‘The music business is still not the safest place for women to work.’

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 Virgin Music Group.

To say that Jessica Vaughn has had a colorful career would be an understatement.

She started off as the artist Charlotte Sometimes, securing a management deal while still in high school and, later, a record deal with Geffen/Interscope and a publishing deal with Sony. 

Vaughn’s artist career came of age alongside the 2000s’ wave of pop-punk/rock artists like Fall Out Boy, Panic! at the Disco, Gym Class Heroes and The Academy Is.

However, grueling tour schedules — Vaughn says she once played shows 26 nights in a row — alongside loneliness and feeling a lack of support turned what was once a dream into a terrible experience.

She remembers: “Early on, I was like, ‘Hey, there’s no women with me on this tour. I’m lonely, sad and I’m underage so I can’t go anywhere’. I was hanging out in motels by myself, sharing a bed with all of my bandmates and it wasn’t really clear where the money was going and who was supporting me when I was sick or showing any sort of emotion. That led me to some scary dark places.”

Vaughn asked for a day off and says her complaints were brushed aside. Instead, she says she was sent to a doctor who prescribed a “cocktail” of drugs, including “steroids, sleeping pills, mood stabilizers and antidepressants.”

She was put back on the road and assaulted by an older session player from another band the next day. Vaughn reported it to management, who she says didn’t take it seriously, and they decided to part ways.

After becoming disenchanted by her experience as an artist, Vaughn started writing songs for others but couldn’t see the financial gain of cuts due to the nature of her deal at the time.

“Eventually, I figured out that the only way to change the music industry is to participate in it,” she says. Vaughn turned her sights to the business side and made connections in the music licensing space.

She started to write music for sync and worked with publishers to help artists find their authentic voices in that space. Eventually, a desire to make the industry a more fair, equitable and safe place led her to a job in publishing at Heavy Hitters Music, where she increased revenue by 107% and arranged Diversity, Equity and Inclusion training for the company. At the same time, Vaughn started writing articles and finding her voice as a spokesperson for change.

After being promoted to VP of Sync and Creative at Heavy Hitters, Vaughn’s next move, in 2021, was to join Troy Carter’s distribution and services company Venice Music, where she’s currently Head of Sync. There, she’s built the sync department from the ground up while increasing the size of the company’s catalog from 300 titles to nearly 4,000, landing placements with Netflix, ESPN, Paramount, Disney+, Epic Games, NFL and many more besides.

Alongside her day job, Vaughn runs her own label alongside her husband, Ryan, Head Bitch Music, where she writes custom music for brands and puts out releases from mainly queer and women artists. As if that wasn’t enough, Vaughn still releases music and performs as an artist under her main monikers LACES, JPOLND and Rverside (she has 25 in total) and has recently signed a global publishing deal with peermusic. 

“I am the kind of person that needs to constantly grow, evolve and be challenged. That requires me wearing multiple hats.”

She says the diverse approach to her career is something that’s evolved over time. “Initially, I never thought I would be doing all the things that I’m doing,” Vaughn explains. “When I was younger, I thought I was going to be a famous artist and that was going to fulfill me but I realized, living my life, that I am the kind of person that needs to constantly grow, evolve and be challenged. That requires me wearing multiple hats in order to feel emotionally and mentally fulfilled.”

Here, we chat to Vaughn about the progress (or lack thereof) of equality in the music business, lessons learned across her career, tips for landing a sync deal, and much more besides…

You’ve been trying to enact change in the music industry when it comes to gender equality in various ways. Do you get a sense that things have changed for the better since your days as an artist?

There is a lot more gender diversity because people are more aware of it. I don’t think that safety has truly gotten better. It’s talked about a lot and there’s a lot of performance around it but the music business is still not the safest place for women to work. The amount of predators we work with, across the board, who still have jobs and are still in power, is terrifying. There’s a whole network.

At Venice, most of the team are women, and it’s the same thing in my own company. We definitely need more female producers and representation for the entire queer spectrum, especially on the recorded side of the industry. It’s still a man’s world, for sure.

One thing that has gotten better is women on tour. Women are killing it right now and they’re playing with all-female bands, making sure they have a female tour manager or there’s some sort of representation that makes them feel safe and heard.

When I was younger, all the women who were coming up at that time, like Katy Perry, myself and Lady Gaga, were told that there could only be one. So instead of all of us talking to each other, no one was, because there was a fear. That’s been remedied over the years and the new generation of artists don’t feel that way – and I don’t think any of the more veteran artists feel that way anymore either. We had to dismantle and disengage with that lie, which was used to control, I think.

