This article first appeared in the June 14th issue of Billboard Magazine.
Iggy Azalea’s management company, Turn First Artists, is that rare thing in the music business: a power center controlled by women.
In 1996, when she was pregnant with her first child and a recent law school grad, Azalea’s manager Sarah Stennett found herself surrounded by a U.K. music business fueled by cocaine and alcohol. It wasn’t her scene, but it was her big break. When her boss Paul Spraggon -- who represented the then-hot Jamiroquai and Prodigy -- left his firm, she pleaded with him to take her along. “He was a bit off the rails,” she recalls. “I told him, ‘I know I’ve got no experience, but I’ll go out and get the clients and you can train me.’ And he was so drug-addled and in a crazy world at that time that he agreed to do it.” (These days, Spraggon is a teetotaler.)
Today -- after helping put together the multimillion-selling girl group Sugababes -- the law firm of Spraggon Stennett Brabyn represents Adele and Lana Del Rey, among others. But though Stennett remains a partner there, her focus is Turn First, the management and branding company she started in 2011 with backing from Universal Music Group chairman/CEO Lucian Grainge. In addition to Azalea, Turn First has shepherded the careers of Ellie Goulding, Rita Ora and Jessie J (who has since moved on).
Turn First is unique in several ways. The investment from Grainge means that the company has the funding to engage in old-fashioned artist development, taking the time -- as it did with Azalea -- to get the music, image and branding in place before label deals are finalized, and contributing when label budgets fall short. “If the label allocates £50,000 [$84,000] to do a video, I can tap into that fund and add to it so we can make a video that is aesthetically what we are trying to achieve,” says Stennett. But in the still old-boy-network music biz, Turn First stands out as a women-led company, with six of its seven directors female. “I don’t deliberately just hire females,” says Stennett. “It’s something that has evolved.”
Still, the group is known as 'The Lionesses,' which fittingly sums up the mix of fierce advocacy and creative cultivation that peppers Stennett’s conversation. “We have that ability to debate without feeling that any of us are being attacked or dismissed,” she says of The Lionesses. “There isn’t a parental element to the environment, but think of the ambitious mother who is directing and nurturing her children, bringing them into a world that is hugely competitive. We’re educating artists and enabling them to accept that yes, there’s a dream, but there’s a road to be walked down in order to fulfill it.”