It’s 7:30pm on a Friday night and I am waiting for a man I have never met outside of a venue I have never heard of, nor seen, before.
I have spent the last 7 days driving all over Los Angeles scouting for venues, looking for the right location for what could be the biggest event of my career as an electronic music event promoter. My other business partners have done the same, all to no avail. We located a few gems that will be available for future use, but haven’t quite nailed down the space we so desperately need at this very moment. And the brutal honest truth is that the clock is against us.
“Relax, be patient and you’ll find the right spot!” I’ve been telling myself over and over for the last two weeks, and while I believe it, it’s hard to remain optimistic as the hours and days fade away. Our event is tomorrow night, and with just over 24 hours to go we are running out of options. To top it off, the venue owner I am supposed to meet is 30 minutes late, which is making me and the three other people with me antsy at best.
Looking back now, I recognize, to one degree or another, that I have suffered from anxiety my whole life. I lived assuming that it was normal to worry s much and that it meant that I cared. After all, there’s plenty of things that are worse than caring, right? I was wrong, and it took me hitting personal bottom to realize that. As the saying goes, every cloud has a silver lining, and a particularly rough break-up in summer of 2016 was the catalyst for me to finally look inward and address an aspect of my own mental health that needed urgent dealing with. Most of us know, and recognize, that mental health has been and largely remains a taboo subject in today’s society, perhaps even more so in the world of music and entertainment.
From the outside, or for those on the inside who don’t look deep enough, a promoter’s life appears to be one surrounded by automatic financial success, never-ending perks, back-stage debauchery and easy access to all the glitz and glamour of the industry. Five years into this business and let me tell you that it’s far from the truth, or at least not for the majority of those working to keep their city’s underground scene alive, regardless of genre preference. The amount of sacrifices my peers have made and make on a daily basis to organize and execute events often go unacknowledged or, worse yet, can be met with disdain and criticism on social media by those that do not understand what it really takes to put on an event. Personally I can state that not many things make me happier than seeing smiles on the dance floor of a party I am personally responsible for having produced, for I have myself felt that very same type of happiness on so many occasions that I know just how valuable it is. Music has been and will remain to be the sole reason I do what I do, and while recognition and acknowledgement for my efforts isn’t a must, they remain important feedback in knowing whether I have done my job well. The nature of the business dictates that by being a promoter I am offering a service and selling an experience, and since it’s one so close to my heart it goes without saying that I take feedback, and especially criticism, to heart. After all, my goal is for every single one of my events to be a positive experience both musically and otherwise for at least the overwhelmingly vast majority of attendees. I realize that they put their trust (plus time and money) on the night to offer an escape from their every day life and vicissitudes, and my aim is to deliver that escape on any given night.
Having high expectations of myself and my own work used to be the excuse I would give myself every time my anxiety would flare up while organizing a party. I just didn’t want to disappoint. And now, with a huge event the following day and no venue, I was heading towards the biggest disappointment I had ever faced. Compounding (pun intended, for those who know) the anxiety was the knowledge that a lot of people were flying into Los Angeles from all over the United States to attend. Imagine if we had no venue? Imagine if something went wrong and we couldn’t even open the doors?
Eventually the owner of the space showed up, we toured the venue and closed the deal, securing it a mere 24 hours before doors open. But the worries weren’t over. We still had to finalize staffing for the night, prep the space, build a stage from scratch, ensure sound system was properly set-up, organize where the VJ would be positioned, ensure vendor stations were stocked and ready to go, take care of four guest artists, finish off all social media promotion and a ton more back-end admin all before doors opened. Oh, and since it was an underground event we went through the lengths of finding and securing a second spot, and readying it with porta-potties and sound should it have been needed at any point during the night. Going into it, I knew that by 4am, 6 hours deep into the event, I could finally breathe a sigh of relief and know that we had delivered a good party and that we would get through the night without major hassles. But until that point, anything could have gone wrong.
Failure wasn’t an option, and while I knew deep down that we would find a venue and deliver on our promise, the nature of the business always carries with it a hint of uncertainty. As evidenced by the recent events of Minimal Effort: All Hallow’s Eve in Los Angeles, a promoter can do everything in their power to secure permits for a legal event and follow all laid-out rules, only to see their work trampled on a technicality or, worse even, an arbitrary that should have never been. This is more common than people think, especially in a country and, in my case, a city where “rave” culture is often misunderstood and looked down on with disdain and disgust alike. By the times doors had opened for my event, we had done everything we possibly could have to create the basis for a wonderful night of techno, so over-worrying about “what could go wrong” was not only futile, but in fact counter-productive. I knew that on the night, but that is not a mindset I have always had.
