Why I Left Major Label
Over the past 6 months, almost everyone I speak to within the industry asks me some variation of… “why did you leave major labels?”
At first, when I left I was actually a bit taken aback by this.
Two things, I realized were:
- Many people (especially, outside of the industry) consider major labels to be the absolute dream job in music.
- It turned out, that far more people associated me with major labels than I presumed.
I actually didn’t perceive it as any sort of radical change. Really, I just happened to work at two major labels back to back. Ironically, whenever people brought up my working at a major label in any way my default response was often, “I never actually sought out to work at major labels…”
I’d always wanted to work in music tech (basically, DSPs & social networks rather than labels). Having grown up in the era of Napster & MySpace, I always believed that the music industry always listened to, hired, and/or acquired the tech companies. They always seemed like they were on the cutting edge while the more traditional companies were continuously playing catch up. As I completed my bachelor’s in music business, my MBA in marketing and my master’s in Data Science, I always thought I was setting myself up to work in music tech. While my first industry full-time job was in music tech when I left for Europe, the industry has other plans for me (TL;DR: the DSPs & social media companies rejected me a lot).
Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely valued my time at Universal and at Warner. I learned so much. I made some amazing friends & mentors, got to see the world and I got to work with some of the biggest artists in the world and some of the smartest people I’ve ever met. I also grew appreciative of situations where the companies knew what they didn’t know and sought the advice of those music tech companies I admired.
All that being said, I’m sure some of you are reading this expecting a scathing expose of the music industry & major labels. It’s not going to be that. Instead, it’s going to be about how I make decisions when it comes to finding a job (or really most decisions in life).
This is a post about priorities.
Every time I’m making a major life decision, I think about what my priorities are.
As a reminder: Priorities are personal and can change. You have no responsibility to anyone to maintain the same priorities in perpetuity. It is completely acceptable for your priorities to be monetary. It is completely acceptable for your priorities to include title. You are allowed to be ambitious. No one needs to give you permission. You owe no one anything including your loyalty. You are not irreplaceable. If you got hit by a bus today, your job would replace you tomorrow.
Keeping that in mind at all times, often people will ask me, “Christine, what’s your dream job?” To which I reply, “I don’t dream of labor, but if there was a better job for me than the job I have now, I’d be doing that.”
There’s no perfect job. There are some really cool jobs, really interesting jobs, challenging jobs, high-paying jobs, prestigious jobs, but no perfect job.
So, that means, for the most part, every time you make a professional decision, you are sacrificing something.
I’ve written about taking pay cuts, changing countries, and all kinds of things that were dictated by my priorities at the time, but below is my breakdown of the priorities I weighed when making my latest career decision.
If you’d like to TL;DR it, it came down to:
- feeling valued
- providing value
Unbeknownst to me at the start, nothing ended up being more important than those three things, though it manifested itself in numerous areas throughout the job search, they ended up being my north star.
Some of the things I walk through here are specific to a company, specific to major labels, specific to the music industry as a whole, and most often just specific to my experience. It is not meant to point fingers, or lay blame, but rather, to be transparent about my own experiences, and my own decision-making process (and to stop people from asking me this question over & over 😉).
I also recognize the immense privilege I have to be able to make these decisions–I have a supportive partner, I have a good education, a great network and a solid savings account. Optimizing your life to have options is the ultimate privilege and freedom.
Company Prestige/Name Recognition vs. Feeling Valued/Providing Value:
I found myself considering two external offers while still working my role at WMG.
Initially, the prestige of the company was a large consideration. Having an easily recognizable name on your resume opens doors much quicker.
But, on the flip side, the lower you are in the larger companies, the more you are just a cog in the large machine. I ended up choosing a lesser-known company that I felt I could add more value to and who I felt saw my value. It felt like Pollen really wanted me there. Everyone I spoke with was excited to speak with me. Every idea I had was met with interest & optimism. When I was on the fence about my decision, I talked with a now co-worker who gave me open & honest advice & support.
Company Prestige/Name Recognition vs. Flexibility:
After working remotely (and missing out on a lot of life) for 18 months, the literal flexibility of the workplace also grew more important. With Pollen, I had the option to be fully remote & work from anywhere, have unlimited paid time off, plus I could see the writing on the wall of travel & entertainment (T&E) budgets being slashed within most of music so I wanted to make sure I ended up somewhere where T&E was still an option for those not at the most senior positions.
