“She’s got balls, and she’s from Liverpool,” says Rita Ora. “She speaks her mind and is not afraid of any powerful person in the male-dominatedmusic industry.” Ora is explaining why she credits her manager, Sarah Stennett, with making her a star – a relationship that began when Ora was an unknown 18-year-old, and has so far produced three No 1 singles and a chart-topping album. She’s the only one of Stennett’s clients who has time to talk to the Guardian, and then only by email, but her words would probably be echoed by Ellie Goulding, Conor Maynardand Iggy Azalea.
All are managed by Stennett’s Turn First Artists, a west London management/development agency described by Sony Records chairman Rob Stringer as “the alpha-female music company”. Turn First has just opened a New York office. “Iggy lives in LA, Rita is signed there – I’ve done 49 trips in the last four years,” Stennett says, leaning back on a sofa in her office and still sounding Scouse to the core.
And there’s more to Stennett’s portfolio: she also co-founded the law firm SSB, which represents Adele, and set up the songwriting/production team Invisible Men, which includes her husband, George Astasio – they’ve co-written some of the biggest pop hits of recent years, includingJessie J‘s Do it Like a Dude and the Noisettes’ Don’t Upset the Rhythm. But what makes her notable is that there are almost no other women at her level in the UK music industry. There are female managers, female A&Rs and female lawyers, but Stennett is all three, and one of the very few to have a roster of top acts. One wall in her office is lined with platinum discs for Ora, Jessie J, Olly Murs and the Sugababes: she’s either managed them or A&R-ed their records (the process of matching artists with the right producers and songs).
“In this business, sexism is rife,” she says. “There is an undercurrent. I went to a swanky dinner recently, and I was the only woman there, apart from female artists.” But it’s not as if the music industry is any worse than others, she adds cautiously. “Once you get into the higher echelons of any business, women are absent.”
True enough. Yet it says something that the only woman manager the public has probably heard of is Sharon Osbourne – who concentrates her attentions on The X Factor these days – while just a few others, such as the American hip-hop powerhouse Debra Antney, have more than one major artist. “That’s because it’s very tough. My success is attributable to the belief people have had in me, the support I’ve had.”
Support – including funding from Universal Records to develop new artists – came after she proved herself as a talent-spotter. After qualifying as a solicitor, her first job was with a music law firm, which led to the forming of SSB with her colleague Paul Spraggon. But in 1998 she was introduced to the Sugababes, then scrappy 14-year-olds hoping to benefit from the Spice Girls-spawned fad for girl groups. After brokering their first record deal, she realised she had a knack for recognising raw pop potential. She launched a management company, and a decade later employs 25 people. Management takes up most of her time these days; she’s still a partner at SSB, but does no day-to-day work with its celebrity clientele.
Three of her four co-directors at Turn First are female. “[Brit-soul singer] Liam Bailey called us the lionesses. He said: ‘You’re my fucking lionesses, looking after me’.” Having a board consisting mainly of women “just happened”, but it gives Turn First an edge in dealing with young, inexperienced performers. “It’s a very scary business for solo artists, and [managing them is] a big responsibility,” she says. “I don’t know if it’s a gender thing, but there are times when a female approach is successful. It’s a maternal approach. If you’re working with a 16-year-old artist, they’re in a developmental state. People fulfil their potential when they’re not scared and feel supported.”
It worked with Ora, whom she signed in 2009, when the singer was competing to represent the UK at that year’s Eurovision song contest in the TV show Your Country Needs You. Ora’s mother thought appearing on reality TV would kill her fledgling career, and asked Stennett to meet her daughter. “We met in a café. She was sat at a table, chewing her hair,” she remembers. “I looked at her and felt immediately there was something about her. I said, ‘If you can sing like you say you can, I’d walk out of that show’. She rang me the next morning and said ‘I’ve walked out’.” (Ora emails: “Let’s just say without her, I wouldn’t have made the decisions that I made to get us to this point.”)
Management is generally 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration, with managers expected to be surrogate parents, therapists and gatekeepers. And now they’re also forced to keep their artists relevant – increasingly difficult in an era when, thanks to the X Factor effect, a pop star’s life-cycle is often compressed into six months of ubiquity, followed by what Smash Hits used to call “the dumper”. Yet the much-maligned “big three” label groups (Sony, Universal and Warner) are still the most effective way to get a pop career off the ground, she maintains. They’re the only ones with both resources and knowhow, “the huge strategic thinking and expertise” needed to get emerging talent the right sort of exposure. Yet even the big three now expect new artists to have done much of the groundwork themselves. “Before a major will commit, they want to see signs of life. If you’ve got a record playing in a club, kids will Shazam it, and that shows on the Shazam chart.”
A large social media following also helps, presumably? “People once got obsessed over the number of Twitter followers, but some people have a blinding talent but no Twitter followers. Labels are looking for a Zane Lowe play [Radio 1's evening presenter is viewed as a crucial just-left-of-centre tastemaker] or a clip on YouTube that’s getting a lot of views, so they don’t feel so exposed.”
To bypass the majors, which are perceived as too risk-averse to invest in new bands – something Stennett disputes – many acts are now crowdfunding albums with fans’ money. She doubts it will take hold in a significant way. “I don’t think crowdfunding will be a big force. As much as people criticise labels, it’s very hard to break an act without label help.” One of her own clients, the once hotly-tipped VV Brown, is self-funding her new album through sync deals (licensing tracks to ad agencies), but Stennett still has faith in orthodox label-artist relationships.
“If you can get your fans to pay, then people will do it, but most artists want to be signed to a deal. I like to work with artists who are as ambitious as I am, and that requires significant funding.”
Education Deyes Lane school, Liverpool; Nottingham University
Career 1992 trainee, David Wineman Solicitors 1995 assistant, Hills Searle Solicitors 1996 set up SSB with Paul Spraggon 2000 launched Sugababes; partner in songwriting house Xenomania 2002 Freak Like Me Sugababes’ first No 1 2004 Turn First Artists 2012 Rita Ora first No 1, RIP, and album
• This article was amended on 2 December 2013 to remove a reference to Adele’s album 19 going platinum in 2008. As explained in the article itself, Stennett does not manage Adele, although the law firm she co-founded, SSB, does represent her