Women In Music Awards 2023: Campaigner winner Natalie Wade

Women In Music Awards 2023: Campaigner winner Natalie Wade

At the Women In Music Awards 2023, we celebrated the achievements of 13 game-changing executives and artists as the industry came together to honour their work. Music Week has spoken to all of the winners to tell their stories.

Interview: Anna Fielding 

The winner of this year’s Campaigner honour is Small Green Shoots and The Cat’s Mother founder, and PPL director of music industry engagement, Natalie Wade.

A previous Women In Music Awards Roll Of Honour inductee, Wade is a renowned figure in the UK music industry. Founding Small Green Shoots in 2009 and female-focused consultancy The Cat’s Mother in 2019, she has campaigned tirelessly to help people find their way into the music industry. 

Small Green Shoots creates pathways and training for young people from low-income backgrounds and opens up access to the creative industries. With an approach dubbed “education by stealth”, it has provided opportunities, funding and platforms for a wide range of UK artists. The organisation’s work has led to over 150 permanent jobs for talented young people and more than £1.7 million of early-stage funding secured for artists and organisations including Jorja Smith, Mahalia, Hamzaa, Berwyn, The Compozers, Snap Capone, Benny Mails, Frisco and others. Partnerships Wade has built between Small Green Shoots and the industry include Columbia Records, PRS Foundation, SJM Concerts, Modest! Management, Transport for London, Virgin Records, The Princes Trust, Comic Relief and Children In Need. 

Also co-founded by Wade, The Cat’s Mother provides connections for diverse young women wanting to build careers in the creative industries. So far the organisation has racked up nine events across three cities for over 800 young people, and delivered over 300 hours of consultancy, resulting in 12 jobs. The Cats Mother of the Year Award for 2023 is held by Emma Banks

Wade was awarded a BEM in 2016 for services to music and the creative industries, Natalie was recognised as an Unsung Hero by the MMF and FAC at the 2018 Artist & Manager Awards, and was inducted into Music Week’s Women In Music Roll of Honour in 2020. She is an advisor to the PRS Foundation, sits on the executive steering committee of Power Up as well as several other board and committee positions in the music sector, arts charities and youth organisations.

Appointed director of music industry engagement at PPL last year, Wade is now responsible for further developing the organisation’s relationships with the UK music industry, promoting its work collecting hundreds of millions in neighbouring rights revenue, and supporting performers and recording rightsholders maximise this income. PPL state she has been instrumental in gaining and retaining key international mandates with leading performers during her year in role. 

Here, we join Wade to look back at her remarkable life on the campaign trail... 

How do you feel about winning the Music Campaigner award? 

“I was overwhelmed at first. I didn’t expect it. And then I burst out laughing because it’s the most joyful thing. I’ve found out that I had nominations from all over the industry, which is amazing. That made me feel even better than the award. It’s so busy in the industry at the moment, so many challenges and that people spent the time to sit down and write about me… I was very overwhelmed that people took the time.” 

Have you always been a campaigner? 

“Always. I was raised in a Jamaican-Irish-Jewish family and I have a huge family with loads of different brothers and sisters. I’m the eldest and they call me Kofi Annan because I was always the one who was trying to sort things out. I’ve seen a lot of unfairness, I’ve seen racism and I know what it’s like to be a have-not. My mum and my stepdad have always been big believers in fairness and justice and I’ve always been a bit like that too. If you feel that someone’s been done wrong, you want to go and fix it, make it right, restore the balance. And if you have the power to be able to affect change, then it’s your responsibility to do it.” 

You made an incredible speech at the Music Week Awards in 2021 on behalf of Small Green Shoots, who were onstage with you. You certainly know how to make an impact! 

