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.
Earlier this year, Storme Whitby-Grubb returned from a hiatus from the music industry to take up a role at Red Bull Records as Chief Creative Officer.
The role follows a storied career that started at Fatcat Records in London, then moved to The Sugarcubes’ label Smekkleysa in Iceland, before Whitby-Grubb started working on tours for the likes of Kaiser Chiefs, Maximo Park and Bloc Party, later managing Scottish band Frightened Rabbit.
When the band decided to take a different direction in 2015, she says she took a breather to figure out who she was beyond ‘Storme the manager’.
She explains: “When that world is no longer your identity, it’s very hard to accept who you are as a human when you don’t have all this bravado of industry and career and ‘I manage all these artists and I have these businesses around me’.
“it’s very hard to accept who you are as a human when you don’t have all this bravado of industry and career.”
“Suddenly, you are like, ‘I’m just a little human blip on this planet and I don’t have a clue’. It was a very necessary process for me to go through just as a human on a personal level.”
(In 2018, Frightened Rabbit frontman and songwriter Scott Hutchison sadly died by suicide, which we address in our interview later on.)
During her time out, Whitby-Grubb didn’t leave the industry completely – she started writing music videos for video directors. That led to moving into creative direction and she launched a boutique creative agency, based in LA.
Just as she was writing out her 18-month business plan and weighing up expansion, Red Bull Records called and turned everything on its head.
The job “basically offered me everything that I wanted to do on my own, but not having to do it on my own,” she explains.
“That’s always been my struggle,” she adds. “I don’t want to do this business, this life and work on my own. I want a really great bunch of people to work with and that was offered to me.”
At Red Bull Records, Whitby-Grubb is working with producer WondaGurl, who recently signed a partnership deal with the label, and Toronto rapper Jugger.
Here, we chat to her about the perspective she gained when taking a step away from management, mental health in music, the public narrative that often surrounds tragic stories like Hutchison’s and the advice she’d offer to someone starting their career in music today.
What are your ambitions in your new role?
I feel really lucky to be 40-years-old coming into a company – usually, people are leaving companies at 40 because they’ve been in the system and they want to go independent. But I’ve been independent and now I’m coming in. I feel privileged that I’ve had such a crazy career and now get to have some kind of structure in my life.
“I feel privileged that I’ve had such a crazy career and now get to have some kind of structure in my life.”
It gives me so much more space to try and just show up as a human for people in my team and the artists on our roster. My ambition is, ‘How can I be a good role model? How can I be a good mentor?’
Then there are obviously the projects that I want to succeed and I want to do crazy stuff that no one else is thinking of. I’m so blessed to have a boss like Greg Hammer who encourages my want to do things differently and help artists think outside the box. We’re in this position where we don’t have to do things that are just tied to a campaign.
We’re interested in hearing what your perspective is on life and work in the music industry having taken a step out of it and then returned. Was there anything you realized during that time?
One thing I realized is if it takes hold, it’s very hard to leave. Because for all the faults and cracks that the industry has, there are some really great people in it. And we all bond over crazy travel, experiences at weird conferences and festivals around the world and crying over a desk in a studio somewhere.
“for all the faults and cracks that the industry has, there are some really great people in it.”
The kinship that you create throughout your career is not something you get when you just have a nine to five office job that you can turn off at the end of the day. And that’s how friendships are made, as well as relationships that you do business with. All my friends are in the industry in some way.
We’ve all grown up together and we’ve all had our breakdowns together. When you take a step back from it, you realize, ‘Oh, this isn’t just happening to me, this is actually just the process of life and it’s not that terrible’.
I definitely have a lot more space in my life now. It’s not just for work, the industry and where my position is within it at all. I don’t care about where my position is within the industry anymore. Whereas when I was younger, that was all I cared about.
But what I do care about in the industry and the thing I maybe took for granted, or the thing I didn’t really appreciate, is the friendships I have. I’ve sat in many branding agency meetings and they think I’m insane because of the way I talk and the way I act but that’s just the education I’ve had growing up in the industry.
You go into corporate life and they’re like, ‘Who is this person? What are they talking about?’ Then you go back to industry rooms and I feel like, ‘Oh, these are my people, they get it’. The break definitely awakened some appreciation for the humans that I have been lucky enough to have in my corner throughout my career.
You’ve spoken about and written about mental health and music and we found YOUR ARTICLE ABOUT THE HIGHS AND LOWS OF TOURING particularly interesting. What advice would you offer to people who want to take care of their mental health while working in music?
