Pamela Natalie QandA

In Conversation: Pamela McCormick and Natalie Wade

Founder and director of UD, Pamela McCormick, speaks with founder of Small Green Shoots and The Cat’s Mother, Natalie Wade, about the state of gender equality in the music industry in 2022.

  • 24 Mar 2022
  • min read

Pamela McCormick and Natalie Wade are both titans in helping to aid the UK music industry’s efforts towards creating an equal and diverse talent pool and workforce. As founder and director of UD (United Development), McCormick has spent the last 20+ years creating opportunities for Black and culturally diverse music. That work is set to reach its next evolution this year with the opening of its new talent development hub in Stratford, The Talent House.

As founder of Small Green Shoots and female mentoring network The Cat’s Mother, Wade facilitates entry-points into the music industry jobs market through education and training, focusing on those from low income backgrounds. Recently, young people coming through her organisation have secured jobs at agency Paradigm, Sony’s 4th Floor Creative, MPA, Tap Management, Modest! and Kobalt.

The duo have known each other since the early 2000s, when they were both applying for funds from the Arts Council — McCormick for UD (known at that time as Urban Development) and Wade for the organisation that came before Small Green Shoots, Music Matrix. They’ve championed each other’s work since which is why, despite the lack of margaritas, as requested by Wade, they were both up for sitting down for an International Women’s Month-themed chat about their respective campaigning, gender equality in music and lessons learned across their careers to date.

‘When I started, you had two options in the industry, which were to be the object of desire or to be under someone's wing. I don't think that is so much the case now but there's still a hell of a lot of changes that could be made.’

Pamela, how do you feel about the state of gender equality in music today and how have you seen that evolve during your career?

Pamela: It mirrors the evolution of the ethnic diversity work that we do in that the industry has come a long way but of course there's always more to be done. The overarching goal should be that employment at every level and in every sector reflects the population as a whole. In the UK, the female percentage of the population was 50.59% in 2020, so slightly in the majority. There are clearly gaps, which we can see revealed in the work Nadia Khan is doing with Women in CTRL around advocating for gender equality in leadership positions and in the boardroom, and Carla Marie’s work with Girls I Rate in advocating for women from black backgrounds getting access to the same deals and support that male artists have. Personally speaking, I've always been someone who thinks, ‘Let's get on with it, let’s just employ women’. We do that at UD, where we have majority female staff, and that's what the industry should be doing as well. Quotas have been discussed within the UK Music 10-Point Plan around ethnic diversity and similar conversations need to happen for female employment.

Natalie, how about you? And is there anything you've learned about the current state of gender equality in music in the setting up and running of your mentoring network, The Cat's Mother?

Natalie: Well, there’s a lot more like me out there. There are so many more women in executive roles getting promoted. But what pisses me off is that, for an industry that is so trend-based, so ahead of the curve, so fascinated by the fresh and the new, it always waits. There's got to be a #MeToo or a Black Lives Matter movement before they accelerate the process of change. That's frustrating. A lot of my female colleagues have been promoted very recently and those pay rises probably should have been back-dated. When it comes to The Cat’s Mother, startups are a pain in the pants and after 10 years of intense work with Small Green Shoots, I didn’t want to start something else. But I had no choice because by the time young people came to me aged 16-18, the division was already happening. The girls were moving into support and facilitation roles and the boys were going into creative. I was like, ‘What's going on? Why is my whole admin team female?’ Also, we do this thing where we appraise [those who are coming through Small Green Shoots] every few months and, when they’ve hit a target, we encourage them to ask for a pay rise. 100% of the boys would make the ask and 20% of the girls, after I’d told them to do it. That's when I was like, ‘There's something else going on here’ and that’s why we set up The Cat's Mother.

Pamela, you mentioned some initiatives earlier that are working to improve where the gaps currently lie in the music industry when it comes to gender equality. Is there anything else that you would like to see that would improve the standing of women working in music even further going forward?

