On a late afternoon in Los Angeles’ Chinatown district, four women are avidly chatting in a booth at the pharmacy-themed bar Apotheke LA.
The venue’s hiding-in-plain-sight, speakeasy vibe — no signage advertises its location — is a fitting backdrop for the conversation taking place among these veterans of the music industry — OGs, if you will. Over the past five decades, booking agent Marsha Vlasic, former live-industry executive Claire Rothman, marketing and event producer Pat Shields, and rocker Melissa Etheridge have carved out lasting careers, starting at a time when the few women breaking into the male-dominated business were hardly acknowledged, let alone celebrated in the ways they are today.
The Grammy and Academy Award-winning singer-songwriter, 57, is best known for songs such as “Come to My Window.” Stepping into national prominence in 1988 with the single “Bring Me Some Water,” she gave a voice both to women in rock during a male-dominated time for the genre and to the LGBTQ community after she came out in 1993.
Retired industry grande dame Rothman, 90, held several executive posts at Ticketmaster, including executive vp. Prior to that, she served as GM and then president of The Forum in Inglewood, Calif. She now stays busy as a board member for City of Hope and other organizations.
Currently a partner in Black Dot, a multimedia entertainment company offering services in marketing and event production, Shields helped promulgate black music during its first major renaissance in the 1970s and ’80s. As vp marketing for Warner Bros. Records’ black music division, she worked with Quincy Jones, Al Jarreau and Chaka Khan. She also held marketing posts with Atlantic and DreamWorks Records.
Vlasic, a 30-year-plus booking agency vet, is president of Artist Group International and boasts a roster that includes Neil Young, Elvis Costello, Cage the Elephant, Cyndi Lauper and Moby. Earlier in her career, she operated her own agency, MVO, which she sold to ICM Partners in 2008. After working as ICM’s senior vp concerts, she joined AGI in 2014. (She declined to share her age, as did Shields.)
Brought together to share their perspectives as some of the first women to break the glass ceiling of music’s boys club, Vlasic joked that some might interpret the term “OGs” as a euphemism for “old gals.” But make no mistake. These ladies’ perspectives are as vital as ever.
What prompted you to pursue a career in an industry that didn’t exactly welcome women?
VLASIC It wasn’t a planned situation. I came from a very poor family and had to work after high school. My first job was for Frank Loesser, the playwright. From there I ran the office for some manager-producers who represented go-go girls. One of them was Goldie Hawn, before she left for Hollywood. [These guys] were crazy. They had a casting couch. Whatever you’ve heard, they did. I stayed there five or six years, then joined the American Talent International music agency, where I worked for three agents — also insane. One of them was leaving to manage Deep Purple and [wanted me] to go with him as his assistant. The bosses said, “No, you can stay and become an agent.” I was the luckiest person on the planet. I didn’t have music education. I still don’t know a good guitar player from a bad one. With me, everything was done on instinct.
ROTHMAN People of my generation really didn’t plan their careers. Much like Marsha, I was a pencil pusher who was recruited by the Spectrum [arena] in Philadelphia, my hometown. It was the time when the National Hockey League expanded from six to 12 teams and a lot of new venues came up. The Spectrum was one. Two weeks after I took the job, it filed for bankruptcy. I was newly divorced, with one kid in college and one in high school. I thought, “Oh, God, what did I do?” But in five years, we brought the Spectrum out of bankruptcy. We paid 100 cents on the dollar, and I wrote out every check. We formed one of the first partnerships with Electric Factory Concerts. We provided the building, they provided the acts.
SHIELDS I wanted to work in TV production. When I got out of college, I went to a station and was told that they didn’t have anything, but there was a job at their radio station, WNEW-AM [in New York], which was playing Julius La Rosa and Shirley Bassey. I was a black girl fresh out of school. I didn’t know who these people were, but I took the job. I started talking to promotion people as they came in and found out Atlantic was looking for a secretary. I said, “I went to college. I’m not going to be a secretary.” They said, “You better get your foot in the door.” [Atlantic vp black music] Henry Allen hired me to work for the national promotion director.
ETHERIDGE I went through the ’60s and ’70s growing up in Leavenworth, Kan. After graduating from high school, I played in country bands around Kansas City, basically behind chicken wire. I started out singing Tammy Wynette’s “Stand by Your Man,” but I wanted to be a self-contained artist. I went to Berklee College of Music for a few weeks, then began playing in a restaurant. I was able to make enough money to live [in Boston] for a couple of years. When I was 21, I moved to Los Angeles. This was 1982. I had visions of L.A. being Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, the Eagles. Then I got there and it was all hair and spandex. [Laughter.] So I started doing what I could. I ended up playing in women’s bars before I was eventually signed to Island Records by Chris Blackwell.
