MBW’s Inspiring Women series profiles female executives who have risen through the ranks of the business, highlighting their career journey – from their professional breakthrough to the senior responsibilities they now fulfil. Inspiring Women is supported by Ingrooves.
By the time we speak to Jacqueline Saturn at 8.30am in LA, she’s been up since 5am and has already walked her two dogs, worked out, caught up on emails coming from the UK overnight, cooked her daughter eggs for breakfast and taken a call from the Virgin Music Label & Artist Services New York office.
For anyone who values sleep, her morning might sound hellish, but for Saturn, those early hours before the potential chaos begins are precious. “You have to have that one thing you can do every day for yourself, whatever makes you feel good, that’s going to make it feel okay,” she says.
“Then you can take care of everyone else and you can deal with the stress or people yelling or whatever. By the time I start my day, I’m like, ‘Okay, I’m ready to jump into it all.’”
These days, Saturn has good reason to brace herself for a long day ahead. At the beginning of last year, she was named President of UMG’s Virgin Music Label & Artist Services when it rebranded from Caroline and launched operations in various new territories.
Since then, the division has signed a global partnership with Australia’s Mushroom Group, established feet on the ground in the Western Balkans region, Australia and Brazil, and signed deals with the likes of Primary Wave Music, Range Media Partners and multiple regional labels.
In 2022 and beyond, there’s no signs of slowing down. “We have very big plans for this year,” Saturn says.
“There are always new developments, new people that we’re talking to, releases coming out and artist and label partners raising their hand in territories that make us excited. Virgin will only continue to grow and remain a dominating force in the distribution world.”
“We have very big plans for this year. Virgin will only continue to grow and remain a dominating force in the distribution world.”
Projects to look out for under the brand include the new album from recently signed Lauv (whose previous deal was with AWAL) and fruits of new partnerships with Nashville talents Jillian Jacqueline, Lauren Weintraub and Tyler Dial.
There’s also new music set to come from Texas band Surfaces, via a partnership with 10K Projects, and rapper NF — a “global priority” for Virgin as well as Capitol Christian Music Group, says Saturn.
Saturn has spent almost ten years at Universal, during which time she’s led Harvest Records as co-GM and Caroline as President.
Prior to that, she spent two decades at Sony, spanning senior roles at Epic Records while working with artists including Pearl Jam, Oasis, Rage Against The Machine, Sara Bareilles, Incubus, Korn, Audioslave and Fiona Apple.
Saturn caught the music bug while growing up in Nashville. As a child, she’d get her fix by listening to an old clock radio in her bedroom while filling journals with lyrics by her favourite artists at the time, including Shaun Cassidy, Paul McCartney, The Eagles and The Beatles.
“Other people were reading Nancy Drew mystery novels and I was listening to songs over and over and trying to work out what they were really saying,” Saturn remembers.
“I still feel the same way — I get so excited to hear songs by an artist I work with or that I’m passionate about and I’m the person who goes to shows, pretty religiously.”
At high school, Saturn fell in love with alternative music through R.E.M., The Bodines and The Cure and by the time she went to college, she was dead set on working in the business.
After graduating from Syracuse University, she moved to New York, took a job as a paralegal to tide her over and spent the rest of her time pounding the pavements, trying to find a route in.
Eventually, a family friend tipped her off about a receptionist job at Savage Records, she went to the interview and demanded they hire her.
Saturn remembers: “They were interviewing so many people and said, ‘We’re going to call you next week’. I wasn’t even that brave at the time but I was like, ‘No, this is a one-time offer, you have to hire me. I’m the one for the job, I promise, I can’t wait for a week.’”
The boldness paid off — after a quick deliberation in the meeting room, the “guys in suits” agreed. Savage ended up folding within two years but thanks to a relationship with Michael Jackson’s manager at the time, the late Frank DiLeo, who worked in the label’s management division, Saturn landed on her feet.
“He’d be like, ‘Hey hon, can you grab me a sandwich?’ or ‘Hey hon, do you mind mailing this?’ It was that kind of vibe but it was respectful,” she says. “[When the company folded] he was like, ‘This girl’s a worker and I’m going to help her, I’m going to get her to the right place’.”
That right place ended up being Epic, where DiLeo had worked with Jackson, and Saturn’s career was set.
Here, we chat to her about ambitions at Virgin, lessons learned across her career, the evolution of the distribution space and much more besides.
What are your ambitions in your new role and for Virgin generally?