Of course, the trade-off I was making was that I can’t rest on the Pollen name the same way I could rest on UMG, WMG or the other offer I had. (Though, this does give me, and everyone else at Pollen, much more of an opportunity to help shape what the Pollen brand can be, especially given that we all have equity.)
In larger companies, the rules and regulations needed to govern (tens of) thousands of employees often precluded flexibility & agility. In an industry that often feels quite arbitrary, I knew that I didn’t want my next move to be one bogged down with red tape & politics, which larger companies with more name recognition often brought with it.
The red tape & rules came into my job search quite heavy-handedly when it came to pay.
Pay, Flexibility & Feeling Valued vs. Title:
I found myself with a job offer from Pollen that was over 40K GBP more than my role at the time at WMG. I was actually relatively comfortable with my pay at WMG, so pay wasn’t actually a top priority for me. Knowing I could get a job paying that much was more important than actually making that much right now, basically earning potential was more important than the salary with my priorities during this job search.
But, also, obviously, I’m not an idiot.
So, with two offers on the table, I went back to the other company and said their offer was over 30K less than my other offer and given that salary wasn’t a top priority, if they were able to provide a signing bonus to make walking away from that much higher annual salary & equity worth it (since I’d also be losing my bonus at WMG) then I’d join them.
They wouldn’t. They said, they didn’t do signing bonuses and offered no other solution.
As I mentioned earlier I have an MBA and a data science degree and decided to work in music. Both of those degrees yield much higher salaries outside of music than within it. I’m giving up Goldman Sachs and McKinsey money to work in music. I’m continuously aware of this, therefore; as long as I want to work in music, I know I’m never choosing a role based solely on money.
So while on paper it looks like it was the money, it wasn’t. It was the flexibility. I thought… “If it was like this before I started, what would it be like once I was there?” I also realized that I’d find it challenging to hire top talent for my team in the future without this level of flexibility. When I turned down the offer, I actually never heard from the HR person again, not even to acknowledge my decline (though I’m still in touch with the hiring manager & actually admire her quite a lot).
So the reason I was willing to entertain the lower offer was because, at the start of my search, my title was quite important. I was an assistant director in 2017 and worked my way up to head of/director titles twice with pay cuts, job switches, and country & company switches along the way. I didn’t want to do that again. The other offer would have elevated my title to the place that I felt was more appropriate. The irony of it was that the higher title actually sacrificed the higher pay (which people rarely talk about).
So, when I was looking at yet another Director title, I felt frustration in yet again being denied that title I felt I deserved and again having to work for a promotion to be on track with the career trajectory I sought after.
I explained this to my hiring manager at Pollen, and while she couldn’t do anything about the title, she explained to me why, she was able to provide reassurances and sweetened my offer in other ways that again validated that they really wanted me at the company.
So with that, title became less of a priority while feeling valued grew in importance.
Feeling Valued/Providing Value, Day to Day Work & Career Trajectory vs. Company Prestige/Name Recognition & Title:
Speaking of value, that’s probably the space that actually speaks most to the title of this piece.
The thing I’ve found about major labels is that, in general, they need people to do very specific things very well. There are departments and siloes, levels & structures to allow people to do the thing they do very well. That thing may be rock + alternative A&R, influencer marketer, UK tax manager, data scientist, DSP account manager, etc. Most people are meant to be specialists and are very good at that.
In comparison, at smaller companies (such as startups) or sometimes within smaller label territories, the expectation is often that you need to be able to do a lot of interrelated things well. Most people are meant to be generalists. Meaning if you do marketing, you can do paid, social, CRM, influencers, audience development, etc. If you do commercial, you handle accounts, playlists, partnerships, radio, sync, etc. You get the point…
So being at a large company with experience in marketing, data science, live music, commercial & streaming, artist development, event management, public speaking, plus three degrees (especially the Data Science degree) actually did me no favors.
I never found myself in a situation where I could harmoniously use all of my degrees, skillsets & experiences. In fact, when I updated my resume for my job search I moved all of my tech skills and degrees to the second page of my resume (something I’d seen others with tech skills do to advance their music career).
Over the 4 years at major labels, with some exceptions, I often felt that I was valued only for my ability to churn out reports & models rather than my ability to be a strong leader, make strategic business decisions or execute on the research & models I’d built. Moving from a smaller territory to a larger one, I also found that I no longer had face time with artists or had the ability to influence artist development in meaningful ways as I had in the past. Of course, I acknowledge, some of this was due to the pandemic.
