“For any Disabled person, you can feel, sometimes, as if the shutters have come down and your world is totally narrowed. At times it's mentally isolating and you have to find all kinds of emotional coping mechanisms. I’ve managed to do exactly what I wanted to do and I’m not a full, able-bodied person firing on all cylinders. If that message could go out to somebody that needs it, that would be great.”
Written by Chloe Johnson, as part of Youth Music Next Gen.
The first thing I notice about Sam Denniston is that his story involves other people, and he’s unabashed about it. When you think of a musician, rock star or entrepreneur, they usually seem to exist in a vacuum that involves only them and their undeniable talent. Sam is undeniably talented, but he is, however, more than open about how his company, Verdigris Management (which is French for a colour slightly between green and blue that occurs on copper, Sam was only too happy to tell me), came about through a connection with other people, rather than a lack of it:
“It was born, ultimately, because I wasn’t a very good songwriter. I had a good crack at it, but there was no beating about the bush. It was that, coupled with the fact that when I was touring, I went through a period of time where I had a pretty bad relapse in my disease, which is a neurological condition. Bimonthly infusion treatments don’t really work with touring because I had to keep coming home to receive treatment, and then there’s the fatigue from the actual treatment itself. So, when I came back to London, I had a caring friend who had this production company - Blink Productions - and he was aware I was in a bad state and would benefit from a job, and that's where I found a different side to me.”
Sam enjoyed the management side to the music industry more than he anticipated, setting up a management company out of Blink where he worked in the music department, learning by a process of osmosis. He was fortunate enough to go for a drink with a band who were struggling, and who Sam eventually helped to become Jungle.
Verdigris Management has shot to even higher heights since, with exciting new ventures including a Hot Chip collaboration with Jarvis Cocker, an American manager bringing in a brand new roster and working with Priya Ragu who, in Sam’s words, is “really starting to set the world on fire”. It really is no wonder that Sam is regarded as being at the top of his game. The prospect of inspiring other Disabled people to follow in his footsteps is something Sam is passionate about:
“When I was 16, my life was changed with this diagnosis. For any Disabled person, you can feel, sometimes, as if the shutters have come down and your world is totally narrowed. At times it’s mentally isolating and you have to find all kinds of emotional coping mechanisms. A big coping mechanism is to lock in to work, but you do have to allow yourself to feel emotionally receptive to change - some disabilities allow you to think about feelings in different ways. I’d encourage other people to be able to say “Look, this isn’t the end”, and you can do anything you want.
“There are some amazing musicians out there to take inspiration from, but on the industry side of things I’m less aware of other people who have disabilities, or who publicly speak about them, so that’s why I’d like to discuss it.
“I have managed to do exactly what I wanted to do and I’m not a full able-bodied person firing on all cylinders. If that message could get out to anyone who needs it, that would be great. You have to have this belief that you can do it, speak up a little, say you’re struggling and believe in your talent.”
Reflecting on the Youth Music Reshape Music report, which explores Disabled musicians’ experiences of music education and beyond, Sam is invigorated by the realness of the comments included:
“Nobody has ever sat down and asked Disabled musicians what the barriers are: what a lot of able-bodied people think the issues are, are actually different in reality. In particular, the idea of choice of instrument - the question asked shouldn’t be what can you do, but really what do you want to do, and how can we make that happen. Obviously, you have to be realistic, but the aim is to get everyone as close to equal opportunity as possible.”
Sam is keen to continue the conversation that the Reshape Music report kicked off. As an employer it’s opened up ideas about disability that he had not even considered. What’s important, Sam says, is that communication of everyone's needs should be at the forefront.
“We need more regular check-ins and more awareness. Disability covers a huge array of symptoms and there are nuances to these issues, depending on whether your disability is physical or mental and so on. It’s all about allowing people to have time and space to think about what they need. Disabled people have the best understanding of their needs, and they need the chance to communicate that.
“The thing I really liked about the Reshape Music report is that the voices were so varied and there were so many problems highlighted... we just need more conversations. And we need able-bodied people to engage with the conversation as well.”
Sam is enthusiastic about the idea that Disabled isn’t a bad word. He says, “No one will judge you for being Disabled. At least, nobody you’d want to work with. I didn't want to disclose my disability because I thought it gave off that air of instability, but that's a mad thing to think - the world can be supportive. As an employer, it's about being passionate about the arts in general - it really doesn’t matter what mental or physical state you’re in - if you have passion, they’ll want you to be a part of it.”
He encourages fellow Disabled musicians to speak up about what they need, but he also encourages able-bodied people within the industry to not be afraid to speak out and say the wrong thing:
“I wish people weren’t so worried about saying the wrong thing. I would like people to understand it's never an offensive question if it’s genuine - that's when they can make real progress.”
The word ‘pivot’, or variations of it, come up a lot during our conversation. It is clear Sam is a person who adapts to challenges, new information and new ways of thinking, pivoting on an ever-turning wheel of ideas. What he seems to advocate for most is a sense of fluidity and kindness; just because the music industry has had barriers for Disabled people - and that’s the way it’s been so far - doesn’t mean it can’t change.
“We should be constantly working to see how we can meld the world together to get [Disabled people] as close to their dreams as possible. There has to be that open dialogue.”
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