Meet Ailsa Harper. If you’ve attended a Wide Days event or listened to a Fatherson album in the past few years, you can be certain she had something to do with it. Ailsa was kind enough to sit down with us and share her inspirational journey into the music industry in this instalment of our Many Hats career series, highlighting that there truly is no correct route into your dream career. Ailsa is a shining example of the success that can come from taking your own path, showing if something is meant for you, it will come to be in time. Read on to find out more about her journey into artist management, her thoughts on the influence of Tik Tok and her best advice for new artists.
Hey Ailsa, why don’t you give us an introduction to who you are and what it is that you do?
My name is Ailsa. I work as a day to day manager at A Modern Way, which is a music management company. So, I basically oversee a lot of the incomings and outgoings for the artists that happen daily, which I love.
I’m also working across a music marketing company called Aimless Play. We do campaign management specifically for artists that could be releasing an EP or an album, or they’re going on tour, or they need a bit of management support. So essentially, we work over a limited time period to support those artists, depending on what they need.
Can you tell us some of the artists you’re working with?
On our A Modern Way roster, we’ve had some artists with us for a really long time. We look after Idlewild, Roddy Woomble, Fatherson. Then we have some of our newer artists that have been with us for the last few years, Zoe Graham and Tom Joshua. We’ve just taken on a band called MEMES, who are a punk band, and an artist called Rudi Zygadlo. It’s a good mix of people that have been in the industry for quite a long time and artists that are breaking through.
And then also, at Aimless Play, we’ve been managing We Were Promised Jetpacks for the last year, which has been really cool, working with them in a slightly different capacity. That’s the roster rundown!
Were you always interested in a career in artist management?
When I was at high school, I didn’t think working in music would actually be possible. But I’ve always had an interest in it. I played guitar and drums from quite a young age. I took drum lessons at a studio called Banana Row, with the studio owner Craig. When I was 13 or 14, I was really interested in learning a bit more, so he offered me a weekend job working in the rehearsal studio. I was there for like, six years, throughout high school and the beginning of uni. I absolutely loved that and got to pick up the local music scene quite well because a lot of the bands used to come in. I didn’t study music, I crashed higher music in my sixth year. But I’d already got a place to go and study sport science, because I used to play volleyball at quite a high level. So I went off to uni and sort of forgot about music for a while.
Did you end up doing something totally different?
I ended up living in America. Very, very long story, but I ended up in America for the best part of four years. But when I came back, I thought, “I need to think about a career” because I was in my mid 20s. And at that time my background was in health and childcare, so I did Pediatric Nursing.
I went off and studied at uni, and didn’t enjoy it the whole time. It wasn’t for me. I started to realize that the only thing that had been constant in my life since being really young was music. I’d always gone to gigs. That was one thing that stayed constant the entire time, even though I wasn’t necessarily in the music world. I started reaching out to people and just said, “I’m going to all these gig can I do some interviews for you”. I started writing and started getting to know quite a few people. Also, one of my friends was part of the street team at Forth One. So, I actually called them up and asked for the job. And they said, “No one’s ever done that before, we’re not hiring, but you can have a job”. So I ended up doing that. I was part of the Fourth Awards and getting to work quite a lot of the big events.
Is that what brought you back round to working in music? What happened from there?
I saw an internship advertised for Born to be Wide, and I got to know Olaf Furniss and Michael Lambert. I didn’t get the internship, but they said, “We’ll take you on and give you some experience.” I started going into the office working on Wide Days events with them one day a week. In 2015 I really developed an interest in the management side. Working with Michael was great, because it meant that I could get more experience. Eventually they secured some funding for Adopt an Intern and asked me to come in and work part time for them. I was also working part time at Banana Row as a personal assistant as we’d always kept in touch. That gave me a really good understanding of the admin and the business side of things. I worked between Wide events and A Modern Way for quite a few years, as an events and management assistant, just learning the ropes of events and management.
“Being away from music wasn’t for me and I guess that’s the beauty of it isn’t it? that i’ve actually found something that makes work enjoyable.”
Is that what led to your current roles?
In 2019 I took a step out of the industry and went to a marketing and communications agency. I just wanted to be a bit of a sponge for a while. And the nine to five element was very luring at the time. I thought that’s what I would like and what I would enjoy. But it wasn’t for me, because I missed music terribly. But I did learn a lot when I was there about social media and marketing. Then basically started this year and thought “Okay, back to music”. So, I’m now working for A Modern Way again, but as a day manager and at Aimless Play as a campaigns manager. Sorry for that long winded answer! [laughs]
Don’t apologise! It’s important to know there’s a whole path to where you are now.
I guess the main thing is, I didn’t think at the beginning that a career in music was possible. But I wish I had the support or resources like this blog or even Off the Record to really make me see that it doesn’t matter that I hadn’t gone to uni and studied music. I got there eventually. But it’s reassuring to know that you don’t necessarily need to study music to have a career in it.
Of course, it’s about finding the right path for you, and you’ve had quite a journey to where you are now. Would you say that working at Banana Row was how you got into the local music scene?
Definitely. I was 13/14, so I was pretty young when I started. My mum and dad were always taking me to gigs when I was younger. I also grew up with a massive musical influence, my mum and dad loved music. So that was very rooted in who I was. I was lucky if I ever wanted to go to anything my mom or dad would take me. But working at Banana Row I started to hear about the bands that were picking up a lot of traction through doing gigs so I definitely developed a local knowledge. After doing nursing I went out to a lot more gigs and got to know some local support bands, that was how I discovered a lot of music. Then working at Wide Days massively increased that for me because obviously we got the applications to play every year and it would be like 150 bands that I’d never heard of, I think that gave me a really good grounding.
