Interview with SARAH STENNETT, management for Ellie Goulding, Rita Ora, Jessie J, Conor Maynard (part 1) - Jan 21, 2013
“You can smell a chance. It’s about knowing when to go, when to press the button ...”
The common link between breakout stars Ellie Goulding (UK No.1, US No.2), Jessie J (UK No.1, US Top 10), Rita Ora (UK No.1) and Conor Maynard (UK No.1, US Top 40) is the guiding hand of label head, manager and artist development mastermind Sarah Stennett. For the first in an exclusive two-part interview, the Turn First Artists CEO talks to HitQuarters about preparing young artists for their big shot at chart breakthrough, including matchmaking Rita Ora with Roc Nation, and supporting Jessie following label liquidation.
How did you originally get involved in artist management?
I trained as a lawyer. I set up a law firm called SSB with my partner Paul Spraggon 15 years ago. That flourished and turned into many clients. I then got into artist management when a client (Ron Tom) turned up with two young girls that later became the Sugababes.
He needed some money to develop them. The original line up was only two (Siobhán Donaghy and Mutya Buena) and we brought in the third member. They were only 14 years old at the time. We signed the Sugababes to what now is referred to as a production 360° deal. It was at that point the management role started.
My role in artist management really came out of situations that looked like they weren't going to happen otherwise, or where there was no label interest.
For instance, there was another girl shortly after that called Jem that signed to ATO Records (Bruce Flohr). She was very much a studio artist and at that time there was no interest. She had a track that I liked and we developed a relationship. I introduced her to writers and producers and eventually I brought her sister on board who came to work for me and managed her with me. We did very well with the album (‘Finally Woken’). It was very organic; there was never a strategic decision.
Can you explain your approach as manager when working with new young artists?
It depends very much on the artist, but the basic thing is to first of all a get to know the artist; understand their character and personality and what environments they could flourish in and in what ways you can help them reach their potential and their goals.
Once you understand the artist you can then go and fill in the gaps. For example, if it's an artist that has trouble with lyrics then you can suggest people to work with. It's all about creating an environment that takes the pressure away from them and it’s about encouraging growth. It's like having a teenager and helping them grow up.
Is there someone you’re currently working with that can help illustrate this process?
We have got someone at the moment that we’re quite excited about, a guy called Dan Croll who recently went number one on The Hype Machine. Radio One had started to support him and we just released the single (‘From Nowhere’) independently. That’s very much how we started getting involved with Ellie Goulding. We just let it grow.
We left it for about three months to let him do his thing by himself and then he came to us and said that he was not moving forward in the right way. So, without any strings attached, we got him into a studio called The Pool in London. It’s like a sweet shop with everything he wanted in there. Because he's a very eclectic musician and writer, we left him in there with people that could help realize what he wanted to do and also help maintain the focus so that he doesn’t get too distracted. That’s real artist development.
Some days he found it very challenging and some days it went great. By the end of it, it will be a very productive artist experience as a whole and the results will speak for themselves.
When he comes out of the studio we will have a record that he is excited about and that the team of people here are excited about.
When we spoke to Jason Flom he credited you as an important factor in the Jessie J signing. Can you explain what your involvement was?
Jessie asked me to get involved very early on in her career when she signed with Jason Flom (HQ interview).
Once an artist gets signed it’s often such a major event that it leaves them feeling like, ‘What happens now?’ They expect everything to happen right away and that they’ll be on the radio the next day. Quite often it’s only really then that the real challenges come into play.
With Jessie we brought in Darcus Beese (HQ interview) at Island Records. As Jessie was based out of the UK it became clear that she needed to make the record here. Her former label (Gut Records) had gone into liquidation. She was very young at the time and so, with Jason’s blessing, Darcus and I set about A&Ring the album, supporting her, trying to realize her vision.
It created an album that was reflective of the artist and captured a moment in time. It's a very difficult task to do. It requires the artist to be sure of who they are and it requires the people around them to offer support and guidance in a way that the artist is responsive to.
