gate·keep·er – /ˈɡātˌkēpər/ – nouna person or thing that controls access to something.
When I first started learning about the music industry in Pittsburgh there were these odd clips of ideas about Gatekeepers. I sort of felt like Dorothy in Oz, attempting to follow a path that would lead me to these powerful people who held the keys to growth and refused entry to so many. Much like Dorothy, what I stumbled upon was far less the ‘Great and Mighty OZ!’ and far more smoke and mirrors. Gatekeepers seem to be these popular crowd cliques that centralize around one or two members who have the power to grant you success due to their name being associated with success. I’ve seen so much infighting in the scene over this idea and it both amuses and saddens me. I think it’s time to pull back the curtain and give you a look at the mechanics behind it all.
First off, there are no gatekeepers, no fictional guardians of fame. You are your own gatekeeper, and it’s up to you to make you successful. In the upper ranks of the industry there are great opportunities but often those above the line tend to have no idea what’s going on beneath them, and that disconnect can cost them. Management teams, labels and more watch websites, local radio, podcasts and pages that weren’t anywhere near a national level. These pages are the influencers of the music industry. Why? Because the national sites are covering the already known talent, while these sites cover the stuff that has yet to be discovered. The diamonds in the rough. Another point to think on is that when 2020 hit, professionals scrambled just as much as us locals but we were the ones who found ways to keep going, far before they ever grasped how. Local musicians began live feeds, found new ways to connect, because they knew their audience. So many national bands simply disappeared for a while because they have people who watch metrics, not fans. That’s a valuable lesson.
This Gatekeepers attitude is a myth, and a dangerous one at that. Don’t believe me? How many big companies passed on something that became a huge success in the entertainment industry through a lower level company? So often people will see a page with a high amount of likes, or sees something that everyone else is doing, and assume that means they’re the best. This is the idea of gatekeepers that I’ve run into, and it really does hurt the scene in various ways. I’ve seen it in play passively, a venue owner or promoter not very connected with our scene hiring a band because their likes must mean they’ll draw a crowd. I’ve seen it directly too. Having had my hand in starting, promoting and pushing various companies and projects I tend to be a go to for some folks. One project started with a lunch, and during that lunch came the words, “Your page XYZ has so many likes! That’s why we want to work with you. We’ve been trying to find the gatekeepers in our industry.” In my brain I heard the record scratch. First of all, I was only an admin on that page while it had been starting, and second off I had walked away from that project when I found that the likes were all being farmed. Third, these people didn’t really know anything about what that business even did. Here was someone who wanted to help the scene, was even in a part of it, and felt like I’d stepped into some alternate reality. Across from me sat good people with great intentions and from just that collection of words I knew they would fail. It did, unfortunately, but I learned valuable lessons during my time watching it. The biggest lessons I came away with were;
- The idea of a shortcut road to stardom exists if you’re associated with the right name is false. There is no shortcut. Never hire a manager until you can no longer do it yourself, having a manager really means nothing other than you’re no longer in the middle of how your band is making deals. Getting signed can be awesome, but only if your label is working for you and is a good fit. Too often having a band that can say they have ‘people’ holds nothing for that band. You may be better off having a company help you promote your stuff or teach you how to use social media correctly. If you don’t know how to do it yourself, learn. Not only will you work harder for yourself than anyone else ever will, if you don’t know what you’re doing, you can more easily get taken advantage of or see results that fool you into thinking you’re going places.
- Being connected to your local scene is the best possible way you can grow. I’ve seen bands grow like crazy outside of their scene, then get passed over for great local opportunities because no one has heard of them. I’ve seen bands act like anything local is worthless, but when you shun people you never know what opportunities they’re not going to talk you up for. Even high profile bands still want on local media sites for when they’re rolling through that town, so why would you shun any company or scene?
- Never assume you’re better than anyone, never treat others as less than because you don’t think they’re high enough on the scale. Not only is there always someone better than you, an attitude of being ‘at the top’ isn’t appreciated. We’re all in this together, we all start from nothing. There’s no gatekeepers holding some back, it’s their own hubris getting in the way. Your attitude means as much as your music – to your fans, friends, and possible opportunities along the way.
Let’s look at these cliques I’ve heard of being Gatekeepers. They do seem real enough and I can even see some people that the argument can be made that they’re in one. The thing there is, it usually ends up being a group of friends who work together because they work well together, and that’s usually a precursor to success. Like attracts like, that’s just how life is. The more things you have in common with people, the more alike you are, the more you talk, hang out, and in the music industry that also tends to lead to working together. A group of people supporting the hell out of each other is obviously going to lead to more success than people who sit around complaining and feeling like if they just got that one chance, they’d be set. First off, if you’re constantly complaining that no one supports you or wants to work with you… that’s kind of a sign as to why. Don’t give a crap who isn’t backing you, supporting you and start supporting yourself. When was the last time you gave others credit for their work? When’s the last time you randomly shared another artists post about a show or gave a nod in their direction that the new stuff they’re working on was good? You can’t be the guy in the corner judging everyone and refusing to mingle and expect to be remembered from the party. There is always something you have in common with others, even if it’s a venue you both know or a song you’ve both heard. Work your ass off, support others when you can and engage on a positive note with people and you’ll be surprised how far that goes. To keep it simple – Quit yer bitchin’!! Eeyore was an exception, not the rule.
I’ve seen and heard so often how a company won’t get back to someone or how they feel ignored. That used to tug at my heart strings, now I first wonder how these people approached the company. As a media company owner I want to say very clearly – you might not be doing it right. I can only use my experience as an example so, please don’t judge me too harshly, but this is my reality. My company doesn’t exist only on Facebook, there are emails listed on our website for every department you could need to talk to. Our services are also listed and go far beyond simply writing articles or taking concert pictures. The drawback on Facebook is that if you send in a message with a link, there’s some weird thing that will automatically send you to a spam folder that most people don’t even know they have, and many that know they have don’t have the time to regularly check. Some people don’t even bother with sending a message, they try to paste their stuff onto our feed, which feels really… cheap? Useless? Definitely not very professional, certainly not respectful. People will send us something that isn’t even a hello, just throw us a link with no context. Let’s move this into real world settings, shall we? Yes, I know people in the scene but if you pin a sticky note on my back that has a link to your latest release, that’s not getting you what you need. It’s also not going to help much if you walk up and with no introduction say your band name to me and then leave. Do your research. What kind of services does the company offer? Who should you get hold of for that service? Is there a direct email? Say hello, introduce yourself, tell us what you can about your music, give us an idea of what you need. In a sea of hundreds of emails, it’s so easy to get lost in the shuffle, but if we know what you’re in need of, or you actually reply to the email of us asking (I really hate the auto send accounts we can’t reply to) then it’s a lot easier to get you set up for coverage.
Too often the Gatekeeper myth keeps people from going further than they could with their talents. We’re in charge of our own destiny and the more we understand that, the better we can walk the path we need to. Life doesn’t have shortcuts, no matter who you associate with, but it does have rules that we can use in our lives and our jobs. Look around you, if like breeds like, who are you surrounding yourself with? Is that the crowd you want to be a part of? Support for others brings support for you, and the more you try to cause issues, drama or whatever you want to call it, the more it will come back to you. Watch who you are just as carefully as you watch how others are to you. The only Gatekeepers between what you want and what you’ll get are placed there by you. Act professionally, and accordingly, and let go of the false ideas that hold you back.