“I look to the stars – they are still shining from a million years away. There is hope. I am a believer.”
Sally Anne Gross is a lawyer, a music manager, a music publisher, a label head, an academic professor, a mother, an activist and so much more. She’s managed artists and writers who have charted big time, yet she doesn’t talk about it. The Gotan Project, William Orbit, Adamski, Urban Cookie Collective – these are just some of the artists she’s worked with. Clients of hers also include Fiona Bevan, who wrote the One Direction song “Little Things”, Rollo Armstrong and Rob Dougan, who have worked with various artists such as Dido (Armstrong’s younger sister), Moby, U2 and many more.
A few months ago I came across a study led by Sally and Dr George Musgrave. They researched whether music makes you sick. After months of talking with musicians and music business professionals, they found out that musicians are (maybe) more likely to suffer from depression or addiction. An artist myself, I was really excited when Sally confirmed the interview. I discussed topics with her like career success, feminism and mental health, and it left me wanting more in-depth conversations in my life. To me, Sally is at the top, and the top is where I want to be. To get on top, be more like Sally.
You studied Fine Arts and Law. Since the 90s, you’ve worked in the music industry as a manager of really successful writers & artists. On top of that, you’re the head of international business affairs for Ya Basta Records & Science et Melodie Publishing. I’d like to take you back to the start – how did you enter the music business? What was it that made you decide for it?
Well, it is funny you ask that question, because like so many people who end up working in the music business, a career in the music business was certainly not my original plan. I was hoping possibly to be a photographer/artist but I also had a young family and needed to earn money. So I started working in the music business sort of by accident. I had an old friend who was working with all kinds of different creative people; he was sort of being an agent, what we call in English a ‘wheeler-and-dealer’. To be honest, he was not all that honest! I worked with him, but I moved on pretty quickly.
I found myself doing a business course, while also working out of the design office of Neville Brody, which was a very exciting and vibrant place. I made lots of contacts there and significantly met a couple of businesswomen who encouraged me to set up on my own. By this time Virgin records were actually paying me to manage some acts for them, so I set up my first management company, as I had some of my own artists to manage, too. It was the start of the rave explosion; there was not one moment when I thought this is what I will do – it was just suddenly what I was doing.
I had some great support, especially from the first band I ever really managed, Chapter and The Verse from Manchester. These two guys, Aniff Akinola and Colin Thorpe, produced A Guy Called Gerald’s first album and the classic Voodoo Ray. In the end, we set up a record label. Although I had an office in West London I could also work from home a lot and did so – it was like a crazy family cottage industry. There were records everywhere in my house and musicians and Dj’s all working on stuff. Thinking about it now it seems like a crazy way to carry on, but it is what we did and I learnt by making lots of mistakes!
Ha! The infamous “learning by doing”. Did you, in the difficult moments, ever regret entering the field? For me, there are moments that I really want to give it all up and become a farmer or something. There are also moments that I really wish I were a man. Did you ever feel like that?
Oh totally – so many times. When I thought my family was being hurt by me working all the time, the pressure and mess this industry can be… constant demands of the business and working with people you love and hurting each other just because we are humans and make mistakes. It is very hard to keep a level head in this industry and to be careful – the business is reckless in its attitude and bad-mannered. What I call “macho music business bullshit”.
My favourite thing I have ever said in a meeting, which caused the room to fall into a deadly silence, was back in the 90s. I was at a breakfast meeting with a major music publisher that wanted me to do a sub-publishing deal with them. All the men had been playing golf before our meeting and I had been running to drop my kids at school and get across London to their offices. The men arrived very calmly and laughing and I was rushing out of breath. We sat down and then one of the men asked what one thing each of us would you like to improve in our life. When they got to me I just answered “a wife”.
“When you look up toward the higher positions, women become less and less represented, and apparently less paid too.”
You’re also the Program Director of the Masters in Music Business Management at the University of Westminster. Besides the six months I attempted to study engineering on a remote Greek island, I have no clue about academia. I’m curious about the representation of women in this world. What’s the percentage of women professors?
Well, when I worked in the Music Department there was only one other woman in a full-time position. So for Program Directors, it was a ratio of 1:4. Most university statistics show that there are a lot of women working, but when you look up toward the higher positions, women become less and less represented, and apparently less paid too!
And what’s the percentage of women who want to become music professionals?
This is a difficult one to answer for several reasons. What defines a music professional? It can be many things: from somebody working as a tech assistant in a live venue to a solo singer to the president of a major music entertainment corporation. The thing is, in the music business you have to look carefully at all the different areas of work… you have to dig deeper and ask what people are doing, where they are working – are they managers or assistants in supporting roles? From promotions to agents, the picture is rather consistent: the more powerful the position, the higher pay, the less women appear. BUT there are lots of women and lots of women doing great work.
A lot of women like me started out working for themselves, very DIY. Or they moved their careers forward by leaving major companies to start their own company or going freelance. I think that’s an inevitable strategy when routes to higher positions get blocked because of institutional and systemic inequality. We can see these patterns across all fields of cultural production – we all make culture, from our food to our customs – enterprise develops around these areas of human activity.
