Women In Music 2022 Outstanding Achievement winner Selina Webb on mentors, role models & Music Week

Women In Music 2022 Outstanding Achievement winner Selina Webb on mentors, role models & Music Week

At the Women In Music Awards 2022, we celebrated the achievements of 12 game-changing executives and artists as the industry came together to honour their work. Music Week has spoken to all 12 winners to tell their stories.

Selina Webb, former Music Week editor, now executive vice president at Universal Music UK, was the recipient of the Women In Music Outstanding Contribution award, which was presented by CEO & chairman David Joseph...

Growing up in a pub with a jukebox all to herself, this year’s Outstanding Contribution winner Selina Webb started early on her lifelong passion for music. Straight from school, she joined her local newspaper as a reporter and resurrected the music column, becoming a vocal champion of local talent and the succession of new bands who passed through Aylesbury in the mid-eighties.

In 1987, her obsession found a full-time outlet at Music Week, where she arrived as a reporter just in time for the second summer of love, Britpop and the emergence of the Spice Girls. Over the next decade, Webb moved up the ranks to become Music Week’s first and only female editor, becoming a prominent advocate for the music industry at a time when it was often in the national headlines.

Webb joined Universal Music in 1998 as director of press at Polydor Records, assembling an award-winning press team and overseeing some of the biggest music news stories of the 2000s. She then became senior director of communications for Universal Music UK in 2010, before stepping up to her broader role as the company’s executive vice president in early 2016.

Webb has worked closely with Universal Music UK chairman David Joseph on spearheading initiatives around women in A&R, artist wellbeing and neurodiversity. Alongside EMI’s Rebecca Allen, she also co-chaired the critically acclaimed, and BAFTA nominated, BRIT Awards in 2021, and sits as a governor of ELAM, as well as sharing her 35 years of experience in the industry as a member of the BPI Council.

Here, Selina Webb looks back at her storied career so far…

Congratulations on winning this year’s Outstanding Achievement award, has it given you a rare chance to pause and reflect on your career? 

“After an initial freak-out, it’s definitely turned into something I feel proud and honoured to receive. And of course it’s made me reflect, not least on how it’s possible I’m now one of those old-timers with 30-plus years in the industry… One of the nicest things about this award is it’s taken me down memory lane thinking of the people who have either inspired me or given me those important life chances – from my mum to the chemistry teacher at the boys’ grammar school who knew all the cool bands and brought them to Aylesbury, to the editor at the local paper who gave a young girl with no experience her first break in journalism. And while it’s true that I’ve rarely given any thought to my ‘career’, barely a day goes by when I don’t thank my lucky stars for being able to work around music and music people.”

Your career has been incredibly diverse, starting out in journalism and, of course, serving as a Music Week editor at the peak of Britpop and Spice Mania. Can you regale us with some of your favourite moments?

“It was hard to keep up! We were living in Cool Britannia and music stories routinely became huge headlines and cultural moments. I guess it all came together around the 1996 Brit Awards. We were still in the throes of Blur vs Oasis, reeling from the news of Take That’s break-up and the buzz was starting to grow around the Spice Girls. Thanks to Gary Farrow, I was sat at a table next to the stage with all the tabloid editors at the time (the likes of Kelvin MacKenzie, Stuart Higgins and Rebekah Brooks), lively company and a ringside seat for Jarvis Cocker invading the stage to moon at Michael Jackson. As moments go, that one was jaw-dropping.

“Rewinding a few years to when I first started at the magazine, being sent to cover the New Music Seminar in New York in 1989 was something else. Going straight from the airport to see George Clinton and Funkadelic at the Palladium, then ending up at some club with Lil Louis’ French Kiss spinning and rows of beautiful New Yorkers voguing was mind-blowing for a 22-year-old from the sticks.

“Back home the forerunner for The Great Escape was In The City in Manchester, the brainchild of Factory Records founder Tony Wilson, which collided with Madchester and the tail end of Haçienda. Steve Redmond, my very astute boss at the time, is from up there and was a good friend of Tony’s, so Music Week went total ITC immersion with a daily magazine to produce alongside the around-the-clock schedule of debate, bands and clubbing. It was seriously full-on but a powerful annual re-set of the industry viewed from outside London – something which we could do more of now.

“Then there were the excesses of the annual label conferences down on the south coast – remember this was Kill Your Friends era (without the murders). One ‘highlight’ was being hypnotised live on stage by Paul McKenna in front of one entire company which shall remain nameless…”

You left to join Polydor in 1998 as director of press. What was that jump like, to suddenly find yourself within the label system? 

Lucian [Grainge] convinced me to make that jump – something I’ll always be so grateful for – and his enthusiasm and insight helped make it an easy transition. Talking to journalists about music and stories was familiar territory, and ours is a small industry so I knew most people around the boardroom table on my first day at Polydor. But what was immediately striking was how on your toes you needed to be to deal with the fast-paced and unpredictable life within a label.

“When you think about it, editing a trade magazine is fairly controllable – if you check every proof you’ve got a pretty good idea of what the outcome will be, even if it wasn’t always possible to keep everyone happy. Overseeing the press for the Polydor roster – which went from the Bee Gees and Boyzone to Van Morrison via Eminem, Girls Aloud and The Lighthouse Family – brought with it a smorgasbord of personalities and variables which required a mindset shift. And a brilliant team. I do look back with pride on that first golden era for Polydor press at Black Lion Lane: Sundraj Sreenivasan, Richard Dawes, Pam Ribbeck, Stu Bell, Jade Burelli, Paul Smernicki, Phoebe Sinclair, Amanda Williams – brilliance all round. And then watching Steph [Duncan-Bosu] and Susie [Ember] fly at Polydor since I moved to my new role has been special.”

