‘You don’t have to ask for permission in the music industry. Not many industries are like that.’

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.

As a musician turned entrepreneur, Vanessa Bosåen is uniquely placed to serve the independent artists and businesses she works with as President of UMG’s Virgin Music UK.

She spent the first 15 years of her career working and touring across the UK and Europe as an artist under the name of Vanessa Knight, with a one-person band set-up that involved a piano, loop pedal, drum machine and MIDI keyboard.

Halfway through, a frustration with partners she’d been working with and a desire to take control of her career led her to starting her own label, publisher and live agency.

Today, Bosåen works with a host of artists and company owners who’ve trodden a similar path, including British rap duo D-Block Europe, St. Vincent, singer and songwriter Jamie Webster, plus The 1975’s label Dirty Hit, Nigeria’s Mavin Records, who had a hit last year with Rema’s Calm Down, British hip hop stalwart EGA Distro, and many more besides.

At Virgin, where Bosåen has been for three years, she says she’s found her home. “You’re so at the coalface of entrepreneurialism within the independent sector,” she says. “I’ve always really enjoyed the challenge of that and this intersection that I’m at now, where I’m part of Universal but working with the independent sector, feels exactly where I should be. The resources that we have globally are second to none.”

Alongside her performing and business career, Bosåen spent six years as an independent label representative on the board of UK recorded industry trade body, the BPI, where she also became the director of the BPI Innovation Hub. That post led her to becoming a mentor at Abbey Road Red, where she is now part of the board.

While her full-time recording and performing career is behind her, Bosåen hopes to revive it during retirement. “When I’m 70, I’m going to have really long gray hair, channel Patti Smith and release a hard rock album.”

Here, we chat to her about lessons learned across her career, the strength of the independent sector today, the evolution of label services, and much more besides…

You’ve been a musician, AN independent label owner and now you’re heading Virgin Music UK. What are the lessons that you’ve learned across those various different roles?

I think quite often we believe there are doors that are closed to us and I realized quite quickly that no one was guarding the doors. You just go to the door and push it down yourself. You can often get through and no one’s even noticed. That is a lesson that was true as an artist, as an indie label and right now. You’ve just got to keep pushing through those doors because there’s no one there to stop you if you do it right.

How does your history as a musician inform what you do today?

It runs through it entirely. You understand what it means to make a living as a musician because you’ve done it, you understand all the different pressures.

When we’re working on the recorded side especially, we have to remember that artists have got lots of different things going on outside of that. At the same time, when you meet an artist, if you can bond over their musicianship, how they play, how they interpret their own songs or their writing, that gives you a real insight into who they are and why they’re working in music the way they are. Then we can talk about the business. It really does inform all of those discussions, conversations and relationships. It’s key to it.

It’s said to be harder than ever to sustain a living as a musician these days. What’s your perspective on that?

It’s definitely changed a huge amount. It’s changed in a good way in that it’s easier than ever to make music. The barriers of the cost of kit, instrumentation or education have gone away. Anyone who has music in their mind, their heart and their brain can make and record music to a high standard and that’s fantastic.

It’s opened up so much opportunity for so many musicians and artists to come through and make a living. Yes, it is difficult, but it is definitely possible. I think I’m right in saying there are more musicians now making a living from music than there ever has been. But there’s also more people trying to make a living from music than there ever has been.

What advice would you give to a musician trying to make a living from music today?

Don’t quit – because nearly everyone else does. It gives you an advantage straight away if you just keep going. If you’re finding people aren’t reacting to your music, if you’re only reaching friends and family, and this is a difficult truth, sometimes you need to look at your music. You’re not expected to be the best you’re going to be as a musician right from the start.

“We see that with the most successful artists. They’ll tell you how they kicked down this door, kept going, always believed in themselves and didn’t quit.

