19 April 2015

The older I get, the more I realise that life is far from being a straight line. Far from it in fact, as in my experience it’s actually very cyclical. How many times in your life are you reminded of something from your past? It could be as simple as driving past a business that catches your eye and then looking into it to realise that the guy running it is an old friend.

In my case, it actually was that simple, as last week I received an email from a man called Gavin Sharp.

Gavin and I go way back. Nowadays, he’s the chief exec of a company called Inner City Music Ltd and amongst other things, runs the legendary Manchester venue Band on the Wall. As well as providing the city with a place to come and hear music from all over the world, they also do a lot of work in the community, running music programmes for kids from deprived backgrounds and even a choir for older people who don’t get out as much as they used to. As you can imagine, I was delighted to see his name pop up in my inbox.

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An iconic venue

To put this into context, Gavin and I met years ago, before Manchester had undergone its rejuvenation. It was a lot less polished then than it is now, but it was still an amazing era. There was this energy across the music industry and in the people of Manchester.

Back then, I was looking after a nightclub called JW Johnsons, organising everything from the music to the doorman and DJs. It was a big responsibility because it became Manchester’s biggest club (aside from Hacienda, which you’ll know if you’re my age was pure clubbing).

The bar was managed by Tim Bacon, who used to say he owned it even though he didn’t, which I really liked. That’s the power of intention, saying you are the owner before you actually are, much like Muhammad Ali with his comment, “I said I was the greatest even before I knew I was.”

Gavin was a great saxophonist and friend. As an agent, I had my core musicians who I’d call upon for the bulk of the work, trying to make them a bit more money. Gavin was a part of that group. I remember that because we weren’t supposed to use the same musicians too often, his band would play as ‘Sweet Rain’ one weekend and then, the Saturday after that I’d have him back again under a different name!

At the time, agents weren’t the most trusted or liked people. I was being paid to manage, but it was years later, after I’d left, that one of the piano players in that core group came up to me and said, “When you stopped, the music dried up. Bars and restaurants stopped putting as much live music on. Nobody really realised how hard you worked until you changed industry.” As you can imagine, I was incredibly touched at his kind words.

To put it into perspective, I used to go to hotel mangers or owners and say, “I think you’d benefit from a musician playing in your lobby.” Their response would usually be, “We don’t even have a grand piano.” So I would ask, “If I could get you a grand piano for next to nothing, £30 a week, would you trial some of our players?”

More often than not, they’d accept the offer.

It taught me about recurring revenue because it was the money from the grand pianos trickling in that made life palatable and safe. Little did I know, it would then change from pianos to servers.

As a professional musician, playing and producing music, Gavin did a lot of touring. It’s tough being a musician. I’ve been there before as a pianist. Whilst it’s highly rewarding at times, there’s not usually much money in it and it’s a lot of hard work. The musicians are usually the ones you see coming in early on, lugging equipment, and the last ones out.

I remember he’d been doing a tour and said to me: “I can’t imagine doing this when I’m forty. I need some work experience in more of an office environment.” Being in a position to offer him this experience, I asked him if he’d like to join me and we worked together for some time before the temptation of the touring came calling again and we parted ways as friends, wishing each other the best of luck.

There have been times in my life where I have to admit, my pride has gotten in the way of ending working relationships this way. In fact, this was something I learnt from Richard Branson; another of the questions I tasked him with answering as we ran around Necker Island on our first meeting.

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Advice that changed my outlook from a great business mentor

I don’t think people realise, but when you hire someone, you really invest in them and develop with them. So when they leave it’s actually painful. It’s for this reason I used to say that once people left, I wouldn’t employ them again.

However, when I asked Richard what he thought about staff members who had left (expecting a similar outlook to my own) his answer couldn’t have been further from my own approach.

He told me he’d always have ex-employees back and he always kept in touch with them, explaining that often they were only leaving because you hadn’t allowed them to try a certain area. Yet, there are always other businesses who will take that gamble. So, they pick up these additional skills and then come back with additional knowledge.

Also, they know your culture so it is easy for them to fit straight back in.

He also explained that, even if they don’t return to work for you, they grow as you grow and you keep those friendships. On reflection, I think I had been too focussed on the pain of the moment in time when someone you value leaves the business, rather than on the future. So I’m indebted to Richard for making me question this approach.

Luckily, for Gavin and I, there was always a warmth and respect there and I look back on our time working together with a smile.

It’s funny how simple decisions that take people to opposite ends of the country or the world can have such an impact. I could have stayed in the music industry because it was slightly safer, but then none of this could have happened.

A week before Gavin contacted me he was driving down Princess Parkway and saw our sign (it’s hard to miss). Wondering what I had been up to lately, he took the chance of a discussion with a mutual acquaintance and realised that UKFast was, in fact, the company I’d been setting up as he’d left to go on tour!

As for Band on the Wall – well, there’s only one venue like it in the whole of Manchester, and there’s no better person to have gravitated towards it and be running it than Gavin.

Life is an incredible journey sometimes, full of chances and coincidence. Moving on doesn’t always mean closing doors behind you, as often – when you keep them open – you leave yourself open to a far more interesting life.

LJ

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