In this week’s issue of Billboard, we’re following four music industry players throughout a 24-hour period to get a sense of the breadth of the music world in 2015: International pop star Ed Sheeran, Def Jam vp No I.D., DJ Tommy Trash and Sarah Stennett, the power manager behind Ellie Goulding, Iggy Azalea and the newly solo Zayn Malik.
Although Stennett couldn’t reveal much about the former One Direction singer’s new music, she could do one thing for us: Play a brand new Zayn Malik song for the writer of the piece. Unfortunately, we can’t reveal much more about it — just that we heard it from her phone played over a car stereo while tagging along with her for the day in New York City.
Speaking of Malik’s boy band past, Stennett tells Billboard, “The environment he was in was all about compromise.” Now that he’s trying to become his own artist, she has a clear goal and high hopes: “My job is simple: Make sure nobody gets in the way of him becoming an important artist.”
For the full rundown of a day in the life with Stennett and her work with Malik, Azalea and others, read on….
Sarah Stennett heads to Blavatnik HQ
“What time is it in Australia?”
Time zones are important to Sarah Stennett, who has 38 employees in three cities. Today the British lawyer and manager is in New York, a convenient pivot point to an extended workday: Before breakfast she can talk to the London office, and after dinner her Los Angeles staff is still available. In a moment, from the back seat of a town car, she’ll get on the phone to Sydney, where’s it’s already tomorrow.
Stennett exemplifies the 21st-century approach to music moguldom. Turn First, the company she launched in 2004 after managing U.K. act Sugababes, has grown to comprise two labels, a branding business and a publishing company, in addition to artist management. It’s well-rounded, diverse and -comprehensive — OK, fine, “vertically integrated” — as well as thriving and expanding. Stennett has the support of industry power brokers including Universal Music Group chairman/CEO Lucian Grainge, Columbia Records CEO Rob Stringer (who calls Turn First “the alpha female music company”) and Warner Music Group (WMG) owner Len Blavatnik, who has formed a joint venture with Stennett, a development she won’t yet discuss in detail because it hasn’t been officially announced. Stennett is on the brink of having her own empire, if she can guide her VIP acts — namely Australian pop-rapper Iggy Azalea, British singer Ellie Goulding and One Direction refugee Zayn Malik — through the controversies, pitfalls and other tremors that could knock them from the top of an increasingly unstable pyramid of pop stardom.
Stennett was born and raised in Liverpool (she declines to divulge her age). In the tradition of Lauren Hutton, Elton John and Jane Birkin, her gapped front teeth connote self-possession and disregard for social norms. Wearing fashion-forward black and carrying a Chanel purse, she fields a call from her husband, George Astasio, a songwriter who co-wrote and co-produced Azalea’s 2014 No. 1 single “Fancy.” (The couple and their 7-year-old twins live in London.) “My very patient husband,” she chuckles. “He called three times last night, and I kept having to drop the call.”
Stennett’s car pulls up to a building in the Meatpacking District, and she goes to the penthouse, where she shares office space with Blavatnik’s Access Industries. Blavatnik, a Ukrainian businessman believed to be the richest person in England, bought WMG in 2011; his investments include film (AI and Icon Pictures) and music streaming (Deezer and Spotify). Museum-quality artwork lines the walls of his expansive, largely empty office, which has a startling view of the High Line park and the helicopters that travel up and down the Hudson River.
Stennett met Blavatnik in May at the Cannes Film Festival, where he co-chaired an amfAR Cinema Against AIDS fundraiser. He asked to talk with her. “He said a few things about streaming services that I’d never heard anybody say, and I quickly realized he’s a visionary,” she recalls. The joint venture “is about connections and access. Len can help us talk to key players across different industries, from Harvey Weinstein to luxury brands. The biggest problem artists have is investment — in their career, as opposed to in a record. Investment has to come outside the major-label system.”
A long phone call with Iggy
While in New York this week, Stennett has had “extensive meetings” with RCA Records president Tom Corson about Malik, who’s working on his label debut with Frank Ocean producer Malay. Yesterday she had a long phone conversation with Azalea, who has had a tumultuous year: postponing and then canceling a tour (she called it a “creative change of heart,” but advance ticket sales were lackluster), discarding six months of recording sessions and, on Twitter, clashing with rappers Azealia Banks and Q-Tip, who both accused her of exploiting black culture without understanding it. (Banks memorably referred to Azalea as “Satan in the form of mayonnaise.”)
Azalea often seemed imperious on Twitter, especially last December, when she called Q-Tip “patronizing” after the legendary MC schooled her on the history of hip-hop. Stennett advised her client to log off.
