Meet the Bandon woman who is Vice President at Universal Music

Music Cork is back – and this time the keynote speaker is Cork-born, Universal Vice President Sarah Desmond, writes Marjorie Brennan.

When Sarah Desmond left her home town of Bandon, Co Cork, at the tender age of 16, to go to college in Dublin, her focus was on pursuing a career in television or film. 

However, fate had other ideas and instead she is now a high-level executive for one of the world’s largest record labels, working with some of the top names in the music business. She may have been based in London for 13 years, but Cork is still very much with her.

“My accent is actually getting stronger by the year. I try to tone it down sometimes but it is always there lurking,” she laughs.

Desmond is senior vice-president for strategic marketing and partnerships at Universal Music Group, a company which now encompasses much more than music. She is responsible for brand partnerships for Universal’s roster of artists, across all its labels, as well as Abbey Road Studios and ULive festivals.

“I have to find exciting partnerships, for example, moments around album launches, all of that. My day consists of meeting managers, meeting artists, overseeing all of our live projects. I’m involved in pitches for new business, looking ahead in terms of the release schedule, who is releasing singles, what brands are out there, what can we do with them.” 

Desmond studied communications in DCU and went straight from there to RTÉ Cork, where she worked on shows including Nationwide and the iconic music show No Disco.

“I was there for two years but I decided that I was too young to be getting so settled and I went to Australia for a year.” On her return to Cork, she saw something in the newspaper that would change the direction of her life.

“I came back and saw an ad in the paper that said: ‘Do you like clubbing? Do you like the media?’ And I went, ‘ooh, that sounds interesting’. It turned out it was a job as a PA to Joe Kelly in the Savoy Theatre. 

“So I started there, and my very first day was a Run DMC gig, it was a Monday, I’ll always remember it. I worked with Joe for a while and then I started doing all the talent-booking and promoting. 

“I was there for about three years. I would do all the PR and marketing and pick up all the acts at the airport, get them on stage, get them off stage. I promoted Jazzy Jeff, we did things with Grandmaster Flash, Lee Scratch Perry, I organised gigs for the Jazz Festival, all of that. 

“We had Paul Oakenfold, all the big DJs. We had loads of Irish music as well, with performers like Christy Moore. 

“Every Christmas we had Shane McGowan and the Popes. I also worked with [Cork DJ] Stevie G; we co-promoted the teenage hip-hop club Jam Junior. 

“The Savoy unfortunately closed down due to licensing problems — I’d probably still be there if it hadn’t. I loved it, I had free rein, big budgets, huge acts. I was having the time of my life.”

Desmond then moved to Dublin and got a job running the clubs in the Gaiety Theatre but the late nights were taking a toll.

“I was there for a year. At that point I was getting a bit sick of working really late nights and unsociable hours. I was working 9 to 5 the wrong way around, but really I was working during the day as well. You run out of steam after a few years. I decided that I would make the jump to London and try to get a job in music, which had been a common thread in my career. I wanted to do something with a bit of longevity.” 

She got a job as an office manager in an advertising firm, where fate again intervened. “It turns out there was this girl setting up an ad agency, I helped her on a pitch, which was for Hugo Boss, and then suddenly I was running all the music accounts for Hugo Boss, PlayStation, Lacoste, all these big brands. We were doing a MTV Base show, Trevor Nelson was presenting, and I was booking all the talent. I booked Amy Winehouse for that. She performed in Birmingham for us the week that Back to Black came out. That was absolutely amazing.”

Desmond worked in advertising for three years before moving to Universal. Her first campaign there involved a partnership with Rihanna on a Renault Clio ad campaign. More recently she has worked on a Formula One collaboration with pioneering DJ act the Chemical Brothers, featuring the fastest music remix ever. 

“That was a huge partnership because it was a global release. It happened in three phases around the launch of the F1 season. F1 wanted to attract a new audience and we wanted to make as much noise as possible ahead of the album release. It was absolutely perfect. We did it in record speed and it was fantastic.”

Desmond has also been working on brand strategy with up-and-coming Norwegian singer Sigrid, who is signed with Island Records, which is also under the Universal umbrella.

“We are working with Gore-Tex, the waterproof material. Sigrid grew up in the mountains and she wore Gore-Tex her entire life. She is doing a special collection with them. We created a piece of content about Sigrid in her studio next to the lake and her home town, going out for a hike, where she gets inspiration. That was one of my favourite recent partnerships.”

Such partnerships are an increasingly important part of attracting revenue for artists, and Desmond says a lot of thought and effort is invested in finding the right collaborations.

“It’s a combination of instinct and experience to figure out if it’s a good fit. I’ve often said no, it’s not right for the artist or I’ve advised the artist to say no. There has been a massive transformation in the industry in terms of downloading and streaming. 

“In terms of brand partnerships, we are getting bigger every year… any brand partnership I do requires a soundtrack, and we are the rights owner so we can licence that song. But it also requires a content strategy, and now, with social [media], it’s all about snappy content. So we can create the content as well. 

“We try to be a full-service agency so any client can come to us and we can deliver everything, we can do the event, we can book the talent, we can create the content, we can license the music, we can come up with the creative.” 

While technology has seen the medium of consumption migrate online, music videos are still a key element in attracting attention.

“Music video is massive for us. We create most of the widely consumed content in the world in our music videos. Some of our artists’ music videos have had billions of views. I have worked with Ellie Goulding over the years and I think her Love Me Like You Do music video is on over 1.8bn views. It’s sensational but for top artists, that’s the norm.” 

Desmond says she has never faced any barriers as a woman in what would have traditionally been a male-dominated industry.

“I’ve just bulldozed on through,” she laughs. “I have a great team here, the majority of whom are women. I personally haven’t had any barriers.” 

She says the main challenge she faces is dealing with the often opposing nature of the creative and business industries to tight deadlines.

“There are a lot of stakeholders, a lot of opinions. Timings are always an issue. I get a call to say we’re shooting a music video in four days time and I’m dealing with brands that are doing their planning for the fourth quarter of 2020. 

“We are dealing with artists who are human beings, they are not a product, things happen. It is always good to be mindful of that. You are dealing with creative people and business people, lawyers, the artists themselves, to get it all to line up and for all the stars to align, sometimes takes a big collective effort. At the end of the day, I often say to myself I’m not in a hospital saving lives. 

“I work really hard, I like what I do, we’re doing some really cool, groundbreaking work, especially in virtual reality, technology. They are great projects to work on.”

- Sarah Desmond is one of the speakers at Music Cork, which takes place at the Clayton Hotel and various other city centre locations from May 1-3. musiccork.com

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