“What do you call an ex-music industry person,” a friend asked me recently.
“I dunno, what,” I asked.
“A realtor,” he chuckled, and took a swig of his beer. But then, almost instantly, his expression changed, his laughter stopped, and he slunk away.
The funny thing is, this friend of mine was once a really successful music industry guy, handling flashy names and pop stars. One day, while doing his PR gig at a major label, he decided he just couldn’t hack it anymore. He walked into his boss’s office and gave two weeks’ notice. He was done… spent… over it. He suffered career burnout.
I ran into him at the bar a few more times that night, and each time he asked me about the music business. When I’d answer, I’d temper my responses so it didn’t feel like I was rubbing it in his face, but still, he looked more and more bummed out with each of my answers. I could tell he really missed it. I guess realty just wasn’t as sexy.
The older I get and the more years I log in as a publicist, the more I worry about ending up like him, getting burned out at this job… What on earth would I do if I had to start over? And really, I hated the thought of selling houses.
Needing some sound advice and words of wisdom from editor friends and publicist peers who were still in the industry, I asked a few if they fear getting burnt out and, more importantly, how they overcame it, because, God knows, I have no intention of talking about square footage and how many parking spaces come with each unit.
Whether you call it Writer’s Block, work fatigue, or career burnout, the ability to “keep on keeping on” is something that every each one of us encounters. Whether you’re an editor, staff writer, freelancer, blogger or publicist, getting unstuck when you’re hopelessly trapped in a mental headlock is a very real and sometimes difficult obstacle to maneuver. How each of us deal with it was what I was interested in learning.
For some, like Jason Pettigrew, Editor in Chief of Alternative Press, the nation’s leading publication in alternative music, mental fatigue is easily overcome by completely unplugging and getting back to the basics. “Given the 24/7/365 cycle of the internet, burnout is positively inevitable,” he explained to me. “The demands of various people in a journalist’s life—management, readers, loved ones—are hard to navigate and negotiate.”
When I asked him how he avoids hitting that brick wall, he replied, “The best way I’ve learned to cope with burnout is to take a vacation from devices. Don’t go on a conventional vacation: stay at home and don’t plug your phone or laptop in for a day. Try it. See what you’ll actually miss. Don’t take your phone to bed; take the love of your life.”
Even though I don’t have a “love of my life” (unless my dogs count and cozying up to them in bed just sounds wrong), Jason’s advice about shutting out technology and unplugging for some time sounded like really great advice, though the thought of being away from my iPhone even for an instant seems like it’s create mass chaos and emotional decay for me.
I turned to my buddy Robbie Daw, Editor-in-Chief of Idolator, the uber-trafficked site for pop music and gossip. Like Jason, Robbie logged years upon years of employment in the industry. “In my experience, burnout can happen with almost any field you enter into — and I’ve worked in film, television, print and online journalism,” he told me. “What I always remind myself is that at the heart of everything, I’m a writer, and when I’m feeling a bit creatively spent at any job, I try to create some kind of other outlet for me to get the juices flowing again, even if it’s in my spare time. For instance, during my six years working at a print publication, Instinct, I created Chart Rigger, a pop music blog, at home one Friday night in January 2005. I still bang out the occasional post on there and work on other types of writing in my spare time, and it alleviates a lot of day-to-day job stress and helps keep everything in perspective.”
Personally speaking, when I was a full-time journalist years ago, I kinda did what both of those guys did but in a slightly different manner. Since smartphones hadn’t been discovered yet, unplugging wasn’t a problem, so I’d walk away from my computer and ride my bike around Boston. Or, since I freelanced for a ton of different magazines, if I hit a mental block writing one article, I’d switch gears and redirect my creative energy and work on another article. Either of those usually did the trick.
But now as a full-time publicist, I was curious how my PR peers dealt with it. Unlike writers, publicists suffering from a mental block aren’t just affecting their own careers, but their clients’ careers as well. Our own paychecks aren’t the only things at stake… our artists’ livelihoods are too.
So I thought I’d ask a hot shit whippersnapper publicist like Tito Bellis who works for well-known and respected indie music publicity and marketing firm Big Hassle Media. Considering the level of artists they handle such high-pressure clients as Against Me!, Jimmy Eat World, and The Replacements, among many others, Tito for sure must come dangerously close to breaking point. “Due to the sheer pace and pressure surrounding the job of a publicist, burning out from time to time is bound to happen,” he explained. “For me, this tends to occur more in the summer time due to every single band and their mothers being on the road, festival season being in full swing, and the constant expectations and requests being flung at you from so many directions.” I wanted to make a crack about bands and their moms, but before I could interject, he continued, “Making time for yourself is important, but from within the job, I try to do my best to keep my plate manageable and work to include projects that are a little out of my wheelhouse just to keep things interesting, challenging and personally fulfilling.”
