Blaike Ford has innovation running through her veins.
She started her music industry career in 2013 at Spotify – then a fledgling start-up – helping the streaming service convince artists and the wider industry to jump aboard when it had little to offer but a vision.
After eight years there, during which time she ascended the ranks to Senior PM of Global Editorial Strategy while starting the music marketing department and leading over 400+ marketing programs, Ford decided to move on. She eventually joined another start-up, music management company, Range Media Partners, where she was yet again faced with a blank slate.
Before that, though, came a period of reckoning, during which time she needed to shed her marriage to Spotify and work out who she was without it. Ford describes the split as one of the “top three most difficult decisions of my life”.
She continues: “You get to a place where you say, ‘What’s next here?’ If you can’t find the answer, you start to think maybe it’s not here. I realized the thing that was missing was that long-standing connection and an overarching belief in ‘less is more’.
“We got to work with every artist under the sun, but you work a project for however long and then you move on. I was like, ‘I don’t think I want to keep moving on. I want to stay with something for a very, very long time and I want to be an integral thread in multiple artists’ careers for as long as I can foresee’.”
Around the same time, Ford flipped her life upside down and moved from New York to Colorado, “on a whim, by myself, with no place to live and no car.”
Thankfully, it turned out very well and as a result, she realized that fear of change had been paralyzing her. “In doing that, I realized change was actually my best friend and it could unlock so much more,” Ford says.
After leaving Spotify, she took six months off, during which time she barely looked at her phone. Instead, she read books, wrote, took photographs and recalibrated. Eventually, a friend recommended Range, and its Managing Partner and Head of Music, Matt Graham, gave Ford a job with the freedom to create the role she wanted.
“My favorite thing to do is have a blank canvas, bring my own colored pencils and draw.”
That turned into her current title, which is SVP of Artist Partnerships and Services. In that role, Ford manages Nettwerk-signed artist Lily Meola (who she describes as the metaphorical child of Amy Winehouse and Adele) and Nashville-based singer, songwriter and producer HAFFWAY, while overseeing all teams under the company’s artist partnerships and services umbrella.
She says of her new role: “My favorite thing to do is have a blank canvas, bring my own colored pencils and draw. I was ready to start drawing a bigger career and future than I ever would have had at Spotify. That’s not a knock, it’s just sometimes you have to realize you have to step up for yourself into a whole new zone.”
Across two years at Range, Ford has been involved in the growth of artists such as Paul Russell, Dylan Gossett, Stephen Wilson, Jr. and TALK, while helping to build the music careers of Range film/TV crossover clients Luke Grimes and E.R. Fightmaster.
She’s developed programs with YouTube for Austin Millz, Tkay Maidza and Saweetie, and has been busy highlighting the work of songwriters/producers such as Justin Tranter and Nova Wav, via partnerships with Spotify and YouTube.
Here, we chat to Ford about what Range is up to, lessons from her time at Spotify, the best career-related advice she’s been given, and much more besides.
Range is still a pretty new company, having launched in 2020, and its public messaging is ambiguous. What’s different about what it’s doing in the talent management space?
What’s really interesting about Range is that despite the company being new, all these people who have joined are not new at all. Everyone’s an expert in their field. They have years and years of experience under their belt and they’ve come to know either how they want to continue to do something that really worked well, or, more importantly, how to not do things the way things have been done.
“I don’t think anything should be done for the sake of doing it. It should be working, it should be inspiring, it should be enabling us to do better.”
I don’t think anything should be done for the sake of doing it. It should be working, it should be inspiring, it should be enabling us to do better. That’s what Range is trying to do as a whole. Now we’re in so many different spheres, be it music, film and TV, sports or digital business development, all these things that are inherently separate but meant to coincide in a really cool way.
A very obvious example is Jack Harlow. He said, ‘I want to get into film and TV’ and then he was in White Men Can’t Jump because someone over here called someone over there within the building and made it happen. You look at someone like Luke Grimes, who’s very famously known for Yellowstone. He went to our management and said, ‘Hey guys, I love music and play really well’. Now, we’ve launched an entire music career for him. That can’t always happen in other places because it’s not how they’re set up. It’s not what their visions or goals are.
