At the 2021 Music Week Women In Music Awards, Cassandra Gracey brought the house down as the winner of the Businesswoman Of The Year honour. Now reflecting on three decades of success, initially at First Access Entertainment and lately as president of Sony Music UK’s groundbreaking 4th Floor Creative department, the executive opens up about why she will never stop pushing for progress…
WORDS: JAMES HANLEY
PHOTOS: JOE MAGOWAN
The A-list names that gathered to praise Cassandra Gracey read like a dream line-up for The Graham Norton Show. Hugh Jackman, Pink, Robbie Williams, Ellie Goulding and Little Mix’s Jade Thirlwall all featured on the VT marking the 4th Floor Creative group president’s coronation as 2021’s Music Week Women In Music Businesswoman Of The Year.
“You’re badass and you know it,” declared Pink.
“Well done babe, about time too,” added Robbie Williams, while Columbia UK president Ferdy Unger-Hamilton saluted the Australian-born executive’s brilliance and Sony Music UK & Ireland CEO and chairman Jason Iley, who presented the award, hailed her as the “life and soul of every party and event”.
“I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, is this actually about me?’ It’s unbelievable,” admits Gracey. “I nearly died. I just couldn’t believe it and I still can’t.”
She reveals that Iley’s words, in particular, struck a chord.
“It’s funny, my cousin said, ‘Your boss is the one that’s got you right,’ because he said, ‘You light up a room,’” Gracey says. “He has a very high attention to detail and he’s been amazing in that he’s let us continue to evolve. He has been hugely supportive of all my ideas thus far and long may that continue.”
The appearance of Hollywood star Jackman in the video, meanwhile, was a story in itself. Gracey’s filmmaker brother, Michael, directed the actor in the smash hit 2017 musical The Greatest Showman. The uber-talented siblings went on to collaborate with their fellow countryman on his show-stealing turn at the 2019 BRIT Awards.
“What can I tell you about Hugh? He’s incredible!” she enthuses. “I watched that BRITs performance this morning and I sent it to my brother and said, ‘Ah, this still makes me cry,’ because I was so proud of it.”
The top hats deployed in that production now take up residence in Sony Music’s Kensington HQ (alongside a proverbial hatful of Music Week Sync Award trophies), where we meet Gracey in her office a few days after the 2022 BRITs, coincidentally.
“I love the BRIT Awards,” she beams. “I think we should be celebrating British music. I think that’s our job. We’re not growing as fast as the Latin American and Asian markets, so we have to make ourselves count and the BRIT Awards is about helping to do that. Long may it be a celebration of British music and talent. My favourite performance this year was Ed Sheeran with Bring Me The Horizon, Ed is very clever and I thought it was brilliant, it was really exciting.”
Gracey can claim partial credit for an obscure piece of Sheeran trivia. Her then client Gabriella Cilmi was famously namechecked on Sheeran’s second single You Need Me, I Don’t Need You (‘Times at The Enterprise when some fella filmed me/A young singer-writer like a Gabriella Cilmi’).
“Ed supported her on tour and look at him now,” she smiles. “He’s not done so bad, taking over the world. Good for him.”
Gracey was barely into her teens when she became acquainted with the music business in her homeland – via her karate teacher, of all people.
“I started working in music when I was 13,” she explains. “My martial arts teacher was the father of a famous Australian singer called Kate Ceberano, who’s still a household name in Australia, and his wife said, ‘Could you come and work in the office?’ And I was like, ‘Oh god, yes!’ So I would work after school, during holidays and on weekends from then on.”
It was no ordinary introduction, but then Gracey – who’s a big presence on Instagram, with 21,000 followers and counting – is no ordinary music executive.
“Fun-ish fact: 100 years ago, when I was 16, I was national Australian karate champion,” she reveals, with comedic understatement. “Now, in my old age, I just do boxing training three or four times a week, but I still think once I am over 50 and my kids have left home, I will compete again.”
The effervescent Gracey, who recently got her motorbike licence in preparation for Sony’s impending move to King’s Cross, has the Spice Girls to thank for leading her to London after a friend’s son won a Capital FM competition to see the group – sans Geri Halliwell – live in concert in England’s capital in the run-up to Christmas 1999.
She recalls: “I was out jogging with his mum and she said, ‘Tom’s won a trip to London but none of us can take him,’ and I’m like, ‘What date? What date?’ I had been touring around Southeast Asia with Kate at the time and I said, ‘We get back from Japan the day before, I can take him to London!’ So when I was 21, I came to London to see four of the Spice Girls – Geri had left the band at that point – at Earl’s Court. We were staying in Soho and I was like, ‘I have to come here and work in music.’ A couple of months later, I got my backpack and I did.”
Encouraged by a mutual friend – Australian drummer Bruce Pawsey of the band Carrie – Gracey met SSB Solicitors founders Sarah Stennett and Paul Spraggon for a coffee. The fateful meeting led to her near 20-year stint in management at Stennett’s Turn First Artists/First Access Entertainment, latterly as EVP, UK and Europe, where she worked closely with artists such as the Sugababes, Conor Maynard, Iggy Azalea, Rita Ora and Ellie Goulding.
