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.
Sherry Saeedi is not afraid to take risks.
After leaving an eight-year career in management, she spent all her money building a DIY ticketing platform, Veeps, from her apartment, where she was sleeping on a mattress and using a stack of boxes as a nightstand. (“I had $80 in my bank account by the time we started,” she says).
Not satisfied with that rollercoaster — which was ultimately wildly successful, Live Nation bought half the company in 2020 at a $30 million valuation — Saeedi is now taking on the recorded music business with her second venture, Verswire.
The startup, which was founded in 2022, aims to replace the traditional label contract with a VC-style model that allows artists to retain their rights and treats them like businesses.
“How many times have we heard the concept ‘artist-friendly’ or ‘the anti-label’ and then we look at the contract and it’s the same thing or it’s not as artist-friendly as we thought it would be?” Saeedi asks.
“We don’t like to call ourselves a label because it’s like calling Uber a better taxi. It’s not. We are a VC for artists that handles label services.”
To date, Verswire has raised $12.3 million from investors including producer and writer management company, E.O.A. Productions, idobi Radio, Warped Tour founder Kevin Lyman and Foo Fighters tour manager Gus Brandt.
Alongside Saeedi, its team includes blink-182’s Mark Hoppus, who is Partner of A&R, Fall Out Boy’s Pete Wentz as strategic advisor and veteran music manager Nick Lippman as Partner. Stem is handling distribution and a publishing arm will launch in 2024, in partnership with Kobalt Music Group.
Saeedi started her career in music aged 16, helping out friends who were in bands. That led to her work in management, during which time she looked after main stage Warped Tour artists like Ice Nine Kills, Set It Off, Waterparks, Anti-Flag and Refused.
She left management due to a desire to make a bigger impact on the business. “As a manager, you can only have so many artists and I couldn’t service more than six or seven without my brain exploding,” Saeedi says.
“This industry can be a little archaic in terms of the way that we function and I wanted to create something that could help a tonne of artists. I knew I couldn’t do that in management.”
Veeps was launched in partnership with Benji and Joel Madden of Good Charlotte fame and Verswire was created with the help of Hoppus, who Saaedi knew from her management days.
“My first call was Mark’s office,” she remembers. “He had just gotten his cancer-free diagnosis, thank God, and we have this joke that anywhere in Beverly Hills, the salads are $40.
“I called him up and was like, ‘Do you want to get a $40 salad?’ and he’s like, ‘Yep’. I was talking to him about this idea I had and was expecting him to be like, ‘Okay, cool, keep me posted’ and he goes, ‘When do we start?’” Wentz and Lippman joined shortly after.
So far, Verswire has signed LA rock band Beauty School Dropout and alt-rock duo Girlfriends. Saeedi hints at more signing announcements to come with “stadium-size acts”.
Here, we chat to her about her ambitions, her view on what’s wrong with the record label model, and much more besides…
You’ve got a lot of determination and drive and you’re not afraid to take big risks. What has shaped those traits?
I was always a very stubborn kid, so that’s one thing, but to be completely honest, I grew up on welfare. I know what it’s like to not have anything and it’s really not that bad. I still had love, I still had a roof over my head, I still had meals. So I’m just not afraid.
The only way to lose is if you give up and if you keep going, it’s only ever a lesson if something doesn’t work out. It’s just leading you to something better. It’s important put your best foot in front of the other and everything will work out. If you look at most of the situations you’ve worried about in hindsight, you’re like, ‘Oh, OK, now I see why that ended up the way that it did’. It’s about trust, letting go and knowing that the universe is working for you, not against you.
Tell us more about Verswire.
We’ve just taken the same model that every other industry uses. With the traditional record label model, before you’ve even made a single song, you’ve signed off any rights to the music that you’re about to write, and every penny that you ask for has an 85% interest rate. For every dollar that comes in from revenue, 85 cents goes to the label as profit and 15 cents goes to your recoupment.
What artists don’t know, most of the time, is when a label gives you $100,000, you don’t just make them $100,000 back and then start making income. With that 85% interest rate, you actually have to make them $700,000 before you make any money. And that’s assuming they don’t tap on marketing, radio and cross-collateralization of other fees, which they will.
That’s why the model isn’t created for artists to recoup or make money. It’s a cycle of constantly adding to the label’s ledger and then not making any money because of that interest rate. No other industry functions this way. If we all went to the bank and asked for a loan and they’re like, ‘There’s an 85% interest rate on this,’ we’d be like, ‘Yeah, right.’
What we’ve done is created an investment bureau. Every investment is different because every artist is different. We look at the artists, we analyze what we feel they need, we invest and take equity of certain revenue streams. We don’t touch touring — that’s one thing we don’t do. We bring in our label services team to handle their business and that includes playlisting, marketing, social content, US radio, international radio, sync, PR. These people are half employees and half independent contractors.
“This is a band that we found in a corner of a thrift store playing to 100 people, and I’m very happy to tell you that they are recouped and we wrote them their first royalty check a couple of months ago.”