So there is hope. I just feel like there’s still a lot [of problems] and talking about it doesn’t change it. We all have to get uncomfortable and that’s what I try to do every day. For any job that I enter, it’s not about being combative, but being unafraid to say what’s in front of us, what the truth is, why it’s problematic and how we can do better.

What lessons did you learn during your time as an artist that have informed the rest of your career?

You are your own business. You are in charge. Your team is your team, they are your collaborators, and no one should feel like one person is leading, it should be a conversation.

Surrounding myself with a team that wants the best for me, cares about my health and believes in me, is a huge thing. You need to work with people who trust you and you trust and that takes time, but it’s so crucial to the safety that’s required for touring. It’s required for even the safety of working in an office.

Also, I’ve learned to ask more questions. When I was younger, I was so bad at asking questions. I always thought, ‘I’m being annoying’ or ‘people don’t really want to hear from me, they think I’m silly or stupid’. Now I don’t care about that.

There’s nothing wrong with enquiring about your own career and the decisions that are being made. You don’t have to be accusatory to your team, but you can be inquisitive and call people in when you’re not sure about how something’s being handled. Ultimately, you want to know how your money’s being spent and you are trusting your team to handle that properly.

Being an artist doesn’t mean you have permission to not be an active participant in your career, because it is a business. We’ve been told throughout our careers, ‘Hey, you stick to the creative, we’ll handle the business for you’. I think most creators have pooh-poohed that these days; they want to know how things work.

It’s good to know because one day you might not have a team, you might go independent or maybe you want to retire as an artist and go into management. These are all skills that are so important to know, whether you are actively doing it at the time or not. It’s basically like free school, why wouldn’t you want to learn?

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

It actually comes from my husband, who co-owns Head Bitch with me, was my drummer for many years and is now also an artist manager. He said, ‘Do the work and stay out of the results. Keep your eyes on your own paper’.

It really resonates with me because it’s so easy to look at what everybody else is doing and feel bad about what you’re doing, or feel like it’s not enough. Or make the results mean something about the work you put in, the art you created and the art you represent.

You might feel like, ‘I’ve emailed everybody and no one is licensing it’ and you just never know when something’s going to pop off. I’d rather be pleasantly surprised. We could all say it takes strategy to get here and all these things, but a lot of it’s luck and timing.

Talent is so important but if it happens at the wrong time, no one’s going to care, no one’s going to listen. You can’t make that mean something about you or you’re going to feel hollow inside, disappointed and sad. There’s so much to be celebrated when you’re working in the business of art because art is such a beautiful thing. Why rob yourself of that joy for something you can’t control?

As the head of a label and musician in various different eras of the industry, I’m interested in hearing your perspective on streaming and the way that musicians earn money these days.

It’s tough. I feel like we’re still trying to keep up with technology. We’re in AI, and we’re still trying to solve the problem that is streaming. There’s a lot to say about this so I won’t get into it too much, but there’s a lot more participants, there’s not a lot of barrier to entry to release music anymore.

I’d be interested in having a conversation with different tiers of songwriters and artists about this issue because then you can have a true, fair and equitable conversation. A lot of times, you’ll hear from the 1% of writers or artists, and the kind of musicians that might not be getting any streams or have just started their career and are flagging this issue, which they have the right to flag, but are they really at the stage of their career to truly understand what this means holistically?

“artists aren’t making enough money to survive, and we can hide behind our salaries and our PTO.”

I am a songwriter, so songwriters have my support. I’m an executive, so I try to be objective when looking at everything, but it’s hard to say, ‘Do this and do that’ when these artists aren’t making enough money to survive and we can hide behind our salaries and our PTO. There is a disconnect of understanding, sympathy and empathy. If we could address that we might be able to have constructive conversations about how to solve this problem.

You’re really successful in the sync and brand world both as a songwriter and in your role at Venice. Do you have any tips for landing a successful sync or branding deal?

This is so cheesy, but be yourself. We’re moving away from overly ‘sync-y’ music. People want the things that always work in a song, like clear edit points, maybe some lyrical content that works, and peaks and valleys, but people want to be connected to humanity more than ever before. We’re getting so technology-driven, it’s almost like we need to be rid of that.

One thing that’s really simple to do to land something is get your housekeeping in order. Do you have all your files, your full WAV, your instrumental WAV, your clean WAV? Do you know where the bodies are buried, meaning, do you know how to clear your song? Do you own the rights to your song? Get all of that in order and all your splits worked out before you even have conversations with sync reps and it will make a huge difference.

