Craig Kallman: Co-Chairman and COO, Atlantic Records - Part II

Interviewed by Michael Laskow

Atlantic Records Craig Kallman
After you've read this continuation of last month's interview, please check out Kallman's bio attached at the end. It's an education in and of itself as to how to make it big in the music business.

Labels always ask us to find them something groundbreaking and fresh. When we send it to them, they're often reluctant to sign it because they know it will be hard to get radio stations to play it. Should up-and-coming artists try to do something groundbreaking, or just push the envelope in smaller increments so they can get airplay?

I think we're constantly in search of those musical geniuses who are unlike anything else. In this generation, I think OutKast is certainly an interesting example of a band that continues to defy categorization, and yet you can still see a path to them. I think they're brilliant.

Sean Paul is a great example of an artist we signed who was sort of doing his own thing, but had never really broken on an international level before. He had a small, following in Jamaica. But he was certainly something that was unlike anything else that was out there, and, again, I knew about him from patrolling the record stores and being a fan of reggae. He was someone who made me feel like, "Hey, this is worth putting the entire organization behind." He's a great songwriter; he has a great, unique style, and tone that's different than anything that's out there. Dancehall was never dominant on the radio with any artist, and hadn't had a hit since Shabba Ranks a decade ago. So, that certainly was unconventional, and we've put the entire organization behind it, and we've ended up selling five million. When we met him, he had a base of 30,000 fans.

How do you find an artist like that? Or do they find you?

It works both ways. There was a song I heard that was big in Trinidad—kind of bubbling Caribbean—and I kind of tracked the artist down. There are so many ways to come in contact with things that are starting to develop their own little following or develop their own buzz...

What are some of those ways?

Well, obviously, research plays a part, and networking is a certainly a contributing factor. It's still important to keep in touch with the clubs, retail stores, radio stations, concert promoters, publishers, other artists, songwriters, managers, producers, and music attorneys.

I get this question all the time. What's your take on it? "If these A&R guys are working so damn hard to find great talent, and they're so damn picky, then why do I hear so much crap on the radio?"

Hmm... I think that's all subjective. I think there are a lot of people who wouldn't agree. I think one factor with radio is its segmentation. There used to be one or two formats, not 40. The back page of R&R was one or two charts. Now the back pages are like 30 charts. So I think when things get that categorized, you end up having to super serve specific formats of radio.

I think the gatekeepers at radio are trying to appeal to a very specific listener. And I think research, unfortunately, has played a large part in determining what gets on the radio. I think that's where the gut versus research is really the rub about what we're hearing on the radio. Research methodology can give you false results because it's often eight seconds of a hook of a song being played through a phone line to a listener who might not be the most engaged, avid music fan. I think we've all seen cases where the research is right on, and many cases where the vagaries of research rear their ugly heads. I think Malcolm Gladwell's (author of "The Tipping Point") new book called "Blink" does a superb job of showing how research and its methodologies can be seriously flawed on many levels. I think some of the biggest sensations and success stories we've seen across all industries—whether it's the toy business, the furniture business, or electronics—were tested and did horribly, and yet their respective companies continued on with them, and they turned out to be the great successes.

It's hard to predict what a purely visceral reaction will be.


So many artists think that the majors are evil and indies are great. I contend that there are still a lot of indies that can't really get the job done. What should an artist look for to identify an indie that can get the job done? What are the traits they should look for?

Passion. You want an independent label that's so passionate and so enthralled by your music that they'll do anything and everything to break you. Obviously, they need to have the right resources to be able to do that. As an artist, you want to make sure that they have given you some sort of commitment, and are going to be able to execute what they have promised. I think—whether it's an independent or a major—it's all about the people who are behind the organization. Big or small, it all comes down to the people, your commitment to them, their commitment to you, what they see as their vision for you, and how they're going to proceed in executing that.

I think that Atlantic is actually an organization that's built very entrepreneurially, with a lot of people who were building small brands into big brands. We have a lot of experience in dealing with the independent community, and we're really trying to nurture and foster that. I think we are very much committed to the growth of the independent sector, and are looking to align ourselves in the most positive ways for both parties involved. When you look at it closely, we both have very different things to offer. In the best of all possible worlds, certainly (artists) can go from the starting point on an independent label for one or two albums to really get their roots planted. And then they can move forward because they have the ability to either sign directly to a major, or to a major through their indie label after they've constructed the right kind of building blocks... you know, a good foundation. That's often the best path for artists because they get the best of both worlds.

Atlantic has a huge organization with lots of people working on lots of fronts to break the bands, and investing a significant amount of money. So there are a lot of pluses to being on a major label — as self-serving as that is — because of the shear force of global might and weight in resources and energy and efforts. But I think if you look behind the curtain, you'll see a lot of young, passionate music people working for major labels that can talk almost any independent under the table about bands and artists. So, it really all comes down to really looking under the hood at everyone at the majors and the indies, and seeing who makes up the organization, and if that culture is right for you or not.

