The Future Of Leadership: Why The Next Generation Is Scary… In All The Right Ways


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I’m told by some, including the assigning editor of this piece, that you, dear readers, may fear the next generation. I’m here as an embed, to tell you: you absolutely should.
I direct the Bandier music business program at Syracuse University, along with the graduate level Audio Arts program. I am fortunate to spend all day every day, listening to, learning from, and yes, teaching the 17-to 21-year-olds who will be entering your industry in the coming months and years.

Why do I say you should be scared?

Because our touring industry has been one of the more change resistant parts of the music business. And my students are undeniably change agents. They inspire me every day with their standards, and their expectations. They are idealistic, and they should be. The best of them are unafraid to hold me accountable, which sometimes requires me to set aside my ego, or to challenge my own beliefs and blind spots, almost always for the better. Can you handle that necessary work? We are part of an industry, a country, and a world that the sentient among us would agree needs real change. We require paradigm shifts towards sustainable practices, among virtually all walks of work and life.

What will this next generation mean for our industries?

First, let me be clear: generalizing an entire population of students is as fraught as generalizing any other population. You show me 100 college students and I’ll show you 100 different identities, strengths, frailties and dreams. So, for starters, and again, as with any population, identify your own implicit biases and let them go. Judge the next 21-year-old who stands in front of you on their own merits. Consider the below in the broad strokes with which it is intended.

My students work hard. If you think this generation is lazy, precious or afraid to work, you’re missing the mark. They work long hours to get great grades, to balance multiple internships, to run their side hustles, and to develop and maintain their expertise in a rapidly realigning, ever-changing business. But they have boundaries, and they should. They care about their mental and emotional health exponentially more than my Gen X did or does, and that’s wonderful, important progress. We must resist the temptation to say, “Well, I worked 80 hours a week when I was getting my start, so you should too.” And instead we should dare to imagine a world that legitimately respects the well-being of the individuals it employs. No shortage of studies show that this is good for business in the long run.

My students sometimes need encouragement to develop what I would call the confidence of action. They have come of age amidst a tough one-two punch of swift, harsh social media judgments, and pandemic-fueled isolation. This does not make them soft—not at all. Many of you came of age at a time when the future felt more bankable, and the stakes, far lower. When I think back to my early years in college, I am embarrassed by my own privilege and naivete. The biggest tension consuming my peer group was debating the relative merits of Pearl Jam vs. Soundgarden. The graduating class of 2023 started college amidst a constitutional crisis that bled neatly into a global pandemic, and then one of the largest economic collapses in history. The fact that they still believe in your (or any) industry at all is a gift we should be thankful for.

Study after study also shows that students of this age are far more progressive than the generations that preceded them when it comes to issues such as climate, race, sexual identity, and more. Refreshingly, I have rarely found this to be performative, but instead, deeply engrained in my students’ consciousness. And who amongst us wants to argue that America doesn’t have miles to go before it earns a good night’s sleep when it comes to these issues? The same is true for our industry. This issue, dedicated to leadership, too often needs to bend, stretch, squint and twist to showcase the industry as diverse. And while real diversity is rising the ranks and earning justified accolades, the board rooms and CEOs patrolling the halls of greatest power remain too unchanged.

Our beloved touring industry was built on an old boys’ network of primarily white, male, regional promoters before it got rolled-up and wildly corporatized. It is rife for positive disruption. Organizations like Diversify the Stage are demanding equity and inclusion. Artists including Robert Smith, M. Shadows and Taylor Swift are leading the charge against predatory pricing practices. And I can assure you, my students are cheering these measures on. The industry that we built and enabled profited handsomely while the rich got richer, artists struggled with mental and physical health issues, and, increasingly, tickets to hot shows were reserved for the incredibly lucky or the incredibly wealthy. The generation that is rising now hopes for and envisions a different, better business.

The track record of my generation, and the generations largely in power, is one of looking at systems that we knew were broken but soldiering on. We took pride in that very thing. We put profits over people, or at the very least allowed that to happen, and created staggering wealth disparity and inequality. Now that American Dream that we were raised to work so hard for is increasingly exposed – unattainable to an ever-growing percentage of people. And anyone dares to ask why this emerging generation may make demands? Our pace of change proved woefully inadequate. Their impatience is their superpower.
So fear these students. Fear them if you’re on the wrong side of history. Fear them if you think doing more of the same and expecting different results is viable. Fear them if you think you have plenty of time to fix the challenges mentioned in this piece, and a handful of others. Fear them if you don’t want change.

Or: listen to them. Show them that you’ll take their ideas seriously, and they will walk through walls for you. Encourage them, and they will blossom into the future of this industry that we always wanted, but were afraid to hope for. These aren’t just necessary adjustments to business and life. They are also the right things to do. And this generation doesn’t, wont—and shouldn’t—settle for less.