Pamela: The industry needs to take it seriously and get involved at the early stage of the pipeline. If it’s serious about challenging the sort of things that Natalie mentioned, like women taking on the admin roles and men going into creative, it has to get involved very early and ideally support the work that exists in organisations like ours and Small Green Shoots. Ideally, we would start running programmes that make early interventions, supported by the industry, and then when the young people are ready to take on junior roles, there is a joined up approach between what it takes to be ready for a role in a major record label, for example. It needs to be a long term sustained process. They also need to be willing to speak up and push forward role models, like when Selina Webb and Rebecca Allen from Universal programmed the BRIT Awards. High profile women being seen in public taking on those strong positions has an influence all the way back into the talent pipeline.

’We just need to have initiatives that breed the confidence and influences from the get go. That is an opportunity we could take to really break the bias.’

Natalie, the theme of this year's International Women's Day was break the bias, which is designed to shine a light on the conscious and unconscious bias that can make it difficult for women to progress throughout industries. How would you like to see that particular issue tackled in music? And do you often see examples of gender bias happening?

Natalie: Definitely and I hate myself for it, to be totally honest. I’ll say, ‘I’m not technical’ or ‘I'm not good with numbers’. I live up to that stereotype that I've created for myself, which then becomes the truth. It's really bloody frustrating and I don't want that to happen to any other women coming up behind me. I sat down with an A&R president recently and he said, ‘I'm driven by data’. He sits there every morning and goes by the data — that's how much things have transformed in labels, analytics drive so much of what we do. Maybe a starting point is that we need to be pushing women into those spaces early, before they've got that stupid voice in their heads that says they aren’t technical. We're bloody brilliant in every other area and we will absolutely kill it in technology and digital. We just need to have initiatives that breed the confidence and influences from the get go. That is an opportunity we could take to really break the bias.

Pamela: We do have to talk about what happens to women when they take maternity leave, as well. I went back to work when my son was four months old because I couldn't afford not to. I initially worked part time and I've been working flexibly ever since. Historically, there's been a massive talent drain when people take maternity leave and they never quite get back to where they were. Pay gaps have been discussed widely and female music artists especially have a tough time from the media when it comes to their image, their weight and what they're wearing. It needs to be called out in order to challenge some of those unconscious biases.

Natalie: Things are getting better. When I started, you had two options in the industry, which were to be the object of desire or to be under someone's wing. I don't think that is so much the case now but there's still a hell of a lot of changes that could be made. Picking up on what Pam said, maternity leave is crippling for careers. I took three months off because I couldn't afford to take any more and I got forgotten. Three months is a long time in our industry and I literally had to start again. Also, the responsibility of having a kid means that I took less risks because I couldn’t afford to take chances. So you play it safe and often find yourself years behind in your pay scale or career. I feel like I'm eight years’ behind where I should be.

Pamela, you've been running UD for 20 years now. Can you give us a brief overview of what you've got coming up for the organisation?

Pamela: The big thing is The Talent House in Stratford and I've been working on that for at least five years. The building will be finally finished on March 18th and we'll be starting to roll out the new educational programmes from April. The concept is a talent development pipeline that starts with school and youth outreach, leads into a creative project called Flames Collective and songwriting camps, then an academic programme of one year. That programme leads to an incubator, which is bespoke support, mentoring, small pockets of investment, co-working, studio time, and then the accelerator, which is releasing product to market in partnership with industry. The idea is that someone could start in a school or an outreach project and be supported all the way through. That would take a cycle of probably eight years, but people will come in at different points of the pathway. Creating a link between young people, early talent, support for low income people and the music industry has always been the vision that has underpinned everything we've done. The Talent House will be a physical representation of that vision. The plan is to try and develop it into a centre of excellence and to have the industry engaged, developing projects with us and looking for new talent. Also, for the last number of years, we’ve focused on artist talent development and the facility will enable us to expand the programme to include developing executive talent, creating a pathway towards jobs rather than just creating a pathway to supporting people to release music. That feels really important for the reasons we were describing earlier — to work with the industry to diversify its employment pipeline, both in terms of race and gender.