“Sarah was still working as a lawyer full-time and I was obviously so young, but I had worked in management for a long time and I’d toured Australia and Southeast Asia as a tour manager as well,” says Gracey. “I started doing day-to-day for the Sugababes and it was a hugely exciting time. It was amazing and torrential, but we got to go around the world. The amount of TV exposure was just unbelievable and that’s how we were breaking artists at the time.”
In 2018, Gracey became president of Sony Music UK’s newly-created 4th Floor Creative group in an overhaul that saw the company’s creative departments merge into a new division of 60-plus staff. The division works with Sony’s labels to provide an all-encompassing operation – comprising brands, sync, insight, creative and digital – aimed at enabling artists to effectively reach audiences in the streaming era.
The list of groundbreaking 4th Floor projects includes Little Mix’s LM5: The Tour Film and Peloton workouts featuring their music; Mark Ronson’s Pieces Of Us, the first interactive music video shot using Instagram’s Spark AR; the world’s first streaming-influenced merchandise collection for Bring Me The Horizon, Paloma Faith’s celebrated partnership with Skoda and podcasts with George Ezra and Robbie Williams.
Elsewhere, its 4th Floor Academy teaches five young people in multiple disciplines across the department, three days a week, over the course of six months (“They also spend two days a week with Small Green Shoots, a phenomenal organisation we support through our social justice fund,” says Gracey).
And so, with plenty on the agenda, we settle in with the president to talk changing lanes, women in music, chauffeuring pop stars and more…
You spent many years in the world of artist management, what made it the right time to move on?
“I have three boys, so it was time to stop travelling as much as I was doing, and it was time to learn a whole new skill. In the last two years [at First Access], I was working with Ellie Goulding. Love Me Like You Do was the global No.1; she was second from top at Glastonbury and had the same slot at Coachella and Lollapalooza; and we had 80 arena shows across the world. It was truly such an incredible time and everything was marvellous, but I also had been travelling so much. I am a mother and a wife, and I needed to return home. Then these job offers came in. I had done management for over 20 years and I was like, ‘Okay, it’s time to change.’”
How do you reflect on your time managing talent?
“I have such huge respect for managers, simply because it is so tough, but it’s such a good experience. I would employ anyone who’d been in management because you get such an education of the entire business. It is an unbelievable learning ground. But also, the 24-hour nature and the passion and belief you need to break an artist is really challenging. You’re on a rollercoaster. Even if you’re doing well, it’s still a rollercoaster, because the wins and losses come thick and fast – and it’s probably 100 times worse now. Back then, it was all about mystery. Now, it’s almost the opposite, it’s, ‘I want to know you, and I want you to do well because you’re authentic and I like your music.’ It’s a whole different scenario and I think it’s tougher for artists. The good part is they have the power: if you’ve got 100 million Instagram followers, you’re a lot more powerful than any TV show and any print magazine. But at the same time, you’re getting constant feedback from the audience and that can be tough mentally.”
Darcus Beese once joked in Music Week that, ‘If you manage the Sugababes, you can manage most things.’ How was that time for you?
“Loads of fun! I would drive them around in this people carrier and they’d all be rapping and singing. Remember, it was the first line-up of the band and they were like a baptism of fire into London. It was London life personified with those three: all really different, speaking differently at the time. I got to go back to Australia with them and taught two of them swimming in Sydney. Mutya got her first tattoo in Sydney with me and I said to her, ‘I’m assuming your mum is fine with this, you’ve spoken to your parents?’ And she said, ‘Yeah, of course I have.’ And then I hear her at the airport, checking the spelling of whatever she’d just got tattooed, and I’m like, ‘Oh my God, you didn’t tell your mum!’ It was an incredible opportunity and time. It was a mad life that we got to live together for that period.”
What kind of manager were you back in the day?
“Extremely passionate. I would have stayed up for 10 days if it meant that I was going to make something work. I believed in what I was doing and the artists I worked with all day long – and I still do – that’s how I am now. It’s not like I’ve come into a corporate company and am not passionate, I’m still that passionate and I will still do whatever it takes, if it’s within my power, because I just love working in music and I love the artists I work with. Basically, in management, you’re teaching everybody else to believe what you believe, and I would say, ‘If I’ve got a no, I’ll just go and find another way. Because you might say no, but I will make sure that it happens.’”
So what made Sony’s offer the right one when it came?
“The breadth of what I get to do is just so exciting to me, because I love learning. I honestly believe I have the best job in the whole music business. My remit is so broad, I get to do so many things that I really am passionate about. Like when I was in management, my job is to try and add value to our artists in whatever way I can.”
How crucial has the work 4th Floor does become in the streaming economy of the modern business?
