Imagine getting to meet the likes of Taylor Swift, Kate Bush and Robbie Williams every day as part of your job! You’d think you had died and gone to heaven!
Well, meet Ste Softley! His life as a successful radio producer has seen him do just that. And lots more besides. But recently, the lucky blighter bravely decided after years of twiddling knobs in a radio studio, to take a new career direction and has landed a new job as an A&R manager for Mr Simon Cowell’s company Syco. Wow!
We hooked up with the very talented chap to find how he got his foot in the door and he ended up rubbing shoulders with Taylor bloody Swift!
What exactly do you do?
I’m an A&R manager for Syco which is Simon Cowell’s record label and entertainment company
What does your day actually entail?
Meeting music producers, songwriters, unsigned artists, planning upcoming projects and releases from artists on the Syco artist roster.
How did you get started?
It wasn’t easy, and I am very new to A&R so I am learning the ropes all over again. But I like a challenge and it felt like the time was right after over a decade as a producer in radio. About a year ago I had itchy feet and felt it was time to do something new but still connected to the music industry as that is where my passion lies, and I think I had always fancied myself as an A&R manager. I had a meeting with Nicky Chapman (Pop Idol) who I had worked with at BBC Radio 2. She suggested I tried A&R – which was music to my ears, for want of a better phrase – and put me in touch with the head of Syco. I had a few meetings over the space of a few months and then met the big man, Simon Cowell, himself. We had a long chat about music and the industry. A month later I was called back and offered me a job. Time to put my money where my mouth is. So far so good, now all I have to do is find some artists that will sell a lot of records all over the world. No pressure, right?
What did you before this job?
I had worked as a producer in radio for 12 years, the last seven at BBC Radio 2 where I was in charge of weekly shows by the late great Terry Wogan and Michael Ball, amongst others. Big shows with big, loyal audiences and we had some of the biggest names in entertainment guest on them. I loved doing it and always got a buzz from live shows, especially playing a new record or featuring a new artist and watching the reaction then being able to get them on to the playlist.
It sounds great!
So I figured: this is half of A&R, why don’t I take the plunge and commit to the other half of the task and actually make the music. Admittedly, there was trepidation about leaving a career I knew so well and had established myself in, but sometimes you just have to take that risk and push yourself. When you stop moving forward you can start rolling backwards and not even realise.
Has your career journey been an easy one?
I was far from an overnight success. When I finished university in Liverpool I went from dead end job to dead end job and the idea of working in the music industry seemed as likely as taking a trip to the moon. It seemed impenetrable, I didn’t know anyone in the industry or anything about it. My only ammunition was a lifetime of following music charts and working in HMV. I applied to be on the road crew for a regional radio station, Century FM in Manchester, and got it. The hours were irregular and I still had rent to pay and a postgraduate overdraft and debts eating my income so I worked seven nights a week in a restaurant additionally where I lived off tips and got fed. The road crew was promo work; lots of standing in rainy car parks in the middle of nowhere giving out car stickers in full on jazz-hands mode. Once I was in the door at the radio station I did everything I could from answering the phones, covering reception, admin, post duties, anything. Gradually I learned how to use the production desk and worked my way to producer level so I could quit my waiting job. I look back at that time and can’t imagine where I found the energy from, I had no life for a couple of years. Or money! After a couple of years I applied for a job at BBC radio 2, which was a long shot as it is the biggest network in the country, and I was offered the producer role…on the overnight show. It was a way in, so I took it. Three years of sleeping during the day and going to work in the dark to be greeted by nobody. I just kept my focus and got on with it. I was on a mission!
You obviously worked at Radio 2 with Terry Wogan… You must be devastated about his death.
A Sir. A legend. A national treasure. Yes, he was all of the above. But he was also a brilliant, wonderful man, and he was my pal. I will always be grateful that I was given the chance to work with him and play a part in the later stages of his career. The 13-year-old me still pinches my 37-year-old self today. Somewhere above the clouds a door is being flung open…”And what is going on here!” Thank you, Terry. From the bottom of my heart. You will be greatly missed, but forever remembered.
What had you studied at school?
I was a straight A student at school and after A levels I went to the University of Liverpool to study English and Communication Studies. In retrospect, it probably wasn’t the wisest thing to do, I should have just gone to work for free at a radio station and gained experience, i just wanted out of Bradford, but I needed a reason. Being gay in Bradford was difficult, l lived in fear of people finding out and I just needed to escape that so I could be myself, find myself, even. So in that respect, my time at Uni was valuable.
Was there support at school for your dream job?
No. Teachers were great, but working in entertainment? That’s not a real job, right? There is no course for the realities of getting into entertainment. You need experience and contacts. I worked in a factory at the weekend chopping cabbages in Bradford whilst studying, that was the reality, a world away from my dreams. It felt like something extra in my already crammed closet. But I took what I could from the situation and worked hard at everything I did, and that discipline has stayed with me. So Madonna.
What’s the hardest thing about your job?
I’m new to this role so there are challenges. I’ve never made an album with a world-famous artist before. I’ve listened to many and had a hundred opinions on what they should do next, as we all do. Now I’m doing it!
What makes it so fulfilling?
Every now and again I do have a pinch myself moment that I made my passion my living. There were many moments – working Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve alone in a studio for pittance, standing drenched in car parks giving out branded merchandise, chopping cabbages etc – where I did wonder; is this going to lead to anything? Should I just get a normal job? And there were real times of despair. So every now and again I remind myself of those times and really appreciate where I am now, and that is fulfilling. I am looking forward to finding new talent and making them into stars. Well, that’s the plan.
What advice would you give to others?
Work hard, play hard, always keep one eye on the goal. And remember: the only thing stopping you from doing anything is yourself.
You must have met some very exciting people along the way.
Oh yes, I’ve met some of the biggest stars in the world including Rihanna, Kylie, Robbie Williams, Annie Lennox, John Waters, George Michael, Emma Thompson, Kate Bush, John Legend, too many to name. The ones I would get the most excited about are the ones that were huge stars when I was a kid and I would read about them in Smash Hits and see them on Top of the Pops like Marc Almond, Holly Johnson, Boy George, Five Star, Jimmy Sommerville, Alison Moyet, Belinda Carlisle, Pet Shop Boys, Cyndi Lauper, Carol Decker, Erasure, lots more.
And you’ve met Taylor Swift!
Her mum – who insisted we called her ‘Momma Swift’ – gave us a tour of the backstage area whilst Ellie Goulding was on. It went on for about an hour and then Taylor made her entrance. No airs and graces, she was really cool. For five seconds, I felt like I was in Taylor’s squad. And then she took to the stage and played to 50k people in Hyde park, as you do.
You lucky rascal!