difficult people in the music business

Handling difficult people in the music business (and anywhere)

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When you encounter difficult people – in the music business and elsewhere – it usually has everything to do with THEM and nothing to do with YOU. But sometimes, you still need to deal with the situation.

As many of us who have been in the music business know, it’s often not so much what you know as who you know that advances your career. It’s probably one of the most-repeated show business clichés, but there’s a reason for that.

It’s about the relationship

A career coach I worked with many years ago had a mantra he shared with me repeatedly: “It’s about the relationship.” What he meant by that was that often when we think we know what the purpose of a situation is, the important thing to focus on is the relationship with the person/people involved. Often what you think are business connections turn out to be personal connections and vice versa.

For example, if you go for a job interview, you may think the purpose of the interview is to get the job, and if you don’t get the job you consider the experience a failure. But what if that job wasn’t right for you at that moment? What if you made enough of an impression on the interviewer that she recommended you for another job at the same company that opened up later on, with higher pay?

By focusing on the relationship and not the material goal (job, money, sales), you open up more possibilities for success, possibilities that might not have even occurred to you. Material circumstances change but relationships can last for decades if maintained properly and can bring benefit to all involved. Then you become a person who knows people!

This doesn’t mean you need to be everybody’s best friend. Some music business relationships are like casual acquaintances, some are like drinking/army buddies, and some are lifelong friends. Having awareness as to which is which and being able to maintain a variety of them will bring you success.

But what if you understand all this and you still encounter bona fide jerks? If you have ever worked sales, customer service, or anything with a public-facing element to it, you’ve had to deal with difficult, hostile people. Often people are very angry over what seem to be tiny details. Sometimes they are hostile for no apparent reason.

Here are a few tips on how to deal with difficult people when you can’t avoid them. Sometimes extremely difficult people are in positions of power which can affect your life and career. You will have to decide whether it serves you to try to work with them or if you need to walk away. Nobody has to nor should anyone take abuse; it’s an abundant world out there, and life is too short for you or your loved ones/friends to stay in abusive work/creative situations. But when difficult people cannot be avoided or it is not in your best interest to do so, it is possible to manage your own response to them and keep your own serenity and sanity intact.

Practice self-awareness

It seems like a no-brainer, but one of the best ways to neutralize a difficult person is to not be one yourself. Even difficult people will usually respond to a little kindness, courtesy, and good humor. The road to understanding other people begins with understanding ourselves. You need to know how you are coming across before you assume that other people are difficult.

The music business is a rough business to be sure, and often perseverance, doggedness, braggadocio, and a certain kind of swagger are necessary to our stage persona and to keep ourselves energized and focused offstage. Crafting and maintaining relationships requires interpersonal skills, though. Nobody chooses to work with reality-TV-star types who are “not there to make friends.” When the cameras are off and the show is over, people respond best to other human beings who are not arrogant or phony.

So before figuring out how manage difficult people, it’s best to check in and make sure you are not yourself a difficult person. Observe how you interact with people on a daily basis. Are you always in the interaction for yourself, to see what you can get, or do you genuinely care for other people? Do you think the world owes you a living or are you grateful for what you have? Are you a generally positive person who tries to make people’s days better? Only you can answer these questions, but your rigorous honesty will serve you well.

It’s never easy to face down our own unacceptable behavior. Everybody has bad days. But if you’re the kind of person who chews out a waiter or waitress for being slightly late with your appetizer, you probably need to rethink your approach. Take a good, hard look at yourself. The more centered you are within yourself and the more comfortable you are in your own skin, the easier it is to come from a place of balance and not let difficult people knock you off kilter emotionally. If you’re feeling strong and together on the inside, handling difficult people is much easier.

While you can’t anticipate every situation, it will also help to be proactive as opposed to being reactive. When you approach all people as if they are not difficult with the same level of courtesy, kindness, respect, and good humor, it can often disarm those people who are being difficult.

Anyone who has worked sales or customer service knows how important this is to maintaining client relationships. These same skills apply to performing musicians: the bookers, agents, managers, fans, and other musicians are all your clients to a degree. You are representing your brand all the time!

Remember, it’s not personal

Sometimes the gatekeepers to the things you want in your career are difficult people. Maybe it’s a popular DJ whose show you’d like to get airplay on, a cranky reviewer whose opinion seems to matter, or a club booker/owner whose room you’d like to play. If these people are jerks, it can be a double sting if you feel rejected by them; not only did you not get the gig/play/review, but they were nasty! Ouch.

The last words of Tessio in The Godfather helps me in these kinds of situations. “Tell Michael it was only business, I always liked him.” 99 percent of the time when people are difficult, it has everything to do with THEM and nothing to do with YOU. It’s challenging not to take things personally in a creative endeavor; the music you are making is very personal, and even a gentle letdown or a non-response can feel like a slap in the face. Adding the verbal jabs or volatility of a difficult person into this mix can be devastating if you’re not wearing your psychic suit of armor.