In order for us to get going, we had to prove that this model worked, not just in terms of artist development, but also financially. We signed an emerging artist [Beauty School Dropout] in February 2022 and got to work. A year later, this band went from a total of four million streams across all platforms, to 50 million. They went from 100,000 monthly listeners on Spotify to 700,000. They got the blink-182 tour, they played two headline tours, one of which they’re on right now and is sold out. This is a band that we found in a corner of a thrift store playing to 100 people. That was a massive success and I’m very happy to tell you that they are recouped and we wrote them their first royalty check a couple of months ago.
So how does our model work? There’s no interest on marketing. Whatever we invest in for your marketing, we just want that reimbursed. Once that’s made back to us, the investment we give you for however many masters we agree on, is not recoupable. That is my investment and it’s my job to make that back for my equity that I have. The artists always own the masters here. We’re just a minority stakeholder in the work that we do together. So let’s say our equity is 40%. Once marketing is recouped, we do a 60/40 profit split. Sixty cents goes to the band, 40 cents goes to me. I’m recouping my investment from that 40% and I’m a stakeholder in their business.
Are Beauty School Dropout able to make a living from what they’re doing at the moment?
That’s tricky because they are also touring non-stop and touring is very expensive. Most artists don’t even factor the music [royalty] income as a source of income because they don’t make that anymore, but I’m very happy to say they’re making that. Are they buying houses? No. But we hope to get them there very soon.
There is a narrative in the music industry that it’s more artist-friendly than it has been in the past. There are distribution deals, label services deals, and record label deals are said to be getting fairer. Do you think that’s true?
Everything is just the same as it ever was and I’ll tell you why. What does a distribution company do? Distribute, that’s it. There are so many other facets of an artist’s career that you have to take care of. If someone’s just handling distribution, you are one of 20,000, you are not a priority, you’re a number.
As friendly as it can possibly get between what labels offer, you are still better off going to a bank for a loan. I’ve worked with distribution companies, I’ve managed artists with distribution companies and I’ve vetted all of them because we also needed a partner for our VC for artists. The model doesn’t make sense.
Timing is everything. When a huge artist like Taylor Swift goes out of her way to re-record her masters to own her work again, when John Mayer leaves his label after 21 years because he didn’t feel like he needed it. When Halsey leaves her label, when Alicia Keys leaves her label. All these huge artists are leaving their labels because they do not understand what this machine is doing anymore, because a lot of these tools are at our disposal, or you’re one of many [artists at a label], you’re not prioritized.
“I think the industry is a little tired of the small iterations of the carbon copy model that we’re so used to. We need something fresh and why not use a model that’s been working for centuries for every other industry?”
Oftentimes, [at labels] you don’t even get a rundown of your expenses. It’s all under an NDA. You don’t get to choose your team. You’re not really understanding what this person does or what that person doesn’t [do]. And yet there’s still an itemized bill under your recoupment.
We needed a new model. I think the industry is a little tired of the small iterations of the carbon copy model that we’re so used to. We need something fresh and why not use a model that’s been working for centuries for every other industry? I didn’t discover King Tut’s treasure, I’m just using what everyone else uses and lo and behold, it works.
Treat artists like a business. Treat them like they’re the CEOs of their own business. We’re giving them exactly what they need: custom-tailored resources, artist development. It’s an old mentality with a new model.
This model was built for everyone. Whether it’s an established artist that has 20 years left in their career, a household name who is doing amazing but will never be a priority against the Cardi Bs, we will prioritize you. Or, if you’re a growing artist who wants to start your career on the right foot and own your work from the get-go and have a team where you’re not one of 200, 2,000, whatever, you’re one of let’s just say five, it’s different. Our goal by year end is to have five artists. We’re going to pause there for a second and make sure all of our artists are taken care of and continue to make this model the standard.
I knew I was on the right track when people were like, ‘Oh, this is never going to work, this is way too artist-friendly. If this worked someone would have done it already.’ I got this same feedback when I was pitching Veeps and I was just like, ‘All right, I’m onto something’.
companies like AWAL or BMG might respond by saying they’ve also got an artist-friendly model that’s all about equity and different from the major label offering. What would you say to that?
There are differences and I can say this firsthand because I’ve worked with all those companies. We haven’t taken any parts of the record label contract. When we were drafting our first agreement for Verswire, the lawyer and I had to sit down and, word for word, craft this together because it was completely different. If you compare some of these distribution deals or more artist-friendly deals, you still see verbiage that you’re very familiar with, and not in a good way.
Also, a lot of huge deals that are being signed [with labels] are not supporting an artist that’s meant to have a long career. Everyone on our team has 15-plus years in the music industry. We’ve brought in A-listers to support artists and bring back artist development. You get access to our full team from the get-go. It’s not something you have to earn and you’re not just given money like, go ahead, let’s see what sticks.
That seems to be the mentality of a lot of companies and that’s not how that works. When Guns N’ Roses first came out, everyone was like, ‘Holy shit, like, look at Axl, he’s such a performer. What an incredible song, Welcome to the Jungle.’ It was a huge moment. What people don’t know is they were in development for two years before that moment even happened with Geffen. That wasn’t overnight. Somewhere along the lines, we forgot that and volume has become more important than quality and development.
