At the beginning of the year, Ivor Novello Award-winning singer songwriter and Music Week Women in Music 2020 Roll of Honour inductee, Michelle Escoffery, was appointed to the newly created role of President of the PRS Members’ Council. As Council President, Michelle is the voice and advocate for PRS’ songwriter, composer and publisher members.
The announcement followed a year of record distributions to members for PRS for Music in 2020.
Andrea Czapary Martin joined PRS for Music in June 2019 as the company’s first female chief executive. Andrea’s career has been varied and international, working for a diverse range of data-focused and big subscription-based organisations.
To celebrate International Women’s Day, Andrea spoke to Michelle to find out more about Michelle’s career milestones to-date, her ambitions for the future, the barriers she has faced and what she aims to achieve as President of the Members’ Council.
'Women have a lot to bring to the table: communication, empathy, intuition. Men are often very confident, they take on things that they may not have the ability to do, but women make sure they have it at 150 percent.'
Andrea: What job did you dream of doing when you were young?
Michelle: I wanted to study graphic design. I did it at school, and I wanted to be either an interior designer or a fashion designer, and none of that happened. I didn't study art at school, but I got accepted into Birkbeck Art School to do fine art for a year, but my dad wouldn't let me do it (laughter). Dad said no, no arts for you. So, I went onto do A-Levels, I did English, sociology, maths and computer science, but I was recording an album at the same time. I was going to college in the day, going to the studio at night, and so something had to give. I came out with my English and my sociology. Nothing art-based at all.
Andrea: When I was young, I wanted to be a model and I'm older than you, so my idol was Twiggy. Twiggy had short, short, short hair and so I wanted my hair short like Twiggy and my mother had to bring me to the barber, because her hairdresser wouldn't cut my hair short like that (laughter).
Michelle: And did you get it cut?
Andrea: Oh, I used to have it cut short like Twiggy, but my parents did not want me to be a model!
Michelle: Oh wow.
'If you have no understanding of where other people are at, you can't bring them with you.'
Andrea: So, who has been your biggest advocate in your career, and why?
Michelle: Two people. My sister because she passed on the skill of songwriting, and while she was alive, I would always bounce things back and forwards with her. She would show me her ideas and I'd show her my ideas and she'd say, 'I think you need to work on that a little bit more,' or 'this is great, why don't you run with this.' Also my dad, because my dad was very much an advocate for excellence. He was all about discipline and consistency. When I was in the girl group, my dad used to come to a lot of our shows and I didn't care about anybody else in the audience. The only person I needed to impress was my dad. He would say ‘you were flat there, and you need to work on your breathing.’ He had four daughters and a wife, so he was completely outnumbered. His thing was, it doesn't matter what sex you are, you've just got to be excellent. I’ve always been striving to be better. I felt there was always something to learn. So, I think, yes, he was my biggest advocate in that his thing was, you never stop learning and you can always be better.
Andrea: So would you say he was quite demanding?
Michelle: He just expected you to do your best. No matter what that was. I always felt amazing if my dad was there and I saw him smile, because then I knew I'd done well.
Andrea: The only fan that you need to impress!
Michelle: The only fan I need to impress (laughter), yes.
Andrea: What would you say have been your career highlights?
Michelle: I think getting a song on a Tina Turner greatest hits album was amazing and it was more the fact that it was a very personal touch. She called and said she loved the song, and then she kept my back vocals on, and she literally didn't touch the song, she just went in and performed it, and it was just like, ‘oh my gosh, Tina Turner's just sung one of my songs.’
Andrea: I love Tina Turner, isn't she incredible?
Michelle: Yes. And she's been through so much and she's just kept going.
Liberty X and Artful Dodger were also highlights. My Ivor Novello was down to the Liberty X track. I remember the group calling me early in the morning. I hadn't woken up yet and all I heard was screaming. I was like, 'What's going on?' (laughter) and it was like, 'We’re midweek number one, we're midweek number one.' That was an amazing moment.
Andrea: What do you want to achieve as President of the PRS Members’ Council?
Michelle: I think I'd feel really accomplished if, number one, we addressed some of the inequalities that are happening within the organisation, and that there was more representation across the board in terms of membership, in terms of recognising different genres, different gender, sexuality, ethnicity, and just having more engagement with our membership. Also building more of a community of writers, composers, publishers. I'd feel like we've done something really great. I'm an advocate for technology as well and I'd really love for us to catch up. Not just to catch up, to then start being on the leading edge of technology, for our members to be able to have that technology in their hands and for it to be streamlined and really easy for them to connect and for them to understand it. Just having I think, more of a greater sense of value for our members, that they feel heard, they feel valued, and they feel like there's a space for them to connect with other members. I'd feel really good about that.
'We're taught to ignore our intuition that it's weak to be compassionate. I think those are skills that really help us to be strong leaders because they help us to connect in a very different way.'
Andrea: The theme of this year’s International Women's Day is #ChooseToChallenge, what are the challenges you've faced in the industry?
Michelle: Not being taken seriously as a contender, as a woman and not being heard in a space. People assuming you can’t do something because you’re a woman. I think that's been the greatest challenge, challenging those stereotypes. Also being pigeonholed into a certain genre. So, it's, 'Oh you're Black, so you write R&B.' It's like, 'Well no, actually I write pop, I write dance, I write rock-influenced music.'
One of the things that I kind of adopted quite early in my career was ‘try it’. Try it at least once and see if you're good at it, see if you like it, see if you're capable, and if you are, keep going. People see you and have a perception of who you are and what you're capable of. We have to always challenge that.
