Advice from Strangers explores shared challenges in the industries of new music and technology. This column is fourth in the series.
There are things we return to, again and again, without hesitation.
A favorite restaurant has a new dish on the menu–I order it. A favorite author comes out with a new book–the subject doesn’t matter, I read it. Pixar has a new short–I know it’s going to get me in that squishy sentimental way they do. Apple announces a new product, and I’m doomed.
And so it goes too with musicians, composers, and music festivals: you may not love everything they do, but you’ll give it a shot because you trust them.
Trust is the superpower that bequeaths upon us endless leaps of faith. How do we get it?
Craft, mission, and brand
The work you do is your craft, your mission is your motivation, and how people perceive these two things is your brand. It’s the sum total of what people think about when they hear your name, or your company’s name, or the name of something you’ve created. Your creations live in the world; your brand lives in people’s minds.
So it is not enough to simply do our craft, if we want to create a relationship of trust. We must also project a vision of values, a mission or an experience that is consistent with who our audience is and what they like–and deliver reliably on the promise inherent in that vision.
How do we bring trust-building into our day-to-day routine? I asked technologists and music-makers what types of behaviors were instrumental in capturing the trust of their fans, clients, and collaborators. Notably, the themes that surfaced are industry and scale agnostic. Here’s their recipe.
Act with integrity
“Make genuine promises that are real, tangible, and meaningful, and then keep those promises,” says Gahlord Dewald, president of ThoughtFaucet, a strategic content studio.
Defining and delivering on a clear mission goes a long way to setting expectations and building trust. “You find your integrity sweet spot and don’t move,” says composer Danny Felsenfeld. “At the New Music Gathering, I think we did a lot of things right because we had certain boundaries and we stuck to them. For example, we decided that none of the co-founders’ music would be played at any gathering, even if people wanted to.”
At Switchboard Music, curators have found that sticking to their mission to support innovative and eclectic music has helped to set useful expectations with their community.
“We try to have a mixed balance–not necessarily just our top five every year–and we try to give a cross section of the Bay Area music scene,” says Annie Phillips, Switchboard co-director. “Because we stay true to that mission, people know they’ll hear some interesting music they may not be familiar with. They think: ‘I know if I go to this concert, I’ll have a bit of an adventure. I know I’ll see something I like, and I’ll see something representative of the Bay Area.’”
“The Switchboard brand is strong,” says co-founder Ryan Brown. “At our festival, people don’t need to know the name of who’s playing; they trust the brand, the presenter name, the festival name.”
This strength of brand helps bring new performers to the festival, too. Bands who have never before performed together will make their debut at Switchboard, because they know they’ll find an audience looking for their kind of music.
In tech, when there are many competitors with similar products, integrity can mean the difference between collaboration and isolation.
“When I’m deciding on a new partnership, I meet with major players in the industry and assess whether they’re presenting their content with integrity,” says Kiesha Garrison, a business development manager at Microsoft whose main focus is negotiating content deals. “It damages my opinion of them if they talk about the competition in an icky way. I tend to take that as an indication of their company culture, which is something that may seep into their content–and I don’t want that vibe in the content. When you’re trash-talking your competition, your focus is on that. It’s not on the customers, and that comes through.”
Communicate responsibly and responsively
When it comes to building trust, programmer Michael Snoyman values communication even above the quality of his code. In fact, he wrote a manifesto about it.
“It’s about action–when people report bugs, responding and fixing them. When people ask questions, improving the documentation. Being present so that no one ever wonders, ‘Is this a maintained project?’” Snoyman explains, “People feel comfortable with my software because I stand behind it.”
Rock-solid communication eliminates most poking and prodding. Whenever possible, be polite and responsive; whether in email or on social media, acknowledge receipt of incoming communication, even if you can’t address it fully at that moment.
Outgoing communications–program notes, season announcements, tutorials, documentation, testimonials, other support materials on your web site–showcase your brand as well. If you win an award or get a press mention, find a way to display them on your site. They can’t speak for you unless you give them a mouthpiece.
