Motive Unknown turns 10: some thoughts & reflections…

Snapshot from MU’s first incarnation circa 2004 as a design business… no really!

On September 1st, Motive Unknown turned 10 years old. For me, the time has flown past in many respects; certainly it feels like yesterday that I was starting out, taking on a (then) brand new signing called alt-J as my first client, via Korda Marshall’s Infectious label.

Cut to today, and Motive Unknown is a company of 11 people, with a client roster that counts amongst it a huge number of indie labels and artists and/or management companies.

To mark the occasion, I am going to do a “10 for 10” series: ten posts, each on different topics around things I’ve learned and experienced in the decade I’ve had running the company.

For now, as an aperitif of sorts, I thought I’d list ten things I’ve learned in all that time, both about running a business but also about working in the music industry.

1. Be Kind

This might well sound like the most obvious (or even naive) statement to make, but kindness is something seen as a weakness in business, as if to be kind is also to be a sucker to be taken advantage of.

I firmly disagree.

In general, I find that profit often sits above kindness. Many awful decisions are made based purely on what will generate the most money. I feel lucky in that my father is a successful businessman in the construction industry, and he always ran his company with a sense of fairness. There was no “us and them” between senior staff and the junior members of the team.

This stuck with me in running Motive Unknown. There have been countless instances where, had I so desired, we could have screwed someone over or generally behaved in a manner that was morally off-centre. And, whilst I am no angel and certainly have made some bad decisions along the way, I would like to think that I’ve valued those around me and tried wherever possible to act with compassion and understanding.

2. Take care of yourself

Another perpetuated myth in starting a business is that you should work 24/7 and be prepared to put it all on the line if you want to succeed. I think it’s safe to say that I fully bought into this concept – and the end result was a biblical burnout which led to persistent anxiety attacks and, eventually, a nasty bout of depression.

I once remember talking to my Dad about my then line manager at my job (back before I worked in the music industry). This guy used to make much of the fact that he worked every night until 10pm. I recounted this to my father, who listened and then said “well… he’s a bloody idiot. If he can’t even manage his own time and his department such that he’s not working until 10pm every night, what kind of manager is he??”

On this, I now realise, my Dad was 100% correct. Fuck working 24/7. Work smart. Being broken on the wheel of your job isn’t a badge of honour; in my view it is quite the opposite.

Often I think people just like to perpetuate the “work 24/7 to make it” myth because they did that and feel everyone else should suffer just as much. But ask yourself this: who has had the last laugh, the person who worked smart and achieved a lot with a keen work/life balance, or the one who did 100hr weeks? If you feel it is the latter, you’ve fallen for the myth.

Don’t get me wrong; this isn’t to say that long hours can always be avoided, or that you can have everything your way. You can’t. And even worse, your sheer passion for what you do might have you working crazy hours without even realising.

But understand this: you have limits, and unfortunately a lot of the signs of burnout come just a little too late. Be attuned to that, and never be scared to recognise it and take action.

3. Seek the counsel of others

If, like me, you are the sole owner of a business, it can be oddly isolating at times. The Stormzy-endorsed maxim of “heavy is the head…” can certainly ring true. Equally, I think maybe worries about money and other matters might scare you away from closely involving others in the business.

In reality of course, the wisest thing a person can do is find wise people and seek their counsel.

To this day, I still remember when PR ran that Motive Unknown was launching. I received an email from Jonathan at RetroFuzz, with a simple statement. “We’ve been where you are, so if you ever need help with anything, just ask.” I’d worked with J and Matt a few times and concluded they were great guys, achieving a huge amount all on their own terms. So, this offer meant the world, and sure enough through the years I did indeed seek their advice on anything from hiring people through to mundane things like tax and accounting. And, they always gave that advice willingly too, despite there being no gain in it for them (reinforcing point 1 above!). For that, I remain eternally grateful and they should rest assured their karma is well and truly in balance.

Over time, Tom Packer and Matt Cheetham, my fellow directors here at MU, have become my consiglieri and, to my relief, happily challenge me on all manner of things. I am better for having their support, and collectively we are a better business with the three of us as its central brain trust.

So, don’t fear seeking the counsel of others. Be mindful whose advice you seek out, for sure, but wise people aren’t that hard to spot in my opinion.

4. Surround yourself with smart people, and ideally, hire people smarter than you.

I think it is a natural human response to feel intimidated by people who are on some level smarter than you. Here’s the thing though: hiring people smarter than you will only ever do you the world of good. Why? Because the reality is a quid pro quo; by employing these people and giving them space to do their best possible work, everyone wins.

I remain grateful for the teams I have around me for this reason. They’re all ferociously smart people – and the great thing is that they’re all on my team!

5. Understand that running a company is a two-way street, and you must work to ensure your staff are supported wherever possible.

Something I see a lot are companies where the person who owns/runs it takes a kind of dictatorial stance. “I am the boss, don’t you dare question me!” – that kind of thing. This is compounded in the music business by a frankly outmoded notion that everyone should be grateful to work in it, which in turn creates a sense that everyone is replaceable and therefore entirely abuseable.

This is utter, utter bullshit, and never fails to enrage me.

OK, so I started Motive Unknown, but I am nothing without my team. And if my team’s job is to work to make the best of Motive Unknown, my job is to work to make the best of my team.

In real terms, that means ensuring they are always progressing, that they always feel supported, that they feel they have a voice, and that they feel they have the best environment in which to do their work.

We are a small company and I’m only human, so I don’t necessarily succeed, and in truth it might be wiser to ask any of the Motive Unknown team how I’ve fared in that regard, but I’d like to think I do a pretty decent job of it. The fact we’ve not had a single resignation from the company for something like 4 years now is maybe a testament to that.