Keep writing, keep making more music because if you really believe in yourself, that will start reacting with people outside your inner circle. Keep looking for the opportunities, because they are there but you’ve got to be strong-minded enough to keep going. We see that story with the most successful artists out there. They’ll tell you how they just kicked down this door, kept going, always believed in themselves and didn’t quit.

What’s the best advice that you’ve ever been given?

A long time ago, when I wanted to start my own independent record label, I didn’t know how to do it and assumed there was some kind of big gatekeeper in the way.

I was complaining to a friend about this and he just wrote on a piece of paper, ‘You have a record label now’ and gave it to me. It was like OK, you’ve got it, now go figure out the next bit: get the music, get the deals, get it sorted out.

From that moment, I just did it and it was so important for me to realize you don’t have to go out and ask for permission in the music industry. Not many industries are like that, most industries do have a lot more gatekeeping. In music, you can put on gigs, find musicians to work with, start putting out music and make music. That is such a treat that we have access to.

You’ve been at Virgin now for three years. How do you see the label services sector evolving in future?

For one, I’m not sure it’s going to be called label services. The global CEOs at Virgin, Nat [Pastor] and JT [Myers], have spoken a lot about how we are not just distribution and don’t call us distribution. Not just the language but the way that we work as a partner, the way we work with labels and with artists, is evolving all the time.

We want to be giving the best strategic global service to the independent sector. That’s evolving quickly and in a really exciting way. It’s almost unrecognizable from 10 years ago and it’s a really electric part of the industry to be a part of.

It’s not just about the services, it’s about us working with the best entrepreneurs out there and making sure they have everything they need, but also that they are growing at the same time. What service can we do for you? is very much part of it, but it’s also, How can we help you grow your business?

How would you describe the health of the independent music sector today? Are there any changes you’d like to see that would better support it?

I think it’s very healthy, possibly healthier than it’s ever been. That doesn’t mean it’s perfect, there’s always things we can improve. But I think the range of music, the quality of music and the artists that are coming to the independent sector are so exciting.

What would I like to change? One area that is under pressure is small live music venues around the world. When I was starting out as an artist, there were plenty of venues across the UK and Europe and I could tour for several months on end. The regulations around traveling and working in different countries were a lot simpler then.

Now it’s difficult for touring artists who aren’t already famous to cut through the red tape and get the kind of visas that enable them to work across borders. This is particularly important with streaming, where an artist from anywhere in the world can have a hit in an entirely different territory far away from home. I hope more can be done to foster cultural exchange and enable artists to tour across borders.

As music fans, it’s fairly straightforward. We can support local venues just by going and supporting live music. Go out and see more shows!

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

It doesn’t matter where in the world you’re from, your music can resonate globally. We saw that with an artist like Rema, who we worked with on Calm Down.

It’s so exciting that if your music connects, and you work with a global partner, you can reach the entire world. It doesn’t matter what the language is and it doesn’t matter if we mix languages together, it’s the feeling of the music that is connecting. It’s challenging in terms of time zones, it makes all of our jobs longer, but it’s worth it.

More support for grassroots venues aside, is there anything else you’d like to change about the music industry and why?

I would ban mobile phones from any meetings that we have. We should be present, we should talk to each other, we should really get to know each other. Get rid of WhatsApp, get rid of mobile phones in any person-to-person meeting. We’d understand each other so much quicker if we just got rid of phones.

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

You can go back to lots of little moments like, ‘Oh, I didn’t spend enough time on production and I wish that I had because I would have been better as an artist quicker’. Or I wish I’d made this decision here or made that decision there, but actually I’m really happy with where I am now.

I feel so thankful for the experiences I had to get to this point. So I’d tell my younger self that it’s going to be wild, you’re not going to know what direction you’re going in, but just keep going because it gets really good.

How about future plans and ambitions, especially at Virgin?

At Virgin, we want to work with the very best of the independent sector across the globe and we’re setting ourselves up in a really exciting way to be able to do that. I don’t see a ceiling to the ambition that we have with the artists and labels that we work with. It’s a global effort with Virgin and that’s what’s really exciting.

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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