Sarah Woodhead is the Vice President of VIP Experiences at Live Nation UK. Sarah joined Live Nation in 2004 and started its VIP Experiences department. Sometimes working in music isn’t about filling a vacated position, it’s about creating a new one.
Live Nation Experience is today the leading producer of VIP ticket packages at live music events. It has created some truly unforgettable experiences for some of the world’s biggest live acts, providing artists, their fans and corporate ticket buyers with access to the most innovative and exciting VIP products available. It has produced the official VIP programmes for Live8, Live Earth, 46664, Help for Heroes, Madonna, U2, Lady Gaga, Sting, Westlife and many, many more.
We caught up with Sarah to have a quick chat about working in the music industry and to get her advice on how to be a success in one of the most competitive fields.
When did you realise you wanted to work in the music industry?
I was fifteen and I went to my first concert at the GMEX Centre in Manchester. That was it. I knew right there and then that was what I wanted to do with my life! More to the point, I knew that nothing else would ever be enough.
What’s it like?
It’s a Saturday night. It’s late. It’s cold. A fresh scattering of snow’s hitting the frozen ground as Lady Gaga performs the second of two nights at London’s O2 Arena. The VIP Party‘s ended and I’ve just come from the touring and promoter offices where the numbers are being worked out and the all important laundry is being dispensed. As usual, I’m too late for crew catering and I’ve tried and failed to get my wireless connection to work. It’s a pretty normal show. The VIP team is breaking down the party location and everyone’s thoughts have already turned to all the other events on our ever-growing calendar.
The truth is there’s a lot to juggle. When we’re not at the venue delivering an event to high-paying customers, we’re creating new packages, negotiating rights, putting packages on sale, choosing the flowers and dealing with all the commercial and operational strategies that enable us to do what we do. But tonight there’s lots of hanging around.
I’m standing to the side of the stage clutching my Starbucks hot chocolate trying to ignore my cold. It’s the final days of a busy year. I’m tired, I’m coming down with a fever and to top it all off, my hot chocolate is no longer hot. The truth is I want to go home. Instead I have to wait for Brown Eyes, because after Brown Eyes we go through the settlement! No matter which city we’re in, that’s how it roles.
As I scan between the stage and the audience – and I try to untangle my lanyard from my Starbucks cup – I remember that this is what it’s all about ! This is what I always wanted to do. I remember how lucky I am. People say that things rarely turn out the way you expect they will. In my experience, things can and do turn out exactly how you imagine… it’s all the other stuff that you didn’t bank on (the demands and the pressures and the expectations and the numbers) that get in the way of you seeing that dreams do come true.
What advice would you give people wanting to work in live music?
My advice is simple: do it because you love it, do it because you have to do it – because nothing else will ever be enough. Look out for opportunities – they crop up in the most unlikely of places. Network. Tell people what you want to do. Don’t be afraid of looking foolish. You never know who might be in a position to help you – there are plenty of people that have been where you are now. Take chances, take risks… do things that aren’t exactly what you planned on doing but do them because they might just help you get to where you want to be. And never, ever, take your eyes off the end goal.
What do you think are the key requirements to be successful in this sector?
You don’t have to be a genius to make it in this industry… what you do need is bag load of tenacity, common sense/street smarts and commercial awareness. You have to love it and you have to be prepared to work very hard. What you don’t know, find out. Pick up a book, take a course, ask someone… just figure it out. Don’t expect you can just walk into the best companies – even in an entry level position – without experience. Be prepared to go elsewhere to get experience and then take it to your dream employer… make yourself valuable. You need to be able to pick yourself up and dust yourself off and then you need to be able to go back out there and bang on doors.
Academic qualifications aren’t necessary but there are more and more degrees on the subject and, as a consequence there are more and more graduates competing for positions. What counts is experience. If a course provides you with experience that you absolutely cannot gain in a vocational setting, it might be worth considering, but I wouldn’t advocate doing it purely for the sake of a qualification and a nice foil stamp on a bit of paper.
What are the opportunities for progression?
In this industry you make your own opportunities to a large extent. Nobody’s going to give you anything. You have to make it happen and, quite often, that’s means going out there and fighting for it. That’s a truth throughout your career – not just at the beginning of it. If there’s an opportunity to grow, take it, or risk being left behind.
What personal influences helped you to get to where you are now?
Both of my parents worked extremely hard in jobs they hated in order to provide for the family. Doing what they loved with their life didn’t seem to be much of an option. Seeing them go out to those jobs every day, that’s what made me so determined to do what I loved with my life.
Think you’ve got what it takes?
If eating cans of beans, shopping from the discounted shelf at the supermarket and not being able to meet your credit card repayments fills you with dread, you may want to re-evaluate your choices. Unless you’re living off an inheritance, parental funding or are particular good at poker, you’ll almost certainly find yourself a little cash strapped at some point. You need to remember that it won’t last forever and it will probably make you all the more determined to progress, succeed and move up. Sometimes getting the experience you need means you have to survive on a little for a while.
How do I get in?
There’s no set path into the industry. It would be easier if there was, right? Not really. There’s so much competition it will make your head spin. A large proportion of people are turned-off by the lack of structured career path. Imagine how much competition there would be if there was a foolproof map. You have to make your own way. Some of it is simply being in the right place at the right time. An acting coach once said,” Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity,” and nothing is more true.
Don’t give up on your dreams – nobody knows what you want except you, and nobody will be as sorry as you if you don’t get it.