Claire, you’ve said that the industry looked at you as a curiosity.
ROTHMAN I went into this in 1967, when I was 39. I came to The Forum at 46 and spent 20 years there. There were no other women managing facilities that had the NBA, NHL, music, circuses and other entertainment. So I was a curiosity. Everybody remembered my name because I was the only one. I was very fortunate to work for men who had good relationships with their mothers and their wives. They were sure of their masculinity. Every man I ever worked for pushed me [to succeed]. A psychologist friend of mine said the reason they were supportive was I never gave them the feeling that I wanted their jobs — because I didn’t. I had ambition, but I wanted to do it myself.
Did the rest of you have similar experiences?
VLASIC At the time, there were three female agents in the business: Barbara Skydel, Jane Geraghty and me. We handled a lot of the British bands. I looked very freaky at the time, with different colored nails and hair. They didn’t take me very seriously at the beginning. Like, how do you convince Rod Stewart’s manager, Billy Graff, that this freak can give you every detail of the whole Stewart tour and be able to explain everything contractually? It was a challenge, but I never thought I couldn’t do something because I was a woman.
ROTHMAN I would refuse to go on a panel [at industry events] if it was all women managers. I didn’t want to be known as the best woman manager. I wanted to be known as the best manager.
ETHERIDGE I’ve always thought that if I created the best that I could do, it wouldn’t matter if I was a woman, gay, purple, green, whatever.
SHIELDS When I was at the radio station, we could not play two women artists back-to-back.
Did you have any women mentors?
VLASIC People ask me that often. I can’t even say my mother. I love her, rest in peace, but I didn’t have a woman mentor.
ETHERIDGE The people I have looked to as mentors, most of them were men because they were the ones that were doing it.
Melissa and Pat, what about the added challenges that came with being a lesbian and a black woman, respectively, at that time?
ETHERIDGE It just made it unique. I was playing in women’s bars, so if you came to see me, you knew that I was a lesbian. Right before [my self-titled] first record came out in 1988, I had a meeting with the label and a male executive said, “What do we do about this gay thing?” I said, “Well, I’m not going to be what I’m not.” And Blackwell said, “As long as you don’t flag-wave, I think we won’t have a problem.” I had no idea what that meant, but I was like, “OK, I don’t have a flag, and I’m not going to wave it, so we’re good.” When I finally did come out, it was 1993 and my fourth album [Yes I Am]. I knew I wanted to because the interviews were getting too personal.
SHIELDS I wasn’t sure if I wasn’t being listened to because I was a woman or because I was black. I think it was more the woman thing, but I definitely had to question myself sometimes because if you speak up, are you the angry black woman?
ROTHMAN Or the hysterical bitch?
SHIELDS You couldn’t be assertive — it was [interpreted as] being aggressive. But I was at Atlantic for 13 years, Warner Bros. for 10 and then DreamWorks for five. I never felt that I got something because of my color. I got things on merit.
Did any of you read the recent book Anything for a Hit by Atlantic’s first female A&R executive, Dorothy Carvello?
SHIELDS No, but I’m trying to remember if I was at Atlantic when she was there. I never had any executives tell me “You need to suck me off” or whatever to get promoted. But some of the stuff that she wrote I’m sure happened. I remember a meeting that was held and the next day hearing about prostitutes that were in the suite.
VLASIC It was sex, drugs and rock’n’roll. That’s what was expected. But what happened to these women is tragic. I thank God that they have come forward and it has been exposed.
Do men with whom you work treat you differently since #MeToo?
ETHERIDGE A lot of good men that I’ve worked with are worried that they [will be] taken wrong. And I tell them, “Look, if your intention was just ‘I think you look nice today’ and they misunderstand, then it’s on them.”
VLASIC I agree with you. I think everyone is uncomfortable.
What’s the biggest industry advancement you’ve seen for women during the last several years?
ETHERIDGE There are more women in all facets of the industry now. You can’t close the door anymore. But there’s still a long way to go. Radio is finally opening up, but the Grammys don’t have a female rock category.
VLASIC Overall, the industry has opened up. The agencies are filled with women. Record companies are filled with women executives. I don’t feel that we’re the minority anymore.
What is it about the music industry that keeps you engaged?
VLASIC I love working with talent and seeing a career grow. There’s nothing better than standing on the side of the stage or at the sound board and watching an artist perform.
ETHERIDGE Exactly. You will never hear me say, “This is my retirement tour.”
This article originally appeared in the Dec. 8 issue of Billboard.