6. Question everything.

I nearly quoted Timothy Leary for this, but I think the “Believe nothing…” part is perhaps up for debate as to its wisdom. If I’ve learned one thing through the years, it is that people love to find trusted models and then work them to their absolute death. The music business is particularly bad on this front, with accepted wisdom on a topic often being sorely out of date and in need of revision.

Motive Unknown has succeeded because at every point along the way, we essentially ignored what everyone else was doing and simply asked “what, with a blank sheet start on this, would be the best way to solve this problem?”.

Embracing slightly heretical thinking is no bad thing. The people who really got somewhere in the world did not do so by following the herd; they dared to think differently. Be more like that: you’d be amazed where it can get you.

Also, even when you’ve found new ways of doing things, never forget to challenge even those ways after a while. This world moves fast, and you have to stay at the front if you don’t want to get trampled underfoot.

7. Never lose sight of your own dreams and aspirations in life

At the start of 2020, I was in a bit of a fug, so decided to engage the services of a professional coach, Tom Pinchard. I hesitate to use the term “life coach” not least because something about that makes me cringe (and possibly Tom too!), but yes – a person whose role is to just gently push you along into getting over obstacles and achieving the things you have maybe talked a lot about but done little to ever realise.

These coaching sessions have taught me a lot, but probably the #1 thing I learned is that I had lost sight of what I was running a company for. By which I mean: professional success is all well and good, but if you’ve achieved that, what are you doing with your life?

In my case, I realised that work had come before all else, and that it was time to make work deliver things back to me. Perhaps the biggest thing on that front was moving house, finally buying a place we adore as a family, but it also encapsulated other, simpler, things: making music again, getting fit, losing weight… all goals I’d talked about forever and never really taken action on.

Cut to today and it’s safe to say I’m probably a perfect case study for Tom. I’ve moved house. I’m about 13kg lighter. I’ve made something like 30 tracks, a process which has brought me enormous pleasure (and I might yet get around to releasing them!), I exercise daily and – to the immense bewilderment of my family – really love boxing as my keep fit method of choice.

Without Tom diplomatically kicking me up the backside to focus on these things and see them through, I wouldn’t have managed it. But my point here is not so much “hire a coach” so much as “outside of your day job, focus on what you want to achieve, whatever that may be”. It doesn’t matter what the ‘thing’ is; just focus on it and make it happen, because to do so balances your life and introduces a lot more happiness and satisfaction to it. It also inevitably contributes to a better work/life balance, and that is never a bad thing. You only get one life – don’t waste it all working.

8. If you work in music, never, ever forget what it is to be a fan

A sad reality of the music business is that it can wear you down pretty quickly. It is also very easy to get sucked into the cultural bubble of your office. The end result of this is often a disconnection from the very things that got you into music in the first place.

Fans are not cash cows to be milked. They’re actually your employers. Without them, you wouldn’t even have a job.

So, if you work in marketing as I do, don’t sit there with a mindset of “what will make the most money here?”. Ask instead “what will the fans really love?” After all, connecting with fans generates goodwill, and that in turn means those fans will support your artist all the way. This is karma at play once more: don’t be a dick, treat fans well and – shock horror – you will build something infinitely more long-lasting and meaningful.

Of course, labels are there to make money. Often though I think they win the battle but lose the war. Yes, you might have succeeded in cynically selling a ‘deluxe’ version of the album that is actually the same record with 10 different covers, which will doubtless help the chart position of the artist in week one, but seriously, is this how you create long-term value with fans? Of course it isn’t. Don’t be that person. Remember those moments of complete euphoria you felt discovering bands, or hearing them deliver the set of a lifetime, and focus on making every artist’s fanbase feel that as much as possible. That’s the real victory here.

9. Get financially smart

This might be the most Dad-ish thing to include here, but here’s the crux of it: I realised, far, far too late that had I bothered to engage a financial advisor and generally work to understand money a lot more, I might be about £100,000 wealthier today.

You can only earn so much money, but it is what you then put that money to doing for you that really counts. Now granted, if you run a business there are innumerable benefits to take advantage of on that front, but even if you are not in that position, there’s a lot to be learned out there.

Not learning more about money is something I really regret now. It always felt very uncool to me, as if learning more on that front would turn me into some kind of besuited Tory voter. Nothing could be further from the truth, and the joke is on me for not wising up sooner. Don’t make the mistakes I did: get smart about money ASAP, even if you’re fresh out of Uni and starting your first job. You won’t regret it, and believe me that the positive financial actions you take earlier in your professional career are the ones that will benefit you the most later in life.

10. If you’re doing well, recognise that and pay it forward

I am all too aware that Motive Unknown has been extremely lucky to have not just survived the pandemic without having to make redundancies, but to have actually grown due to the increased demand for expertise in the digital realm. However for some, this has been 18 months of pure hell.

One of our clients through the years was a venue here in London. To say they have had a hard time would be a massive understatement. So, it felt only right to reach out to them when they were reopening to ask if we could help them, gratis, with anything they might need in the way of marketing support etc in order to get restarted again.

Music is an interconnected web of cultural touchpoints. The music, the venues, the writers covering it, the websites posting those pieces, the stores… they’re all parts in a bigger puzzle that combine to deliver some of the most affecting and life-changing moments we can ever experience. So if you’re one of the businesses that has done well, it is important to recognise when others are struggling and to help them along. If we cannot show basic compassion on that front, we have nothing.

I hope that might have proved useful on some level to somebody. If not, thank you for reading all the way to this point anyway!

More soon…