Tito does raise some great points… I mean, at the end of the day, we work in music. We make a living out of writing, talking, and plugging away about music. So looking within our own spheres and finding something in there to keep things interesting and challenging must be pretty easy. And unless you’re a glutton for punishment and only work with music you absolutely despise, finding interesting stuff in our own artists is a great way to liven things up. I mean, think about it: Instead of balancing spreadsheets and discussing mutual funds, we shoot the shit about music all day. Whether we’re talking about the Taylor Swift/Katy Perry feud, oogling Miley Cyrus’ Instagram feed, or pitching the new Electric Six album titled Bitch, Don’t Let Me Die (yes, that’s the REAL name of their new album that comes out in October… Hit me up if you want a copy… Shameless self-promo. Oops?), the fact that we write about, talk about, and listen to music all day is probably one of silliest ways to make a living… so why on earth would we want to jeopardize that career because of something as transient as burnout??
Sometimes though, burnout isn’t due to our doing, but something that happens as a result. When I asked my pal Maggie Poulos, founder of Mixtape Media, the awesome Brooklyn-based music boutique firm who handles The Fontaines, BETS and Bird Dog among others, about her experiences, she relayed a story that sounded pretty soul-crushing… though the silver lining is that she regrouped her energy in… wait for it… Fiji. “I have absolutely suffered from publicist burnout,” she told me. “In 2009, I was laid off from a very high-pressure situation and was able to take some real time off and went to Fiji for a few weeks. That was instrumental in helping me overcome my burnout that time, but I can’t always take off for the South Pacific.” If only… but if you can turn lemons into lemonade while decked out on a tropical beach with a toucan on your shoulder and a pack of hyenas dragging buckets of Coronas to you, why not? (CONFESSION: I don’t know where Fiji is but I know it’s tropical). “Lately though, when I’ve felt burnt out, I’ve sought out publicist friends and asked for advice on certain situations. It’s always helpful to have a fresh perspective and some new ideas heralded in by others in similar situations.” Seeking solace from publicist friends and venting is also good because you can bitch about clients and they’ll understand you without stopping you to ask, “So wait, what exactly is ‘lead time’?”
A lot of times, it’s not just the work load that causes a mental and emotional shutdown. Journalism and publicity alike is rife with pressure to deliver, often with a client at the ready to constantly remind you of the impending deadlines. Managing client and editor expectations while delivering our journalistic pièce de résistance or brandishing our PR magnum opus is a balance we strive for, but achieving it can be extensively draining and soul sucking.
Detaching from the job, as Jason previously mentioned, seems to be the best way to relieve that stress and tackle it with a renewed sense of energy.
Similarly, Maggie feels the same way. “I’ve also made a larger effort to compartmentalize my work things and not let them bleed over into the rest of my life as they have in the past,” she explained. “It’s hard, but I find it’s better for me to stick to designated work hours. While it’s not always possible with this job, I do try to keep work in check. It’s also important to maintain a healthy social life – it’s always beneficial to me to remember that my life is more than my job. That all being said, music is still my passion and I still enjoy doing what I do.”
So with this precarious game of weights and pulleys, how does one stay connected and effervescent in our chosen careers… and is it possible to maintain a lifelong career in these fields? “I remember someone once telling me when I was working in print that most editors switch jobs within five years — and usually it’s to become a publicist,” laughs Robbie. “Whether or not that’s the actual case, I don’t know. But I do see writing as a lifelong career for me. Whatever form that takes as far as actual nine-to-five jobs down the line, we shall see.”
Jason agrees. Once a writer, always a writer. “In the journalism world, I don’t think anyone in this line of work ever leaves writing full stop,” he says. “Robert Christgau [music journalist, essayist, and self-proclaimed “Dean of American Rock Critics”] is still very much offering his personal take on eras, be it his youth via his personal memoirs (His recent memoir, Going Into The City) and on things that are very much all about right now (his “Expert Witness” series for Vice). What’s good for music writers who are aligned to a particular era or movement, is the old adage of “history is what’s happening now.” Those who are entrenched in something are documenting history. Then decades later, when the inevitable revival or interest in a cultural adjunct is revived, consider who should be read – a well-constructed press release or someone who was there? I didn’t fully realize consider this until Alternative Press turned 30 and music fans and industry types reminded me of that scope.”
The publicists agree as well… It’s like a chosen field. You don’t chose to be a publicist… it chooses you.
“I don’t believe this job [as a publicist] has a shelf life,” explains Tito. “There is always a story needing to be told and this is a job entirely based on relationships. So the longer you commit to it, the more valuable you are. Keeping up with the constantly changing climate (e.g. lower press budgets/decreasing editorial real estate, etc.) can be frustrating and exhausting in general, but those who can continue to navigate it successfully will find it to be a career they can enjoy for the long haul.”
“I’ve seen many people do this work for decades and on the flip, but I’ve seen plenty of people get burnt out and move on to entirely different careers,” adds Maggie. “I love music and cannot imagine my involvement with it not being a part of my career, but I am not certain that it will always take the form of working in music publicity. We shall see!”
I ran into my friend again last weekend. I asked him how the real estate business was going.
“Dude, I’m thinking of starting an indie label with my friend… Real small, working with local bands here in North Jersey, who don’t know what they’re doing, but at least this gives them an outlet and a sense of accomplishment, and it’s one foot back in the door.” I could see some fresh life pumping behind his eyes. The color was coming back into his face.
“What about the real estate business,” I repeated.
“It’s meh… It’s a job. But the label, I’m working on big things…” His voice trailed off as he detailed excitedly all the plans he had.
I guess it’s true that one does not choose to be in the music industry. It chooses you.