The whole purpose of Range is there’s a range of things going on that not only the employees but any of the creators can achieve. Everyone’s meant to be their own entrepreneur and that enables people to think bigger and to not be afraid to leap. For me, the worst thing that can happen in someone’s career is being stifled. The minute you get stifled, you get stale and then you get bored and you don’t do anything well. It’s meant to be a place to dream into the stars for your own stars. While that sounds very woo-woo, it’s a really important mindset that means no one around you is thinking small.
I look at the way the music team works and everyone’s not in it for themselves. Yes, they have to recognize the power of doing things for their own career, but oftentimes, people will come into meetings for their own artists and say, ‘Hey, we’re working on this for XYZ, does anyone have ideas?’ I would say that eight ideas are incoming each time. None of those people work for that artist but they care and recognize if we do better for that employee and the artist, Range does better. There’s this collective energy, attention and intention that I think makes a massive difference.
How do you see music management evolving in future?
The best music managers wear 65 hats and are experts in all of them. You’re the CEO of an artist’s business and you can’t think singularly because you’re going to miss 10 other opportunities around you. The more connections you have, and the more thoughts you have within those connections about the spaces those avenues lie in, the more likely you will be a better manager than the person to your left. If you don’t lose sleep spending time becoming an expert in the surroundings of this industry, whether that’s the streaming, branding or touring worlds, you do a massive disservice to your artists.
“The more connections you have, and the more thoughts you have within those connections about the spaces those avenues lie in, the more likely you will be a better manager than the person to your left.”
You need to have a large dose of reality. You have to have really hard conversations as a manager to understand why, how and when to do certain things. Opportunities are going to come up and you’re going to want to claw at them because it’s exciting but it might not be the right time to do them.
You have to find someone you can be friends with but also business partners with. A lot of people in this industry find themselves jumping into what we call being a ‘friendager’ which sometimes is beautiful and other times can end ugly. You have to understand where that fine line is.
You spent eight years at Spotify. What were your biggest lessons learned during that time?
I started when it was in full start-up mode and realized that I thrive in that type of environment. I like smaller teams, I like challenges. In the early few years, a lot of the time it was us just saying, ‘I don’t know, but we’re going to try’.
That’s still when artists weren’t putting all their music on all the platforms because they weren’t sure what it meant and what it was supposed to do for their career. We were coming out of a time when CDs were becoming obsolete and we had to figure out what the future looked like in this new space. It was still when we were trying to say, ‘If we put your face on a billboard, then will you put your music on Spotify?’
“We were coming out of a time when CDs were becoming obsolete and we had to figure out what the future looked like in this new space.”
A lot of what that taught me was open-mindedness, persistence and fusion. What you realize is when you look to your right or left, those people are equally as passionate and if you have people around you like that, then you will have a come up. It might not be tomorrow or a year from then. It took us a lot of years at Spotify to become what they call ‘the leader’ in this space now.
There was so much skepticism and it was a large learning to try to find creative ways to reduce that. It teaches you to think outside the box and to put yourself into the artist’s brain. [It] taught me a lot of things that I needed to learn for the next 10, 20, 50 years of my life, moving into what I would move into.
The other thing you learn is what community is. I was living in New York and going to two to three shows a night, up to four to five nights a week. I look back now and I’m like, I don’t know how I existed. I must have had something else running through my veins that I can’t even put a finger on. But that’s how you make friends and it taught me how to say yes. I think that’s why I am where I am because I said yes so many times, even if my left eye was half asleep. You have to do that when you’re working in an industry like this — you have to be a part of the room and you have to build trust with those you work with.
did the promise of billboards work?
Yeah, I think they did, oddly enough. There were a few things that worked and that was one of them. No one’s going to be mad about having their face on a huge thing on the side of the road. It’s definitely a stamp of, ‘Look Mom, I’ve made it’. We laughed about them so much, like, ‘Really, this is going to be the thing that moves the needle?’ But it helped. It’s no secret that we poured a lot of money into things at that time.