Fill in the blank: If I were an artist trying to get signed, I would concentrate most of all of my efforts on ______.


Cool. I was hoping for that answer (laughs).

Why shouldn't I, as the CEO of TAXI, or anybody on my staff, send you A-minus material and let you decide if it's good or not? People always say to us, "If you're on the fence about my music, why don't you just send it to the Craig Kallmans of the world and let them decide?"

You only have one chance to make a first impression, so you want that impression to be the absolute best that it can be. Obviously, we count on people like you, and companies like TAXI, to not waste our time. That's what keeps the door open and the relationship going forward. There's just so much time in the day for all of us who work at labels, so we have to be careful how we mete out our time. The bottom line is that you always want to put your best foot forward.

But for the record, we do keep track of things we've listened to before and have passed on, and watch to see if they evolve to become better.

Which model do you like better for the future, the iTunes model or legalized peer-to-peer?

I thing they're both very, very important. I think we need to be in business on all fronts. I think legalized peer-to-peer is brilliant. The ability to turn your friend on to something that you're passionate about... well, there's nothing more powerful in the world than that. Then the iTunes model, where you've got a great wealth of material that you can get turned on to in various ways is also an extraordinary bank for consumers to mine for the music they love. So I wouldn't place one over the other. I think they are both critical to the health and success of the business. We need to be nurturing both, as well as the brick and mortar stores who have served the industry so well for decades.

What do you think the industry is going to look like in three years? What do you think it'll look like in 10 years?

Hmm... I think you're definitely going to continue to see the digital marketplace and the mobile marketplace become more clearly formed. I think the real breakthrough will be the mobile phone and just how we consume music in a mobile way. Obviously, we're seeing a glimpse of that right now with ringtones and ring-back-tones... all these other facets of music consumption, and new ways to market our music. I think portability and the ability to really house everything in a digital environment, as opposed to just a physical environment, is going to be part of the dramatic change in landscape. You know, you've got over a 50-year history of everyone growing up with either the eight-track or vinyl or cassette or the CD, but I think the musical locker in the sky concept — the celestial jukebox — could be a fascinating transformation in this business.

I'm certainly the old guard, a physical record guy. I've got almost 200,000 vinyl LPs and 12-inches and 7-inches in my collection, which I'm still holding onto for dear life. That makes me think there will still be music lovers who want to have artwork to hold onto and look at, who will also be looking forward to some sonic improvements from where the CD is currently at. I think we haven't yet hit on the perfect format. I think we still need to hit on the next format with great sonic resolution, so from an audiophile standpoint, you really get the best out of the musical experience. The interesting thing with MP3s is that we're seeing a movement toward devouring music in a mobile fashion that's still almost theoretical because the fidelity really isn't great yet. I'll be excited when consumers will actually be able to experience their music in both a mobile fashion and a downloadable fashion, as well as the physical, where they're actually getting the full spectrum of what's sonically possible.

We keep driving forward on the video business — DVDs, and now HDTV —and we're constantly striving for better and better resolution from a visual standpoint. But we've actually kind of regressed on a musical level where we're selling music in all these other configurations that continually have decreased the sonic quality. So I think that's slowly starting to change as the technology catches up. We've kind of hit the lowest point and now we're about to bounce back. I think that's an exciting transformation, and hopefully we'll see some significant changes soon.

What's the industry looking for now? What's the trend for the next year?

I think on the rock side, there have been a lot of exciting developments that have changed modern rock radio. Lots of new sounds and styles are emerging from what began with garage rock, like the Hives, the Strokes, the White Stripes, the Darkness, Jet, and this year, Franz Ferdinand and Modest Mouse. Alternative radio is starting to get back to what it used to be, and why it got the moniker in the first place. I see it going back to the diverse array of musical styles that were alternative to the mainstream and were ahead of the curve.

We went through such a period of dominance of rap-rock, grunge, and a hard kind of new metal—an angry, self-loathing kind of rock with a lot of faceless bands. And I think that now we're entering into a time that's musically very exciting again. I think Top 40 is alive and well, with an incredible wealth of different styles. Country has bounced back, and some great Top 40 pop songs are being crafted. I think we are entering an exciting time again when music is very vibrant and alive. Kanye West, who's another genius, is a great example of what's new and exciting. So, I think things are starting to open up. It's our job to keep pushing those boundaries as hard as possible.

If there was one thing you could change in the music industry with the flick of a switch, what would that be?