“Our job is to help make the artist stand out. It’s really the attention economy, because we’re not just competing for streams, but against gaming, Netflix, YouTube, TikTok and everything else. Obviously, different artists are suitable for different platforms. To some, TikTok is very much a language they understand. Our job is to help with the strategy and to educate, because these platforms are coming thick and fast. No one was saying the word ‘TikTok’ when I entered Sony, and yet there could easily be another [platform] in two to four years’ time. We’re also building our own CRM audiences. So do we impact streaming? Absolutely, but through all the things we do in the attention economy. It could be that we have spotted a trend on TikTok that is using one of our songs. We will get our artists engaged in that and maximise it, which will then impact streaming.”
With all that’s expected of artists these days outside of making music, can it ever be challenging to get them fully on board?
“Generally, they’re very aware that that’s the world we live in now – particularly the younger ones because that’s their world and they’ve never known anything else. For older artists, it’s not as natural, but Rod Stewart joined TikTok over Christmas and has got half a million followers, so it happens. People discover things and off they go.”
Do you think 4th Floor offers Sony a competitive edge over the other majors?
“I think it does give Sony a huge advantage. But there have been various other incarnations and every label is set up differently. There are essential services in all the other labels, so I think there are different versions of different things.”
Has the vision altered much as you’ve gone along?
“If we weren’t evolving constantly, 4th Floor wouldn’t exist. We should be learning continually – I’ve had two meetings today about NFTs, for example. We are the people that are having to set the strategy and learn for the artists, the company and the management, and then educate. My team is inspiring. I’ve got people aged from 19 to 66 and they have got all the ideas, whereas I’m good at curating. I’m good at choosing what’s best, but life gives you ideas. I’ve got three kids who are constantly giving me ideas.”
Have there been any disappointments of note? Anything you hoped to achieve but haven’t been able to as of yet?
“I really look forward to helping an artist break on a global scale. When I see Dua Lipa, I’m like, ‘What an incredible record, what an incredible career.’ That’s where I want to help some of our artists get. It’s not a disappointment by the way, it just takes a long time because you’re building an audience.”
Last year, you won Businesswoman Of The Year at the Music Week Women In Music Awards, what did that mean to you?
“It was a fantastic day. Look, the theme of my speech was that I would like to see a place where we don’t need to have Women In Music events anymore, which I stand by. Addison Lee has committed to being fully electric by 2025, and I think we should commit, as a business, that  should be our last Women In Music Awards and we should have People In Music Awards from 2026. When I went into boardrooms 20 years ago when I moved to London, there was no diversity, no women. It’s not like that anymore – you walk into the boardrooms now and they are diverse. I’m not sure of the exact percentages, but I’ve seen huge change. There is still more change to come and we have more work to do, but I truly acknowledge that it takes time.”
You’ve spoken about elevating women into A&R and president roles. What do you want to see, specifically?
“We need to keep bringing up female presidents. We need to keep nurturing female A&Rs. Being a label president is hard work and maybe it isn’t for everybody, but the opportunity should be presented. [Sony Music UK] has an A&R academy to help bring more females into A&R. And I’m sure all the majors and lots of other businesses have similar programmes to help increase their diversity and inclusion. Every company should have to commit to that. As president, that’s my job too – to bring up your females.”
Do you consider yourself a role model for the next generation?
“Well, I know I am. That sounds ridiculous, but I know I am because all these young women are telling me all the time. And I initially was like, ‘Oh my God,’ but then you think, ‘Okay, I need to stand up and do whatever I have to do,’ – even though the thought of just doing the photo shoot for Music Week has almost killed me!”
In your opinion, can we be proud of the industry we are working in now?
“Oh, absolutely we can be proud of the change. But I’m working with the BPI on a women’s study at the moment and I learned on one of the calls that meaningful change takes 17 years [to come into effect]. I think we can be proud of the change that’s happened in the last decade and hopefully, we can look back in five years’ time and go, ‘Okay, that’s a huge difference.’”
Now that 2022 is in full swing, what are you most looking forward to for the rest of the year?
“Going to festivals again, going to lots of gigs, breaking more new, young artists like Cat Burns, who is growing and growing. I’m particularly passionate about breaking female artists, there’s always a lot of them bubbling but we’ve got to get these girls to arenas. Tom Grennan’s new music is phenomenal. His music was played to me by his manager John Dawkins the week I started at Sony. We also work closely with Mimi Webb – we do the creative direction, photography and merch design in-house – and she is an outstanding, fun pop star. She’s 21, but she’s been signed for five years. She’s been in development and to her credit, in the pandemic, she built her TikTok audience. I’m also really excited about the return of George Ezra. He has his own unique George pop-rock genre that makes you immediately smile. We have a documentary on George coming out this year too, where he walks the length of the country with his two besties. Our job is to bring value to artists, so I would like artists to turn around and say, ‘4th Floor has made a difference to my career.’”
Lastly, what do you hope the future holds for your career?
“Well, I would love the 4th Floor Academy to be a part of our permanent legacy. I would like to have a successful NFT partnership – we are all going to be operating on the blockchain in five years’ time and I want to be part of that. I would like to break an artist internationally and, obviously, we’re only a small part of that. It’s our labels signing them and working with them, and we are just the icing on top. But I would love to be part of one of those stories. As I said, TikTok wasn’t around four years ago so who knows what the next thing is going to be? But whatever it is, I’ll be there!”