We built an entire content team so that we could start coming to the table with video content ideas and podcast ideas, of which I was running point down from a marketing standpoint. When you’re going up against a company like Apple, or anything of that nature that ultimately has more firepower and dollars, you have to show up.
“We built an entire content team so that we could start coming to the table with video content ideas and podcast ideas.”
In one of the hard moments we said, ‘Well, so and so is doing this with this partner, then we shouldn’t offer them anything’. I was like, ‘No, this has to be a moment of omnipresence for everyone. They should say yes to that and then we should offer them something that is left of that versus going right so they have something else to put in their arsenal and ultimately give to their fans’. Once we started thinking let’s just not do copycats, let’s think over here so that this artist can have things in their wheelhouse for this particular album, that started to change a lot for us.
Ultimately, it was about sitting down and having honest conversations from the very early days with an artist, ‘What do you want? What do you need? What would make you say, ‘Yeah, absolutely, why wouldn’t I do this?” That two-way street of communication is what did it, on top of the face on a billboard.
Is there anything you think could be improved in the way services like Spotify operate?
One of my hats is being the SVP of Streaming at Range and dealing with all of the [DSP] partners all day long. So I now know everything deeply from the inside out, and not just at Spotify. It’s very interesting watching the inner workings of every place because some are of the mindset of full open-door policy: The more, the better, how can we help? Some are a little bit more closed-door policy.
I understand it — this is something I deal with day in and day out, whether it’s with my artists, my managers or anyone on the teams. ‘Can’t we just call blah blah? Why can’t we just email? Why do we have to go through all these burning hoops?’ I’m like, ‘Well, they tried to create some semblance of democracy and equality across the board so that every artist and every team has the same opportunity.’
Is that the case when you think about it and boil it down? No, because the bigger team that an artist has around them, the more connections that person has to people in each of these buildings. They have the phone numbers and the emails so there’s always going to be that layer of communication that can’t be disintegrated just by creating processes through which to obtain or share information.
“I work with songwriters and producers and as much as Spotify has done a really good job of building a team over there to try to create a fair playing field, it’s going to take years and years to even out.”
Spotify is always going to get crap for not being as open as somewhere like Amazon, YouTube or Pandora. But that’s just the nature of the business and when you become the leader, you can be the beast, and you kind of choose your way.
What’s been going on particularly in the songwriter and producer world, as it relates to how they’re paid out, is always going to be a fight. I work with songwriters and producers and as much as Spotify has done a really good job of building a team over there to try to create a fair playing field, it’s going to take years and years to even out. That’s just the nature of the game, unfortunately.
You watch other platforms building those teams as well. Amazon, YouTube and Apple have great teams in that space. They recognize the value of making sure they are catering to every single person within the industry because otherwise, it fails.
What’s the best career-related advice you’ve ever been given?
To trust myself. There were so many times when I was trying to step into something that I knew nothing about, or had no support in doing, but I knew that I wanted to do it and that there was a good reason. The right people around me said, ‘Just go do it.’ My dad is very involved in sports and my mom put wallpaper on one of his shops one day and the quote said, ‘Shoot for the moon, even if you fall you’ll land amongst the stars.’ I’ve carried that with me for a very long time because it teaches you a lot about failure and success within failure.
If you don’t trust you can do it, you’re not getting anywhere, frankly, and someone next to you is. Especially in this industry where everyone is smart, creative and finding something new to champion or support each day… you have to have to believe in yourself so that you can rise.
Also, I always say comparison and looking at competition should be your inspiration. Look at all those people around you doing super well and say, ‘What can I take away from them’ versus feeling threatened and then not inspired to achieve. How are they getting to the places that they are? What can I learn from them? Should I pick up the phone and call them and ask, ‘Hey, how did you finesse that? How did you work that out?’ Instead of saying, ‘Gosh, it’s so annoying that they’re winning and I’m not’.
“You can’t misstep too much in this industry or you might as well step out because it’s too small.”
