Five Things I Know: Sarah Donelly, Mushroom Management

Mushroom Group veteran of 14 years Sarah Donelly is the director of the company’s newly launched talent management division Mushroom Management. NME speaks to Donelly about the breadth of talent under their care, how to guide an artist in development, finding your own way in the music industry and more

1. COVID-19 has proved it’s crucial to diversify

Once COVID hit, you had some pretty clear income avenues affected within the music industry – touring was obviously a huge one, it completely disappeared. If you’re working across an artist’s career in every aspect, in 360, you can continue working on the songwriting, the music development, brand partnerships, collaborations. These are creative individuals and often there are different avenues they want to go down artistically. For example, if you’ve got a super popular recording artist who’s got some time to do writing sessions with other artists, you can focus on their career as a writer. Publishing and co-writing is a great income earner for some artists.

What we wanted to achieve was being able to work with artists to drive their career and their vision in different areas outside of the traditional label or touring. We see ourselves as a business that can facilitate all aspects of entertainment. We’ve got individuals working within our company that have so many different skill sets to be able to achieve great results. So I think Mushroom Management was born from not only the roster that we have, but also the managers already in our stable.

We also see our management business as looking after anyone who we see as an extraordinary talent. Obviously music is in our blood, we live and breathe it. So that will always stay true. But with social media, and all the different digital entertainment platforms, these days talent can be so broad.

“There’s no rulebook in the music industry, because it’s ever-changing”

2. Managers must drive artists’ careers forward

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Artists have to do so much more within their careers these days. There’s so much more that they have to output after the music is created. They’ve got to be on TikTok, and they’ve got to post on Instagram. There’s a lot more required of them to promote their music. Ultimately, management is a partnership between the manager and the artist. Everybody’s working for the same common goal, which I really like. If the artist is really passionate and wants to work super hard, that just makes you want to work harder.

Managers must help drive momentum. First and foremost, it’s the artist’s craft. It’s their art. It’s a sensitive relationship, because you’re handling something that they’ve created that is so close to them. You only want the best for them, and you do have to continually search for opportunities. You’ve got to work with the label and the booking agent as a team. A successful manager will be trying to tap into every aspect of an artist’s career that they can and get the most out of it.

3. A rising artist? Know what you don’t want

When I’m talking to artists who are in development, sometimes it’s not about what they know or what they want – it’s what they don’t want that helps them make a crucial decision. Sometimes young artists don’t really know what direction they want to go in yet. Their music is still in development, as is their style and branding. Sometimes artists are so young, they’re still growing up themselves. It can often be easier to say what you don’t want than it is to say what you do want in the development of your career.

Artists just need to make sure that their profile is ready to be out in the world, and I think sometimes that’s a gut feeling.

Sarah Donelly, Mushroom Group
Sarah Donelly. Credit: Mushroom Group

4. It’s hard to blaze a trail, but exciting too

If I were to talk about one obstacle in the early days in my career… Being female in touring was quite hard. When I first started, sometimes I’d be the only female in the touring group. I just pushed myself to learn and try to be where I wanted within the industry. I wanted to be a tour manager, I wanted to be running a tour. So I was like a sponge and digested as much information as I could. But I pushed myself to do that. At the time, I didn’t know any females in the roles I wanted for myself. I felt I had to forge my own path – which was exciting. I actually love that.

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Back on Mushroom Management, it’s really exciting to actually be stepping forward and building something alongside Matt Gudinski and the managers. There is room to create and take the business where we want it to go. I’m sure I’ll find new challenges in that as well.

5. Progress in the music industry isn’t necessarily linear

If you want to work in the music industry but don’t have a direct path – say you wanted to work at a record label and you can’t seem to make it happen – don’t worry about it or get stuck. There are always other avenues. Go work anywhere in entertainment, or speak to as many people as possible, because it’s about getting as much experience as you can and building up your network and your skill set. There’s no rulebook in the music industry, because it’s ever-changing.

When I first started navigating my career path, I did lots of random work experience, and a workshop in television. I spoke to the Director of that workshop and said to her: ‘This TV thing was cool, but I actually really love music. Can you help me with a contact?’ She did have a contact, and it was actually Mushroom! I then ended up doing an internship and eventually (six months later) was offered a full-time role. It wasn’t a linear trajectory. Entertainment is so broad now. And if you can get experience in the industry, anywhere, that will be super helpful.

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