I’ve been reflecting upon my work history this week. “History” sounds so formal. Like there’s some rich succession of events. One must ask: Does a tornado have a history? What is the history of the wind? But I do have one–a work history that is.
And to call it checkered is an affront to all self-respecting checkerboards everywhere. It is a trail of tears. If jobs were food groups, then I would say I have a very full plate. Jeez. I’ve already burnt through four analogies and I haven’t even gotten this thing off the ground yet. Better get rolling here.
It started this week when Brendan sent out an email with the heading Schadenfruede. That word has crept into the vocabulary of all of us expatriates, of late, in watching the slow deterioration of our former employer’s business. We are all taking great delight in the misfortune of that company. That joy is not misplaced.
We’ll call the company in question Small Egg Roll. Small Egg Roll is a distributor of compact discs and, increasingly, DVDs. They represent music labels and artists from all over the world. All kinds of music. I had been working there for fifteen years as a sales rep, when they dumped me at the side of the road in March of 2011. It wasn’t that I hadn’t been productive. I brought in more than $30 million in sales over the years. They did okay by me.
No, they got rid of me because they could. Small Egg Roll is owned by a trio of brothers–the eldest, Cloyd McWingo, and his younger twin brothers Riff and Biff. They know plenty about business and absolutely nothing about music. They know even less about humanity. But, hey. When you’re raking in the cash by walking all over people, who needs a soul?
That is pretty much the story of the entire music business, actually. A bunch of innocuous businessmen screwing over the artists who generate the income. Ever wondered what kind of singing voice Clive Davis has? No, me either. Ever wondered why Lester Chambers of the Chambers Brothers is penniless after not having any royalties paid to him for over thirty years? Ask Clive Davis.
Hey and Clive’s a real prince compared to the boys at Small Egg Roll. To them “employees” are expendable chess pieces. That these “employee” chits might represent someone with a life and a family is not part of their equation. Why should it be? Their only concern is the bottom line.
We all worked in service of their bottom line. I got booted (I think) because I made the most noise when they arbitrarily cut the sales commissions in half. Either that or because I was inflating severely the cost of their employee health insurance plan. No, it wasn’t like the company was having trouble financially. They were making money hand over fist at Small Egg Roll.
They cut our commissions in half because they knew they could get away with it. It’s an employers market. If you don’t like it, you can head on down the road. There’s fifty people standing behind you wanting your job. Eat it.
VP of Sales, Guppy J. Lapdog was the perfect field general–his only directive: to bully the staff into working twice as hard for half the pay. No excuses. Difficulties wth an account? No big deal. We’ll give it to someone else. Problem solved. Health issues? Surgery? Right. Can you still make the Monday morning sales call? We need your numbers.
It’s all about moving the product, you see. This is the fallacy in the public’s perception of the music industry. They think it’s about music. Puh. It’s about $$$, baby. Dinero. It’s about product and units and how many units of this product can you dump on that account? You said they’d take fifty and they only took forty. What’s up with that?
If you’re not actually sitting there in the room at the moment with your jaw hanging slackly, you don’t fully comprehend the absolute inanity of these weekly conversations: “Well, why didn’t they take fifty units?” “Because they only needed forty.” “Why didn’t you sell them fifty? You said you’d sell them fifty.” “I guess I over estimated by ten.” “Why didn’t you say forty, then?” “Actually I did say forty and you put me down for fifty.” “Then why didn’t you sell fifty?” Etc. Those were usually the high points of our absurd get-togethers.
And it wasn’t as if these interogations were limited to the sales force in the field and the two or three people who comprised the home office sales staff. Hell no. General Guppy J. Lapdog had to drag in the Product Managers and their assistants. Web Sales. Special Markets. The Promotions manager. Data Entry (don’t ask me). Running the numbers, I guess. Hell, it was like a party in there every Monday, all of us crowded in a little conference room.
Except you had this little asshole weasel on the other end of the speakerphone chewing your ass out in front of all these bored, apathetic peons, because you only sold forty units when you said you’d sell fifty. None of this pertained one whit to anyone else in the room and it wasted valuable man hours by the man days. It was, more or less, a weekly public excoriation. Sort of a ritual.
Yeah, I know. No wonder they cut our commissions!
Constant pressure. Never good enough. It was a “corporate” attitude. Trickle down. Treat ’em like shit. They’ll love it, or someone else will. Yadda, yadda. Needless to say, what trickled down was an acidic cynicism rife with black humor and outright hostility (a good chunk of it mine, I admit–I had been there the longest).