‘You really don't know everything, listen to your people and be led by them.’

Natalie, I’m interested in hearing whether the pandemic has had an impact on your work with Small Green Shoots and if there's anything that's changed in your strategy as a result moving forward?

Natalie: What we found during the pandemic was that you really got to see the difference between rich and poor. You got to see the people who were working from home and doing yoga or talking about getting a dog, versus the kids who were sleeping with three other kids in two bunk beds in one bedroom and would Zoom in the dark. Or the kids who had dependent parents at home and had to whisper on a Zoom because they didn't want to wake them up. I was delivering dongles in my backpack because kids didn't have wifi, and, thanks to PPL and a lot of the other agencies, we collected 72 laptops for those who didn’t have access to one. When we finished the first day of lockdown and opened our doors, 100% of our young people came in, which was optional. They don't want to be isolated, they want to learn in a safe space where everybody has access to the same shit (!) wifi and they want to be part of something.

That said, Black Lives Matter affected us more. The people we work with were absolutely distraught after the death of George Floyd. They were angry and it was so difficult to get us back on track after that. They blamed me — it was like I was getting them to believe and emotionally invest in things that were never going to happen for them. I had to take a step back and think about what I’m doing. We regrouped after that and decided that we are going to absolutely knock it out of the park and I'm not selling them a lie. They are going to be amazing and I'm not going to have to sit in any never-ending and non-doing diversity and inclusion meetings again because they are going to be the decision makers. They are going to change the face of the industry from the inside out and employment is going to be a meritocracy.

Pamela, what are the biggest lessons you've learned during your career that have had an impact on the way you operate today?

Pamela: Set intentions and even if it takes longer, you'll get there. You may set milestones that are very ambitious and maybe it takes you three years to do something that you wanted to do in 18 months, but it's the intentionality of it that’s important — things don't happen unless you really want them to happen. Also, help and you will be helped. Outside of paid work, your willingness to be generous with your time and mentor others will be repaid by the universe, which isn’t why you do it, but it’s just the natural karmic flow of things.

I also think it’s really important to understand finance, data and how businesses work. The understanding of the impact of the work, your profitability and the resources you need to put into something is what makes a business sustainable. Everyone in an organisation needs to understand that to underpin the ideas. Then, it’s okay to try things. We’ve done lots of pilots and that's a fancy word for trying something for a while. Then we stop, evaluate and consult, talk to the young people and colleagues. The ability to understand the journey of people is what becomes the objectives and the intention moving forward. There's a lot of value in the reality of a project and the understanding that comes from a project. Beyond that, bigger picture stuff is that change takes time. As I said earlier, our vision and mission haven't really changed in 20 years but it really does take a moment for things to be adopted and mainstreamed. To create something sustainable takes a long time.

‘Make your life a little bit uncomfortable because if you are not uncomfortable, you're not learning.’

Natalie, what about your biggest lessons?

Natalie: You really don't know everything, listen to your people and be led by them. When you let youth lead, sometimes you think their ideas are too complicated or they take ages to make a decision or make a decision that's really controversial. You're like, ‘Oh my God, I'm going to have to wear this now’. But it's worth it because if you are user-driven, it works. And don't get complacent because things change. Make your life a little bit uncomfortable because if you are not uncomfortable, you're not learning. Also, take a few risks, which is what I wish I had the confidence to do when I was younger. I wish I had done things that made me uncomfortable or made me a bit of an anomaly a bit earlier.

Final question for you both: what advice would you offer to a young woman starting her career in the music business today? Is there anything that you wish you'd known in your early career?

Pamela: Follow my dad's advice and do a law degree! By that, he meant aim high, change the world. My other thing, which is a bit more pragmatic, is to make yourself indispensable at any stage of your career. Opportunities come your way if you are the best person in the class. I don't mean that you've got to have the best blog or have an amazing number of followers on social media, it’s just about doing your job really well and exceeding expectations.

Natalie: Mine is to take risks and say yes. Don't be scared!