Craig Kallman: Co-Chairman, Atlantic Records

Interviewed by Michael Laskow

Atlantic Records A&R Interview
Craig Kallman was the first person in the music business to run a listing with TAXI. That was 1992, and he had just joined the staff of Atlantic Records.

He started Big Beat Records from his parents' apartment in New York, and is somewhat legendary as a guy who would literally push a shopping cart around the city hawking his dance singles to mom-and-pop record stores.

His entrepreneurial drive wasn't lost on Doug Morris, who brought Big Beat and Kallman into the Atlantic stable. Craig has flourished during his time at Atlantic, and is currently Co-chairman and Chief Operating Officer.

I bumped into Craig at an airport recently, and he asked if we could update an interview I did with him 10 years ago. I took the bait, and we conducted a whole new interview. What follows is Part One of our morning together last December in New York.


How are your days different now that you're co-chair?

Pretty different. I think mostly the change has been how to still remain close to the ground, as connected to the street, connected to the music, and really do all the things that helped get me to where I'm at today. I need to keep doing all those key things that are still so important, yet also elevate myself to a level where I'm adding and contributing and bringing new dimensions to the job. That's been the challenge, because I'd like to spend the time in the studio with the writers, producers, and artists as much as possible. But the responsibility to lead a company like Atlantic, and also humbly remain working for Ahmet (Ehrtegen, Co-founder of Atlantic)—who's still next door—while trying to make the next generation of artists and signings worthy of the 50-year history of Atlantic because it's been so extraordinary. We certainly have our work cut out for us, in trying to make sure that we keep the threshold high with respect to signings and releases, and making sure the artistry and the vision and the taste and tone of the company is still in the spirit of what made Atlantic great for all these years.

That's got to be a tough gig. Ahmet's one of the most important people in the history of the music industry. That's got to be a little scary.

It's nice to have his wisdom and his vision and his experience right along side us. And he's still not afraid to get in the trenches with us as well as with artists and records and signings and songs. So, that's definitely a blessing. It is certainly a formidable challenge to try and unearth the kind of talent that he was discovering throughout his entire career. So, as music evolves, it's our greatest challenge to find things that will live up to what made Atlantic great.

You mentioned that you still like working in the studio with artists. How do you find the time to be that business guy and be the creative guy? Are there enough hours in the day for it?

Well, certainly it's a 24/7 kind of job. But, yeah, generally in the mornings, it's dealing with international issues – I'm up at 6 a.m. and actually have a few hours of peace while doing e-mails and calls, and listening to music when I have the quiet time to really focus on mixes and songs. Then I get into the office and start my "official" work day at about 10. It's about really reading the company and making sure the team is all moving forward toward the same goals and objectives. It's mostly about driving the organization and creating an exciting and vibrant company that people really want to work for. And then, generally, nighttime is when I get in the studio with the artists and really spend the time on the creative side of things.

What have you done to go from "entrepreneurial" Craig to "corporate" Craig?

Well, throughout the 13 years at Atlantic I've been very, very fortunate to have a lot of very compelling and brilliant bosses. Doug Morris brought me into the company and was certainly a very formidable and important mentor to me in the early days, and Ahmet as well. Under their guidance I certainly learned a tremendous amount. I also have to credit people like Bob Morgado, Michael Fuchs, Bob Daly, Terry Semel, Val Azzoli, Danny Goldberg, Roger Ames, and a parade of other stars who have helped me learn what it takes to do this job well. Then, of course, being able to work with my longtime friend—and I think one of the more brilliant, most exciting, dynamic leaders in the business—Lyor Cohen. Certainly, I think he and Edgar Bronfman are two extraordinary executives. Lyor's stewardship, guidance, and very unique point of view in leading a company, building a team, and creating an exciting organization are pretty inspirational. Really, it's been a crash course—kind of like going to Harvard Business School to study every day.

The one thing you learn is that you know less and less as you go along. I've still got such a long way to go in learning how to run and manage an organization, as well as being creative. It's been a terrific experience to have so many different people to work under, because they were all so different in so many ways. I've spent a lot of time soaking it in, digesting it, and analyzing how each one of them did their job, and what made them become great enough to hold their lofty positions.

