Interview with Artist Manager, Sue Nicholls
March 15, 2018
Please could you start by telling us a bit about who you are, which agency you work for, and how long you have worked there?
My name is Sue Nicholls and I work for Hazard Chase Ltd, an agency based in Cambridge, with a second office in London. I joined Hazard Chase 17 years ago, having previously worked for IMG and Harrison Parrott.
How and why did you decide to go into artist management, and why opera?
My degree was in music but I didn’t want to perform, and the only other option at the time (34 years ago) was to teach. It was very difficult in that era for women to enter into the administration side of music, so I did a course in shorthand and typing and joined the LSO as secretary to the then Managing Director, Clive Gillinson.
What do you enjoy most about your job?
There are many things I enjoy about my job. Firstly, it is never boring. You don’t know what the day holds when you walk into the office in the morning. I enjoy helping make great music happen and meeting and liaising with many wonderful people worldwide. Most of all I enjoy the satisfaction of helping guide a career, especially from the very beginning. You have to be a bit of a mother hen, which is rather ironic in this context.
Do you see any imbalance of gender equality in the opera industry, and how has this changed over the years that you have been working in the opera world? Do you think it is improving?
When I first started in the agency world many of the big important agents were men, and many of the people running opera companies were men. This has definitely changed over the years, especially in the agencies. Not quite so much in the opera companies unfortunately, but it is improving.
How did becoming a parent change or affect your job?
Becoming a parent certainly made my job more challenging. I found it very difficult to balance home and work, as not only is there a 9 to 5 element to artist management, but a lot of travelling, evening and weekend work too. It was especially difficult with my first child because there was no ‘working from home’ in those days, as we did not have the technology to support it. I had my second child 13 years after the first, and by then I had begun working for Hazard Chase.
Luckily they have always been very understanding, and many of the female staff have children, so work part time. As head of a department I never felt comfortable working part time, but that was my decision.
Is artist management a parent-friendly career?
No, not really. To be successful you have to put in the hours and be prepared to travel on business and see performances. I see between 1 – 3 performances per week, depending on what part of the season it is. Again, I think it is easier with today’s technology, with mobile phones being able to see emails wherever you are, but I’ve never thought of it as a part time job.
Do you think there is a good point in an artist’s career to start a family? What is your advice to your artists who are planning to have children alongside their careers?
I try not to give advice to artists about when they should start a family. Personally I think the more established the artist is, the easier it is to pick up the career again, but frankly there is never a good time.
If I do give any advice it is that personal happiness and family is the most important thing. At the end of the day you don’t want to be looking back in 20 years and thinking ‘what if’?
What do you think the biggest barriers are for parents entering the profession? Where do you think positive changes could be made?
For singers the most daunting prospect are the long periods working away from home on opera projects and the unsociable hours. Some companies are more understanding than others and schedule periods when singers can be at home, but they are very rare. I think promoters try to accommodate personal circumstances as much as they can but ultimately they are businesses.
As most singers are freelance, they don’t have the same employment rights as other workers.
Many women that we have spoken to have been advised that having children and a career is not possible. What are your thoughts on this?
It’s not easy but it can be done, and there are many artists out there who are living proof.
How did your attitude to artists with families changed when you became a parent?
I had my first child at 24, so my career was only just starting. My attitude to artists with families has always been as supportive as possible and I try very hard to work the career around their family life. It’s important that they maintain a presence, even if they are performing less, so that they are able to pick the career up again more easily when then need to.
This business is volatile and careers can be very short, even at the highest level. Your family is with you for life.