It’s such an exciting time for us. We have had proof of concept in being what we believe is the best label services company in the world and when you have this vision of how the company can operate globally and see those things coming to fruition, there are no boundaries.
“I want us to be known as artist friendly and for artist development. that’s so important to what we do.”
Like most businesses, we are interested in scaling and becoming even mightier and there’s a lot of opportunities for us to do that. But I also always want us to have a really good reputation. I want us to be known as artist friendly and for artist development, because that’s so important to what we do. You always hear other people say, ‘We do artist development’ but do you? Because we really do. We care about all the steps in the very beginning and being able to tell those stories.
Here’s a big question — what are the most important lessons you’ve learned across your career to date?
If I could tell anything to my younger self, it would be, ‘Sometimes you can sit on an opinion for a minute’. I just had an experience with someone yesterday where there was a little bit of a situation and they wanted to blast this email. I was like, ‘Don’t send that, send it to yourself. You need to take a minute, you need to count to 10, it’s too hot.’
You learn not to fly off the handle because sometimes, when you have a difference of opinion, it’s just a difference of opinion. It’s not personal. People are so set in, ‘I’m right’ or ‘This is right’ but we’re all right because we have an opinion on it. So taking a minute to breathe and realise that there are always two sides to a story and just think before you say something — that’s one thing I really feel is important and I have to do for myself also.
With artists, and I didn’t have to learn this because I’ve worked with the best of the best, they know best. I got to learn that early on because I worked with phenomenal artists like Pearl Jam and Rage Against the Machine and Korn — they had this vision and it wasn’t like anyone else’s. They were like, ‘This is the song we want to put out first’ and it was like cool, it’s their art, we’re going to rock with this. You have to trust them and they will usually steer you in the right direction.
You’ve held many senior roles across your career. What are the attributes that make a good leader?
You have to lead by example. I think about a woman like Polly Anthony, who was one of the first female executives and she was cool. She would go out with us to shows and take us to dinner and embrace us, but not always, she’d walk down the hall and you would be too scared to look at her sometimes. But for the things that involved the artists, she embraced us.
I’m always one of those people who wants to be with everyone. I want to go to the shows with everyone, I want to get to know everyone and I want them to know they’re all important because they are. Everyone on staff can make a difference and they’re allowed to have an opinion, I don’t want it to be like, ‘The higher levels matter more’ because I don’t believe that.
“Being a leader, you have to handle a lot of things that aren’t always fun. The success stories are great but the hard conversations are how you really learn.”
Also, when you have that relationship with the team, it’s a lot easier to have the conversation that might be uncomfortable. Being a leader, you have to handle a lot of things that aren’t always fun and being able to do that is what makes you a good leader. The success stories are great but the hard conversations are how you really learn. I find that I can do both because I’ve already built those relationships with people and there’s a level of respect on both sides.
YOU PREVIOUSLY SAID distribution companies haven’t historically been seen as the ‘A players’. How has that perception evolved during your time at Caroline and now Virgin?
It’s completely not like that anymore, people love the space that we’re in. It’s such an opportunity to work with incredibly smart, driven people who have a vision. I do feel like we get bombarded a little bit with people who want to be part of what we’re doing and I’m so proud of that.
What impact have you seen the success of distribution companies like Virgin having on the more traditional label setups, if any?
The music business is wonderful because there’s places for everyone, whatever you are looking for. You could have been like me, wanting to learn the words to every song, or you could be holding a mic in the mirror when you’re eight and saying, ‘I’m going to be on Capitol Records’.
We’re in a space where the artists, the creatives, are building things and they own it and want to continue to do that. We provide that service to them because that is their choice of how they want to direct their careers. For us, it’s such an exciting time because there are so many incredible labels and independent artists that we get to partner with.
There is criticism that many artists who fall into the independent market category aren’t ‘truly’ independent due to them having distribution deals with companies that are major owned, which has been talked about recently after Sony’s buyout of AWAL. What do you make of that perspective?
I’m not really interested in that conversation because the artists are independent, they’re doing what they want to do, how they want to do it, calling the shots, having their vision and owning their masters. There are different kinds of partnerships and companies they are aligned with but when I look at it, it’s about them and what they’re doing.
“the artists are independent. they’re doing what they want to do, how they want to do it, calling the shots, having their vision and owning their masters.”
You’ve talked before about how male-dominated the culture was in music in your early career and as you know, there’s been a lot of work done to diversify the music business, especially on the executive side in recent years. What are the barriers that still remain when it comes to reaching true equality?
