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 fulfill. Inspiring Women is supported by Ingrooves Music Group.
Alice Young, newly named Managing Director of Australian tastemaker label Future Classic, has spent her professional career in music strictly on the business side of the table, first joining artist services company mtheory in a marketing role before a stint in Spotify’s product marketing team.
It was the performing side of music where she thought her destiny lay as an opera-singing teenager, however, before complications with her voice forced her to consider an alternative career path.
Young recalls: “I was at performing arts school and my whole life was built around being an opera singer. But my voice was really unreliable and I had to have surgery to remove a microcyst inside my left vocal folds, which meant the end of that [dream].”
After making her peace with leaving the stage, Young studied for a master’s degree in music business at NYU in order to remain close to music, did a few internships and made contacts, and joined then-burgeoning company mtheory after graduating.
Over the course of five years at mtheory, Young rose to Senior Marketing Director and worked on campaigns for artists including Zedd, Thirty Seconds to Mars and Cuco, as well as with her current employer, Future Classic.
She then spent over a year as Product Marketing Manager for Spotify for Artists in New York, before leaving for Future Classic after deciding to return to her home country of Australia, where she’s now based in Sydney.
Young joined the label in March after being a long-admirer of the team and creative output. “They have such great creative sensibilities,” she explains.
“The A&R, design and artist brand contributions from the team really packs a punch in a way that I think sets them apart.”
In her new role, Young says she’s aiming to help Future Classic grow by finding unique artists and putting the right teams around them, which is something she witnessed happen with the late producer, Sophie.
She says: “The team had the pleasure of working with Sophie on a label deal over the last couple of years and she is an artist with a creative point of view.
“It’s a prime example of finding an artist with unique talent and a unique story to tell, and then putting the right team around her to help find the videographer, cut the assets in a way that she likes and find the right press to do selectively tasteful [pieces] in the way that she likes.
“It’s all sequencing and it takes a great deal of creative empathy, working with artists of that calibre. So I think amplifying that superpower will help Future Classic get to the next level, which is to double down on those strengths, A&R and creative output.
“And continue to be known for being early on artists, keeping the roster nimble and the team flexible across different time zones.”
Other campaigns the label has had success with recently include G Flip’s “Queen” featuring mxmtoon, which included a stadium performance at the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardis Gras, rising artist Sycco’s debut at No.29 on the Triple J Hottest 100 and Flume’s Grammy-nominated “The Difference” featuring Toro Y Moi, voted No.2 in this year’s Hottest 100.
Here, we chat to Young about lessons learned across her career to date, the rule she sticks by when working with artists, common mistakes she’s seen artists and managers making, and what she’d change about the music industry and why.
During your time at mtheory, what did you learn about what it takes to build successful and sustainable artist careers?
Without big goals, it’s hard to achieve things unless you have a hot flying song. Take the Flume example, he’d had one album and Nathan [McLay] the manager and Future Classic founder had set quite ambitious targets for what the second cycle would look like, and without clearly articulating those 24 months in advance, we wouldn’t have got there. I don’t think the whole team, which was different partners in different territories, would have been able to align around that end goal.
It was also at a time when UK radio moved way faster than US radio, but streaming services could only have one focus single. So our partners in the UK would say ‘We’ve got to move’, whereas radio in the US and big global playlists inhibited that process, which was to the detriment of what the UK team were trying to achieve. So there was a lot of diplomacy involved and grounding down. Sometimes you have to prioritize what the goals are because as long as you know where you’re going, it helps you make the right choices that are in front of you.
Were there any other big lessons that you learned during your time at mtheory that have stayed with you today and shaped your approach to the job you’re about to do at Future Classic?
Operating with a management mentality for artists helps me think about planning the next phase of growth for Future Classic because I’m not just looking at one silo of the business, I’m thinking about what’s the north star of the business and how do we staff those verticals to get there.