Still, I was told by the people meant to open doors for me that it would be difficult to progress in my role. Though, it was quite obvious that would be the case. As only a director, I was amongst the highest-ranked Black people within WMG UK. There were few women of color in leadership roles. Those with technical skills were not often elevated to senior positions. There was no clear path or place for me, there were very few people that looked like me to look up to and there was always a looming ceiling.
Another common question I got when I left both labels was, “they didn’t try to keep you?” To which I essentially say, “there was nowhere for me to go so there was nothing to offer.”
Because of this, I would be open to going back to a major label in the future but I’d be unlikely to entertain something that didn’t feel like I had broken that glass ceiling for myself, so I can reach down and bring up others.
So, that’s a long way of saying, I took the title of Strategy Director because I knew for the first time in quite some time, I’d get to use all of my skillsets to execute on decisions that meaningfully impacted the company. I’m 6 months in now and can say in addition to building decks & models, I present to the C-suite and make meaningful decisions on the path forward for the company in areas ranging from brand partnerships and audience insights to risk mitigation and organizational structure. I joke that after 8 years, I’m finally putting my MBA to good use (I still owe the US government 55K USD, so it’s about time…). All jokes aside, I’m using my experience in marketing, data science, audience development, international markets, and my network in new and interesting ways every day.
While the title staying stagnant at Director still frustrates me, I know that the work I’m doing will absolutely be beneficial for my career trajectory in the long run (plus I have equity, so if things work out the way I’d like, perhaps career trajectory is something I never have to think about again 😉).
Diversity & Inclusion, Org Structure, Manager vs. Company Prestige/Name Recognition:
As an immigrant Black woman, who ran an ERG for people of color. DE&I is something I think about constantly. There is value in feeling like you can bring your whole self to work and that you are represented.
For the two offers I had on the table, I would have a woman of color as my boss for the first time. It took 10 years of my professional working life for this to happen. Pollen gave me the opportunity to have a Black woman boss, specifically, for the first time. (In 7.5 years of higher education, I also had just one Black woman professor whom I still talk to, to this day.) Given the industry, I knew there would be very few times in my life where this would be a possibility, so I was excited about the option.
While the C suite is still very white and very male, Pollen has initiatives that I didn’t imagine would be possible in music. They aren’t DE&I initiatives. They’re just the company values.
- There is full pay transparency. Everyone knows how much everyone makes & how much equity everyone has.
- Global employee survey results & diversity stats are aggregated & displayed.
- All promotions, joiners & leavers are announced weekly.
- There is a referrals program that monetarily incentivizes referring.
- Rate of promotion cut by gender and ethnicity is disclosed.
- Professional development budgets are provided for all employees.
- Plus, so much more.
Again, I acknowledge that part of this is because smaller companies are just able to move quickly, and cut through red tape, but as Pollen surpasses 700 employees, it’s not that small anymore, yet continues to work towards transparency within the workplace which leads to removing biases and reduces arbitrary & unevenly applied rules. These initiatives make it feel like everyone is valued & every voice is important.
And something else…
While every other decision was a sacrifice and a balancing act, the last area is that intangible, undefinable thing.
After working at 2 major labels, I wasn’t sure that the third one was where I wanted to go next. (Don’t get me wrong, have some great friends at Sony!). I knew for my next role, I wanted to do something that I felt was unique, that was category-defining, that was of the moment, that felt exciting & new. When considering the move to Pollen, I had worked in live music before (I even got my start in music booking shows) so that specific vertical of the industry wasn’t new to me and after (kinda during) a global pandemic, I was eager to get back to that space but not to just book shows (not that there’s anything wrong with booking shows!).
What Pollen was doing–live music travel experiences centered around artists & fans for less than 5000 people, was exciting and felt like exactly the level of intimacy, experimentation & upside for an industry that had been decimated over the past 2 years. I knew I wanted to be a part of that.
So really to sum it up with a quote from my favorite movie:
“Rock ‘n’ roll is a lifestyle and a way of thinking… and it’s not about money and popularity. Although, some money would be nice. But it’s a voice that says, “Here I am… and f**k you if you can’t understand me.” And one of these people is gonna save the world. And that means that rock ‘n’ roll can save the world… all of us together.”
We 100% are not saving the world, but right now, being in this type of live space… feels magical and I’m happy & valued (plus, some money is nice).