Women In Music Roll Of Honour 2022: Vicky Dowdall, VDM Music founder

Women In Music Roll Of Honour 2022: Vicky Dowdall, VDM Music founder

During this year’s Women In Music Awards, we inducted a further 14 game-changing industry executives (including one posthumous award) into the Roll Of Honour, in association with TikTok. They join the pantheon of previous honourees, including some of the biggest names in the business, from Emma Banks and Sarah Stennett to Kanya King, Rebecca Allen and Stacey Tang, that have been selected since the awards began in 2014.

The Roll Of Honour aims to highlight the breadth, depth and variety of individuals who are game-changers in the music industry, with their activities consistently benefiting women, or focusing on empowerment/gender disparity. 

Following the Women In Music Awards ceremony, Music Week is running Q&A interviews with all of this year’s Roll Of Honour inductees.

Vicky Dowdall is the founder of VDM Music, a consultant for Crown Talent & Media Group, and has twice been nominated for Manager Of The Year at the Music Week Awards. Her blend of expertise, eye for detail, tenacity and creativity has resulted in huge success for Ella Henderson and Nina Nesbitt, as well as significant momentum for rising stars Olivia Sebastianelli and Cody Frost.

Managing alongside Mark Hargreaves at Crown, Dowdall has masterminded a hugely successful second chapter in Ella Henderson’s career. A new deal with Atlantic Records resulted in Henderson landing five Top 10 singles and a Top 10 album, as well as a succession of platinum certifications. Her comeback has been cemented with 15 million monthly listeners at Spotify and an Ivor Novello nomination. Dowdall’s management of Nina Nesbitt has been similarly successful, leading to a career total of over a billion streams, stadium shows as guest to Coldplay, high impact international collaborations (Seeb, R3hab, NOTD), a recent performance on the James Corden Show in LA, and praise from Taylor Swift.

Her next wave of artists are also on the rise. Olivia Sebastianelli is enjoying a pan-European breakthrough as co-writer of Purple Disco Machine’s In The Dark, while Cody Frost has earned support from Radio 1 and BBC Introducing. All four artists are prospering after prior challenges in their careers: Dowdall reignited Henderson and Nesbitt after their previous major label deals, she has nurtured Sebastianelli over the long-term, and gave Frost a platform with Truth Records (a joint venture with Crown) to provide the freedom to fully express herself after first coming to attention on The Voice.

A mother of two, Dowdall aims to show young women in the music industry that you can successfully combine the needs of both your career and your family. Her own dedication was demonstrated when she hid her first pregnancy until the last possible moment, a decision she made to keep the focus on her projects rather than her personal life. Yet she fully believes that sort of approach shouldn’t become the norm – as an MMF board member, she has campaigned for a stronger focus on equality, diversity, fair pay and mental health issues within the industry.

Dowdall also applies her skills to a variety of other fields within the industry. She has brokered brand partnerships worth over £1 million, including Calvin Klein and Reebok.She also consulted on The Voice UK for two years.

Dowdall first stepped into music as an artist, championed by both Pete Waterman and Tracie Bennett. She then started working with Mike Stock and Matt Aitken at Red Bus Music, where she became a director by the age of 21. Her current ethos is inspired by her early experiences as an artist: “I’m just trying to be the manager I always wished I’d had.”

Here, Vicky Dowdall takes Music Week inside her incredible career so far, from pop artist to artist manager...

How do you feel about joining the Music Week Women In Music Roll Of Honour?

“I’m incredibly honoured to be recognised and to join a list of names of women who I admire and respect. I’m really looking forward to the awards and I’m so excited to be part of it this year.”

How do you look back on your early years getting into the industry?

“I look back on them with a smile. I started in the industry as an artist when I was 19 years old. My first experience was auditioning for Pete Waterman at PWL Studios. I had grown up listening to PWL artists, so I was beyond excited even to be in his studios. I had to sing for him from just across his desk, and the only accompaniment I had was a shitty backing track recorded on a cassette. After I finished, he said, ‘You’ve got a weird voice… But I like it!’ He then asked me what Spice Girl I would be, and being from the Newcastle area I said, ‘Well, Geordie Spice of course!’

“I then had to do a full-on ’90s dance routine and I got into a band. I was so naive, but I was also so thankful to have the chance to do something I had always dreamt of as a kid. I then joined another band and we had some chart success. After being in a few pop bands, I realised I wanted more control over what I was doing, so I decided to start my own project, write our own songs, and manage the group myself.

“After a lot of hustle, I managed to get the attention of LA Reid and off we went to NYC to do a showcase for Arista. Naturally, as soon as Arista were interested, all the labels back home were interested too. This made me realise what you could achieve from behind the scenes, and it was a real buzz. Now if someone says to me, ‘You’ll never achieve that, or you’ll never get a meeting with that person’, it’s like a red rag to a bull to me. I’ll always find a way! That’s something that young people coming into the industry should keep in mind – if you put yourself out there and stick to your goals, you’ve always got a chance.

“There was one hilarious experience where we ended up in Simon Cowell’s office, and while he was out of the room we rearranged his furniture so we had the space to do our OTT dance routine in his office! The look he gave us was priceless, and when he started The X Factor a few years later, I knew just how people felt during the auditions. It was one of those moments that when I look back, I smile and cringe at the same time. But it was also the moment where I realised I could be a manager. If I’m honest, I wasn’t the best singer. So I thought, ‘If I can get myself in front of these people and get myself record deals, imagine what I could achieve for people with real talent!’ And that’s what I’ve been doing ever since.”