I think it’s quite a different way of thinking to a single marketing campaign, there are bigger challenges and they take time to bake, which I personally can find quite frustrating, when you’re trying to scratch at it like, ‘What’s the 24-month goal?’ I want to wake up with insight, I want to go to bed and see all the pieces fall into place and actually it’s a jigsaw puzzle — you tinker and you move, you tinker, you sleep, you tinker and then an epiphany happens and then you’re like, ‘That’s it’. And then you just colour in the lines. That methodical, strategic thinking that was really baked into me at mtheory is going to help what I’m hoping to do here.
Do you have any rules you always stick by when working with artists and developing them?
No bullshit are words to live by for me. When you’re an artist and your time is precious, there are only so many things you want to hear. Boiling a concept down into something that’s easily relatable is one thing and knowing when that concept is just marketing fluff and you don’t need to bore the artist with the details is another. I think I have good instincts in that regard.
“No bullshit are words to live by for me. When you’re an artist and your time is precious, there are only so many things you want to hear.”
I’m not an A&R myself but I’m very comfortable around music, music theory and concepts and so I really enjoy that part of being artist-facing. It’s such a privilege to work closely with talent, it takes so much courage to be an artist, it’s not an easy job — you could be a dentist but you’ve chosen to bet on yourself and your creative capabilities and put yourself out there. The finances can be fickle, people say no 90% of the time, so for me it’s important to respect their time and ditch the marketing fluff.
When it comes to marketing specifically, there’s a lot of talk about how difficult it is to cut through the noise, not just in regard to competition that exists in music but also all the other things people can pay attention to online. How do artists and campaigns cut through all of that noise?
Consistency and not getting distracted by the noise, just focusing on what you’re good at. I’m a big Arlo Parks fan, I love the record, I think that team did an extraordinary job but she’s a poet and the way that she weaves in exposing lyrics with her fans, having candid conversations with her fans, and also just staying committed to making great music and being honest on social media, over time, I think that has really worked out for her. Her team have been able to help plug in all the promo stuff that has to happen but she balances that in this way that’s not salesy for me.
I don’t think there’s a silver bullet answer to that question, all the marketers would be out of a job if there was, and people find good examples and they cling to them and that’s great, but art will trump any good marketing campaign for me. For Future Classic, that’s certainly a focus — finding that artist who has raw power and just trying to help them harness that and surround it with the fuel to have it go across DSPs, socials, PR, and all the various places where we seek to amplify.
You’ve just spent time at Spotify, which remains somewhat of a controversial company due to the ongoing debate over streaming royalties. What’s your perspective on that having been on the inside?
A lot of the weight of the conversation tends to focus on Spotify specifically or the DSPs relative to whether some artists are in a totally crummy deal. Saying that, I think the volume of conversation is happening at that raw independent level for artists who are on a light distribution deal and trying to make their way. That’s really hard and I think there’s a great deal of empathy at Spotify for that pursuit.
“A lot of the weight of the [streaming royalties] conversation tends to focus on Spotify specifically or the DSPs relative to whether some artists are in a totally crummy deal.”
They are a wonderful team at listening but the debate still swirls and executives are attuned to it and I think everyone wishes they could move faster to fix things more than they can. The reality is, a lot of this is just like if you are a business operator and you’re looking to grow and other DSPs aren’t copping the same level of flack, but are still saying the same things. It’s challenging for sure and I have empathy on both sides.
What did you learn during your time at Spotify generally in that role?
Spotify writ large have a wonderful intentions. Everyone that I ran into, whether they were from the music industry or not, and there are a lot of people in that building, not so many necessarily from the industry but they love music, they want to know more, they have wonderful intentions to help.
There was an amazing product team. At the start of Covid, I was product marketing artist fundraising pick where artists could nominate a fundraising source to have direct contributions with no question from Spotify paid straight through, be that to themselves via a cash app in the markets that was live or a national fund. In that instance, the team were super energised that we see the problem, we understand, we’re in this industry, a part of this is us, what can we do to fix this and how do we get out of the way and foster that artist to fan relationship.
I learned a lot about technology and technology companies — I specifically put myself in their R&D org as a product marketer, had lots of conversations about APIs, data sets, sources, front and back end engineers. It was a new world for me. So I learned a lot, technically speaking. I also learned that I missed art and I missed artists. So when the Future Classic opportunity came up, I was excited about that as well.