What did we sell? Gee, all kinds of junk, along with some really solid music, interspersed with the occasional nugget. A lot of back line stuff. All genres, you name it. Opera, Classical, Jazz, New Age, World, Indie rock. We had our own distribution lines set up to be the contracted conduit for hundreds of labels, coming in from all over the world. It was our mission to put units of their product in all the retail outlets among our various account bases. From Borders to Starbucks. From Silver Platters to Downtown Music Gallery and every place in between.
And you might justifiably ask, so why the hell did you keep working at the place if it was so damn terrible? Well, it was the music business! My entire adult life has been steeped in music. That’s all I know. It was the perfect job for me. My accounts were all the independent retail music stores across the country.
While the other sales reps took care of the Virgin and Tower Records chains and the like, my accounts consisted of little independently owned stores across the country. Those stores are run by people who genuinely love music and they support the artists in any way they can. They care. And they are not getting rich caring. A lot of them are going out of business because…well, I don’t have to tell you about downloading music from the internet.
And that’s the part of my job that I loved–working with guys like that. They really know music, revere it with a passion. Each one is a specialist. I received such a great music education from each of them. They had all become friends to me, even though I only knew most of them as voices on the phone. And I miss them. I never got to say goodbye to most of them. I was just gone one day, after fifteen years.
But that’s how the gentlemen at Small Egg Roll roll. To them class is a seating arrangement on an aircraft. The amount of genuine talent they allowed to sift through their empire, potential fully unrealized, could fill one of those aircraft. Seriously. I have dubbed us the Wasted Talent Pool. We represent all facets of the Small Egg Roll office experience. For, Small Egg Roll is nothing if not indiscriminate when it comes to the indifference extended to their office staff of approximately fifty.
And we were treated like kings compared to the treatment warehouse workers received. And it was only getting worse. I spent a lot of time out in the warehouse, gathering information from this CD or that, or checking on critical deliveries, or tracking shipments.
One thing Small Egg Roll expected from all it’s employees was abiding loyalty and devotion–inexplicably, given their cavalier attitude toward those same people. Of the forty or fifty who worked in the warehouse, there were several contingents of immigrants: Hispanic men and women, Asian women and Russian women. In all cases English was a second language. The remainder of the warehouse workforce consisted of an array of tattooed young outlaws who could obviously never find any sort of employment outside of a music distributor’s warehouse.
For that and other cultural reasons, the various factions typically tended to keep to themselves. I was cool with the punks. I got along very well with the the Hispanics and Asians, but the Russian women were baffling to me. Still, they all worked very hard. Very diligently. They were quite serious about their jobs. The income was of obvious extreme importance to the well-being of their families.
At one time Small Egg Roll was relatively generous toward its employees. When I first started, management gave out year-end bonuses, but they discontinued that the following year. I don’t know why. It seemed like profits were growing. We moved to newer, larger facilities twice–the second time into a massive space. That was four years ago: when things really began to change. The McWingos used to stage wonderful company picnics in the summer time. It served to manifest real camaraderie among the troops. Softball and hotdogs, games for the kids, and all that. And even more impressive was the annual Christmas party, which, while never lavish, still reflected a vague sense of communal sharing in the bounty of the year’s harvest.
But, as the company grew, that died too. The summer picnics were discontinued. The Christmas affairs became a quick lunch at the Country Kitchen. They’d give out a few “Awards” and celebrate this anniversary or that and back to work everybody. The last few years, it became bad juju to get an award for anything. Salesmen of the Year and celebrated long-tenured employees often seemed to get terminated sometime soon after the Christmas “party.”
I celebrated my 15th anniversary with Small Egg Roll at the 2010 Christmas party. I sat next to General Guppy J. Lapdog. He slapped me on the back when I received my award: a framed CD. Maritza from the warehouse received her ten-year commemoration at the same time.
It did seem a bit odd when they let Maritza go two weeks later (I probably should have been paying closer attention). Apparently someone in management (probably Biff the Tinkerer) must have read a magazine article and promptly instituted a new algorhithm as to the pace of work conducted in the warehouse. Maritza had fallen beneath standards and had to be let go, for the betterment of the company. Word was that others would be laid-off as well. They were. All the older Asian women were given the heave-ho.
You know, we’d had a pretty good year in 2010. Right after Michael Jackson died we were able to ship out a huge buttload of a DVD of dubious origin–a live Jacko Japanese concert (pretty good, too)–before we got the wholly anticipated cease and desist order from Sony. We’d had a release from the Meal Ticket Orchestra, around which the company’s entire fiscal year orbited. That album alone raked millions into the coffers.