I would eliminate music television, because music was always about what you heard and not about what you saw. I think music television factors into the emergence of new talent so much, that it has definitely affected the creative process on all levels. We get so overexposed to aspects of the artists' lives that I think it takes a lot of the mystery out of the music; it takes a lot of the excitement out of seeing it live. If you've "walked" into the house on "Cribs," there's not much left to see. So, I think that's been one of the most profound and impactful things that has changed how music is now. I think consumers are ready to just fall in love with the music again.


Craig Kallman joined Atlantic Records in 1991, when his independent Big Beat label was acquired by the company. He advanced from Vice President to Executive Vice President in charge of Atlantic's entire A&R operation. In January 2002, he was named Atlantic Co-President. With the merger of Atlantic and Elektra Records in March 2004, Kallman was promoted to Co-Chairman/COO of the newly formed Atlantic Records Group.

Kallman began his music industry career in 1981, DJ-ing at the Cat Club in New York, while working in Columbia Records' dance department. At Brown University, he was the CBS Records college representative, promoting such artists as the Beastie Boys, Sinéad O'Connor, the Bangles, LL Cool J, and Billy Idol. He was also program director of the urban and rock specialty shows on WBRU-FM. After graduating in 1987 with a B.A. in English, Kallman promoted New Order and Joy Division for Factory Records. He worked in the chart department at Billboard Magazine, while continuing to DJ at such classic nightspots as Danceteria, Area, The Palladium, The Tunnel, and Mars.

Happening upon a house music demo in a record shop, Kallman started up his independent Big Beat label and production career with the 1987 single, "Join Hands" by Taravhonty. His second release, "The Party" by Kraze, was an international club and pop smash, selling over 300,000 copies, and prompting calls for Kallman's remixes from such major artists as Soul II Soul. Through the 1990s, Big Beat remained a major imprint in the dance and rap underground, as well as in the crossover pop and R&B fields, with a multi-genre string of international hits by Robin S., Jomanda, Tara Kemp, Bucketheads, Artifacts, Double XX Posse, Dawn Penn, Inner Circle, Changing Faces, and Quad City DJ's.

When Big Beat was acquired by Atlantic in 1991, Kallman joined the company as Vice President/Assistant to then Co-Chairman Doug Morris. Later, as Executive Vice President, Kallman was assigned to oversee Atlantic's entire A&R operation by new Co-Chairman Val Azzoli. His roster of trailblazing artists grew to include Aaliyah, whose "One in a Million" album introduced producers Timbaland and Missy Elliott to the pop top 10; singer and actress Brandy, whose duet with Monica, "The Boy is Mine," was the biggest U.S. single of 1998; and Notorious B.I.G.'s rap clan Junior M.A.F.I.A., featuring the iconic Lil' Kim; and multi-platinum hard rock band P.O.D.

Kallman was named Co-President of Atlantic Records in January 2002. In the fall of that year, Kallman forged a worldwide alliance with the pioneering dancehall reggae label, VP Records. The first album released via VP/Atlantic, Sean Paul's groundbreaking "Dutty Rock," sold five million copies worldwide, and garnered Sean three Grammy nominations – including Best New Artist. The album yielded a string of hit singles, including the #1 pop smash, "Get Busy," the most successful U.S. crossover record in Jamaican recording history.

Kallman kicked off 2004 on a high note, when the first Atlantic album in nearly seven years from Chicago-based rap legend Twista, "Kamikaze," debuted at #1 on the Billboard 200 album chart – becoming the music industry's first breakthrough artist of the New Year. That album's success primed the pump for Atlantic's explosive hip-hop activity during the year, culminating with the launch of the company's groundbreaking "Joint Chiefs" multi-artist campaign in the fall of 2004. That project yielded top-10 debuts from Miami superstar Trick Daddy, Brooklyn platinum rapper Fabolous, and Atlanta sensation T.I., with a new album on tap from the "Mayor of the Bronx," Fat Joe, in the spring of '05.

In 2004, Kallman oversaw such high-profile new Atlantic signings as hip-hop star Juvenile and acclaimed indie rockers Death Cab For Cutie. He has also been responsible for bringing to the company such notable artists as West Coast punk quartet The Donnas; British garage/R&B innovator Craig David; #1 UK rock sensation The Darkness; pop singer/songwriter Ryan Cabrera; Caribbean soca star Kevin Lyttle; Florida rock quartet Shindown; Southern rap collective Nappy Roots; and Michigan-based hard rockers TapRoot.

Over the years, Kallman has also spearheaded Atlantic's release of a number of film soundtracks and original cast albums, including "Space Jam" (featuring R. Kelly's "I Believe I Can Fly"), "Dr. Doolittle," "High School High," "Anastasia," "Great Expectations," "Jekyll & Hyde," and, most recently, "School of Rock."

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