At the Women In Music Awards 2023, we celebrated the achievements of 13 game changing executives and artists as the industry came together to honour their work. Music Week has spoken to all of the winners to tell their stories.
Interview: Miranda Bardsley
The winner of this year’s Music Creative honour is Maegan Cottone, a hugely successful songwriter, lyricist, vocalist and vocal producer.
Throughout her career, Cottone has worked with a huge array of stars including Kylie Minogue, Kesha, Jax Jones, Black Eyed Peas and more. Her achievements to date include co-writing the UK Top 10 Platinum single Wish You Well by Sigala featuring Becky Hill, Ella Henderson-featuring tracks This Is Real by Jax Jones and 21 Reasons by Nathan Dawe, Up by Olly Murs and Demi Lovato, as well as her collaboration with pop icons Britney Spears and Iggy Azalea, Pretty Girls. This year has also brought huge success for her, having penned hits such as React by Switch Disco, Robert Miles and Ella Henderson, as well as 0800 Heaven by Nathan Dawe, Joel Corry and Henderson.
Cottone also played a pivotal role in the success of the globally renowned pop group Little Mix, co-writing and vocal producing their UK Platinum singles Move and Salute, along with eleven other tracks on their various albums, including Black Magic and Shout Out To My Ex.
Her vast catalogue has landed various sync placements across Europe and America with ITV, Freeform, Universal Pictures and Fox, and most recently, Cottone was selected as Spotify UK’s Featured Songwriters for the month of July to honour her enormous and consistent success to date.
With an undeniable track record of success, Cottone has solidified her place as one of the industry’s most sought-after creatives, and continues to push boundaries and shape the music landscape with her unwavering dedication to the work she does.
Here we meet Cottone to reflect on her journey so far…
Congratulations on winning this year’s Music Creative Award, what does that mean to you?
“I’m in disbelief. I think it is really like a stamp of recognition and approval from the wider industry, it’s like I'm doing a good job, I guess! All I ever try to do is write great songs. So to have this award is really very meaningful.”
How did you get your first break into the industry?
“It was in 2011, when I was in a studio session with [Nathan] Duvall, when he was like, ‘We’re going to be joined by my publisher, Hiten [Bharadia] today.’ And I was like, ‘Oh okay!’ So five minutes into the session, Hiten asked if we could go for a coffee, which is when he told me he wanted to sign me. I just burst out crying when he did, because it was just this moment of like, ‘Someone sees me like, they think I'm good.’ He said it was funny because it looked like he was breaking up with me!
“It was that opportunity he gave me that led to the big break, which was with Little Mix, when I got the job as their vocal coach. Anya Jones was their A&R at the time and she asked if I wanted to do a session with the girls, because I had been playing [them] some stuff of mine, and I said yes and I asked if we could do it with Duvall. When we all went into the studio, we wrote Move that day, and that was the big break! So it was thanks to Hiten who really made the difference.”
What was the industry like for you when you started out? What were the kind of challenges you had to face when you were first building a career as a creative?
“It was a mission for me. I didn’t know how it worked, I just knew there were pop stars and artists that I wanted to write songs for, and navigating that is tricky. I realise now that it’s really all about the relationships you build, which has been the most important thing to me, because the challenge when I first started was that I didn't have any relationships. I began from the ground up, working with anybody and [taking] any session. That’s how I practised, and understood the nuances of different genres – it’s just all about that learning.”
As well as a songwriter, you are also a vocal producer and an arranger, and have worked on hits including Little Mix’s Shout Out To My Ex. How did you enter the world of producing?
“I did the vocal production on quite a few of the Little Mix records, it was something I just fell into. When I was about 25, when I was having sessions with people, they would just kind of throw a mic at me and go, ‘Okay, let's put it down’. And after like one or two takes, they'd be like, ‘Oh, that's fine’. I was shocked, because I was like, ‘Hang on, the vocal is like the lead instrument. This is what people are listening to, we need to get it right.’ And so I thought I just needed to learn how to record myself. I did like a little course at the ACM, and I didn't even know how to turn a Mac on, so I learned everything that I needed to know. I think pop music is very vocal-centric, and I’m obsessed with vocals, so I learnt how to record myself and I got really good at it. In sessions after that, when people would be recording, I'd be directing them and arranging it.
“When I started working with Little Mix, the week after we did Move, we wrote Salute, and they were having a chat about who was going to record them. I was like, ‘Well, maybe I could do it’ and they were like, ‘Well, do you want to take over now?’ I did, and from then on just became their vocal producer! I had my daughter in 2017 so I had to kind of take a step back because I don't have all the time in the world now to do this, and, even though I love producing, songwriting is really my focus so I’m selective about what I do.”
Coming up through the industry in the world of production as well as songwriting, what was your experience like as a female producer in a male-dominated scene?