You were saying your mum and dad were quite musical. Did they play instruments or were they really keen music fans?
My dad played the guitar. But also, there was probably never a moment there wasn’t some form of music on in my house. We had a really old CD player, it was one of the ones you could have, like six CDs. On a Sunday, for example, I remember coming down, and there was always music on. So, I was pretty much used to that. And actually, as a baby, I didn’t sleep. And the only real way to get me to sleep was to put music on. I don’t know if that was just like the beginning of it! [laughs].I’d say it’s just been an integral part of my life. It’s been the one constant that stayed in my life, throughout everything.
It can be really easy for people to get pulled away into other things, I have too. But music will always pull you back.
Being away from music wasn’t for me and I guess that’s the beauty of it isn’t it, that i’ve actually found something that makes work enjoyable. I have been through that where you get up and you don’t want to go to work and you’re dreading it and you’re anxious about how you’re going to get through the day. Whereas now, I get up and it genuinely doesn’t feel like working. Obviously, there’s things on my to do list, like visas and stuff that can be labour intensive. But for the most part, every day I get up and I genuinely look forward to it.
What would you say are some of your career highlights? Your pinch me moments?
Seeing our bands grow. For me, it’s the feeling of when you’ve been sat on an album, or a body of work for a really long time. And you’ve heard from the demos, to the first mix, to then being mastered. Then the whole album campaign. When that body of work comes out, seeing the reception from the fans that’s always a highlight for me.
And then there’s other stuff where I’ve been like, “oh my god I can’t believe like this is real”.
Do you have a favourite of those moments?
I got to go down to Maida Vale Studios with Fatherson when they were live on BBC Radio 1 with Annie Mac. I remember sitting in the studio thinking, Maida Vale is such an important space. It’s got so much history, I was looking around and seeing all the bands that have played there and then, being live on radio and seeing the boys just absolutely smash it, that was a big moment. I’d never been in that position with the band before. I also was away with Zoe in London last week, and she played her first sold out London show. She just absolutely smashed it. She was so good. It ranges really for highlights, but I think it’s all quite relative to each artist and just getting asked to do stuff like speak on panels. It still surprises me to get asked to do so much. Because why would someone wants to hear from me? It’s quite validating for all the hard work.
As females in the industry, it can often feel quite hard to believe in yourself. I’m lucky to work in a company where that is not an issue. I’ve never felt like I haven’t had equal opportunities. But I think it is just something in this industry that it can often feel quite hard to give yourself a pat on the back.
But we have to! You have to congratulate yourself on these things!
What do you think are the most valuable skills within your role as a day to day manager?
Having a knowledge base of the legal side is always good, because that was a side that I didn’t even realize existed until I worked in the industry. Nursing taught me a lot of skills in terms of timekeeping, being a team player and getting used to long working days. You don’t come in this industry to do a nine to five, it just doesn’t work like that. You have to be flexible, you have to realize that you’re going to have to work into the night sometimes.
Also, a massive part of what goes into management now is content creation and supporting your artists with social media. I’m lucky that I have an Instagram and a Tik Tok that I run outside of music. And from doing that, I’ve been able to bring a lot to the job that I wouldn’t have been able to do if it wasn’t a hobby. I think if you have an interest in something whether it’s photography, if it’s copyright or even code, then all of these skills can be so useful, especially in management. Develop your own hobbies that you enjoy and that will only lend itself to your musical role.
Yeah, absolutely. Do you find having your food Tik Tok lends itself to your music career?
Definitely. It also gives you a talking point to show the artist that you know what you’re talking about. We’ve been trying to get all our artists on it. I’ll say “Can you send me over video clips on the weekend, and I’ll add them together?”, it’s not hard once you actually know what you’re doing!
I think having those skills from the outside 100% lend itself because I could not have got the bands on Tik Tok if I didn’t know what the platform was like myself.
With songs from fifty years ago going viral, and major labels are building whole campaigns for that one platform, do you think Tik Tok is affecting how we consume music?
I think what’s amazing about Tik Tok is that it’s a platform with music at the forefront. It’s made for music to be heard. You’re not going on Instagram to listen to new music. With Tik Tok, you have to hear the music, it’s a massive part of it. I think it will only continue to play into that. Like Fleetwood Mac is everywhere. They re-entered the charts after that guy did a skateboard video, or Kate Nash ‘Foundations’, had a massive rebirth. I think that’s amazing. I think even new artists that join the platform have just as much opportunity to get their music heard as someone like Fleetwood Mac. I’ve discovered new artists there all the time that I never would have come across. So, I think it will be a massive part of how music is discovered going forward.
Yeah, it’s adapting all the time. It’s just really interesting to think about how that will progress in the next five years or so.
One final question, as a manager what would you say is the best piece of advice you could give to young musicians starting out? How should they get things organised.
Take it back to basics. As an artist, you should have resources at your disposal at all times. Have an EPK (electronic press kit) so that if anyone gets in touch, you’ve got a folder that has all your assets. Your bio, some high res photos, a press release that you’ve done for a single. Single covers, so that it’s all in one place. That’s the first thing you’re going to be asked for. It does seem boring, but just think of it as a CV, as if you were looking for a job. That is what your EPK should be.
Canva is an amazing tool. What you can do on Canva for free, there’s absolutely no excuse that you can’t create a really interesting one sheet that links out to your music, your Spotify, your YouTube. Once you have the basics, then you’re set. And it’s just keeping that updated with new music, new headshots. Making sure that’s all in order is the most basic thing you can do as an artist, so that’s probably my biggest bit of advice.