One of the nicest things about this award is it’s taken me down memory lane thinking of the people who have either inspired me or given me those important life chances

Selina Webb

In your journey from that Polydor role to Universal Music EVP, are there any lessons you’ve learned along the way, or mantras that have stood you in good stead?

“At Polydor we were always told it was OK to ‘make a mess’ which I don’t think was meant to be taken literally, but was more about being bold and never playing safe. Empowering people to tear up the rulebook is where creativity and innovation comes from. Another mantra I’ve stuck to is that you can always find a way. Claire Haffenden and I have worked together to deliver some big moments over the years, and we’ve always pushed for perfection – with the realisation that while perfection is not always possible, that mindset gets you to a better place than you would have been had you just waved something through.

“There was another lesson which sounds small but turned into something quite profound. Having a journalistic background, I used to have quite a hard line about spelling and grammar, but I’ve learned to get over myself on that one.

“The person who knows how to use an apostrophe isn’t necessarily the same person who can simultaneously make an artist, manager, journalist, stylist and photographer feel comfortable at a shoot, or the same person who is going to come up with or execute a brilliant creative idea. And that realisation fed into a wider lesson about what makes the best team – a group of people with different strengths and ways of thinking. Our Creative Differences handbook – commissioned by David [Joseph, chairman & CEO of Universal Music UK] to embrace neurodiversity in the creative industries – is very much a celebration of this.

“David has been such a fantastic boss these past 14 years and just before he asked me to take my wider role at Universal he left a paperback on my desk: Quiet by Susan Cain. It was his subtle way of telling me I already had the right tools for the new job. Such a deft touch. Whether you’re an introvert or not I recommend you read that book as it genuinely changed the way I see the world. Very short version: it’s OK to be yourself.” 

Is there anyone who played a huge role in your career you’d like to shout out? 

“Apart from David of course it’s got to be Lucian, who knew I’d thrive in a label when I didn’t know it myself. They’ve both been empowering and genuinely inspirational to work for. From the outside some people like to paint a picture of Universal as the big corporate beast, but from the inside to me it’s always felt like a family, and it’s a place where family always comes first. I had such support from Lucian when my daughter came along soon after I joined Polydor, and was promoted immediately after I came back. That approach to new parents should of course be a given but I know from friends working in other companies and industries it really isn’t.

“And it’s hard to express how grateful I am for the brilliant people I’m lucky enough to work alongside – a special shout out to my teammate and work wife Claire Haffenden who has been a joy to work with these 20 plus years, and although we’re only five years in, ditto the wise owl who is Jonathan Badyal. I also have to mention the incomparable Sue Murphy, whose support and positivity is something everyone should have in their lives.”

Another programme was overseeing the creation of Universal Music UK’s artist counselling service, the industry’s first ‘in-house’ service, which supports artists with advice on all aspects of their careers. What tangible impact have you seen that make so far? 

“One of the most important aspects of the service is that it’s confidential, so although Claire and Sundraj are running things in-house we don’t get to hear the details of the support being given. That said, some themes are emerging which do underline how challenging it is to be an artist in our ‘always on’ world, and how absolutely vital it is to have support in place. Social media can be such a brutal, unforgiving and confidence-sapping place.

“Ideally, every new artist would be paired with a counsellor they are comfortable with from day one – preparedness and prevention are so key. We have had positive feedback from the many artists who have used the service but also from members of the team who’ve been getting specialist advice on how best to support those who haven’t yet engaged.

“The conversation around mental health may be more open but the stigma hasn’t gone away, and we’re working hard to break that down.”

Some might not know about other things you’re involved in, such as East London Arts & Music and Speakers For Schools. What role does education play in shaping the industry of tomorrow? Why is that important to you? 

“It’s essential, particularly in a young industry like ours. There’s that line, ‘Talent is everywhere, but opportunity is not’ which is true of course, but the other missing piece is education. There’s so much misinformation about our industry and a lot to be done to explain the different roles in our business. Everyone has seen what the BRIT School has achieved and we now have a dozen ELAM alumni working in Four Pancras Square, some of them still in their teens, and they are all total stars, leaders of the future. I hope the BRIT School of the North gets off the ground and further proves the value of nurturing creativity across the United Kingdom.

“The other point is around role models and being visible as a woman in a senior position in the industry. Although my mentors have all been men – which I’m not complaining about considering the men they’ve been! – when you’re starting out it’s essential to have role models you can see yourselves in. I believed I could have a career in music because I happened to meet the late Terri Anderson, who must have been working for Billboard at the time, at the CBS factory in Aylesbury when I was doing work experience at my local paper. One chance meeting which made all the difference.”

In the grand scheme of your achievements, where does putting on possibly the most difficult to orchestrate BRITs rank? 

“Oh, it’s up at the top for sure! You say it was difficult [during the pandemic], which it was, but there was so much pure joy in there as well. You could feel every artist, every member of the team, was passionately invested in making this special moment of positivity after so much darkness. The creativity of Yinka Ilori and Es Devlin fully brought that ambition of optimism to life, from the set to the statuettes and every little detail in between. The best part was working with Becky [Allen] and Sally [Wood] and finding that we were so crazily aligned we got things done almost by telepathy, which was handy as everything was on Zoom.

“And then you might have thought the day of the show would be a stress-fest but thanks in no small part to Sally, Maggie [Crowe] and the phenomenal BRITs team, Becky and I just felt excited and totally zen. We took ourselves off to watch the show with a group of lovely key workers and did feel immensely proud of what everyone had pulled off. Then the BAFTA nomination came out of the blue as a wonderful postscript.”

Click here for this year's winner's and a full report including videos of acceptance speeches.

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