This question is more relevant to your time mtheory — what were the most common mistakes that you saw artists or managers making when trying to develop careers?
Taking easy shots — brand partnerships, a radio interview that you think is going to put you on a rocket ship to the moon because it’s right there. If something shiny comes along, it’s very easy to be like, ‘Ooh, shiny, let’s go get that’, but maybe it’s adjacent to your 24-month goals, maybe it’s inconsistent with where you want to go, and it’s going to take up time in the schedule that takes away from writing.
“This is a fast-paced industry, you can get 300 emails a day and it’s hard to prioritize, but stepping back and focusing is always powerful for me.”
And if you need to get an album out at a specific time so that you can announce the tour and put tickets up and put money in the bank… I was fortunate to work with Lee Anderson really closely at Paradigm, he’s a great agent and he always said, ‘Sometimes saying no is the most powerful thing you can do’. So I try to be mindful of that. This is a fast-paced industry, you can get 300 emails a day and it’s hard to prioritize, but stepping back and focusing is always powerful for me.
What advice would you give to a younger version of yourself? Is there anything that you wish you’d known before you started your career?
Yes, be less polite. Which is not to say that we shouldn’t all be polite but I think as a young woman in this business, often you can be in rooms with people who move big things around and hedging sentences, thoughts or opinions is not a thing that you need to do. It’s also not a thing anyone expects of you but I think it’s the thing we’re just trying to do, socially, and it is time you can get back in your pocket.
I would also say, being in the music industry in New York is a really privileged position and I think I took myself very seriously as a young person. I was working all hours and stretching myself in every conceivable way to try to be the best for myself and for clients, but it’s also okay sometimes to just switch off. It’s actually more important and powerful and makes you better.
What’s the most exciting development happening in the music industry to you right now?
I am deep in NFT land with Flume. He has a creative partner in an artist named Jonathan Zawada and they have been making custom short visuals with audio for a long time. I remember doing a pop-up in Urban Outfitters in like 2016, there was a little merch thing and I hung all the video projectors and mic’d the room so the concept has been there. I think for artists, especially visual artists, to now start to monetize the reproduction of that work is really exciting. The market is bonkers but I also think the opportunities for artists in that space are exciting.
What would you change about the music industry and why?
I feel sad sometimes at how obsessed managers, marketers and artists can get with metrics as a determinant for success on a campaign, or the end of the world. Metrics matter, I went to Spotify for Artists, I love metrics, I use them every day in my job and I find them extraordinarily powerful. But I do find an obsession or a reliance on them as a centre of art to some folks that I talk to.
“I would love for us all to get closer to creative contributions and how to identify those and invest around them, versus who’s got the most monthly listeners tomorrow and how do we all get primary artist [on Spotify].”
At the end of the day, we’re talking about someone’s creative output, and I would love for us all to get back a little closer to creative contributions and how to identify those and invest around them, versus who’s got the most monthly listeners tomorrow and how do we all get primary artist [on Spotify].
It is a game that you can easily be swept up in and I would like to see a bit more thinking along the lines of childlike curiosity and creative ideas in music. I think people are afraid to dream big and take moonshots and say them out loud.
it’s a good point. I had a quote from UMG U.K. CEO David Joseph recently who was saying that he wants to do away with this idea that in order to get signed, artists need to have loads of social media followers.
It’s stifling. I was listening to a really wonderful podcast the other day with an Australian female comedian and a British TV personality and she was saying how she went in for an agency meeting and they were like, “Cool, so you just need to bring the audience and bring the ideas and then we’ll sign you.” And she’s like, “What do you guys do? What am I signing for?” That really resonates with me.
MBW’s ongoing Inspiring Women series is supported by Ingrooves Music Group, which powers creativity by providing distribution, marketing and rights management tools and services to content creators and owners. Ingrooves is a leader in the independent music distribution and marketing industry, provides independent labels, established artists and other content owners with transparent and scalable tools and thoughtful marketing solutions.Music Business Worldwide