Did you have a mentor at that stage? 

“I didn’t have a mentor unfortunately but I did have my lawyer Tim Smith, who I still work with today. He has listened to me rant at him over the years (fortunately not on the clock, but he’ll rarely say no to me buying lunch), but he’s been a great sounding board and will reign me in if necessary! He’s like my industry dad.

“Coming from a council estate in Gateshead, I didn’t know anyone in the industry at all. So when I moved to London, I had to find my own opportunities with lots of hustle, just as many knock-backs, and a sheer determination to succeed.

“I’m a very proud board member of the MMF and I wish I had joined earlier. It allows me to be the mentor that I wish I had when I started, and there’s still plenty I can learn from the other members. Their advice, help and knowledge has been invaluable to me, especially during the pandemic.”

What’s your biggest achievement so far?

“My biggest achievement so far without a doubt is having my beautiful children, Harley is three years old and Matti is one. I love them more than anything in the world and they drive me to work harder than ever before as everything I do now is for them.

“In terms of work, I’m proud to have started looking after young female artists like Nina Nesbitt and Olivia Sebastianelli when they were in their teens and to see them develop into amazing, talented young women. To work with them from ground zero to what they are both achieving now is just an amazing feeling. Management is a huge responsibility, so to be part of making their dreams come true is just so rewarding.

“To revive Ella Henderson, Nina and Olivia’s careers after their major label deals have ended has been challenging but brilliant. Since then, Ella has had five Top 10 singles, a Top 10 album, platinum records and an Ivor Novello nomination. Nina has exceeded a billion streams, and Olivia has had multiple certifications for her success as a songwriter. All of those achievements feel great!

“Being nominated twice for Manager Of The Year at the Music Week Awards has been a highlight, especially as there are very few independent female managers which makes it tough for women to be nominated. That’s something which needs to change. I won’t rest until I win that!”

If you put yourself out there and stick to your goals, you’ve always got a chance

Vicky Dowdall

You wrote a few years ago about keeping your pregnancy secret from the music industry because you were concerned about being treated differently? How do you feel the industry has improved its support for mothers?

“Yes I did do that, but it’s not something women should feel pressured to do. No one should have to feel they need to hide something so beautiful, but unfortunately over the years I’ve had people ask me, ‘Are you going to have kids?’ I would say probably not and their response would be something like, ‘Probably for the best as you could never do your job with kids.’ Shame on people for thinking that, and I’m proud to see that there are many mothers proving them wrong. But we shouldn’t be made to feel like that in the first place.

“But things are improving, like what Sony Music UK has done with their childcare and parental support schemes, and I hope other companies follow. It’s still a problem for independent women or small business owners like me, but hopefully I’m showing that you can do it regardless of what anyone else thinks. The biggest shift needs to be companies being understanding and considerate to working parents. If the nursery calls and says you have to go and collect your child, that’s what you have to do. Anyone who doesn’t understand that, quite frankly I have no interest in doing business with them.”

Your client Nina Nesbitt recently released her third album – how have you grown together as an artist and management partnership? How has she developed as a global act in the TikTok era?

“Nina and I are now like extended family. Nina moved in with myself and my husband when she was 17 years old, which allowed us to bond very quickly! I now feel like I’m an expert on teenagers. I ‘accidentally’ burned Nina’s jacket potato on her first night with us to quietly encourage her to learn to cook for herself. But it still took her a year to master the washing machine! But seriously, I have so much love and respect for Nina. She keeps me on my toes, and it’s actually very unusual to find someone as hard-working as Nina. She’s extremely smart, driven, and deserves all of her success. The scary thing is she’s still only in her twenties and the songs she’s writing now show that the very best is yet to come. True talent stays with you. Any artist will experience peaks and troughs, but Nina will always end up on top. She’s really that special.

“TikTok was interesting with Nina. At first she was like, ‘I’m not doing those silly dance routines.’ But when lockdown hit, we spoke about what we could do to keep pushing forwards even when everyone was stuck at home. I encouraged her to give it a try and to see if she could find something that felt authentic to who she was. She started to make clips of her making music at home, using everyday objects as part of the production, or just being out in nature, and sure enough, she went viral. As well as being an artist and a producer, Nina is very self-sufficient and could easily run a marketing company one day. I could write thousands of words about Nina’s talents!”

What advice would you offer young women about enjoying a successful career in music?

“The best advice I could offer is, always follow your gut instinct. As a woman it really is a super power! Also, do everything with integrity and for the right reasons. Lastly, take no shit, people will test your boundaries, let them know early on where your line is. Oh, and don’t forget: Have fun! It’s music!”

And, looking back, what’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?

“The best advice I’ve ever had was, ‘Don’t give your life to this industry.’ It really did make me think and I ended up making the best decision of my whole life – to have my children.”

Finally, what’s your biggest lesson from 2022 so far? 

“I would say to try to always think about what someone might be going through. Sometimes, people act in very strange ways but I’m learning not to judge and to accept that everyone has their own problems going on. I do think about the ‘Be kind’ message a lot. Mental health is so important for artists but it’s also important for managers and other people behind the scenes to look after themselves. Even the executives running huge corporate companies. We are all human and it’s much easier – and almost always more productive – to be nice.”

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