Women In Music Roll Of Honour 2023: Sally Anne Gross, reader in Music Business, Uni Of Westminster

Women In Music Roll Of Honour 2023: Sally Anne Gross, reader in Music Business, Uni Of Westminster

During this year’s Women In Music Awards, we inducted 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, Sarah Stennett, Rebecca Allen to Kanya King, Stacey Tang, Charisse Beaumont and Mary Anne Hobbs, who 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 trailblazers 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.

In 1994, Sally Anne Gross was the first woman in the UK to work in A&R at Mercury Records, then the biggest record label in the world. 

Sitting on the The Ivors Academy Board Of Trustees and as the author of the largest research project into musicians’ mental health, Gross has been working in the music industry for over three decades, and is internationally recognised for her contribution towards raising awareness of the issues of mental health and gender equality in the music industry.

Throughout her career, Gross’ research into social justice and how music can play a leading role in improving all our lives has permeated her work. In 1993, at In The City music conference in Manchester, she chaired the first ever panel on Women In Music and in the same year was appointed to the board of directors at Out On Vinyl, the UK’s first ever gay record label.

In 2016, she set up Let’s Change The Record at the University Of Westminster – where she has been teaching music business management since 2004 – an initiative which was developed to support women and non-binary people wanting to work in audio technology and production. In 2017, she launched the Richard Antwi Scholarship in partnership with Westminster university and major music industry stakeholders, which aims to support the career development of aspiring music managers from the UK’s Black, Asian and minority ethnic community.  

Committed to creating a more equitable industry, just this year Gross and Dr George Musgrave started working with the Partnership For Sustainable Development Of Music to develop new mental health and wellbeing initiatives for musicians and music professionals.

in her music management career, Gross has been involved with several acts who have collectively sold over 10 million records: Adamski, Rollo & Rob D, Urban Cookie Collective, William Orbit, Gotan Project and even One Direction with their song, Little Things.

In 2000, Sally Anne Gross won the Helena Kennedy Award for Outstanding Legal Criticism whilst studying law part-time at Birkbeck University, and in 2022 was promoted to reader in Music Business at University of Westminster. Read on for our Q&A...

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

“It feels wonderful and a real honour to be joining such an illustrious list of incredible women, several of whom I have worked with over the past three decades. To be recognised alongside one’s peers and colleagues is really special and the Music Week Women In Music [Awards] is such a great event.”

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

“Mostly as a blur, I often wonder how it all happened and how on earth I survived the ’90s. It was a very exciting time but when I started out, I had no idea what I was getting into. I had four small children and was running a management company and a record label basically out of my kitchen. It was very DIY and utter madness at times but also a lot of fun and there was a lot of great music. Our house was full of musicians and DJs, there were kids and records everywhere, so it was loud and hectic, but somehow my career started, and I realised that managing musicians was actually a real job!”

Did you have a mentor at that stage? 

“I never had a mentor; to be honest nobody talked about mentors in those days, but I had good friends and people in the industry that helped me and invested in me, which was very important.

“When I started out, I was working with a really dodgy music manager, but I was lucky because through him I met a band called Chapter And The Verse, who are Aniff Akinola and Colin Thorpe. They were based in Manchester, [and the] dance music scene there was really exploding. We set up a record label and ended up releasing a song called The Key, The Secret by Urban Cookie Collective that spent six weeks at No.2, because Freddie Mercury had died and Queen was at No.1.” 

Education is clearly a very important thing to you – so much of your career has been based around teaching, learning and sharing information. What are the biggest deficits of knowledge you have noticed when it comes to young people entering the music industry? Are there any essential bits of knowledge, for example, which are close to your heart that you think people should arm themselves with? Be it places to get help, things to read or things not to do… 

“Education is very important! I left school at 15 so I really know now how important it is to have the opportunity to study, [but] it is much harder for young people to be in education now as it’s all so expensive. It’s also much harder for anybody trying to start a music career now  and there is so much information out there, which often means it is all so overwhelming. 

“For people entering the industry, it’s really important that they understand how the whole system fits together. They need to learn the importance of the nuts and bolts, registering songs, the importance of good legal advice, networking and just learning the underlying principles of how money is made from music. 

“I always recommend that people check out the organisations that specialise in the areas they wish to work in. For example, the Music Managers Forum is fantastic for people who are managing artists, Help Musicians is great for artists, The Ivors Academy is good for songwriters and composers, and the Musicians’ Union is a must for all musicians. They all produce really useful, up-to-date and reliable information, and they are also great places to meet people and find industry mentors, too.”