There is a perspective in the music industry that it’s harder than ever to break through the noise. Do you think that’s true?
That’s absolutely true. Which is why you can’t just give someone an advance and see what happens, see what sticks. It’s easier than ever to get your song up on a lot of these platforms and that’s great, but it’s a volume game, it’s not a quality game. That’s hurt our industry more than it’s helped because weeding through that and sussing out who’s here for a quick, hot second and who is actually trying to build a career that I want to invest in [is hard]. That’s where we come in because people trust that we’re actually building career artists.
I’ve invested countless hours making sure that in every capacity we have the right relationships in order to do that. I’ve sat here and booked a flight to New York for the same day just to make sure I’m meeting with the heads of Alt Nation, Sirius XM, Vevo, Spotify, Apple, Shazam to let them know what we’re doing, why we’re doing it and the support we need to make this a standard and make this work. They’re already setting us apart. I think that working with us is a huge advantage because of the rapport that we’ve built and our results.
What’s the role of a traditional record label in 2023?
With artists making a lot of noise, especially a lot of big artists, I don’t know if this model is going to last much longer. Once upon a time, these big artists were also emerging artists and when you see emerging artists not signing, staying independent and saying they don’t want to be part of the big machine anymore, that’s where it’s all going to start. It’s not going to be something that happens overnight. The major labels will probably need to shift their model soon, I just don’t know how soon. I don’t know if they’re going to do it until they absolutely have to.
Do you have any do’s and don’ts when building artist careers?
Telling artists what to do doesn’t work. Don’t micromanage anyone, ever. Whether it’s your client or your team, just hire people that are qualified and get out of their way. I’ve got 25 people at least at Verswire right now and I have no idea what anyone’s doing but I just know things are functioning.
Don’t wait to talk, listen to people. I think that really goes with any career but especially because there’s so much emotion involved with music, it’s all subjective. There’s no such thing as being right. You think a song is good, someone thinks the song is bad, you’re both right and you’re both wrong.
“This is one of the main industries that is so heavily built on relationships, the resources that you’re creating and the champions that you have behind you.”
This is one of the main industries that is so heavily built on relationships, the resources that you’re creating and the champions that you have behind you. If you’re trying to do something incredible, educate people on that and don’t just assume people know. I can’t count the amount of meetings I took where initially they’re like, ‘Tell me about your label’. Once I explained everything about what we’re doing, everything shifted.
The advice I would tell people in general is, nothing’s that serious, relax, build as many relationships as you can and nurture those in a genuine way. Be willing to give more than you receive. I think we all forgot we got into this side of the business because we actually enjoyed music, so just have fun.
You’ve successfully funded two startups. How difficult was it to get that funding? Women-led startups are said to receive around 3% of VC investments in the US…
I’ve experienced it all, it’s given me a tough skin. With Veeps, we only raised $300,000 to get started and that was like pulling teeth. We raised $300,000 and turned it into $30 million. At that point, I was 24, I’m 32 now, and there’s a lot of misogynistic behavior still out there. It wasn’t just a music company, it was a music tech company led by a woman. It was really hard. I took hundreds of meetings for funding and people would just go, ‘OK, let me know when this is up and running’.
Even with Verswire, yes, a good amount of these people were relationships I’d built over these 16 years, but I still took hundreds and hundreds of meetings with other investment firms, bringing other people on board. Even some of the funding that is from close relationships, that still took a year of convincing because it doesn’t matter how good of a friend someone is to me, they don’t owe me their money.
“A woman can never react, she can only overreact. A woman can never be a boss, she can only be a bitch. There’s no sweet spot. You’re either too nice or too mean. You’re either overbearing or too lenient.”
Raising money is probably one of the hardest things in the world. Often, as women, we’re doubted and questioned as to whether we can be good leaders. I’d like to think that we’re the best leaders but maybe I’m biased. It’s ‘can she handle it?’ and I feel like people are always looking for reasons to point you out and be like, ‘see’, for whatever reason: you’re too emotional, you’re too this or that. Which is very untrue.
I’ve gotten to the point where if someone makes a remark, I call it out. I don’t let it slide, but I then quickly move on. If you dwell on it too much, it’s like, ‘You’re being dramatic, you’re overreacting’. A woman can never react, she can only overreact. A woman can never be a boss, she can only be a bitch. There’s no sweet spot. You’re either too nice or too mean. You’re either overbearing or too lenient. So do what you think is right, have a calm, cool head, and don’t let unnecessary comments or remarks slide but also don’t dwell on it.
Final question: if you could go back to the beginning of your career and tell yourself one thing, what would it be?
Stop worrying so much. I was always stressed. I was always like, ‘Oh my God, I need this to happen and that didn’t happen and I can’t sleep, I didn’t get this tour and I need this for the client…’ When I first moved to LA, I was like, ‘What if this doesn’t work? What if I end up homeless? What if? What if?’
None of that happened, not even close. There’s a statistic that says 90% of the things we worry about never even happen, yet we still worry. If it doesn’t work out the way that you want, it will work out in some way, shape, or form, probably even better.
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.Music Business Worldwide