In a series amid the coronavirus pandemic, Billboard is asking individuals from all sectors of the music business to share stories of how they work now, with much of the world quarantined at home and unable to take in-person meetings, attend conferences or even go into the office. Submissions for the series can be sent to HowWeWorkNow@Billboard.com. Read the full series here.
This installment is with Michelle McDevitt, president/co-founder of New York-based independent music publicity firm Audible Treats.
Michelle McDevitt: I just moved to California — not permanently — because my parents live here. It was just really hard trying to run a business and look after a 5-year-old, so I flew to San Francisco [the other] night. Uprooting, introducing risk to my parents, was not a decision that we made lightly. But once we confirmed that we had antibodies, it made us feel a little bit better about making that decision, even though everyone keeps telling us, “We don’t know what it means.”
I don’t know if people who live outside New York understand how awful April was for the city. New York was hurting so bad, and it still is in certain pockets of the city, communities that are being hit really hard in ways that will affect them and their surroundings for a long time. It’s really changing people’s idea of where to live and how to work on a major scale, I think. Not only in New York do we all live in a shoebox, unless you’re super rich, but the actual New York culture is that you live outside of home and then you only come home to sleep, shower, change your clothes and then to go back out again. That’s why we tolerate the shoebox living, because we live our lives outside our homes.
[At Audible Treats], we told a lot of our staff to lug home their desktops [when the shutdown began]. We knew that it was going to be a while, and working eight hours a day off a laptop day after day can really take a toll. We quickly decided that we should have a daily office-wide video conference call at 11am, even if it was just for 20 minutes, which was crucial to try to replace or mimic the connection and camaraderie that we have at the office.
In the beginning to try to keep spirits up, we were doing cute little things like coming up with themes for our Zoom backgrounds — like First Concert, or First Album, or Favorite Movie, or Guilty Pleasure, Favorite Piece of Art — and we would take personality tests and discuss and share them. But with a small company and a staff that gets along really well, it leaves a big hole when we’re not able to hang out and interact with each other. I consider that to be a perk of the job, to be honest. For us, joking about the stuff that we deal with every day, and also helping each other through whatever little bumps we’re going through, whether it’s a non-responsive writer or a client that isn’t turning in deliverables on time, was how we got along really well and had a lot of fun.
It’s a big bummer, honestly. And I don’t think any of us realized how much we enjoyed each other’s company until that was taken away. Never in my life did I think that I’d be forced to work from home for an indefinite amount of time. And I think as publicists, who tend to be more social, working from home is just not our personality type.
I knew this was going to fundamentally change the way that press is being done. And I knew that our friends in media were probably having panicked conference calls with their teams about how to move forward, just as we were. But everyone in media is super clever and can turn on a dime. We’re all used to last-minute changes, having to shift things around, find workarounds — we’re very flexible.
So we were really aggressive in reaching out to our friends in media and finding out what they were doing instead of in-person press. It’s cool to see people be creative. We were coming up with things like an MTV Cribs-style video but looking into an artist’s fridge to see what brands and foods they have, what percentage of milk and yogurt people are into. [Laughs] Just cool stuff like that.
There’s been lots of interruptions from our 5-year-old. And, you know, we apologize, and people are like, “Please, don’t, that’s fine!” Some people are like, “Oh, I didn’t know you had a kid!” and then they get to know me, then I find out they have a kid, and so we’re kind of breaking these professional barriers. And everyone has been so unbelievably understanding and kind and think that it’s cute — and, honestly, I do too when it’s happened with me.
There was this site that set up an interview with one of our artists. It was a video call, so it could have been on a laptop, or an iPad, or a phone — of course it was on the phone, because that’s what an artist is most comfortable with. After it was over I asked how the interview went and they were like, “Everything was cool, but your artist’s plumber kept calling and interrupting the feed.” He wasn’t mad at all — artists have plumbing problems, too. No one’s mad at it. We’re all humans and we all have plumbing problems. [Laughs]
But now that I’ve gotten all these routines down, I’ve been really facing the music and realizing that doing my best in New York still wasn’t cutting it for me, and making a drastic decision to move out West to where my parents are has been the biggest help. I understand my privilege in being able to do so, and it wasn’t a decision that we took lightly. But being okay with having to make a drastic decision to move somewhere else and to ask for help has been enormous for us.
I think [moving forward] there’s going to be a lot more trust in doing things over video, both for interviews and meetings. I don’t think people are going to travel as much for business, and as a result of that, in-person meetings will be considered a special thing, kind of like, “Wow, they flew out.” I think on both sides of the coin, companies and employees will be more open to people working from home more frequently and having employees work literally remotely, like in another city, where they never come into the office.
I have been searching for the silver linings. I’m not saying it’s easy, and it hasn’t been, but I think we’re finding some joy in the simplicity and laughing at the mundane. Which is nice, and funny. It’s kind of how I’ve always lived my life and done my job — laughing at the mundane and the absurd. There’s joy in that for me.