Nobody likes being told what to do. But if you establish a relationship of trust and respect then they can lead the way and you just gently guide them along the road in the direction they want to follow.
With Jessie it was a genuine team effort. It was a great example of commitment by everyone. It was a very long process: a two-year job and three years to get a top 10 single in America.
How does it work having so many high level executives involved in a project? To maintain communication and make sure everyone is on the same page?
Jessie, Rita Ora, Ellie Goulding … all these projects have very high-level people involved. It's about people understanding what they are good at and what experience they have, knowing when to stand back, knowing when to come forward. There's going to be no ego. Nobody ever does it on their own. I've been very fortunate because I’ve worked with some amazing people, from Lucian [Grainge] to Doug Morris to Jay Brown (HQ interview).
By the time you reach this point you’ve got the experience. As executives, we’ve all be around the block, we’ve all made a lot of mistakes. It works well when everybody respects each other and each others’ time. It's not a job. It's an emotional commitment that everybody makes. Everybody involved in any project like that is always on the phone day and night making sure the project is delivered.
I have team of people who work with me and they do the details. I couldn't tell you what date the remixes are going to be delivered. You can't know everything about every artist campaign from start to finish but you can have an overall strategy. At a senior level you agree the strategy and then you are responsible for the people who are implementing the strategy you have agreed on.
How did you find Ellie Goulding?
There is an amazing gentleman who works with me called Jamie Lillywhite. He contacted me about a job. I think he’d left Universal the year earlier.
I was literally just in to see him for 10 minutes. He had a CD in his hands that I never actually looked at. But I was so impressed by the way he presented himself; there was just something about him that I really, really liked. I said to him, “Come in tomorrow and we can work together. Just go out and find something you love. There's no pressure, no timeline, I'm just going to be here to support you when you find that thing.”
About six months later he called and said he’d found an artist he really liked and that he was going to go and see. He then called me from the gig. He was so excited. He said, “This is the thing I want to do. I want to manage Ellie Goulding. She's amazing but she's going back to university tonight.” I said to him, “Listen, if you're that passionate about it then let’s go in tomorrow and talk about it.”
So he brought Ellie in to our office and she came in with her guitar and sang for me. I just said, "Let's do it! We’ve got a flat for you to live. You have to leave university." She packed up her stuff and came down to London.
Jamie is the key man. He A&Rs the album as well. He's a great example of the development of great talent. He is now a very key person across my whole business.
At what stage in her career was Ellie when he discovered her? Was there any kind of industry interest?
There was no interest and she didn't have a deal. At that point the key record wasn't even born. She was just at university. It was very early days and she needed help. But she already had a very clear sense of who she was. Jamie introduced her to Starsmith and set up a Neon Gold release with some friends of his.
How did you get involved with Rita Ora
Her mother contacted me and told me she was worried about Rita's career. She was very young at the time. She was 17. I had an hour meeting with Rita. I sat down with her in a cafe in Notting Hill and asked her what she wanted to do.
At the time she wanted to enter the Eurovision Song Contest (2009) because she felt it was the only choice she had. I felt she was a star and so said to her, “If you want to make it then you should leave the Eurovision Song Contest. That is just a no go. And if you want to do it, I'll be here.” She rang me the next day.
What was it about her that convinced you to take her on?
I took her on because of her star quality. That was it. I hadn’t heard Rita sing. I said to her, "Can you sing?" and she said, "Yeah." I said, "Can you sing better than anyone you know?" and she said, "Yeah." I could hear it in the tone of her speaking voice and said to her, “If you can sing better than anyone you know and if you really believe in yourself, I suggest you don’t do the Eurovision Song Contest.”
There was something about her and that has always been the thing for me: take opportunities. You can smell a chance. It’s about knowing when to go, knowing when to press the button.
How were you involved creatively with Rita Ora?