How many hours in a given week do you still listen to music in the work context?

I do a tremendous amount of listening super early in the morning, from like 6 to 9 a.m. It gets tougher during the day, but obviously I listen in meetings with staff, and in meetings with managers, lawyers, artists, publishers, and songwriters—then a lot at night in the studio. And on the weekends, I'm still religiously hitting all the mom-and-pop stores every Saturday—I've been doing that for almost 20 years now.

The fact that you're able to balance that with raising a family is impressive.

My family is incredibly important to me, and so is keeping in close contact with the street to what's selling, what people are talking about, what the DJs are picking up, and what the store owners are excited about.

Is it easier or harder to find great acts than it was 13 years ago when you came on board?

Good question. I have to think about that. I think the real difference is how much greater the output is now. The access to new talent and the influx of new product is so great. Between the independent community and the ability, everyone has to release product now because of the Internet… there's just so much more to pour through. It takes a lot of effort and focus to stay on top of everything. That's why I have to rely so much on the team of people I surround myself with. All the young executives are out there screening things so the great material can rise to the top. Fortunately, I've been lucky in helping to build an organization that has tremendous coverage across the board.

The amazing thing is you're co-chairman of the board and you're still going to record stores on weekends. You're molded in the image of guys like Ahmet, who didn't get in the record business because he wanted to, but because he was born to.

Yeah. That's definitely true.

It feels like consumers think that the level of talent has gone steadily downhill over the last two decades. It almost seems like the industry ignores that and continues to shoot for short-term gains to please their stockholders, while ignoring the lessons learned in the past—namely that artist development builds lifelong careers. Why is it so hard? Why can't you guys just say to the board, "Look, we need to get back to the days of the '70s when true artist development happened. And, yeah, we might suck wind for a year or two, but ultimately we're going to come out of this and be a phenomenal force."

Not to be self-serving, but I must say that those are the conversations that Edgar and Lyor had with us the minute they took over the company. They spent a lot of time studying the history of Warner/Elektra/Atlantic. They came to us, and encouraged us to spend time with Ahmet, Jack Holzman, and Mo Ostin to learn what they know. They really made it clear that that's what we need to be about if we are going to distinguish ourselves from everybody else. The only way we're going to distinguish ourselves is if we have that artist development sensibility. You'll hopefully start to see that over the next couple of years with what we do. We're also building a very comprehensive and significant marketing organization. All these things are key to building artists' careers—on the artist development side, the marketing side, the multimedia side, and the strategic development side.

We have a formidable president, Julie Greenwald, who's incredible. We have a fantastic group of executives at the senior VP level—she's supervising all of these departments—and I think we're building a fierce company when it comes to artist development side and planting real roots for artists. So it isn't just about playing a song to radio and the video to MTV. It's really about building things that create long-lasting careers.

But to answer your question, I think there are a lot of things that have changed from the '60s and '70s to the '90s and 2000s because of, number one, technology—the ability to make records has become so much easier. So, because of the technology and because of that ability it's obviously spurred on tremendous creativity. But at the same time, it allows a lot of people to short circuit a lot of the disciplines that are obviously inherent in virtuosity. Second to that, I think is the level of distractions that exist today, the other draws on people's time and attention, and their passions—video games, certainly a passion and new entrant to these last couple decades. They didn't exist in the '60s and '70s; the Internet didn't exist. I can go down the list of many, many things that draw on very young people's time as well. So, as passionate as kids are about music, I think it's the one skill…to kind of lock the door and close themselves out to all the other external forces and do what Eric Clapton or Jimmy Page or Jeff Beck or whoever did—which is to sit in their bedroom and do nothing for 12 hours but play guitar and learn the be the best guitar player who ever lived. Whether it's singing or songwriting, really learning how to craft songs is vitally important. Obviously, sampling has allowed people to do some wildly brilliant things, but it has also short circuited the need for real songsmiths who are great at crafting compelling lyrics and melodies that are original. If you can create something original with someone else's work through sampling, it's equally as valid, and certainly tremendously compelling, but it does diminish the impetus to do everything solely from scratch.

