CEOs / Founders / Interviews

Balancing the Grind with Paul Campbell, Founder & CEO of Amazing Radio

Paul Campbell, Founder & CEO of Amazing Radio, an international radio station first broadcast in 2009, which also owns the New York-based music festival CMJ.

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1) To kick things off, could you tell us a little about your career background and current role?

I’m the founder & CEO of Amazing Radio, the home of new music. We help the world’s best emerging talent get discovered, and operate two radio stations in the USA and UK which play 100% new music. We also own the New York-based music festival CMJ.

I have worked in media since I left Oxford University, initially at the BBC where I was a management trainee and then a radio & TV Producer. I started my first company a couple of weeks after my thirtieth birthday and I’ve been launching things and trying to make my ideas take flight ever since.

I am also a working musician; I have played the drums for money since I was eleven years old. Classical music at first, then jazz, rock and recording sessions.

I’ve played in every venue imaginable, from the Royal Albert Hall, Ronnie Scott’s and Marquee Club in London, to jazz clubs in the West Village, to recording sessions at BBC Maida Vale, and dozens upon dozens of small clubs. So Amazing puts all of that stuff together – entrepreneurship, music and media.

My job is to make sure the business keeps growing and keeps innovating. It’s incredibly creative and satisfying and I am surrounded by stunningly good colleagues who are much better at everything than I ever was, or ever could be.  

2) What does a day in the life look like for you? Can you take us through a recent workday?

Ha! Well, because of COVID, my current work days are a million miles different from normal!  These days I wake up in my farmhouse in the English countryside, catch up on emails, do some calls, then go outside and cut some grass or split some logs or build a shed, or something similarly rufty tufty.

Then when America wakes up I’m back on the Zoom calls with my colleagues and shareholders in the States, usually until pretty late. Somewhere in the middle of that I always do some drum practice (those paradiddles don’t make themselves.)

Prior to that, I had two kinds of existences. In an English week, I would go into our global HQ Amazing Towers, which is where our studios are based, and talk to colleagues, listen to recent uploads, chat to investors and shareholders and be generally business-y.

Then every other week, I would be in the States, always in New York, often in other cities where we have people or were making deals, doing the same kind of things, but with more jet lag. But there were compensations! Going to gigs every night in New York or Nashville, that kind of thing. 

Because of the transatlantic travel ban, I have not been to the States since March 2020 which is an unimaginably long time. I fervently hope to be able to pop across the pond again soon. I miss the people, the energy, my friends, and the weather.

3) Does your current role allow for flexible or remote working? If so, how does that fit into your life and routine?

It allows for very flexible and completely remote working, and has done since lockdown – although there is little reason not to continue working from home a lot when normal life returns.

I think all of my guys miss being together, so none of us would want to be only working from home, because of the lack of camaraderie, as well as the absence of those sudden moments of brilliant creativity which happen over the water cooler or in the queue for a sandwich.

Certainly my job can be done around 95% remotely, and indeed it often was prior to Covid, when I was in one of my US weeks and managing our UK people remotely. 

Because I’m an entrepreneur, I would find it very difficult not to be self-scheduling, and flexible working has been my main approach for decades. It’s the fact that I am now more remote that’s different, which is a mixed blessing, for the reasons given.

4) What does work-life balance mean to you and how do you work to achieve that goal?

I think it took me forty years to work that out. When I was a young, thrusting and fiercely ambitious TV producer, I was totally content sitting in an edit suite until three in the morning, keeping going, making the edit just that little bit better.

Long hours, no days off, and no holidays were fine by me, because I loved what I was doing. It was hugely satisfying at the time, and I felt that being able to do a job I loved led to a perfectly balanced life (even if it was not very balanced really!).

It was satisfying, if not ‘balanced’ in a conventional way. My escape in those days came from skiing. I used to teach skiing, so in the winter I would take a week off from directing and producing and pop over to the Alps for a week at a time, to teach a group of skiers in some gobsmackingly beautiful place.

So I guess that over the course of a year I achieved a balance, although when I was hard at it working on a film, that was all I ever did. 

Then when I had kids, all of that changed and I began to understand the virtues of delegation for the first time. Now that I am older and the business is more mature, work-life balance comes from having the ability to get mental separation from the daily issues of work.

As a very wise friend once said ‘don’t work IN your business, work ON your business.’ That one sentence is the beginning of wisdom for an entrepreneur, as it makes you realise your job is not to do stuff, but to make sure stuff happens.

So today I try not to dive into the details of the business and instead trust my brilliant colleagues to do the right thing (and to tell me when they are worried about something.) That allows me to focus more on growth and strategy.

If I face a tricky business issue, I don’t do what I used to do – sit down and think about it furiously, until I get a headache, trying to force an answer to appear.

Now, I usually solve it by doing something else – playing music, rowing, mountain biking, tending to my land. It’s amazing how not actively thinking about a problem allows the right answer to appear, as if by magic, whereas sitting down trying to force a decision leads to worse conclusions, achieved with more pain and less mature reflection. 