“It was such a huge moment and all of the Small Green Shoots were so excited. But I also knew I had to get it right. I’ve seen what can happen with the charity slot at awards shows. Everyone needs to network, everyone’s chatting and there’s not a celebrity onstage and it can get drowned out. I knew I couldn’t let that happen. My thing is about giving young people from low-income backgrounds a platform. And this was a literal platform. So I asked the Shoots if they’d like to come up with me. And they helped me with my speech and we spent a lot of time rehearsing. I was so desperate to hold everyone’s attention and have the Shoots seen, not sidelined or ignored - because that’s what happens in their lives anyway. I think my passion came across. Everyone stopped and listened.”

What are your favourite success stories to come from Small Green Shoots? 

“Well, we’ve got 171 young people jobs in the music industry. And now some of them are getting promoted and getting into management positions. We’ve recently had an artist who worked with us, Amber, get signed to Def Jam. But it’s also a mum phoning me up, saying she’s been off work with depression for 11 years, but now she’s got a job as a medical assistant because her child is getting up and going into work every day and she wants to set a good example. Or a 17 year-old whose mum died when he was young and his father became an alcoholic – not a bad man, just troubled – and this young person often cared for his dad. It’s him telling me that his dad is getting up every morning to see him off and there’s dinner on the table when he gets back. Shoots doesn’t just help the young people. There’s a ripple effect when one person in a low-income family starts working. We have the cousins and brothers of people who have been in the programme applying now. Some of them would have been making 10 times what we offer, but on the streets, doing things that are risky. They come to us on minimum wage knowing that it can lead to a long-term legitimate career.”

I’ve seen a lot of unfairness, I’ve seen racism and I know what it’s like to be a have-not... If you have the power to be able to affect change, then it’s your responsibility to do it

Natalie Wade

Makeda McMillan is now running Small Green Shoots. How did it feel to pass the organisation on to the next leader? 

“It feels bloody marvellous. I empathise with Makeda and we talk all the time, but ultimately she’s the one in charge, she’s the one in control. And she’s going to be better than I ever was. She has amazing people around her on the board, an amazing COO in Emma Randall. I wish I had an Emma Randall when I started. It makes me glow inside.”

What can the industry do to level the playing field? 

“Open the doors. Have open days. Meet people. Organise career days. It might be having secondment schemes. Things that don’t need to take too much time or money. But if you do it from the outset, you create a culture of inclusion. You also widen the ideas of the people who work within your organisation. Then, instead of trying to rewrite the script and do your own thing, use the organisations like Small Green Shoots. They are already there providing a great service and with more knowledge and authenticity than you probably have. People can learn from all of my mistakes.”

The Cat’s Mother is a networking organisation you co-founded. What does it provide that other networking opportunities don’t? 

“It’s support, encouragement and authenticity. It’s like having a big sister to guide you through and say ‘I know how you’re feeling’ or ‘this is how I dealt with that’. There is nothing like authentic, practical, firsthand, honest guidance. Cat’s Mother was set up with a female focus because we could see the difference between the young men and the young women coming into Small Green Shoots, even at the age of 16 or 17. The young women would gravitate to support roles, but the young men would be straight into the creative side. We organise Cat’s Mother sessions around the schedules of women in the music business so that they are able to give their time in a way that suits them. Our beneficiaries totally, totally love it. They build their network and at the same time they're talking to really inspirational women.”

Earlier in the year you told Music Week that, as a black woman and someone from a low-income background, you ‘can’t mess this up’ because people were watching. What would you say to someone else experiencing that pressure? 

“I would say, 'I know, it’s bad innit?' More seriously, I just had a conversation with someone about them taking on too much. And we all do it, we think we’ll just get this one thing out of the way. But they were looking at me and I know why. Because I can’t say no to anything either, so I was trying to give advice I couldn’t take myself.”

Do you ever get the chance to rest? 

“Well, I love people. People are both my hobby and my job. And I love all the crazy characters you get in this industry. They give me lithium energy, like a Duracell bunny. We’re all so lucky to work in an industry that we absolutely love. So I get fired up from that. I’m no good at being still anyway.”

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