“When you suddenly become very famous, it’s a lot for any young person to deal with,” she says. “Especially nowadays, when it’s hard to put your phone away. Social media is amazing, but I think there’s a lot of miscommunication by artists because of the speed of the online environment. My advice is, stay off social media.” In February, Azalea put management in charge of her social media accounts and largely remained quiet while the multiple controversies died down. “Iggy was very sensible — eventually. She was like, ‘I’m off. I’m off.’ Sometimes you have to learn the hard way.”
Zayn Malik has a new song, and that’s all we can say
After lunch with a music lawyer at midtown red-sauce joint Patsy’s,Stennett is off to see her band Lion Babe rehearse in a midtown studio. En route, she starts raving about Zayn Malik, who set Twitter aflame in March by quitting One Direction, saying he wanted “to relax and have some private time.” Stennett now manages him. “The environment he was in was all about compromise,” she says. “My job is simple: Make sure nobody gets in the way of him becoming an important artist.”
Malik sometimes calls Stennett to play songs in progress over the phone, and now she plugs her device into the car’s stereo to do the same for Billboard. But first, she insists that we say nothing about the song, except that it exists. “You can’t write about it. Do you promise?” she asks forcefully. We nod our agreement.
“Turn it up,” she tells the driver. Billboard can now exclusively report that Zayn Malik has recorded a song that Sarah Stennett has on her phone. But that’s all anyone can say. Double-crossing a lawyer is a bad idea.
Stennett checks in on a breaking act
“How’s the dog?” Stennett asks Lion Babe singer Jillian Hervey, daughter of actress Vanessa Williams and owner of Dewey, her beloved terrier/bulldog mix she hasn’t seen in weeks. Hervey and bandmate Lucas Goodman, wearing a J. Dilla T-shirt, have a track on the new Disclosure album and are rehearsing today, with four other musicians, for a show in Atlanta and a tour of Japan.
“Amazing! You’re all f—ing hot,” Stennett says after the first song, “Where Do You Go.” “Brilliant!” she cheers after a second.
Unguarded enthusiasm is part of Stennett’s gift. She is one of only a few women in a field that has always been dominated by men, and advocates what she calls “a maternal approach” to management. Acts on her roster range from very young to very, very young, and she believes novice artists “fulfill their potential when they’re not scared and feel supported.” Stennett leaves much of the day-to-day decision-making and hand-holding to her team (three of the four directors at Turn First are women), and steps in for big-picture strategizing and authoritative pep talks or chiding, as needed. She has had good management training as the mother of a headstrong 19-year-old, Rose (daughter from a previous relationship), who’s enrolled at New York University, where she often skips class.
“She says, ‘Mom, I only skip the lectures.’ I don’t care! Those lectures cost money.”
Sarah Stennett will beat your ass.
“Once you get signed, the real struggle begins,” says Leon Else, a handsome Brit and former professional dancer who’s living in Los Angeles while he makes an album for Interscope. He’s an excitable guy who writes lonely R&B songs about drugs and sex, and struggles with depression. Stennett checks in with him through Skype to see how his record is proceeding, and how he’s feeling.
“I text Sarah every day and ask, ‘Is any part of this easy?’ And she texts back, ‘No.’ ” Else laughs. “She’s like a mother. She’ll nurture you, but she also holds a big whip in her hand, and she’ll beat your ass. She’s not scared to tell you the truth. People don’t tell you the truth very often.”
What Else says recalls the way Stennett client Rita Ora once described her: “She’s got balls.”
Last meeting of the day, but still plenty to do
“What’s up, gorgeous?!”
Devontée, a 22-year-old rapper-producer from Toronto, warmly greets Stennett at Quad Studios, just above Times Square. This is Stennett’s last scheduled meeting, but her day isn’t nearly over. She’ll go back to her hotel, look at her emails, call Malik and get an update about Azalea, who has been recording.
She also wants to see her daughter Rose for a late dinner, and she needs to check on her mother, who got “paralytic drunk” at a wedding on Martha’s Vineyard a few days earlier, then fell over, broke a rib and, after delaying her return to England, is staying with Stennett.
“I’m so glad to see you!” Stennett smiles back to her artist. Devontée has 2,400 followers on SoundCloud and a new mixtape, District Vibe, that includes a Joey Badass feature. His songs are sparse and rugged, with slow tempos and odd, sustained bass lines — not obvious pop material, but a smart diversification move for Turn First. “This is called ‘Shawn Michaels’ — he’s a wrestler. It’s my raunchy song. Don’t judge me!” he says with a laugh.
Devontée explains that he made these records at home in Toronto, in a small bedroom. “My engineer sat on my bed.” Stennett listens to a few more songs, and Devontée shows her the videos and photos he has made to match the music. She has kept her enthusiasm at a high level throughout the day, and every time, artists and executives have responded excitedly to having her ear and support. Like many of her meetings, this one wraps almost exactly at the half-hour mark.
“I love what you’re doing!” she assures him.
This story originally appeared in the Nov. 7 issue of Billboard.