Quality speaks for itself
Adhere to the highest standards of quality possible while still getting the job done. “Never compromise on the quality of a performer or conviction of the idea behind the theme of a festival or concert,” says a board member of a contemporary music ensemble.
And good work speaks for itself.
“I don’t have experience creating a brand,” says Carole Snyder, a developer at Microsoft. “But I think I’ve created trust just by getting things done. Once you’ve seen my work, you know I’m going to do a good job and be meticulous.”
Surface the human
Technology is inherently cold and logical, and needs warming up through pleasant interfaces and communication from its creators. Unsurprisingly, technologists put a premium on communicating the fact that behind a product are human beings who care.
“For complex products, trust in the product turns on trust in the people behind it,” says John Reale, director of solutions architecture at a healthcare startup.
I thought this sentiment would be limited to the tech community, since music seems so inherently human. But a human connection is critical in the music community, too.
“Music may seem inherently human because there’s a human being performing, but it can still be a sterile connection, especially in classical music,” says Phillips. “If an audience member has no context, they won’t identify a performance as a human thing.”
She adds that personal connection is an important part of trusting an organization.
“The brands that people trust are the ones they feel invested in or loyal to. When people feel emotionally invested in a brand, they’re more likely to stay loyal. A human connection makes it more likely for people to feel more emotionally invested in a brand or organization, so they also feel personally invested in it. When they feel a strong tie, they become patrons instead of just audience members.”
The same applies in other areas of the music business.
“For a composer, especially one at the beginning stages of their career, interacting with individual stakeholders is paramount,” says composer Jason Gerraughty. “I didn’t really figure this out until I was finished my Ph.D. and had nobody to write [music] for, because I didn’t put in the hours at the bar. If there is any advice I’d give to a freshman composer, it’s that the afterparty is just as important to your career as the concert!”
Shared values and mutual interest are not-so-secret ingredients in a trusting relationship, but perhaps less obvious is the importance of being transparent about what all parties are getting out of the relationship when those benefits may not be immediately apparent.
“Fiscal transparency helps people trust that you’re doing good work with the money they give you,” says Phillips. “At Switchboard, for our monthly series, we borrowed our sales model from the Center for New Music. All the ticket sales go directly to the artist, and we announce that at the concerts. We explain: all ticket sales go to the artist, and if you buy a beer it comes to Switchboard to help us put on more concerts. It helps people donate money while they’re there.”
“I think that trust in a brand requires people to believe that whoever is behind the brand has their best interests at heart,” agrees an engineer at Google. “If they are participating in a transaction, it helps to have the benefit to the company and the user be transparent, so that the user can think to themselves: ‘I know what the company is getting out of it, so I know why it is in the company’s best interest to treat me right.’”
Transparency also plays out on a personal level, says Phillips.
“I try to be a resource for people in a transparent manner. I believe a high tide floats all boats. When I have access to a resource or I’ve figured out how to do something, if someone asks me how to do it, I just tell them. In business, some people want to play their cards close to their chest; I don’t think that benefits the music community or the musicians. If I think being transparent will help, I’ll do it.”
When people see you as a resource–and you’re transparent about sharing your resources–they’ll trust you and, by association, the projects you’re affiliated with.
Deal frankly and honestly with clients, collaborators, and yourself.
“I was working with a bookshop to bring an ensemble to their space,” says a presenter in Seattle. “We had a great time brainstorming about the concert program and event setup, and then we talked about what they needed to make it worthwhile for them, and what I needed to pay my musicians. There was a great willingness to make the event happen, and at the same time, a shared understanding that if we aren’t able to make the numbers break even, we wouldn’t pursue the idea further. Everyone’s needs were on the table, and it was clear that if the numbers didn’t work out, we’d be able to walk away from the collaboration without ruining the relationship.”