“A lot of my first experiences were with women, like with Little Mix and their team of women around them, so it was only when I started kind of like putting my foot in the pop dance world, where [I realised] how few women were doing it. I remember doing a camp in the Netherlands, and there were probably 40 or 50 of us, I was the only woman! I was like, ‘Oh, this is shit’ – there were so many women, I was asking why they weren’t there. I also had a session once, and I’d let myself into the studio and, while I was getting set up, an artist came in and she thought I was the cleaner! When I said I was here to produce, she was like, ‘Oh my god, I’m so sorry.’ I think with women in the studio, we often think they’re going to be in more ‘lower’ ranking jobs, that’s why it’s so important for younger, upcoming women, to see more women doing it, so they can see it for themselves.”
And what would be your advice to young women entering the songwriting and recording industry?
“There are several things. It's about practising and getting good at your craft, honing your skills and striving for excellence. It’s also about [having] those other creatives who really bring out the best in you. Being in rooms with people that you don't feel good around is not conducive to writing great music, if you can be your real self, feel comfortable about sharing ideas – even if they’re really bad – that’s what being creative is, it’s having that freedom and setting the scene to write something incredible and magical. To find your tribe you also have to work with everybody and say yes to everything, try it all.”
I remember doing a camp in the Netherlands, and there were probably 40 or 50 of us, I was the only woman! I was like, ‘Oh, this is s**t!’
You have worked with some of the world’s biggest artists including Kylie Minogue, Britney Spears, Kesha, Sigala, Jax Jones, Black Eyed Peas and more. What have been your proudest moments as a creative so far?
“It’s hard to say one moment. I spent a fair bit of time with Kylie, which personally was like a dream come true. She is incredible, it's almost surreal working with her because she's so humble, talented and kind. I don't think people realise what a good writer she is, she's so professional. Kylie is just a superstar in every sense of the world, she's formidable. This award is something I’m also really proud about, and I’m so proud to work with Ella Henderson. I have a lot for her, she's got a lot of similar characteristics to Kylie – her writing, her vocals, her humility as a person.”
In your opinion, what goes into making a smash hit?
“Great question! You need hooks, you need something clever in there. I think most hits are like 80% cheese with something you've never heard before, something fresh, something cool, something different. Every time I've heard a hit, it’s also got a very specific feeling, and when you're not listening to it, it will come back to you, you'll want to play it to your friend. It’s all about trying that ‘feeling’ whilst you're writing it.”
You also played a huge role in Little Mix’s career. What was it like working with them? And how do you look at their cultural impact now as an all-women pop group?
“It was amazing, it was probably the steepest learning curve I've ever had, because my role was so varied – as their vocal coach, arranger, writer, producer as well as helping with musical direction on their tours. I loved it, I have such personal affection for each of them and it was nice because, when I was recording them in the booth, I'd have hours alone with each of them. I didn't really realise the cultural impact until later on, looking back on it, but Little Mix have really gained this status of being a huge global girl group. I think it really comes back to the songs, they’re so strong vocally, they look great, but I also think the A&Rs did a really good job of understanding their brand. It’s all very deliberate, but at the same time they never lost their soul and personality. The girls have a lot of love for each other, so I think that contributed to the success and the authenticity of them too. It’s hard for me to answer because I know them so well, they’re like my friends, but they are just incredible!”
In your opinion, do you think the industry is doing enough to support songwriters? Are issues of fair remuneration for creatives being addressed sufficiently by the business?
“Not in the slightest. The share of streaming royalties that producers and songwriters are getting is, I would even say, exploitative. There is so much money being made in the industry, and the fact is that for songwriters, it’s always a fight to be cut into the master royalties. Every time I’m getting a cut [of a track], I’m asking for master points, and it’s a fight. But it really shouldn't be because I’ve contributed in a huge way to the ‘product’ that they are fundamentally selling. There is plenty of money to go around, there is always room to make sure all writers are compensated fairly. We need to be remembering what makes money for record labels, and that’s songs, so we need to recognise the people writing those songs. It’s disappointing.”
You are published by Phrased Differently, who won the Independent Publisher award at this year’s Music Week Awards. What is it about them that makes them different from other publishers? And how do they personally support you?
“You could do a whole interview on just this question! I cannot say enough good things. Hiten, number one, is an incredible human being. He is so fair, he is truly a stand up guy, and I have so much love for him. Because Phrased Differently is a boutique publisher, they treat everyone like family and they’re careful with who they sign. Hiten very much straddles the role of publisher, manager, mentor, problem-solver, organiser, and he has such an incredible team. They really nurture songwriters, they pitch songs actively, they have strategy meetings all the time. It’s really been a wonderful journey with them so far as my publisher.”
Looking ahead, what are some of the exciting things you have coming up?
“I get excited about everything, I am aggressively enthusiastic! I have my children, so I only do a few sessions a week normally and I’m really careful about what I put in my diary. I’ve got a song coming out at the end of the month with Nathan Dawe and Bebe Rexha. I'm also excited about Ella Henderson’s project. I’m just endlessly excited.”
And finally, does success look like to you?
“Having a rich life, and I don’t mean with money, just doing what I want to do creatively, having time with my family and enjoying every moment. Being able to not have to struggle is so nice too, I grew up in a single parent household so I had a lot of anxiety about life in the future, but having that weight taken off, as I’ve worked hard and been able to put myself in a position where I’m not worried is lovely. Getting to do what I love is success for me.”