Andrea: What has been the biggest obstacle in the way of your progression?
Michelle: Again, being pigeonholed, and not being taken seriously. It is also our responsibility to know ourselves, and to have confidence. We can do things differently. We don't have to be the same. We don't have to lead the same way. We don't have to compete the same way. I think the biggest challenge is actually turning up fully as ourselves, celebrating ourselves and taking up space. The more we do that, the more we have conversations amongst each other, and the more we realise we're not alone in this, the stronger that we'll be.
Andrea: Yes, like you say, it’s about confidence. I think we lack confidence.
Michelle: Yes, totally. But you need to learn to just jump, and you will learn on the way. A lot of the time I think that we downplay our abilities and say, 'Oh you know, I don't really know about that.' But, we do. We’ve done it and we've been doing it.
Andrea: Of course, absolutely, and don’t be afraid to be different. When I first came to the UK, I always thought that the UK embraced diversity, and what I'm realising is that I think it's almost harder than the US. It's just that it's not as open. It's very closed and no-one talks about it. Everything has to look perfect.
Michelle: Yes, yes. And perfection is the enemy. It's like the biggest cause for procrastination, you know.
Andrea: Absolutely Michelle. And what key qualities do you think a leader needs to have?
Michelle: Listening skills and vision. I think it's important to listen to others, but I think it's also important to have a clear vision and a strong voice. Not everyone's going to agree with you, and you might not agree with everyone else. But when you have that vision and the clarity of direction, then you can lead.
As you said, it’s important to be able to have empathy and to put yourself in the place of somebody else, to understand where they're coming from. I think that's really important in leadership, because then you can bring other people with you. If you have no understanding of where other people are at, you can't bring them with you.
'We don't have to lead the same way. We don't have to compete the same way. I think the biggest challenge is actually turning up fully as ourselves, celebrating ourselves and taking up space.'
Andrea: Absolutely, because they have different starting points. Would you say that leadership is gendered?
Michelle: I really don't feel like it's gendered. I really don't. I think that those qualities surpass gender. You need to listen to people, you need to have a clear direction, you need to be able to communicate your ideas clearly and be able to also break them down so that everybody can understand what it is that you're aiming at, and you need to be able to be decisive. Leaders are decisive, they're quick to decide and slow to change their mind. I don’t think that that’s gendered.
Andrea: Do you think it's how you’re brought up?
Michelle: It could be, but it could also be about mindset. You look at so many leaders and they've come from very humble beginnings. At some point in your development, I think you decide. You decide that this is what you're going to go for, and this is what you're going to do, and you're not going to let anything stop you, you're just going to go for it.
Andrea: Growing up, I had a twin sister but then I found out I had a brother when I was 30 years old. So, it was only the two of us and my father brought us up a lot like boys. It sounds like he was a little bit like your father, demanding but not in a mean way. For me I think the way I was brought up did make a difference in allowing me to be a leader.
Michelle: But sometimes it’s the opposite. You decide, actually, I don't want to live that way, and that pushes you to leadership. Sometimes we don't even know that we're leaders.
Andrea: Yes that's true. How do you think that women in senior roles can help forge gender equality in the music industry?
Michelle: By shouting about other women (laughter). It's about representation and recognising the skills of other women. I definitely feel that it's about advocacy and sharing your knowledge and skills. I think sometimes we get into spaces where we compete with each other, or we don't want to share because we think there's only enough room for one or two. In my experience, I've always seen that there's more than enough room, and we all bring something very different to the table, and it's valuable, so celebrating that and really amplifying that is really very valuable.
Andrea: Do you think that women lead differently to men?
Michelle: I do. I think, like you were saying earlier, there's empathy, there's compassion, there's intuition. And sometimes these are the things that we're taught not to bring. We're taught to ignore our intuition that it's weak to be compassionate. I think those are skills that really help us to be strong leaders because they help us to connect in a very different way. I don't see them as a weakness at all.
'Perfection is not the goal. There’s never ever just one road to success. There's many different roads.'
Andrea: How important do you think it is to encourage more female writers to join PRS?
Michelle: I think it's hugely important because there is so much talent out there. I see it all the time in university. Young women want to learn production but aren't necessarily getting let into those rooms and again, we express ourselves differently, we think differently and we just need to level the playing field. PRS’ membership is only 18 percent female. It’s about education and creating spaces so that women can upskill in a safe environment, maybe possibly with other females, female-led camps or female-led courses, where they can really get into production and not feel like they are the outsider.
Andrea: I am pleased to say that below the age of 30-years-old, we're working towards a 50/50 gender. But how do we encourage that upper age bracket?
Michelle: Yes, I think creating opportunities for them to collaborate, and for them to skill-swap as well. Because we've got a lot of females that have got incredible skills, but there's no outlet for them to share.
Andrea: What is one piece of advice you wish somebody had given you at the beginning of your career?
Michelle: Perfection is not the goal. There’s never ever just one road to success. There's many different roads. I thought it was just one way and I had to just be perfect and get it right. I think I would tell my younger self, 'Please don't put so much pressure on yourself, perfection is not the goal here.'
Also, that sacrifice doesn't equal success, balance creates success. I think a lot of the time, particularly early in our careers, we're taught that you have to sacrifice your whole life to be successful. Sacrifice is not necessary, especially now. We've been in this whole year of sacrifice, where we haven't been able to see our friends and our family and we’ve seen the effect it has on our mental health. If you are fulfilled in all areas of your life, you're more able to go out and be that person.
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