Marsha Vlasic won’t tolerate bullshit, and she’s seen it all. For over 40 years, the veteran music executive has wielded her power and influence to steer the careers of Neil Young, Elvis Costello, the Strokes, and Iggy Pop. In 2014, Vlasic left ICM Partners after six years to become president of Artist Group International, where she now represents everyone from Billy Joel to Cyndi Lauper to Metallica, and shows no signs of slowing down. “I’m gonna rock ‘til I drop,” she tells New York over the phone in her thick, vintage Brooklyn accent. New York spoke to Vlasic about breaking ground in the music business as one of the first-ever female agents, falling out with Lou Reed, speaking out against Grammy president Neil Portnow, and the power of saying no.
What do you think was one of the first career moves you made that got you to where you are today?
Those particular maneuvers I never dreamed would be the maneuvers that would get me to where I am. There wasn’t a road that was paved out that I followed, or an imprint or a plan. I feel like I was at the right time and place. I guess that being an assistant to three crazy agents in the early ’70s prepared me to take the leap of faith and become an agent.
Were these crazy agents all men?
Yes, they were. At that time, I became one of three women agents in the entire business. And there weren’t women in record companies and publishing. Maybe a few in PR, but as far as agents, there were only three of us. At the time, I was given the opportunity because one of the three crazy agents I was working for was leaving to go manage one of his bands, and he assumed I was coming with him as his assistant. I was given the choice of — did I want to stay and take his place? It was an unbelievable opportunity.
Since there were no other women agents to look up to when you first got started, how did you end up in this career? It’s hard to see yourself as something when there isn’t a precedent for it.
I didn’t think at that time, I’m a woman, and I don’t belong in this industry. I’m a woman, why would I try to be in an industry that’s all men? It was just an opportunity, and I loved it. It was sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll — what else would have I been doing? I was up for the challenge to convince men — managers at that time — that I could actually give them the information and provide them with whatever they needed to know. That was a big challenge.
How did you get through the door in the first place to become an assistant?
That’s a funny story. I was dating a musician who was performing at the Copacabana, which was a huge club at the time, and if you went to hang out there, you weren’t allowed to be in the actual club. You were in this adjoining bar. I befriended one of these go-go dancers, and she said to me one time that I definitely had to meet her managers because they could use me. Because I was working at the time as an assistant to the playwright Frank Loesser. But I really wasn’t his assistant, I was working in the bookkeeping department or something very unimportant. I went and met her managers. They were crazy. I mean, really very nuts. It was Spinal Tap. They had the producers, they had the casting couch, they had go-go dancers. It was really a different world. I started to work for them. They didn’t even know about taking taxes out. It was just crazy. And from there, I started to meet other people, and that’s when I got a job at American Talent International working for these three crazy agents.
While climbing that ladder, when did you first start to feel like you had power and influence?
When you don’t have to beg for the right credentials, you know you have power. When you can get into a venue and people are waiting for you to arrive, that’s one of them. Also, the power to say no, to make choices. The power to represent someone or not represent them and say, “This relationship is not working, and I think we should not be together.”
Do you remember one of the first times you felt like you were in a position to say no?
I’ll tell this just because he’s not with us anymore, so I feel like I’m not talking out of school, but Lou Reed and I were very close, we had a great relationship. But then when he would get kind of unreasonable — I’m saying that kindly — I did one time say to him, “Lou, I can’t do this anymore. I just cannot.” And he was so upset by it that we resolved it. But there were times like that that were really hard.
You told him flat-out that you didn’t think you could continue representing him if things didn’t change?
Yes. I didn’t realize it would hurt him that much. He really was hurt by it, and it moved me. As tough as everybody may think I am, I’m very sensitive and emotional.
If you were in that situation 10 to 15 years prior, do you think you would’ve had the authority to stand your ground with the same conviction?
How did you gain that confidence?
I believed in myself, totally. I was a risk-taker. Even on the telephone, when someone would say to me, “How much would so and so cost for so and so?” I would name a price that I would cringe myself at and not believe that I would actually say.
Were there times when taking a risk backfired and you had to accept defeat?
