Tuesday, 24 March 2020

Why lockdown is the opportunity of a lifetime

The things that will see you through
There are two schools of thought, one is that everything is, in reality, random chaos and there is no purpose to anything. Then there is the school of thought that everything happens for a reason. For many years I struggled to know which of these philosophies I believed in. At this stage in my life, I am fairly settled in the latter camp. I get the rational objections to this, however I've found that belief that everything happens for a purpose and we just have to open our eyes to see it has served me well. Often it has taken me years, sometimes decades to understand, some issues are still unresolved, but the positivity you take from the philosophy that 'this has happened for a reason, therefore I am going to go with the flow and use it as an opportunity' is a very poweful way of dealing with knock backs and difficult times. I would be lying if I said I had all of the answers, some things are seemingly too terrible to draw any solace from, but does that mean we cannot try?

The current lockdown period has come at the most inopportune moment possible for me in many ways. Our business had a very good year last year, on the back of eight years solid growth. We started making plans to expand and spent a large sum on putting the final touches to a new studio block building. After several false starts on the financing front, a major investor contacted me in late January. We had preliminary meetings and I felt very positive. Two weeks ago, I was told that due to the current circumstances, all new projects were off. To be honest, I would have probably have pulled the plug myself, if they hadn't. Over the last three weeks we saw a massive tail off in bookings. Customers long term projects and tours have been cancelled, as individuals and countries have locked down. Deposits have been refunded, this week has seen negative cash flow, all our staff laid off and no clue as to when we can re-open. Thanks to the governments scheme for benching staff, we can keep them on the cards, but it will be difficult and the detail of the scheme has not been released. I had two weeks of sleepless nights worrying about them. Several had already taken the decision to self isolate for health reasons(we've had a policy of taking staff with medical issues, so long as they can do the job). I have assurred all of them that we will move heaven and earth to make sure that they have jobs whenever we can reopen. It is not clear to me how the governments scheme will enable this to happen. I envisage a big dip into our reserves. It could be that by the end of the lockdown, we are back where we were eight years ago, mortgaged to the hilt and facing a massive job of re-establishing our business. Even if every music venue on the planet was allowed to open tomorrow, it would take months to get all of the schedules back on track. If I was given to despair, this would be the time.

Then there are my kids. One is about to finish a degree, the Uni has not told her how this can be achieved, she is in limbo having worked her socks off.  Another is applying to start a Uni course in September, again all up in the air. The third was planning an around the world trip. That too has gone up in smoke.

In April, I celebrate my 25th wedding anniversary. My brothers and sisters and friends are on lockdown, no party, which is a crying shame. I had planned to get my wife a nice bit of jewellery from Rockman Jewellers in the Broadway, but lockdown has scuppered that as well for the time being.

On Sunday night, I was at the Mill Hill Churches night shelter. To see the fear on the eyes of my fellow human beings, as they contemplate the coming weeks was heartbreaking. I have a home, they have nothing, except what they can carry. For them, sleeping by the radiator, on the floor of a drafty church is luxury. Far better than a doorway, where drunken yobs may urinate on you, set you on fire or assualt you.  Everything happens for a reason. That was probably the wake up call I need.

So lets work back through the problems. Sure I may not be able to buy a nice bangle. But I have a partner who has been by my side in good times and bad. Through loss of parents, friends, through illness, through arguments. We'll survive.

Then the kids. They've been spoiled rotten for all of their lives. This is new. They are uncertain, but they have a home. The fridge is full, the heating works. They have two large, friendly dogs to play with. Life will return to normal. They may even have a better perspective on life.

And the business? We will survive.  I have time to sort many things out that we've not had time for previously. Running a business like ours is very much like playing 'Whack a mole'. We focus on the big issue of the day, with little time for long term strategy.  We have made plans, but not in the way we should. Most of our most successful initiatives have been by accident. There are many things we could do better, but have simply not had the incentive to resolve. If we don't come out of this period with a robust plan to drive the business on and make it a better run organisation, serving its staff and customers better, whilst making a larger profit, then we would have failed and we should flog it!

I've always believed a profitable business is one that serves its customers well. The better you do it the more money you make. Historically, we've always had a mission to provide the best facilities for everyone, from the international touring bands, to the kids who can just about manage three chords, have no money and are at the start of their journey. It is pretty clear to me that we could be far, far better at the top end of the market and far, far more helpful for the kids at the bottom. The mission has always been to get the kids who are just starting, to learn that being a performer is fun and that it will enrich their lives. It builds independence and self esteem. We've historically done this by providing cheap studio space.  What we find is that bands who could pay far more hog this, block book it, locking out those who are less savvy. That is no criticism of musicians who are smart enough to make our booking policy work for them, but it is a big criticism of how we help new musicians. Over the last few years, we've also developed a strong customer base of older customers (most of who are now in lock down). This has been by accident and it occurs to me that we need to serve their needs better as well. This is an ideal time to sit back and get a proper strategy to address all of these issues.