5) In the past 12 months, have you started or stopped any routines or habits to change your life?

I started rowing. I have had a rowing machine for years, but had never been in a boat until last year. My teenage son started rowing and so I started to learn to keep him company.

I love it, it’s the closest thing I know to playing in an orchestra or band, the sense of teamwork, the need to listen to and be sensitive to what others are doing and the rhythm of it all as we pursue a shared goal (of not capsizing!).

And the physical benefits, not just of the exercise but also being close to water, are wonderful. I row on the River Tyne in Northumberland which is an incredibly beautiful place.

As we skim along the water, close to a 12th Century stone bridge, in a gorgeous stretch of river between mature trees, with no sound but the splashing of the blades and the squeak of our seats, a salmon might suddenly leap out of the water, or a kingfisher fly overhead, eyeing us suspiciously. It’s been a wonderful corrective to lockdown, and opened up a new dimension in life.

I have also started playing every week in a jazz trio (piano/bass/drums) with some very talented friends. We all have a lot of experience, all work professionally, and met in a big band, but big bands were not really all that viable in lockdown!

So we formed a trio, and met, socially-distanced by our instruments, to see what would happen. Over the past year we have melded in a quite wonderful way, finding we understand each other and what we are likely to do when improvising, instinctively.

Sometimes that leads to exceptionally quiet playing. Sometimes we all suddenly jump from one time signature to another, without ever planning it or even signalling it, and then back again. Sometimes we laugh out loud, spontaneously, because we are so much on the same wavelength.

It’s been a real joy. When so much performance was banned in lockdown, the ability to work together every week has been very special. And our first livestreamed gig, from a small jazz club in Newcastle, England, had more viewers globally than would ever have fitted into the venue.  

Both those activities have changed life for the better.  They’re keepers. Though I can’t wait to go skiing and get back in an orchestra or big band too.

6) Do you have any favourite books, podcasts or newsletters that you’d like to recommend?

I don’t listen to podcasts very much. As an ex-BBC producer I get all my news and information from BBC Radio 4, all of which is available globally.

I read the New York Times, Washington Post and London Times every day, but BBC Radio 4 still to me has the best and most impartial news coverage, and their science and arts programmes are fantastic.

I read voraciously, a big mix of English literature (often re-reading things I studied at university), biographies and books about drumming. Yes, there are some! 

Above all I recommend everyone who is reading this, listen to Amazing Radio. You won’t hear any music you have ever heard before, but you will hear a huge variety of brand new music, all of it carefully selected by our wonderful, expert and musical staff. It will set your ears on fire!

We discovered countless artists, from Alt J to Haim, London Grammar to Bastille, The 1975 to Wolf Alice, Dua Lipa to Arlo Parks. Tune in and you will hear the next global stars, first.

7) Are there any products, gadgets or apps that you can’t live without?

My iPhone is the centre of my working life. I use my MacBook Pro for hard things like spreadsheets and video editing, but everything else happens on my phone. I have stopped using Facebook as I do not like its global dominance and the harmful impact it has on politics.

I use WhatsApp reluctantly, and prefer Facetime Audio and Video, partly because I trust Apple more than any other tech company. Our internal chat system Amazing Chat is based on Mattermost and is the centre of all our working lives.

My Fitbit tells me if I am exercising and sleeping enough. My John Deere Gator keeps the farm working. My Evans RealFeel practice pad and Vator Traditional 7A drum sticks go with me on every business trip. And don’t get me started about Gretsch drums and Bosphorus cymbals… 

8) If you could read an interview about work-life balance by anyone, who would that be?  

Elon Musk – but for the wrong reason! He seems to have zero work-life balance and it would be fascinating to hear if he can even talk about the subject, if he realises he needs to sort himself out and get more perspective.

I know he’s a genius, but I think it comes at too high a cost. I find it difficult to believe his businesses will sustain, given how he approaches life. He must already be close to being totally burned out.  

Richard Branson tried to buy my business in 2008 and I have always marvelled at how he manages to keep that family of brands going, despite seemingly always being on a jet ski.  Amazing is in many ways modelled on Virgin, so it was ironic when they tried to buy us.

I don’t feel the need to buy an island or blast into space (why are all these billionaires so desperate to do that? Have they never heard of climate change?) but I think he does that ‘working on, not working in’ thing brilliantly. 

9) Do you have any last thoughts on work, life or balance that you’d like to share with our readers?

Only to recommend that we all learn from the pandemic, and remember not to sweat the small stuff.  All of us suddenly found our busy lives came to a crashing halt.

When normal life returns for real (which seems a long way off, here in England in July 2021), let’s try to remember how quiet it was during lockdown, and how beautiful the birdsong was: and let’s find some time to pause, and reflect on what’s really important to us.

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About Author

Hey there! I'm Hao, the Editor-in-Chief at Balance the Grind. We’re on a mission to showcase healthy work-life balance through interesting stories from people all over the world, in different careers and lifestyles.