Yeah, but not easily. I go down fighting pretty hard.
How do you navigate situations when you know a colleague, maybe even a male superior, is wrong and you’re right, but you have to concede to their argument?
It happens daily with artists who don’t wanna take your advice. But you basically work for them, and if you believe in them, you’ll give up the challenge. And if it doesn’t work, I would never say, “See I told you so.” I’ll always protect my artists as if they’re one of my children. I’ll never let them fail.
How do you tow that delicate line between protecting and coddling? It must feel sometimes like you have to assume the mother-figure role and baby these artists, especially men.
I wish I felt free enough to give you this example you would love to hear. But the thought process is, agan, I can only lead the horses to water. I cannot drink it for them. I’m very fortunate as an agent that I have these direct relationships with my artists, which is not usual with an agent. But whether I am that older woman and there is that feeling of mentoring or mothering, whatever the case may be, 95 percent of my artists feel comfortable and free enough to talk to me directly. And the managers don’t feel threatened by that. This particular artist, whom I can’t mention, I have sat with many times and said, “You can’t do it this way; it makes no sense. You’re going to lose money. We can do it this way.” And give him the options. And it’s no go. So then I say, “Okay, I’ll take this roller-coaster ride with you and do it your way. You’ve heard my way and feel this strongly. I believe in you as an artist. You want me to believe in you.” I don’t write the songs. I don’t give them the stage. So there has to be that kind of respect.
It almost feels like you have to alter your language to make them feel reassured that they’re heard, not the other way around.
Oh, sure. It’s like children. Different children need different things. Same for husbands.
Is there a difference working with male clients versus female?
No, and I represent many female artists. With the whole #MeToo movement, there’s more of a stress on the sex. Of being a female versus male, and is that the reason for such and such. But for all the years that I was coming up and working through this all, it wasn’t as featured that way. There wasn’t that much emphasis on “do you feel that way because she’s a woman or because he’s a man.”
Do you feel that it’s better that conversations are being framed that way now?
It’s very healthy that it’s a topic of conversation. But what I feel very strongly about is, I don’t want to see millennial women using this as an excuse to be victimized. A lot of young girls, when I’ve given talks and done panels, they’ll come up to me after and say, “It’s so hard for us women.” And I’m like, “Wait a minute, honey. This is 2018. You don’t know what hard is. You have an open door — walk through it, fight through it, power through it.”
Speaking of #MeToo, you were one of the many female record execs who signed a letter demanding that Grammy president Neil Portnow resign. What motivated you to sign it, and do you feel like that’s something you would’ve had the power to do even 10 or 15 years ago?
I definitely would’ve 15 years ago. It wouldn’t have bothered me. I thought what he said was a terrible thing, very inappropriate and just horrible. I just felt, Why should he be able to get away with something like this? People make mistakes, true, but what he said was just out and out wrong.
Was there any fear among the group of women who signed it that doing so might get you blacklisted, or was there strength in numbers?
I never thought it could hurt me in any way. I felt very confident about it, and I felt confident about my colleagues being part of it. I never even thought for a minute, Is this the right thing for my reputation? I felt strongly that this man was wrong.
If you feel comfortable talking about this, have you ever personally experienced any form of misconduct in your years in the music business?
Yes. Yes. Yes.
Is that something you’re willing to talk about?
No. That I’m not. But it wasn’t anything that was shattering to me, let’s put it that way. It was intimidation and a certain amount of harassment. But, again, in those days it was sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll.
Have you found that those are common unspoken experiences among many women in the industry?
It’s not spoken about that much because there were so few women. You have this movement now because it involves so many women. We were a minority then. At the time, if anybody had said, “He’s really, really out of line,” it probably would’ve been you accused of causing it. You were flirting. You were not dressed appropriately. The woman would’ve been blamed far more than people opening their eyes to it.
Has being ballsy been a double-edged sword in your career? It gives you a competitive edge, but it can also hurt you.
When a woman is tough and strong, men hear her screaming and yelling when she hasn’t even raised her voice. That’s what I found hardest. Yes, I did have to yell louder. Yes, I did have to make my point harder to be heard. I had to fight to be heard.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.