Ultimately we can’t control the actions of other people. They’re going to behave as they will. But we can manage and control our reactions to them. People are mad for all sorts of reasons. Maybe they’ve had horrible lives of constant annoyance and disappointment. Maybe they have unresolved childhood issues. Maybe they just had lousy coffee for breakfast. It’s not really important what the reasons are, but if they are taking them out on you unnecessarily, it’s often not your fault and nothing you’ve done, so don’t take it personally!

Try to remember that when you’re in the thick of an unpleasant situation. Easier said than done sometimes. But the music business is still a business, and even if your brand is your actual given name, it is not the personal “you” that is facing rejection. Separating the two in your own mind can be hard, but the peace of mind that can result is worth the effort.

When it comes to personal creative relationships – like band members leaving or deciding not to work with you anymore – it may feel more personal, but ultimately it’s about them making their own decisions for their lives. Rather than throw a temper tantrum and burn the bridge completely, you might want to think about maintaining the relationship. You never know what the future holds! Even if they are difficult people, there may be value in not completely cutting ties. You will have to decide when permanent lines are crossed; drawing these boundaries can be important to establishing a strong sense of your own identity and personal values.

Know when to walk away

If it seems like this post is following the chorus arc of Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler,” you may be right! Knowing when to hold ‘em, fold ‘em, walk away, and run can be a key to successfully dealing with difficult people. Sometimes you need to stand your ground to achieve relationship/career goals, but many times the battle is not worth fighting at that particular moment – or ever.

Some relationships cannot be salvaged or are just not worth pursuing. Some gigs just aren’t worth the trouble, no matter how much money or fame you have been offered. A costumer friend of mine got a dream job working for a very famous artist in the ’80s but eventually quit because the artist was so demanding and abusive that it was not worth the stress.

When I was younger, I always wondered why bands that broke up didn’t get back together when they were being offered millions upon millions of dollars to do so. As I’ve gotten older and experienced difficult people in all aspects of my life, I can completely understand how a person can get to the point of “there’s NO amount of money that would put me in a tour bus, hotel, dressing room, or on stage with THAT PERSON.” The soul singers Sam and Dave didn’t speak to each other offstage for 13 years. The history of fractious band relationships in rock music is well documented. Some band squabbles should be resolved, though, for the sake of humankind (I’m looking at you, David Byrne!).

Sometimes the best thing you can do for yourself and the difficult situation is to remove yourself from it, especially if the person is abusive or actively threatening you. There is just no pleasing some people.

I believe in affirming abundance, that an attitude of being grateful for what you have attracts more abundance in your life. Often we have to plan to leave jobs and situations and cannot just walk out without proper financial planning, but once planned it is affirming abundance to walk away. It is stating loud and clear that “I don’t have to deal with this difficult person or situation any longer, and something better is waiting for me around the corner.” We are not expected to nor should we tolerate abuse.

But this doesn’t mean you should run right out and quit your lousy job because you are a rock star that doesn’t have to pay his dues. When you’re just starting out, there is a certain amount of dues-paying that goes on. One of my first gigs in NYC was at a dive bar on Houston St. run by a horribly difficult woman who told me we had to bring 10 people to the gig. When we did bring 10 people, she still insisted my band pay the sound man $20 because none of them were drinking (we were in high school).

Years later, I took a basically unpaid regular gig at the same bar mainly because I wanted some stage time. My friend was doing the booking so I only rarely had to deal with the woman, but I guarantee if I had burned the bridge completely I would have not have played it. As a result, I deepened a couple of business and personal relationships and gained some valuable stage experience.

Sometimes it is worth it to deal with difficult people if they are gatekeepers to an experience you seek: a gig, a radio show, a band you’d like to be in. You alone can be the judge of when the difficulty of dealing with them crosses your boundaries and becomes intolerable. Hopefully with a modicum of self-awareness, a healthy dose of decency, a psychic suit of armor, and the ability to bail from abusive/intolerable situations, you’ll build long-lasting relationships that will bring you everything you desire in your music career.


Chris Huff has been a professional singer, multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, and producer for over 20 years. He has worked as a sideman with Peter Yarrow (Peter, Paul, and Mary), Echo and the Bunnymen, Chuck Hammer (David Bowie, Lou Reed), and Tom Kitt (Broadway composer of Next To Normal). Chris also wrote liner notes for David Bowie’s Live And Well CD, and has two full-length albums of original music available on iTunes.

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One thought on “Handling difficult people in the music business (and anywhere)

  1. Great article and information worth gold, methinks! I am on the other side of having had a career in the music business and everything that you said brought up memories that I have not thought of for years. I hope many people read your article as it can really help them tremendously. I believe that you have a book in the making!

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