A partner with a good sense of personal limits is a true gem. It’s a lot easier to operate on realistic expectations than to clean up the mess after the alternative, and lack of trust in this area can be the death of a partnership before it even gets off the ground. Things go more smoothly when everyone involved knows what can and can’t be accomplished, in how much time, and for what compensation.
Time is a resource. Respect it
Nothing burns goodwill like a waste of time. Assume all time is a precious resource, and when you find yourself in the position to benefit from someone’s time, treat it with the utmost value.
“I do my due diligence before going to a subject-matter expert for help, so I don’t waste their time,” says Carole Snyder, a developer at Microsoft. “I’m not going to go to them without doing my homework.”
If you’re not sure how to think about a collaborator’s time in a way that is respectful, try looking at the situation in personal terms.
“At New Music Gathering, we tried not to think like an ‘organization’ but as individuals who were asking people to come do something, and as such we felt a responsibility to make sure those people were not wasting their time or being ‘had’ in any way,” says Felsenfeld.
The humble fumble
“Readily admit when you’re wrong and rectify it immediately,” says software developer Jack Reichert. “I’ve made a few big mistakes in my time. I’m still around because I fess up when I do.”
Making a mistake is a huge opportunity to build trust. It’s also probably the most counter-intuitive way to do so, and it works wonders.
“I was managing a rickety relationship with a client,” says a software product manager. “We were powering their whole network of sites, and our system went down. It was early in the morning, and we debated notifying the client. In the end, we left a message at his office, and by the time he got it we’d already resolved the issue. He was doubly pleased: not only had we handled the problem, but we’d kept him in the loop instead of making it seem everything was fine. It gave us a great foundation of trust moving forward.”
In the same vein, box-office issues can turn an average listener into a fan.
“Box-office mixups happen all the time,” says Phillips. “If someone buys a ticket online, and when they arrive they’re not on our list, the presenter will usually apologize quickly, let them in, and give them a snack or a beer at the concert. They’re much more likely to come away thinking: ‘Switchboard is a stand-up organization–they took care of me.’”
Another common snag in the music industry is double-booking–and again, the same approach applies.
“As long as you apologize and handle it quickly, it works out,” says Phillips. “When you get vague about why you double-booked the evening, haggling over the details of who said what in an email…well, eliminating the drama is good.”
Starting from zero? You’re not a zero
Even when you’re just starting out, commitment and collaboration are your champions.
“I think when you’re new, it’s either: ‘I have a very strong commitment to my mission,’ or ‘Trust my collaborators’–and you’re working with very high quality people,” says Phillips. “Once, someone put together a completely new group with new music he’d written that we hadn’t heard yet. I trusted him, and I knew the people he was bringing in would be good, so I felt comfortable bringing him into the concert series.”
There are echoes in tech:
“If you’re new, I’m going to look at who you’re associated with, what experts have lended their voice to help you build your credibility,” says Microsoft’s Garrison.
Make it easier for people to see your affiliations by highlighting them in your bio. Who have you worked with in the past? Are you or your partners affiliated with a university, publication, or school of thought? Who will recommend your work?
We can’t ride on the coattails of our ambassadors forever, and in the end, you’re the only one who can deliver on your own brand promise. But this may just be the thing that gets you the opportunity to do so.
These strategies are a guide to building trust, but clearly we don’t walk through our busy days, our office meetings, or our commutes with blog posts in mind. Tactics can be easy to forget.
If we’re going to make trust-building a part of everyday life, we need to prioritize these behaviors, normalize them, and build systems into place to help us carry them out as a matter of procedure.
I asked my colleagues: Have you created a brand that people trust without hesitation, return to again and again? What do you think led to that trust?
This recipe, from composer Dean Rosenthal, is effective and inspiring:
“I would like to think that I have created that returning out of quality of work, integrity, inventiveness, intelligence, concern for community, mutual interest, and devotion to the art of public music making,” he told me.
Trust is not born of one encounter, in a single grand gesture. It is built by repeatedly and consistently behaving in a way that reassures people they are being heard and respected; that we have their best interests at heart.