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Bossing It: James Alvich on Empathy, Honesty and Tenacity

Bossing It 272 Add to collection

The MAS Co-founder tells LBB how to discover value in failure, and why honesty will always be worth a little discomfort

Bossing It: James Alvich on Empathy, Honesty and Tenacity

After more than a decade of working as a producer for TV, Radio, and Online, James Alvich took the plunge and founded Music and Strategy (MAS) in 2011 with Gabe Hilfer. It wasn’t long after that MAS' third partner, Gabe McDonough, came aboard. At that time, as James himself will attest, running a business was an altogether new concept. “Everything I’ve learned, I’ve learned on the job”, he tells LBB.

Looking back now, however, there can be no doubt that those lessons have paid off. As MAS’ website puts it, the company looks to find the “smartest ways to work with music and culture to help brands get the results their other marketing efforts can’t deliver”. That’s a mission which the company carries out in glorious style on behalf of clients such as Starbucks, Instagram, Google, Ralph Lauren, and countless more. 

Here, James takes a moment to reflect back on those very lessons he learned whilst starting up MAS, and how they combine to tell a story of passion, determination, and growth. 


LBB> What was your first experience of leadership? 

James> Oh, I jumped in at the deep end! Back in 2011, when I told my friends I was leaving agency life, most of the reactions were along the lines of, “oh wow, music is tough. Good luck though!”. But I was confident - I knew advertising, I knew music, I knew how to produce multi-million dollar commercials, and I knew the job that I was going into. I knew exactly how I was going to get the work, and had a plan for all the issues that would come my way. Or so I thought. 

In practice, I made every mistake. I made errors about bookkeeping, employees, AP/AR, partners, relationships, you name it. Every day was its own challenge. Initially I was most worried about getting work in through the door, but that turned out to be the least of my concerns. It didn’t take me long to figure out that every single aspect of owning a music company is a hustle and grind - especially when you’re bootstrapping it.

The result is that every single thing I learned, I learned on the job. But you know what? I wouldn’t change that. 


LBB> When it comes to 'leadership' as a skill, how much do you think is a natural part of personality, how much can be taught and learned?

James> It’s a mix of both. I think that your own personal drive - the drive to really continue even when things are hard - is something that can’t be taught or forced. But there are plenty of things about leadership which can be learned. I know that, because I had to learn them myself! 

Personally, when it comes to learning I’m a bricklayer. I learn by breaking those bricks, laying them the wrong way, and then going back and having to fix them. The hard times made me question everything, but giving up was never an option. I just had to put my head down and figure it all out. You can apply that mentality to most things in life.

An example of something which I’ve learned, and that I wasn’t born with, has been developing a thicker skin. If people feel they need to tiptoe around you and protect you from harsh truths, you’ll never be able to have the difficult conversations which are essential for a business. I’ll never forget one of my most uncomfortable board meetings after some tough financials were presented, and the board was coming down on me. Of course, I was defensive and as an owner and president of the company I was the point person for the blame. One of the members said to go easier on me, to which I heard “he can take it.” As hard as that meeting was, that comment stuck with me. It meant they trusted me with the hard stuff and to go and do something about it. After a long walk to clear my brain, I got right back to work and kept moving forward.


LBB> How did you decide what kind of leader you wanted to be? 

James> I was never going to be a harsh or draconian leader, and I think the past couple of years have really illustrated the value of an empathetic approach. Whatever you’re going through, your employees are also going through something. Especially these past two years. 

If you’re in a leadership position, then make sure you are there for your employees. You need to be empathetic, and you need to give everyone room. The pandemic has posed so many challenges from every single corner of humanity that if you didn’t go through something, then you’re not human. It was hard and while it was a challenge being a business leader it was also a challenge to be an employee. The anxiety and pressure to still perform at your best while the world feels like it’s falling apart is not something you deal with often. Empathy and compassion are good places to start - most people just need to be heard.


LBB> Is there a piece of advice you’d like to share with the next generation of upcoming leaders? 

James> I can give you two. The first is to set yourself up for failure. While I understand that might sound like a scary thing, you have to aim high. You’re going to fail at some point (probably more than once) - and that’s ok! These are all cliché sayings, but those failures will be lessons for future growth. This is another thing I’ve learned from my experience so far with MAS. We’ve explored so many ‘side pieces’ of businesses while running our main business, and most of them didn’t pan out because they were a departure from our core competency. During the first few years of MAS I was having an identity crisis of what exactly we did, because I was trying to be all things to all people. Fail. It didn’t take long for me to realise that the main message of what MAS actually is was getting lost. Once we centered ourselves and kept with our core competency and focused on the goal, things started turning around.

The second piece of advice I’d share is to make sure you run a marathon. And I don’t mean ‘treating business as a marathon not a sprint’ or anything metaphorical - I mean you should literally run an actual marathon. Nothing tests you mentally and physically more than running 26.2 miles. I was in my 20s cheering on all of these NYC marathoners, and I thought to myself how badly I wanted to be in the race rather than cheering. A year later, I ran my first marathon. I spent eight months training for it, and went through every injury one could imagine from marathon training. I apply a lot of the grit and tenacity it took to run multiple marathons to my day to day business. There are no leaps and bounds in running without putting one foot in front of the other and keeping going. Eventually you’ll get there.


LBB> And finally, is there a piece of advice that you received which has proved to be especially important for you? 

James> Absolutely there is. This was from a newspaper clipping my mother sent to me while I was in college, which I read every morning. That’s no exaggeration.

“There are no mistakes - only lessons. Growth is a process of trial and error, and experimentation. You can learn as much from failure as you can from success.”

“A lesson is repeated until it is learned. A lesson will be presented to you in various forms until you have learned it. When you have learned it (as evidenced by change in your attitude and behavior), then you can move on to the next lesson.”

I read this everyday to remember that there are no stages of life that don’t have lessons. So it’s important to pay attention to them and continue to learn. If you’re feeling discomfort, that can be a good thing so long as you’re learning. 


To hear more from James and MAS, you can follow them on Instagram here

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MAS-Music and Strategy, Mon, 10 Jan 2022 19:20:13 GMT