Having worked in top positions within the music industry for many years, Sarah Hildering knows better than anyone else how to stay grounded in a world dominated by men. Last year, she successfully wrote a Code of Conduct against sexual harassment in the music industry. In addition, she launched the first female-driven panel with ADE (Amsterdam Dance Event) called “The Only One in the Room”, where four women and one man discuss issues such as the worldwide under-representation of women in the music industry. In this exclusive interview, Sarah shares her thoughts on this topic and how she deals with degrading behaviour of men in her field of work.
“It feels like I have to work twice as hard as a man in the same position, because of the emotional labour on top of my job description”
You were previously Managing Director of Hexagon, now CEO of the brand-new platform, LEDO Music. Can you tell something more about this?
LEDO Music is a start-up, yet to be launched, that my business partner Eelko van Kooten and I, are setting up together. We are currently working on the development of this new artist platform that focuses, among other things, on empowering musicians and producers to really take control over their own music. I am very excited about what we are building and about my partnership with Eelko. I’m certain that LEDO will be hugely disruptive in the music industry. I’m really looking forward to it.
What does an average day at the office look like for you?
I spend most of my days exploiting music and music rights, ensuring that an artist or label can gain as much platform and market share as possible. I help them grow and expand their fanbase and business, and provide consultation to artists and labels to get as many streams and hits as possible from a business development point.
What is the biggest challenge in your work?
The industry has changed enormously over the past ten years, due to the streaming era we are currently in. So, adapting your music business to that for sure has been an exciting journey. For example, you used to go to the store to buy a CD. Nowadays, you are no longer limited to buying what is offered on the shelves. The music industry has become so much bigger due to digitalization. As an artist, you can now reach your own fan base through social media or a YouTube channel. It no longer requires a major label’s deep pockets or marketing approach. You can launch yourself, which of course makes the whole industry much more democratic. However, that doesn’t mean it has gotten any easier to break through in the industry. Because how are you going to make your song stand out from the 50.000 tracks that Spotify receives every day? That’s what makes my work so dynamic.
You are a woman in the position of CEO. Do you think a man in your position would have done things differently?
In this industry, we all have a lot of passion for what we do. I think the biggest difference I see, is when it comes to goalsetting and making certain decisions. As a woman, I have to be much harder on myself. I don’t settle for less – which sometimes may be seen as less efficient. However, that is not only a cause of my work, but rather a consequence of the fact that only 2% in the global top of our industry is occupied by women. This forces you to become a perfectionist. I am very aware of the reality; It feels like I have to work twice as hard as a man in the same position because of the emotional labour on top of my job description responsibilities.
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We live in an era where we are fighting worldwide for gender equality. The entire “#MeToo” movement has caused a great deal in recent years. How do you experience this in your position?
I have been quite explicit about that subject. In addition to my work at LEDO Music, I am also a co-chair Diversity & Inclusion for the Association For Electronic Music. AFEM is an overarching body that amongst many other things, fights for gender equality and diversity within the music industry. Together with a good friend and business partner who lives in LA, we wrote the Code of Conduct to ensure safety for woman and other minorities in the music industry. Besides the fact that it is necessary, it means even more to me because of my own #metoo experiences.
Have you ever experienced someone assuming that you were “the assistant of …”? What was your reaction?
I have too many examples of this. At a certain point you turn that frustration into power and just laugh about it. I used to not really say anything about it, and just smile. Nowadays, a man will be addressed about the fact that he should not assume I’m anyone’s assistant. Usually with an on-point joke, respectfully verbalising that being inappropriately flirtatious or belittling might not be the best approach to do business with me. In a previous position, my assistant was a man, which created an even bigger contrast. Truthfully, that time made for quite some painfully funny anecdotes.
In addition, there must of course be many beautiful aspects to your work! What’s your greatest memory from the past years?
I am very grateful that I get to see so much of the world. I spend a lot of time in LA, Miami and Las Vegas, and I travel through Europe for conferences and business development strategy meetings. However, what I love most about my job is to see what kind of emotion these artists unleash via their music and performance. Sometimes people start to cry and share how the music I’ve been part of bringing into the world, has changed their lives. It’s so beautiful to witness. No matter how challenging artists can be at times to work with, their music is something they put their whole heart in to. To be able to witness and experience this is absolutely fantastic. There is nothing more humbling.