What is significant under current neo-liberal capitalism is what the philosopher and biologist Donna Harraway calls ‘white male Eurocentric power’. ‘Capitalist Man with a capital M’ becomes the hegemonic centre – it is as if the world itself was created in his image! This of course is not the case and the world is full of many different species and people that have lived side-by-side and co-habited for eons. But now history has been conflated into one mega narrative in which Capitalist Man is central. So I am angry, bored often, exhausted, but still ready to continue the struggle – there is work to be done! ☺
“Misogyny is a major driver in every dimension of our external lives and internal psyche – I am with Foucault on this!”
You’ve excelled in all fields you’ve been involved in and managed to get on top. Yet it’s not that often that we see women in key positions. Why is that? Do you see any light at the end of the tunnel?
All of the above. By the way, I never feel on top! I always feel way behind. I love to work WITH people in collaborations – actually, I hate to work alone. I love having a gang of people around to bounce ideas off of and getting things done. Often messy, crazy stuff, but things come out of these moments of collaboration. I am instinctively against the solo path; I like time alone, but I prefer dancing with people, playing and talking, eating, being social – we are here together. I look to the stars; they are still shining from a million years away. There is hope. I am a believer.
Did you ever feel you were treated especially differently because you’re a woman?
Oh yes, of course. Too many times. And now as an older woman, you become invisible. It is almost a superpower! As an older woman, you can walk into a room and just move around unnoticed. I have enjoyed the ‘woman’ things at times in my live – being pregnant and a mother. But I am very aware of the performance of gender. It’s like living inside somebody else’s skin. Misogyny is a major driver in every dimension of our external lives and internal psyche – I am with Foucault on this!
The University of Westminster has been the home of your & Musgrave’s research on mental health within the music scene. Thank you for starting raising awareness on this. What exactly triggered this study?
I had been trying to get this research of the ground since 2014, but it’s hard to find money, of course! I started to write about this, because, sadly, I witness too many deaths, suicides, overdoses, and I’ve been seeing people around me going to the hospital or prison. Generally, it’s also hard to get people to empathize with musicians, as they are often perceived to be not “working”. There is an element of resistance against the “artist”.
Our existence is temporal; I think very much of generations and the impact of stories and collective meanings. I think this setting is one of ultra-fragmentation and this affects our very beings. So for the artists – those that have chosen to engage properly in reflective thinking and action and creative work – this fragmentation has profound effects. When confronted with the fragmentation caused by what Jode Dean calls Communicative Capitalism – a setting in which everything in the media space becomes content – messages circulate without connection or understanding.
In this setting, creativity becomes part of a vast data-making machine that works to destabilize social cohesion – it’s only interested in the numbers. So, for example, somebody could be talking online about Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, but it doesn’t matter what they are saying. The only thing that matters is how many people are “talking” about it, because that is the business of Google or Facebook etc. And this happens all over music, too. So music is not the focus, but the ‘noise’ around music or the ‘talk’ about the artist is. Sorry if this sounds too academic!
“Mass media is made by and for the white man.”
Not at all! In the past year many men have come forward sharing their struggles with depression, addiction or stress. From Moby to Zayn Malik to the super successful EDM producer Avicii, who even announced his retirement, we’ve seen men opening up and earning the sympathy of the masses. Why do you think it’s been mostly male musicians or producers talking about mental health?
Because they get more headlines. When men are “emotional” it’s bigger news, since to be a woman is “to be emotional and unstable”.
So does society allow men to be weak more than to women?
I just think that mass media is made by and for the white man. Media reflects their position in power – all women and any non-hetero capitalist man, any “others” are less appreciated both in terms of media space and time. I don’t actually think it is about men being seen as weak – it is seen as part of an on-going romantic struggle of the artist, the struggle of individualism as the core ideology of capitalism. Women and all “others” are struggling here: to be heard, to survive, to stay alive. Look at how women have been playing a central role in #blacklivesmatter. I do not think women are being silent, but I think they may be being silenced and ignored and ridiculed – women’s resistance has long been neutralized in this way.
“Take care to be good to the people you work with and take time off – be good to yourself too.”
I just watched a video that stated that in the future, when many jobs will be done by robots, women are more likely to be working than men. What do you think about that? Could that mean that in 100 years the roles will be reversed and men will be the ones fighting for equality?
Well, if this shit does not change, women will of course be working – but so will many people of both sexes of colours. Who will be the non-working men? This is about systems of domination and oppression – that is what we should be fighting together to end, to survive on this planet.
Fair enough. To end our chat, what’s your advice to a young woman who wants to climb up the career ladder?
Do what you want to do, and try to learn as much as you can about the thing that you want to do. Do not take ‘no’ for an answer! Do not be afraid to ask questions or to admit you do not know. Make good friendships, take care to be good to the people you work with and take time off – be good to yourself too.
Thank you, Sally Anne Gross!
Headerimage: Woman playing Music from Shutterstock