Lauren Wirtzer-Seawood has the energy of someone you'd trust to diffuse a nuclear bomb: calm, assertive, and unflappable. "Over time I have amassed more confidence in my own abilities. I think that’s just a result of experience," Wirtzer-Seawood, Instagram's former head of music partnerships, tells me over the phone from New York. "But I think fundamentally in any role you have to have some level of confidence that you are making the right decision for yourself."
I first interviewed Wirtzer-Seawood in February 2019, when she was three and a half years into her role at Instagram. It was a position, much like Eva Chen's within the fashion community, where she was responsible for helping artists use the platform in the most effective way possible. "Frequency and consistency is really important," she says of artist best practice, citing Dua Lipa's "open book" authenticity as a great example. "With newer artists who are just sort of, like, building their careers, they can oftentimes get in their own way by overthinking what content they should share."
It was also in her remit to advise industry heavy hitters such as Ariana Grande and Taylor Swift on how to make the most of the platform. "[Swift] has quite a large team, there's a lot of people, and I think that they just appreciate our advice and consult with us before doing anything major in the platform," Wirtzer-Seawood explains. Remember when all those snake emojis were appearing in Swift's comment section after an exchange with Kim Kardashian West? It was Wirtzer-Seawood's team who liaised and offered Swift the option to disable malicious comments on her account and remove all the snake emojis. At the time, as the BBC reported, it was suggested by some that Swift was getting special treatment from Instagram. So did she?
"That was a tool that was in development and rolling out almost right around that same time, so luckily we were able to offer her access to that tool as we were rolling out," Wirtzer-Seawood explains. She was also tasked with getting Cardi B back on the platform after she deleted the app in February 2019, adding that "we had a conversation with her team, and obviously we're there to support and do whatever we can."
If that sounds like it's not a job for the faint hearted, you'd be right. But Wirtzer-Seawood cut her chops at Def Jam and Zynga, before going to head up digital for Beyoncé, where she was responsible for developing the singer's online presence. During her time there, she launched the album cycle for the surprise eponymous 2013 album that changed the way artists release music. "She's amazing," Wirtzer-Seawood says of Beyoncé, her former boss. "She's one of the hardest working people I've ever met — [she's] incredibly driven and focused."
Wirtzer-Seawood also pulls out Beyoncé's incredible ability to manage her own image. "I think one of the things that I learned, one of the biggest takeaways from that role, is the idea that you can own your own narrative as an artist," she says. "You have the ability, via Instagram too, to speak directly to the consumer, to your fans, and give them the information that you want them to have." She adds:
"I think Beyoncé really did that first before anyone else. I think that is sort of the basis of what I do today ... helping artists understand how they can own their own narrative, and then communicate them directly to their fans. I don't know, filter away."
In March 2019, shortly after our first interview, it was announced Wirtzer-Seawood was departing Instagram to take on a new top secret project. What on earth do you do when you've handled two career-defining roles and you've still got more gas in the tank? In hindsight, the thread that united Wirtzer-Seawood's comments about life at Instagram and Beyoncé — that of empowering artists to own their output — was something of a clue.
Wirtzer-Seawood's next step became clear in May 2019, when it was revealed she would take on the role of president at UnitedMasters, a platform that allows artists to self-release their music, connect with brands, and distribute their music to fans. I visited Wirtzer-Seawood at her new offices in Dumbo, Brooklyn, in early May, just before the announcement went out. The space feels like the ultimate hybrid — part tech start-up, part streetwear design studio, part record label — and it's fitting given the services it offers. As well as letting artists "drag and drop" to self-release their own music, it helps artists to connect with brands, and utilise data to learn more about their fans.
"I think that it was less about moving on from Instagram and more about taking advantage of an incredible opportunity," she says of the move a few weeks later over the phone. "I think we’ve seen over time that there are many other models that can have success in the music business. In addition to the major label system, we’re now giving artists opportunity to really operationalise their own independence." She continues:
"We’re now seeing an entire generation of younger artists who are much more interested in retaining ownership of their music, of their assets. They want to figure out how to capitalise for that independence in a way that can really result in success. That’s what we’re trying to do here."
This is, of course, providing huge disruption to the traditional music label model. "UnitedMasters provides the platform that enables artists to distribute their music, [and gives them] access to their information and data," she continues. "Helping them understand how they can capitalise off of their fans they’ve amassed ... that’s where we see the platform going."
The move has also operationalised Wirtzer-Seawood's own independence to be closer to her family. "It’s been really, really nice to both live and work in Brooklyn and a change of pace for sure," she says, comparing it to the daily slog of commuting into central Manhattan. It's easy to think of Wirtzer-Seawood as a bellwether for change in the industry, and her fearlessness to be one of the first to jump into a new area of the industry is surely what separates her from many of her contemporaries. "Fundamentally I don’t really buy into the sort of conversation around perception," she tells me. "I really just try to make career decisions that I know are fundamentally the best for me."
As well as marking a personal and professional adjustment, it's impossible not to consider her elevation to the corner office as hugely significant. Does that weigh on her? "I think that there are a handful of amazingly, smart, talented female leaders in the business. I've spent time and learned from all of them and really appreciate that," she says. "[But] I think that there's still a significant number of executive positions that are dominated by men in the industry. I really want to use this opportunity to attempt to change that a little bit, and we'll continue to push forward in supporting women who are looking to grow into those positions over time." Stay tuned.