It's a different craft.

So, I think those are just two of the many reasons of why the industry is in the place it's in. But that's not to say that a Kurt Cobain isn't one of the most important figures in the history of rock music. On the hip-hop side as well. Look at the work of Notorious B.I.G. or Tupac and Jay-Z. I think they're as valid and as important as the greatest rock artists or the greatest blues singer. So, I think this decade and the last two decades have certainly been incredibly powerful on the urban side with hip-hop breeding some tremendously compelling artists.

So, have rap and hip-hop replaced rock as the dominant genre?

Certainly it's dominating mainstream culture. Look at a Top 40 chart, and 40 percent of it's urban. I think one of the best articles I've ever read in my history—which written just a few months ago on this topic—was in The New York Times called "Rockism," written by one of the most brilliant rock writers around, Kelefa Senneh. I encourage everybody to read that. It's one of the most brilliant pieces. He's just a young new writer for The New York Times. He's a contemporary genius, in my opinion; he's a great, great writer. But that's certainly an article that touches on that. He addresses the issue so succinctly, that I'll defer to his take on it.

It appears that the adult market is somewhat ignored, and everyone is going after kids. And kids are spending time with video games and the Internet. Then along comes Norah Jones and sells a bunch of records to the adult market seemingly by accident.

I don't think it was by accident.

But I think the public's perception was that it was a little bit by accident. It just seemed to come out of nowhere. And it makes us all aware that adults still love music. We're the generation that made rock and roll what it is today, yet the industry doesn't seem to pay much attention. I understand that we're soccer moms and dads, and we don't have time to hang out at the record stores. But can you tell me that the captains of our industry are trying to come up with ways to better address the adult market?

Absolutely! The upper demographics have a history of buying CDs, so their custom is still a part of their way of experiencing music. It's what's familiar to them. The newer generation is learning different ways to consume it, with digital distribution being the key element. So, absolutely, the upper demos are critically important to us for selling CDs. And I think we've got some incredible vehicles like and iTunes, which are tremendous ways to discover music on the Internet. They are like the modern equivalent to running around to your local mom-and-pop record store, and probably more efficient, and in many ways, equally engaging and enlightening. So, for us it's always about exploring every avenue to reach those consumers as well.

But at its core, I think it's about making magical records that are going to touch people in the ways that the Billy Joels, Aretha Franklins, James Taylors, and the Beatles have. You know, Norah Jones comes out and kind of cuts through all the racket with something very honest and sincere and intimate. It's just a gorgeous, compelling listen, in the same way that Sade burst on the scene with her first album. I think Norah came on in a similar way. It's just such a refreshing contrast to everything else that it just spread. We've seen things from all walks of the musical spectrum, whether it's the Buena Vista Social Club or O Brother, Where Art Thou? They are just musically compelling and engaging and honest and sincere. Those are the things that find their audience. Right now, the discovery is Ray Charles. There's nothing more exciting than everyone sort of discovering Ray, who's obviously an established artist from back in the day. But I think that has been an interesting path for both his duets record and, obviously, the soundtrack from the movie. I think you're going to see tremendous sales for that.

Is it possible for an artist to get signed in today's market just by being great, or do they have to have a following and sold 5, 10, or 15 thousand CDs on their own? Can somebody great walk through your door and you would sign them even though they're a little overweight, or a couple of years too old with no fan base?

Yeah, most definitely. Certainly we try and look for as many of those "critical factors" as possible when we come in contact with a special artist. You know, songs are #1, and artistry is #1. Those go hand in hand. A compelling star is just someone who has something to say with songs that are meaningful. If you find those two requisites, then everything else can fall into place—whether it's imaging, looks, management, a following, their live show, or their touring capacity—so many kinds of factors that all kind of boil down to making the final decision as to whether or not we're going to take a shot with a given artist. But we continue to sign things that have nothing going on but a magical demo, and we, of course, look for things that have as much resonance already in the marketplace as possible—artists who are making noise. I don't think that's any different from when Clive Davis went to Monterey and discovered all those great artists performing live. We still look for artists who can also do it live and are making an impact.

Read PART TWO in the next Transmitter.

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