A track called ‘Hot Right Now’ written by DJ Fresh and the Invisible Men, who have a studio here, was the launch single in the UK. That was actually made in the office here. I said to her, “We have a great track here, this is something you should listen to!” We then played it to Rob Stringer and Nick Gatfield and everybody loved it. Jessie J's song ‘Do It Like A Dude’ was made in the studio here in the office as well actually.
I'm particularly interested in the key steps that are made from the moment you sign something to the launch …
It's all about the record and choosing that record is just instinct. When we had ‘Do It Like A Dude’ with Jessie J, there was no question in my mind that that was the record to go with for the launch in the UK. It was the same with Rita Ora’s first single ‘Hot Right Now’.
When we got 'Hot Right Now’ we knew this was our chance. You can only keep people's attention for so long. If you have people’s enthusiasm you want that ball of energy to move forward. Once you smell that chance, it's the right chance. Once you are confident with the record and that the artist can deliver it, that's when you have to pull everyone together as a team and say, “Right, we are pressing the button.” I’ve said that to several artists that I've been involved with. When I say that what I mean is, this is it. Start running! We are moving forward.
What are the next steps once you’ve “pressed the button”?
If you have the right record the wheel starts turning automatically. Once you’ve got the record everybody is onboard with it. I mean, sometimes you get dissent, there will always be people that go, "Uhh … I'm not sure whether that's going to work." But it’s about having a sense of conviction about the decision. If you have the artist believing that it is the right record and you totally believe it as the manager or label, then it's everybody else's job to make it happen.
From there we start talking about the positioning: radio and how we deliver the record to radio. With Jessie and Rita it was about introducing it to the market in the right way – not by pushing it down people's throats. We’ve won the BBC Sound Poll twice in consecutive years with my team of people here, with Ellie and with Jessie.
And that is all about strategy, how we break an artist. You start with a great record and if it’s truly great, it's going to be accepted by the tastemakers.
What is Roc Nation’s part in the Rita Ora project and how did they get involved?
They are the label and they are released through Sony. Like Lava Records with Jason Flom, which is released by Republic Records.
There was a major label interested here in the UK here but for one reason or another it didn't quite happen. Jay Brown found out about Rita and rang me because we had been talking to him about suitable producers for Rita. I’d done some work with them before. He called me in November (2009) and said, “We want to fly Rita out and sign her to our label. We’ve just set up the label with Sony and we want to meet her.”
As a 17-year-old girl Rita was super excited to meet Jay Z. But it nearly never happened. As it was very close to Christmas we were supposed to postpone the meeting until the New Year. I had a conversation with Jay and said to him, "Look, you should get in immediately. It doesn't matter if it's just a quick meeting. Just do it and see what you think."
They agreed and flew her out there and within 48 hours we did the deal. They were in absolutely no doubt the moment they met her. Jay Brown and Jay Z saw the potential and said, “Let's do it!”
[A&R] Ty (Tyran Smith) has been incredible with her. He’s given Rita the space to develop into the artist she is now. I have the utmost respect for the whole Roc Nation team. Rita really needed the time and she was given that.
Why were Roc Nation a good match for her?
When we had that chance with Roc Nation I knew they would be the perfect partners for Rita as a label. There was that initial interest and if there is the interest then let's just close it. I knew that if they saw this girl they were going to be blown away.
I really believe that as an artist you get chances and they are all windows for you to do things.
*Tune into the second part of the interview where Sarah Stennett talks about the creative development of Conor Maynard and the difficulties Ellie Goulding and Rita Ora face in balancing multiple territories*
Interviewed by Jan Blumentrath
Read On ...
* Second part of the Sarah Stennett interview focuses on Conor Maynard
* Interview with Roc Nation manager and A&R Jay Brown
* Island co-president Darcus Beese on A&Ring Amy Winehouse
* Jason Flom on the strategy for turning Jessie J into a superstar