as very cool, or powerful, or influential. Yet those are the people who will help you when you need them, who won’t screw you over or sell you out for their own benefit, and most importantly will tell you the truth and call you out on your own bullshit.
That’s who you need in your orbit. Organise a call, a Skype or a coffee with them this month.
Are there any experiences which have convinced you to change direction towards something that feels more authentic to you? Has your silence worked against you in the past? Please share with us in the comments below.