But none of this is really what I wanted to discuss. It's just that as you, the reader and me, the author have time on our hands, I can discuss these things fully and in context.

So here I am, a fifty seven year old man, with three grown up children, cancer, a wife, two dogs, two sheds and two ponds, living next to the M1 motorway and the Thameslink railway in Mill Hill, being forced to stay in my house for up to three months, with nothing to amuse me but the said items above. I can't even take up trainspotting, as the trees I planted 20 years ago now obscure my view of the line, which is not altogether the worst thing in the world.

I've worked all of my life, for much of the time at two jobs, running the studios and doing jobs such as IT consultancy. For much of my working life, it has been 60-70 hour weeks. I had a period of about 12 years when I supported a major banking IT system, processing debit cards, that meant I was on call 24 x 7 x 365, meaning the mobile phone came on holiday. Meals with friends were disrupted, sleep patterns wrecked, plans laid to waste. Five years ago, the studio reached a point where I could step away from this life, and two and a half years ago I bit the bullet. It was all going so well...... We had plans to go to Vegas in September and for a cruise from LA to San Francisco. That was the ship that Donald Trump wouldn't let dock recently, as Covid-19 had struck it. And there I was, looking forward to some sunbathing, with my dreams in tatters!

The Universe had other plans.  Oddly,  the sunbathing came early, I caught a few hours today, as a cloudless sky allowed warming rays of sunshine to beam down. There I was in the back garden, listening to the trains and cars. Lying their with my eyes open, I realised that there are two things, above all else I need to do.  My mind was drawn back to a short Youtube video posted by our local Rabbi. Now, most of you will know, I am not Jewish, but all of the Rabbi's I've known have been very insightful characters and well worth a listen. I recalled his words.

We all matter
As I soaked up the rays, I spent some time contemplating the message. He was talking about people losing faith in times of adversity and why you should persevere. He talked about why having faith in God and faith in mankind were not mutually exclusive.  How lucky I was, thoroughly enjoying soaking up the sun on a lounger. My daughter had brought me a cup of tea, the larger of our two dogs sat beside me so I could pet him. It was blissful and had the lockdown not occurred, would be the last thing I'd be doing at 2pm on a Tuesday afternoon. But as I did this, Rabbi's, vicars, imams, priests, etc across the planet are consoling families who have lost loved ones through the corona virus. People who will be sad. angry, devastated. The sunshine has gone out for them.  I can only pray that these comforters, as well as those of no faith, find the words to give the familie solace. These times are hard, but faith is hard, but like all difficult things, we emerge stronger. Then there are the scientists, doctors, health experts, disaster planners, all working to mitigate the effects, find cures, fix the problem. They are the best of humanity. I am just a bloke who runs a music studio, their efforts will save lives, change outcomes. A strange thought occurred to me. Maybe, just maybe, there is someone, somewhere, who is working on a vaccine or a medicine, that will save the life of maybe one person, maybe one hundred, maybe one thousand, maybe a million people, who will at some point in the next few years, when they are recovered, sit down with friends, family, loved ones, or even on their own and put on some music recorded in my studio and feel better. That is my role in this family.

The sun comes out in the harshest times
I titled this blog 'why lockdown is the opportunity of a lifetime'. You probably thought it was going to be all about the great opportunities for you to make money, or improve yourself. The opportunity is actually something far better. It is the opportunity for humanity to come together, to be better, to work across borders and boundaries. I don't care if the scientist who develops a viable vaccine is English, Irish, Chinese, American, Israeli, Iranian or even if they live on the moon. I don't care whether they are Christian, Atheist, Muslim, Buddhist, Zoriastrian, Jew or a follower of the Flying Spaghetti monster, I don't even care if they support Manchester City, United or Arsenal. I just want them to be successful, and as soon as possible. And I hope that once they are, we distribute it universally, to those in most need first. I want to be able to look in the mirror in a year or two from now and be proud to be a human and say a prayer of thanks that we did these things. I believe that you can believe in God, mankind and science but so long as you believe that we can be better, we can make a difference, then you will probably get along with me. In short, whatever you believe in, keep the faith in times like these, and lets hope we learn the lessons for a better world.

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