It feels wonderful and a real honour to be joining such an illustrious list of incredible women

Sally Anne Gross

In 2016, you staged the Let’s Change The Record initiative to support women and non-binary people who want to work in audio technology and music production. Music Week hears time and again that those roles remain male-dominated. What practical steps do you think the industry should take to address the imbalance? 

“A lot has happened in this area since 2016, which is great to see. I think it would be great to see more apprenticeship opportunities in recording studios and in all areas of audio production and music software development for women and non-binary folk, because people need to earn money whilst learning their craft. There are so many really good women-led organisations working in this field, but they all need more support and investment.”

In 2017, you published Can Music Make You Sick?, which is the largest ever study into mental health issues in the music industry. Looking back at it from 2023, how far into tackling the issues are we as an industry? How much progress has been made since you started that research? Have we only really just started scratching the surface of it? 

“When I think back, I could never have imagined how far the industry would have come, even if that is just in terms of discussions. The response to the first report – which was commissioned by Help Musicians UK – was so positive, across the music industry people were wanting to address the issues in our findings. Then, of course, the pandemic and the events of 2020 with Black Lives Matter and #MeToo really amplified systemic issues and the impact that inequality has on mental health. 

“So, I think the report and our book came at a time when the need for action became so apparent, and I think the industry as a whole has taken these issues very seriously. It is great to see all the different initiatives across the music space, from helplines to offices where staff have been trained as mental health first aiders. Of course, it is a very complex area and there are no simple answers, but there is now a palpable shift in the way we are talking about mental health in the music industry. The [fact] that we are able to talk more openly about our emotional lives and how we are feeling has to be a good thing, but there is still a lot to do.”

What’s your biggest achievement so far?

“I'm really pleased that I was able to contribute to shaping music education and really to play a part in defining what it means to work in music, not just for musicians but also for people across the whole music industry landscape, especially those whose work supports music makers across the industry but often goes unseen. I focused on issues around inequality of access and opportunity across the whole music supply chain internationally, which led me to question what the impact of working in such a competitive field might be having on those who have dedicated their lives to music. 

“Being able to produce the research data on mental health in the music industry was really important because it was giving people irrefutable evidence that enabled them to act, so I am very proud of that. I really believe that our relationship to music and the ways in which we interact with music reveals a lot about the societies we live in, and music is an incredibly useful tool for social interaction and helping to bring about positive social change.

“I'm also super proud of my children, who have always supported me as a mum working in this crazy industry. I'm very grateful to them and I'm proud of the adults they've become.”

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

“Flexibility is key. If you are going to make the most of a career in music, being able to adapt, change and try new things is really important. Making good friends and a strong network, not just in music but in other creative industries, is also a good way to find new opportunities. And be prepared to make mistakes, it’s all part of the process.”

What’s the best advice you’ve ever had?

“I get a lot of advice about [not] doing too much, which is great advice, but at this point I have to admit to being somebody that likes doing a lot! The most poignant advice I have ever received came from the wonderful poet Michael Donaghy, who was my poetry teacher at the time. He sent me an email out of the blue and told me to stick with poetry and take myself more seriously. Tragically, he died suddenly a week later. It was very sad, and I never became a poet, but I took his advice into other areas of my life and work. Or at least I tried to.”

Is there a young woman you'd like to shout out who you think is a rising star in the industry?

“I always find it hard to narrow it down to one as there are so many fabulous young women and non-binary folk working in music right now, it is really great. So, if you let me, I would like to highlight four of my fabulous University of Westminster graduates: Isatta Cesay, A&R manager of Promised Land Records and founder of Doctored Sound; Shanice Edwards, A&R, Since ‘93/Sony Music; music executive and consultant Esther Lenda Bokuma; and Ree Sewell, artist support manager at Sony Music.”

Similarly, is there a young woman artist whose music you're enjoying or excited about right now?

“It is so hard to choose one! There are so many fabulous women artists right now, it is very exciting to see. For the sake of answering the question, I am choosing Bellah, who is just incredible. It’s great to see the flourishing of British R&B, I am a big fan.”

Finally, what’s your biggest lesson from 2023 so far? 

“That you’re [always] learning, and exploring new things can be really exciting. I have loved becoming a grandmother, and I also rediscovered the joys of going to the theatre this year, which has been brilliant. I have been doing so much, like starting new research in Denmark, and I have really enjoyed discovering Copenhagen. You are never too old; age ain't nothing but a number!”

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