That, to me, is probably one of the best things I was gifted as advice and then integrated into my life. Now, all those people that I called and said, ‘Hey, I don’t understand how you did that and I really want to’ look at me as a peer versus competition. That energy is like a ripple effect — the more people who are thinking in that mindset form this collective that enables more creativity and more inspiration amongst everyone.
You can’t misstep too much in this industry or you might as well step out because it’s too small. We all need each other way too much. So you think about others and why they should be around you, rather than wishing they weren’t there. You actually want them as close as humanly possible and then you’ll have a brighter future. That’s been a guiding light for me and has enabled so much of what my friendships, success and career have become.
What’s the most exciting development happening in the music business today?
One of my artists, Lily, says, ‘I just want to be Joni Mitchell. I just want to create great records and put them out’. While I love and adore her for that, gone are the days where that’s the case. Now, more than ever, artists have to think in so many different spheres; in ways they perhaps weren’t prepared to, for better or for worse. We say with every artist, ‘What’s the social media strategy? What’s the TikTok strategy?’
I was reading something that a friend wrote recently, who said, and I’m paraphrasing, ‘Social is this thing that an artist hates and loves and feels all sorts of ways about. But there are 365 days in the year and if you post something on [each of]those 365 days, you have that many chances to create some sort of engagement and connection with an audience. If you post two times a day, your chances double. Three times a day…’ You get what I’m saying?
It’s exhausting to have to think about what it is that you’re posting, but you don’t have to overthink it. You ultimately want to show what your character is, whether that’s using a mic or you saying, ‘Hey guys, I’m having a really tough day and I want to tell you about it’. What that’s doing is creating a connection.
Instead of considering all of this annoying and scary, the opportunity for more connection, more than ever, within this industry, is what’s most exciting. That comes in a multitude of platforms. DSPs are trying to create more fan interaction and obviously social media and touring is made for that. There are so many ways to enable more art, creativity, and connection to exist in a more beautiful way. I couldn’t ask for anything more than that.
what would you change about the music industry and why?
I want more women to be in power in the industry. I’m watching it happen and I’m really happy about that. Being in a place like Range has reminded me that there are far more open-minded people, not rooted in what this industry was, who are willing to not just accept but enable change.
Even me, the position of power that they’ve put me in, they tell me I earned it and I’m grateful but they gave it to me as well. That’s a real sign. I’m watching a lot of my female friends having those same opportunities, not in the immense amounts that I would like to see, but the little amounts that I do see are promising.
“In an industry where a lot of people were often, myself included, told to step down, sit down or sit quietly, I want to enable the opposite.”
I just don’t want it to be seen as, ‘Why is she in that position? Why isn’t he in that position?’ I think that happens a lot. No knock to the man — a lot of men also earned and worked hard to have positions of power. But I think it’s less looked at as a surprise whereas women are looked at as a surprise and like, ‘Wow, that’s really interesting she has that job.’
I have a really beautiful, incredible team of about 10 people, many of whom are women. They say to me all day long, ‘Do you realize what you do for us? You make us believe that we can one day become you’. I lead with empathy and I lead with the spirit of not pushing but guiding. In an industry where a lot of people were often, myself included, told to step down, sit down or sit quietly, I want to enable the opposite. More leaders who have that same mindset in this industry will be one of the greatest things we have.
How about future plans and ambitions? What are you working on this year and beyond?
So many things, it’s crazy. Range’s roster on the music side is over around 100 artists, writers and producers. To me, it’s always about thinking how we do things unconventionally and how we think about the opportunities that we forgot to turn over from last year.
“I see tsunamis occurring from what we’ll achieve this year and the year after that.”
I have a really small but mighty team who don’t take no at all. They’re like, ‘Ok, interesting, you said no to that opportunity but have we thought about this one over here?’ Now there’s a little bit more understanding of what Range is and what we’re doing, this is the year where we make headlines for doing things that are bigger than a face on a billboard and that make someone say, ‘Wow, they really figured it out over there’. I see tsunamis occurring from what we’ll achieve this year and the year after that.
Virgin Music Group is the global independent music division of Universal Music Group, which brings together UMG’s label and artist service businesses including Virgin and Ingrooves.
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