“Nobody would ever say that a man is ‘not sexy enough’.”
What do you think is the importance of female talent within the industry?
Well, in my opinion, that’s where it all starts: a truly diverse and inclusive industry. It is a massive problem that there is such a big gap between male and female artists. Together with three female music professionals, I conducted the first independent global research into the gender imbalance within the music industry. We found that women are actively leaving the industry within the first five years of their careers. Probably, because women and other minorities no longer want to be intimidated or assaulted, or not taken seriously. Understandably, women and other minorities would rather work in an industry where they feel safe and respected. It is not only due to the fact that too little is being invested in the career development of female artists, women are also still sexualised much more than their male colleagues. For example, I have been in a situation where my male colleagues thought a song from a female artist was great, but then rejected signing the artist, based on her appearance. Nobody would ever say that a man is ‘not sexy enough’.
In December 2018, producer and DJ Ronald Molendijk said at RTL Boulevard: “Women just don’t make good music.” The statements led to bewildered reactions from the public. What was your response to this?
It’s probably no surprise when I tell you that at the time, I publicly expressed my anger and disbelief about this statement. What happened after that was even more hysterical; a friend of Ronald called me shortly after and challenged me to take part in a panel, together with this man, to discuss this further during a panel at the Dance Fair. The derogatory way in which he approached me – He used the word “battling” instead of trying to enthuse me to take part in an inspiring conversation to educate people on the subject – was obviously not the way to convince me or any self-respecting music professional, to get on board. Although I, by far, am most knowledgeable about the subject compared to these men, I respectfully declined his offer. So, I created my own panel called “The Only One in the Room”, which launched during ADE last year. During this talk, we quite literally turned the tables of the status quo – with four women and one man discussing the topics such as gender equality and sexual abuse within the industry. I’m very proud to share that in coming years, this will remain the opening panel of ADE.
“I’m also lucky enough to have had a few incredibly inspiring male role models.”
A number of leading platforms are committed to encouraging female musicians and music professionals to participate in the dance industry. What do you think of these initiatives?
I encourage every form of positive action and genuine development. I, myself, have chosen to speak up publicly on this subject over and over, because I think it is extremely important. In addition to the importance of women supporting each other to ensure that more leading positions will be occupied by women in the future, I’m also lucky enough to have had a few incredibly inspiring male role models. Eelko, of course, being one of them. I have learned more about how to feel comfortable working in the music industry without making concessions on who I am as a woman. Men who believe in gender equality as much as I do. Who recognise your strengths and want to work with you regardless of your gender but at the same time, empowering your feminine passion, drive and qualities.
Do you always agree with the criticism you hear in the media?
To be honest, it is true that there are artists with mental and physical health problems, which is a way bigger problem than the use of alcohol and drugs. When artists are on tour, we do see problems with alcohol, drugs, and vague boundaries on what’s right and that needs to change. Not everyone always behaves properly, that can’t be denied. And naturally, that also has an impact on women’s safety in this industry.
In your opinion, which festival do we have to visit in 2020?
In terms of programming and mission statement, I think DGTL is one of the strongest. I love their vision on sustainability and diversity. Especially if you compare this with, for example, Tomorrowland or Ultra, where the number of female artists is embarrassingly low. In January, I will fly to Tulum to go to Day Zero festival, which is definitely one of my favourites! In addition, EDC Las Vegas is one of the biggest productions in the world, which is truly impressive. I would highly recommended going there as well. But, let’s not forget that the Netherlands also has plenty to offer being the most saturated festival playground in the world.
Which female artists should we keep an eye on this year?
Charlotte de Witte a very good producer, I love her music, she has a lot of swag. And of course, Peggy Gou and Amelie Lens, whose careers all have exploded in the last few years. When I see those women standing behind their turntables, I think: Thank you for not making any concessions in being a woman, while at the same time being so excellent at what you do. Thank you for dancing with swinging hips and for not being afraid of wearing a skirt and showing some skin. Not for anyone, but because you’re doing you. I respect them so much for being able to deal with all the criticism they receive and for how hard they work. When you see how much time and passion these women put into working in the studio and being a serious producer… They don’t get half the credit they deserve, and I truly hope they will be around for at least twenty more years.
Credits: Photography by Jip Broeks exclusively for AV-mag