It was last summer when I finally decided to confront my anxiety and talk about it openly, setting all shame and stigmas aside. I was lucky enough to have one of my closest friends introduce me to Stoicism, the Hellenistic school of philosophy that adopts a system of personal ethics and logic to show one the path to happiness: a journey found in accepting any of life’s given moment as it presents itself, by not allowing ourselves to be controlled by our desire for pleasure or our fear of pain, but instead using our minds to understand the world around us and to do our part in nature’s plan, by working together and treating others in a fair and just manner.
Stoicism has since turned out to be the philosophy and mindset that has changed the way I live, and the way I operate as an electronic music event promoter. Gone are the days where I enter a never-ending dwindling spiral of anxious panic the moment things feel out of my control. Gone are the nights where I freeze and waste time imagining every possible negative scenario in my head, instead of focusing on doing all I can to be as prepared as possible for eventual outcomes. And gone are the moments where I meet bad news with extreme emotions such as fear, anger, resentment or regret, instead of tackling the issue at hand.
The way I see it, Stoicism is built for action, and doesn’t concern itself with endless theory debates about the world. It provides us with key lessons on how to overcome destructive emotions and act on what can be acted upon, rather than worry about things out of one’s control. Stoicism has been practiced by kings, presidents, artists, writers and entrepreneurs, with both historical and modern men illustrating Stoicism as a way of practical life.
“True happiness is to enjoy the present without anxious dependence upon the future, not to amuse ourselves with either hopes or fears but to rest satisfied, for he that is wants nothing. The greatest blessings of mankind are within us and within our reach. A wise man is content with his lot, whatever it may be, without wishing for what he has not”
Silent, often unnoticed and swept under the rug, anxiety damages the lives of those who suffer from it and the people around them. Its crippling and devastating effects are internal at first, simmering below the surface only to hit like a wrecking ball when it’s seemingly too late to do anything about it. At its core, anxiety affects our judgement, our actions and our will. It takes control over us when we focus on our past and our future, failing to living in the present. You may be anxious about something you did or that happened to you, the uncertainty of the future or something happening now because of either your past or your future. So how does one respond to anxiety if it affects all three?
The first thing to do, and this is a pillar principle of Stoicisim, is differentiate between what is under our control and what is not under our control. The past, of course, is not under our control. It happened, it’s behind us, so why worry? Why stress over something that cannot in any way, shape or form be changed, altered or fixed? You have to willingly accept the past, harbor no regret and not allow it to have any affect on you today. Learn from it, accept it, and let it go.
As a promoter, I often found myself getting into a rabbit hole of negativity filled with ideas of possible failure based on what went wrong in the past. I would regret actions I made, decisions I took, or sit and wallow on things I could have perhaps done differently had I only known better. Yet none of that served a purpose but to distract me from the job at hand. All I was doing was adding a mental crutch to my every move.
“Caretake this moment. Immerse yourself in its particulars. Respond to this person or that person, this challenge, this deed. Quit the evasions. Stop giving yourself needless trouble. It is time to really live; to fully inhabit the situation you happen to be in right now. You are not some disinterested bystander. Participate. Exert yourself.”
What of the present then? The problem with the present is that we often live it with an eye to the past, and the other stuck firmly to the future, never truly living in the present moment. What occurs then, is that our social interactions are constantly plagued by decoupled cognition, defined as “our ability to think of something that has happened or will happen all while still being aware of our surroundings.” This creates a kind of mindfulness that sees us live elsewhere other than the present, such as when we are deep in conversation with someone without really listening, or driving and then getting to our destination without knowing how we got there. Instead of just being, and being in the present, we are lost in thoughts about what could have been and what could be, thoughts about the past and the future.
It is fairly obvious how this type of anxiety affects any profession, and especially that of a promoter. With a million things to take care of at once and a myriad of possible eventualities to plan for, it can be easy to get lost in the confusion instead of living the present moment. Anxiety clouds one’s ability to objectively judge now, at this precise present moment, it prevents unselfish action from taking place and puts a barrier to willingly accept all external events outside of our control. The key is realizing that all you can do is live presently, to do the best you possibly can at this very minute to ensure your event is well planned, well executed and all necessary steps are taken to handle any foreseeable emergency. Yet the unexpected can still occur, and only a Stoic living in the present has the fortuitous and clear mind to act in his best interest instead of losing himself in the dark abyss of anxiety.
“He suffers more than necessary, who suffers before it is necessary”
“Make the best use of what is in your power, and take the rest as it happens”
Just as we don’t control our past, we cannot claim to predict the future or that it is under our control. As a promoter I would often say that “I hoped the night would go well,” failing to realize that hope and fear were one and the same, although both wearing different masks. While fear is a clear enemy of the present, hope is its subtle, deceiving equivalent. Hoping for future things makes us worry about those things, instead of embracing that what will be will be. Hope prevents you from acting in the present to do everything you can to set up the path for your future. The line that separates the two may be razor thin, but it is crucial. It is the worrying about the uncertain that causes our anxiety of the future. When going through my break-up I worried about being hurt, of not being able to find someone else, of ending up alone. I worried about losing my ex-girlfriend’s family, of being in a new city without many friends, of having to start from scratch again. When promoting an event I worried about ticket sales, about finding a venue, about our budget, I worried about whether people would be disappointed in the performances because I worried about whether the artists would play a good set, and ultimately I would worry about whether we would get shut down or last the night without a hiccup. All of these worries, these anxieties, took valuable time and mental energy from living in the present, and doing what I could with what I had to the best of my abilities.
