I was fired.
It was a dream job. Or what I thought was a dream job. The pay was awful but the perks were amazing. That’s the paradox of the music business. All the free records, CDs and t-shirts you could possibly carry home daily. Oh salary? You want to get paid for this?
It was an independent marketing company. I started as an intern even though I was only a junior in college. It was not required for my coursework. But I knew that the sooner I started, the easier it would be to find work in this crazy competitive industry.
We promoted music and bands that were so far from the mainstream. With names like Anthrax and Megadeth, it was no wonder executives at major labels had no idea how to work this stuff.
On my first day at “work,” we ended early with beers at our desk for a birthday for one of the guys. Then, we all went to see Metallica play a show at the Felt Forum. Backstage, I met with a Who’s Who of heavy metal. I was in heaven.
Remember Al Gore’s wife, Tipper?
Around this time, the mid 1980’s, she and Susan Baker, wife of Treasury Secretary James Baker, started what became our greatest nemesis: the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC.) It was probably Ozzy Osbourne, our client, who bit the head off a live bat onstage that caught her attention.
In testimony before Congress, Susan Baker said, “There certainly are many causes for these ills in our society, but it is our contention that the pervasive messages aimed at children which promote and glorify suicide, rape, sadomasochism, and so on, have to be numbered among the contributing factors.” The PMRC began pushing record companies for a ratings system, like the film industry, to warn parents about the evil music.
Want To Sell More? Get Banned
Of course, putting a sticker that says “Parental Warning” only made our clients music even more desirable to the kids. Banned music? I gotta hear this! It probably was the greatest galvanizing force that helped our movement.
Because I joined a small company of less than 10 people, I was the lowest man on the totem pole. One day I had an epiphany. What if I recruited, trained and managed other interns? Even though I wasn’t being paid, I could promote myself to management!
I presented my plan. Of course, my boss agreed. It was a win-win-win situation. He had free labor. I was promoted. The interns were getting their first step into the music business.
An Army of Interns
We interns became part of a telemarketing force. By calling independent, taste-making record shops across the country, we could introduce our clients and their music to the early adopters. We would call, ship out a free package of goodies and soon, people in small towns would be talking about this cool new band, Guns N’ Roses. This was back before the internet, mobile phones, Google. Now it seems so antiquated. But it worked.
I became close friends with hundreds of shopkeepers and record store clerks by phone. It was kind of amazing. How could they resist? I was just calling to ask them what was selling and if I could send them some free stuff that they would love. It also really helped my shyness. It was basically cold calling. But the thing about cold calling, it’s a mental game. You need to get past your fears, inhibitions and resistance. I discovered that if I warmed up first by joking around with my colleagues, I would be in a better mood on the phone. The hardest people were the owners of the stores. They were busy! They didn’t want to hear from some kid in New York City. I started smiling before dialing. Forcing myself to laugh right before they picked up the phone so that it was if we had already started the conversation and were past the awkward stage. It worked incredibly well. The more I just talked as if we had known each other already, the easier it was. And, I truly believed in what we were doing and promoting.
And there was a side benefit.
It made me less awkward with talking to girls. In fact, I made several long distance “girlfriends” over the phone.
So how did I end up getting fired?
I was young, brash, impatient. There’s a fine line between confident competence and arrogance. And even though I had the support of my boss, I caused a lot of friction in the office. In hindsight, I also realize there was probably a bit of envy and jealousy among my coworkers. I was the golden boy of the office. But I was too naive then to realize this. I still believed in meritocracy.
One day, my boss took me aside for some mentoring. He said, “You’re like a wild horse. You’ve got such great ideas, but nobody can ride you.”
And it was true. Thinking back, it was a great gift to be fired. I needed to move on and wouldn’t just quit. I needed to be pushed. And, I needed to get a wakeup call. Creativity, passion and action are great, but it doesn’t matter if you don’t fit in.
The Nail and the Poppy
This makes me think of the old story from Asia. “The nail that sticks up will be hammered down.” I think that’s from China. Pretty good summary of Communism. Or I think in New Zealand they say” the poppy that sticks out will be cut.” It’s fit in or die.
This is a struggle I’ve had all my life. How to be remarkable, unique and different and still fit in, somewhere.
I haven’t given up on meritocracy completely. It’s just that I know there’s a balance in life. You can be amazing, brilliant and unique but still be kind, compassionate and generous. I’m not the man I was at 24. Hopefully, a bit wiser, kinder and more generous.
I went on to get fired several more times in my life. It seems, it took me a long time to realize I’m an entrepreneur at heart.