Also, study the things that are working. Go to tunefind.com to see what’s trending in sync, see what songs you already have that might sound similar to something else or a genre that’s working or popping off. There’s no one way or right way to participate. Having all your files is a requirement. Knowing how to clear a song is a requirement. When it comes to the type of music you create, there’s so much content out there, you never know. If you want to win, just get immersed in the space and you’re likely to have a better shot of landing something.

You mentioned AI earlier, which could be seen as a big threat in the world you exist in musically. How do you feel about it?

I am not afraid of it the way my peers are afraid of it. I look at it as an extension, as a tool, not a replacement. At the end of the day, if someone is using AI to create a track, where’s AI sourcing that material from? It came from somewhere. So that is always going to require a clearance.

For music library stuff, elevator music and things like that, where someone can bring AI into making a production music library and that’s what’s creating the music, so it’s royalty free and you don’t have to source any of that and clear it, it’s really not that different to getting a Splice package or going to these royalty free music libraries.

“You can’t fight AI, it’s already happening, so we’re going to have to embrace the impact and come up with solutions.”

I think the solution is just working hand-in-hand. If I was at a music library or working on music in that capacity, I’d be calling AI in instead of calling it out. I do also feel that legislation is going to play a part here. The scariest thing is the mimicking of voices, I find that to be, as a person, disturbing. Not so much as a musician but I get nervous about what that will mean for us as a society. I hope that we work with AI hand-in-hand, but at the same time are able to put laws in place to help us control it so that we are not being taken advantage of.

Anytime there’s a new technology, everyone freaks out. Like video killed the radio star, drum samples killed the drummer or streaming. All these things killed something but it also opened something else up. You can’t fight AI, it’s already happening, so we’re going to have to embrace the impact and come up with solutions.

What’s the most exciting development happening in today’s music business?

The girlies right now. I’ve never seen so much sapphic content coming out – between Chappell Roan, Fletcher and Billie [Eilish]. I’m loving it. I’m loving it that while America pushes to turn the clock back, these girls are saying, ‘No thank you, I’m going to be so loud in my queerness. I’m going to be unapologetic and we’re going to have so much fun and I’m going to bring so much joy to people’. That brings me so much hope and I think we need it more than ever. I want to applaud them because they are such badasses.

What would you change about the music business and why?

I would make it so that it’s a safer place. It was built off of power and control and we keep trying to put bandaids on it and say, ‘OK, now it’s better because we’ve done this’, but the roots are rotten.

I would get rid of some of these roots, aka a lot of the people that are in control who are not safe people. Leadership can be the death of true talent in the corporate space. I see so many people who are so good at their job that don’t get to shine and don’t get to show us who they really are due to unsafe leadership.

If you could go back to the beginning of your career and tell yourself one thing, what would it be?

You’re always going to be OK; you got this. I was so afraid of losing things, losing my shot, losing my place, not being able to participate in the music industry at some point because I was myself or advocated for myself. We can’t be so afraid of failure. Failure is part of success.

I had a friend who was a fashion designer and when I first moved to LA, I was crying to him and said, ‘I had money, I did all these things and I ruined it. I just couldn’t play ball. I couldn’t let people just do what they wanted. I had to say that I felt unsafe or what I believe for myself and I don’t have any money anymore. What am I going to do?’

He laughed at me and said, ‘You’re on your way. You lost all your money, that’s what successful people do, that’s part of it. You just don’t have a safety net, which a lot of people with money, power and influence do.’ He was confident that I would get back on top and be able to make the same amount of money or more again. That gave me so much. I was like, ‘Here’s this really successful person and he’s telling me he sees me as a successful person and that it’s OK to fail, it’s part of it’. I’m so glad I listened to that because I’m in a completely different place in my life.

What are your future plans and ambitions?

I try not to get overly involved in future planning because, at any point, anything can go left or right and you just have to seize the opportunity. That being said, a big part of it is continuing my plans of how to create equity and safety in the places I work. For my own company, we do a lot of custom music so the goal is to eventually get a bigger show. We just did the theme for Pretty Little Liars that came out on Max so we’d like to do more of that and scale the company, sign more quality over quantity.

I just signed a new publishing deal so I’m hopeful I’ll be writing more. I want to get more IP and give myself an opportunity to do the things that I was too scared to do when I was younger. Eventually, being professionally weird, I’m starting a DBA for my company called Super Weirdo Productions. I’m really excited to see where that goes. I wrote a television show that is loosely based on my life so I’ve been pitching that, which is called, This is Me Smiling. Hopefully someone will pick that up.

I’d watch that show!

It’s a dark comedy, obviously.

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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