It’s certainly gotten so much better. When I look at the distribution companies, so many of them are run by women. My friend Colleen [Theis] at The Orchard is the COO and my friend Cat [Kreidich] is now running ADA. So there are three women running distribution companies and I don’t know if that’s ever happened before. I also look at Michelle Jubelirer, who was recently named Chair and CEO of Capitol Music Group.
There’s exciting things happening in the world and I think people are finally having to think differently about what it takes to be an executive. Also, there’s so many more girls who want to get into the music business. When I started, I was just one of the few girls and it was all guys. Now you see these incredible young women who want to be in the business — we have so many women who work at Virgin.
For the female executives out there, they’re not saying, ‘I can be an executive but I can’t have a family’ or ‘I can be this but I can’t be that’. I feel like it’s now finally way more normal for people to be able to do everything and people look up to that. It used to be the guys running the business and they had families but it didn’t affect them because they were the ones in charge. Now you have women that have partners, children, dogs and cats and people they have to take care of and it’s okay.
it seems like the pandemic has helped along a positive attitude to flexible working because everyone’s been at home and proven they can be just as productive…
I think a lot of us had a rude awakening during that time. For me, as a parent and an executive, I’m a parent to two sides — the people that work for me and my kids. I definitely had a look in the mirror at a lot of things that I wasn’t doing well and things that I regretted and made a commitment that I wasn’t going to do anymore because they had to be prioritised. Sometimes, people are like, ‘My family is my priority’ but are you doing all the things that make them feel like that? I learned a lot and it wasn’t fun. And I know I’m going to be much better now.
What changes have you made as a result of that learning?
The number one thing I always say, as a family member, is you have to communicate the schedule. It’s like, here’s the calendar, who’s doing what, and there are times where you have to make choices. I had it yesterday — there was [a work meeting] on my calendar and I had to go to the doctor with my daughter. I was like, ‘No, I’m going to this appointment’ but in the past, there was no way I would have done that. I would have gone to the lunch and I would have cancelled or figured out [the appointment]. There was always anxiety if I cancelled but you can’t do that anymore.
What’s the most exciting development happening in the music industry to you today?
Every day is exciting in the music industry because there are things happening all the time, whether it’s data analytics, what you can see, what you can learn, or artists doing incredible things. I know a lot of people want to talk about the metaverse and what’s going on there and I love that so many artists are at the forefront of these opportunities and doing things differently for their fans.
There are cities getting their shine, whether it’s what’s going on in Nashville, Atlanta or Miami, and that’s just the United States. I’m looking forward to finally getting to Korea and going to see everything that’s going on in Brazil and Spain. There are so many countries that I can’t wait to visit — I’m so excited to get to travel again.
I’m excited right now because people are back on the road and I feel like live shows have gotten so much better. I’ve seen so many artists who’ve hired unbelievable musicians for their bands. The business is always evolving, it’s always changing, and that is probably why I like to be in it because it’s never the same in any way.
Here’s a big picture question: what would you change about the music industry and why?
I don’t love the lists and awards. Sometimes it’s really challenging that people feel like they can be hurt by the fact they work so hard and didn’t make the list. But that has nothing to do with the job that you do and how good you are at it.
“I don’t love the lists and awards. [they have] nothing to do with the job that you do and how good you are at it.”
I remember wanting to be on the list and what it felt like when I didn’t get on it so I understand those feelings but I also feel like we need to do away with that. The business has changed. I like some publications and things that are trying to do a better job of recognising people, you’re seeing it more and more in different ways, whether it’s Women’s History Month or Black History Month. But I think we have to do a better job of not making it about the lists and the awards.
What advice would you offer to someone starting their career in music today?
We need really passionate people. My assistant and the new coordinators at the company are so cool. They love music, they go to every show, they’re constantly sending me links to music or telling me where they went and I love that energy. It’s so important and they should be proud of that. You’re allowed to be passionate and you should be and that’s one of the things that makes us excited to speak to people about possibly bringing them into the company.
For a lot of the people that we interview, they’re already doing unbelievable things on their own. Whether they’re doing a blog, writing lists of music that they love and sending them to friends or have a network of shows they go to or want to go to in a week. That stuff is so incredible because this is a business that you live and love and you really want to have people who love music.
MBW’s Inspiring Women series profiles female executives who have risen through the ranks of the business, highlighting their career journey – from their professional breakthrough to the senior responsibilities they now fulfil. Inspiring Women is supported by Ingrooves.Music Business Worldwide