The efforts of the McWingo’s employees had helped Small Egg Roll to thrive. The brothers were free not only to invest in a newly built home for the company headquarters, but to acquire several smaller, niche music distribution “one-stops” for the customary fire sale pittance. Little junior McRomneys there. Small Egg Roll was on its the way. Players! In addition to the acquisitions, lucrative distribution channels had been opened and secured with favorable long-term contracts. The boys were rolling in assets. An empire. “Alistair, bring me my Ferrari. I’m in the mood for high-speed touring.”
But, as we all know, an empire is only as as strong as its weakest bottom line. By eliminating any duplication of sales and administrative duties between the various acquired distribution channels, cutting commissions in half and streamlining warehouse operations productivity, Small Egg Roll was positioned to vastly improve profits the good old fashioned way. They squeezed it.
The serious migration of talent out of Small Egg Roll began about six months before I got the boot. Many more left after I did. In a year’s time twelve of fifteen key sales and marketing positions had turned over, some twice.
In that time the pressure there only grew more intense and more insane. We were selling CDs and DVDs, not vital organs–or weapons. Something had changed for the McWingos and for General Lapdog. Maybe it was retirement looming on the horizon–the desire to feather one’s pillow and re-tool the leather on the saddle. Going for the gold and all that. Who the hell knows?
But whatever it was they had totally lost it. They weren’t just sucking time and effort out of us, they were going for the very marrow of our humanity. They wanted it all. I had a sign on my cubicle wall that said: “Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate.” You know, it really did feel like the ninth circle of hell.
Liberty left not long after I did. She’d been there six years or so. Brendan bailed last month, after even longer than that. Even Lydia got out of there and she’d been there twenty years–since the place opened up. I got “laid off.” Those guys quit outright. They just couldn’t take it anymore. None of us could.
Although, as I told some members of the Wasted Talent Pool recently, I have had some really terrible jobs and terrible employers (oh yes, more about them in the future), none nearly managed to combine irrational greed and selfishness with bizarre, mind grinding, tedious tension in a way as needlessly oppressive as in my experience at Small Egg Roll
Increasingly, this is the landscape of working life in the United States. All of these poor hapless serfs toiling in servitude to the whims of overpaid thug lords. There was no reason for us to be flogged psychologically and emotionally at Small Egg Roll. No one shirked. We all cared about our jobs. And we would have cared a lot more about the company if the company had cared about us. The whole situation was unnecessary and counter-productive. There are some aspects of performance that can’t be measured or quantified.
We were unfortunate victims of a few horrible individuals who found some strange sadistic gratification in bullying their employees. Brittle egos so delicately inflated they constantly had to convince themselves that they were true captains of industry, gifted with insight and prescience not available to normal mortal men, steering their ships of commerce through rough economic waters. This from three brothers who didn’t even like music and wouldn’t know a tom tom from a tuba–or care, really. And here we are back to product and units. And this is how we live our lives. In increments and equations, divisible by bits and bytes, zeroes and ones.
So, with all this in mind, around came the email from Brendan with the heading Schadenfruede. First of all, his replacement in the Classical Music Whipping Boy position, abruptly quit after only a month on the job, citing Cloyd McWingo’s boorish behavior as the primary motivator. If you knew Cloyd, this would come as no surprise whatsoever. I had another sign on my cubicle wall that read: “Sidewalk of the Salted Slug,” a description of Cloyd’s solipsistic morning trudge through the office (on those rare days when he was actually in the office).
That revelation alone would have been enough to brighten any former employee’s day. But then thursday the news came down that Small Egg Roll lost a key component in their product line, when a long time supplier elected to have their high-margin product distributed elsewhere. So sad. What’s more, everyone in the Small Egg Roll organization was going to be compelled to take a 10-20% reduction in pay to stanch the bleeding, even management (!).
I feel bad for the regular employees there. That pay-cut will hurt the ten-dollar-an-hour wage slaves in the warehouse a lot more than it will the McWingo boys. You can be sure they’re looking out for number ones, and have their money socked away all over the place. But just the same, as someone whose life, going forward, has been irrevocably and royally screwed by their indiscriminate hateful piggery, all I can say is: good riddance.
As a brief update, I recently sent off my first query letters (emails actually) regarding my novel Unreal Gods to three legitimate literary agents. I haven’t heard back, nor is it reasonable for me to expect to, as emailed queries are not even given the dignity of rejection notices. But, as some may recall, the original assignment was to write a haiku describing in vivid detail the plot of the Bible. Here is my third installment.
The Bible III
Adam called to Eve
Baby, pick me an apple.
And that’s all she wrote.
All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.