Just as you cannot control if another person loves you and wants to remain in a relationship with you, you cannot control whether a DJ will miss their flight or under-perform in front of your crowd. Once your event starts you cannot control or change how many people will walk through those doors or whether they will consume enough at the bar to make your night profitable. All you can do is accept the work you have done until that very moment, live in the present and put in your due diligence to ensure everything that needs to be taken care of now gets taken care of at the present time. It is this very mindset that allowed me to stay relatively calm throughout my event, to stay focused and take care of my duties without freaking out about what I could have done differently, or things out of my control that could happen throughout the night.
Shit happens. Things go wrong. Sometimes you did your best to prepare for an event but an unexpected wrench gets in the way and everything falls apart. You are without a venue 24 hours before an event. Your headliner misses their flight. Your artist’s visa gets rejected week of show with hundreds of tickets already sold. It happens to unexpectedly rain on the day of you first day party. Someone spills beer on the CDJs and suddenly you have no equipment. Your party gets arbitrarily shut down by officials. These, and many more, are all things that have happened to me or I have seen first hand in the last 5 years in this industry. It happens, and it happens to the biggest and most organized promoters in the business.
The moment you accept that something has gone wrong and you cannot change that, is the moment you begin to gain control of the situation.
The crux of the whole lesson here is in your response:
Being a promoter is not easy. It’s a job that takes a lot of sacrifice and devotion, and it’s a job that in today’s globalized and hyper-connected internet age is often repaid with witty, sarcastic and critical social media posts from those who fail to see the sweat, blood and tears that it takes to put on even the smallest of local shows. But they are your customers. They are your target audience, and as such you must not only listen and read, but you must take every single point of feedback into consideration.
Practicing Stoicism has allowed me to wash away the anxiety that previously clung onto every moment of uncertainty in my life. It has put me at cause over my relationship with myself and my personal relationships with others. Accepting what has happened in the past as a part of me and living in the present without letting things out of my control affect the way I act has in turn put me in a position of power where I am able to step back and look at any given situation with a completely different mindset than ever before. As a promoter this means that I am able to learn from my past without remaining stuck in my failures. It means being able to operate presently and at the height of my mental prowess. It means not being scared of the future, but instead having enough aforethought and mental fortitude to do my best to predict for any eventuality, as well as to be ready for eventual failures so that I can take them as they come without letting them have a disastrous effect on me.
It also means being able to read angry tweets or troll posts about your work without letting it affect you. It means being able to look inward as a promoter, accepting and knowing where you went wrong so you can act now to ensure the same mistake does not happen in the future. It means doing everything possible and accepting that even then things might not go your way. And that’s ok, because life isn’t always meant to go your way, even if you do everything in your power to make it so.
The art of properly responding to failure begins by not being surprised by it. I accept that I am not perfect and that life is a constant learning curve. I know that every single event I will ever produce could have been better. I know that no matter how much I plan and do things right, there is the smallest ounce of possibility that things can happen any other way than the way I wanted them to go.
I say this as a promoter but it’s advice that is valuable to your personal life, regardless of your profession: make the most out of any situation given you. Everything — good or bad — that happens to you is an opportunity to do better and to do more.
Please do not mistaken me for a know-it-all Stoic. I still get anxiety and I am very aware that all of this is much easier to type and say, than it is to practice. Just as life is a constant learning curve, Stoicism, and any type of self-help philosophy, takes a lifetime of incremental progress to get better at it. One adversity at a time, one heart-wrenching failure at a time, you have to stop, look at yourself and ask a simple question: “Alright, this is the situation I am faced with, so what am I going to do? How is this situation going to make me a better person?” You then look at the solutions you come up with and you give it your best. And little by little you get better, and as you get better this practical philosophy becomes almost like instinct, and eventually, a habit or reflex that is an innate part of you and the way you live.
An important point I want to underscore is that with this article I do not claim that Stoicism is the cure for anxiety. I also do not think it is even a cure, but simply a philosophy and mindset that has put me at cause over my life and has incrementally enabled me to be in control of my own anxiety. I am sharing it knowing that even if it helps one person lead a less anxious life, it will have been worth it.
Whether you suffer from anxiety, depression or any other mental health issue, please know that you’re not alone. My inbox and my DMs are always open should you wish to speak about the subject or anything you’re going through. Don’t be afraid to reach out and to ask for help.
A special thank you to my dear friend Bart for introducing me to Stoicism.
Helpful sources and recommended reading: The Daily Stoic