Don’t be afraid of your limits. It’s okay, as humans, that we have limits, and I think this industry breeds a ‘you cannot ever shut off, you cannot ever sleep, you might lose a deal’ mentality. There’s so much FOMO in terms of business deals, finance, income, a person you might connect to, a person you might get your music in front of. It goes across the whole gamut, no matter where you sit within this industry, whether you’re an executive, independent, a freelancer or an artist.
Knowing that if it’s meant to happen, it’s not not going to happen if you say, ‘No, I need to wait, I need to take some time for myself’. If you’re not mentally and emotionally in a good place, you are no good to anyone. You have to be in a good place for yourself first before anyone else.
“It’s okay, as humans, that we have limits, and I think this industry breeds a ‘you cannot ever shut off, you cannot ever sleep, you might lose a deal’ mentality.”
So try to be okay with limits and take a break, don’t be afraid that someone’s going to come and snap that deal or try and steal your job or your client. If that happens, what’s the worst that can happen? There are more clients out there, there are more projects, more campaigns, more songs to write. It’s not over if you have to take time off.
Would you like to see any changes within the wider business that would better support the health of the people who work on the business side as well as artists?
One big thing that I didn’t even realize until I got older that definitely puts a lot of pressure on people is lack of financial literacy.
This business is full of freelancers and artists who can suddenly get a massive windfall and then no money for the next three years. That’s such a practical thing that we can work on with young artists but also young freelancers, independent contractors, and people who work in record labels.
We are in an industry where we go to festivals, we’re entertaining, we suddenly get big cheques and you think that they’re never going to stop and they do. And then you’re in a sticky position. Some kind of resource to learn about how to manage cash flow would be very helpful.
You stopped managing Frightened Rabbit before Scott Hutchison died but we imagine you were still really close with the band and it must have been devastating to lose him. Looking back on your time working with them, do you have any reflections that might help other people working with artists who are struggling with their mental health?
It’s hard to answer that question because in his case, he had a lot of support and love from a lot of great people in his life. People often want to, for those in the public eye, find reasons as to how that could happen to someone. But ultimately, if someone has made that decision about their life, there’s nothing anyone can do about it. The reflection I would want to give to anyone who is in the circle of someone who dies by suicide is to know that there isn’t anything else you could have done.
“the reflection I would want to give to anyone who is in the circle of someone who dies by suicide is to know that there isn’t anything else you could have done.”
In terms of managers that might be concerned about the health of their artists, sometimes you’re going to have to make tough decisions. You might have to pull a tour, and the artist might not want you to, but listen to your gut. If you work with someone who might push themselves further than you know they should, you can step in as a manager and sometimes you’re going to have to cancel a show or give them a break.
Usually, it’s the artist who doesn’t want the break. A lot of times artists will say, ‘No, I’m fine, I want to keep going, I want to do this, I want to do that’. And you might have to be the bad guy and go with what your instinct is telling you. Also for managers with artists like that, they need to be able to go somewhere and talk to someone. They need a mentor, they need a guide, because at the end of the day, no manager is responsible. And no friend, partner or parent is ever going to be able to change that part of someone.
I don’t want people to come away reading that to think there’s a responsibility on a manager to stop the hedonism of an artist because it’s not your responsibility to stop someone from mental illness, depression or being an alcoholic. There’s always this weird, unwritten question about what more could have been done for someone or for an artist. I hate to be the harsh person here, but probably nothing. Probably everything was done and everyone tried what they could.
It’s not as simple as cause and effect.
Yeah, exactly. Society always wants to point the finger because that’s easier. I’ve lost four men in my life in the past five years to suicide and three of them weren’t famous and I think about their poor parents who probably ask themselves questions all the time.
Scott wrote about killing himself the way he killed himself 10 years before he did it. If you have an addiction, or if you have an ideation… We need to have more support for the people that are left behind. We need to have a learning of acceptance that yeah, it hurts us being left behind but if someone doesn’t want to get better, you can give them all the tools in the world and they still won’t.
What’s the one piece of advice you’d give a younger version of yourself or someone coming up in the industry now?
Find people that you connect with who have been through the wringer already and are going to be supportive and give you an ear when you need it.
MBW’s ongoing Inspiring Women series is supported by Ingrooves, 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 the most transparent and scalable distribution tools including analytics, rights management services, and thoughtful marketing solutions to maximize sales in today’s dynamic global marketplace.Music Business Worldwide