Something's Come Up
We all have to deliver bad news sometimes. Maybe you had to cancel a meeting or you accidentally killed your friend's pet chinchilla (true story). It's usually unpleasant for anyone to give bad news, but the consequences aren't often that dire. Your company's client will probably reschedule and your friend will hopefully forgive you.
But with artists (and other small businesses), bad news can more often have huge consequences. We usually don't have the established name of a corporation or years of friendship to fall back on if we fail to meet expectations, and in a business based so strongly on trust, negative customer experiences can be devastating. So artists have to be extremely careful about how we handle bad news.
I recently had a difficult situation to deal with and my own bad news to deliver. I received two requests at almost the same time to perform on the exact same night. Option A approached me first, but Option B was clearly the better opportunity (for the record, I only told B that I might be available). After several emails back and forth, A and I finally agreed upon terms, only for B to commit not 24 hours later. This was a pickle and no mistake.
Focus on Relationship
How could I get out of this jam? Option B was a golden opportunity, but I had already given my word that I would play for A. The first lesson I needed to remember was that every thing I do should be focused on relationship over transaction. Sure, playing for B would be huge, but if I left A feeling like they'd been misused, I probably would have lost their trust forever.
So here's what I did. I gave A a phone call (which conveys concern through my voice in a way that an email can't). I started by saying that I knew I'd made a commitment to them and was willing to honor it, but that I had a story to tell and an option to present them with. This brings up another key point about giving bad news; say it, then explain it. Don't leave the listener guessing what the outcome is going to be. Tell them up front, then give context.
I told A exactly what happened and gave them a choice. Based on their decision, I would either play for them or find a substitute who would perform under the terms we'd already agreed upon. It was their choice because I already committed to them, and I wanted to find my own replacement so they would feel that I'd treated them fairly. We had just spent all this effort hammering out details, I didn't want them to have to do that again.
Fortunately, A agreed to let me find a replacement, and I get to play for B. Not only that, but hopefully A still regards me favorably and would be happy to try working with me again. Giving bad news is challenging, but by focusing on the relationship you can navigate tricky issues and build trust at the same time.