Atlantic Records' CEO/Co-Chairman Craig Kallman on EDM's Evolution, Cee Lo's Next Move and His Own Massive Record Collection
Craig Kallman doesn’t exactly fly under the radar, but he’s definitely one of the music business’ low-key CEOs. He has spent the better part of his 24 years with Atlantic Records working behind the scenes as the architect of the label’s diverse roster -- the wellspring of its steady market share, which has hovered between 5 percent and its current 10-year peak of 7.3 percent year-to-date (according to Nielsen Music) since Kallman and Julie Greenwald were named co-chairmen in 2005. In the week of June 13, the label had four albums in the Billboard 200’s top 10 -- from rapper Boosie Badazz, alt-rock duo Twenty One Pilots, pop troubadour Ed Sheeran and the Furious 7 soundtrack -- and was still riding hits from pop savant Charli XCX and superstar DJ David Guetta, with music to come from Ty Dolla Sign, Rob Thomas, Santigold and Rudimental and newer signings like country singer Sturgill Simpson, alt-rock band The War on Drugs, EDM newcomer Matoma and Wiz Khalifa co-star Charlie Puth.
The Manhattan-born son of a record-collecting, concert-going attorney, Kallman, 50, began making weekly rounds at the city’s record stores at an early age ("I remember talking to Rick Rubin at 99 Records -- he was coming in with a box of Hose EPs," he recalls, referring to Rubin's 1983 first-ever release). Mentored by DJ Richard Vasquez, Kallman struck a deal with his father that enabled him to DJ on school nights -- at '80s nightlife meccas like Danceteria, the Tunnel, the Palladium and Area -- as long as he made dean's list or magna cum laude, which he did through his 1987 graduation from Brown University. A planned enrollment in Harvard Business School was delayed while he took his chances in the music business, DJ-ing, interning at the New Music Seminar and Rockpool, working at Factory Records and Billboard's charts department -- and, most significantly, starting Big Beat Records.
The label's first release, Taravhonty's Join Hands, sold 5,000 units. Its second, Kraze's The Party, sold more than 250,000 and put the fledgling business, operated out of Kallman's bedroom in his parents' apartment, on the map; before long he had an office and a staff of 12. Courted by both Irving Azoff (who in 1990 licensed Big Beat's Tara Kemp for his Warner-distributed Giant label) and then-Atlantic chief Doug Morris, Kallman threw in his lot with Atlantic in 1991. He's worn both hats ever since: in the 1990s he brought Big Beat hits like Junior M.A.F.I.A. (which spawed Lil Kim) and Changing Faces while working with Atlantic artists like Brandy, Aaliyah, INXS, Mick Jagger and Sean Paul.
Kallman's musical versatility is on full display in his home studio on Manhattan's Upper East Side, which is like a music geek's version of Willie Wonka's chocolate factory. It contains some 25,000 records -- a small selection from his almost inconceivably vast 750,000-piece collection; the remainder are in a climate-controlled storage facility also used by Sotheby’s -- and hundreds of magazines and pieces of memorabilia spanning multiple genres: every inch of wallspace not dedicated to record shelves is festooned with posters, signed photographs, promotional items, t-shirts, and more. There's also a world-class stereo system (featuring a Linn Sondek turntable and Wilson Audio speakers) and, down the hall, a studio where, during this interview, singer/songwriter Andrea Martin worked on demos with engineer Peter Kim while Kallman's 12-year-old son Ryland (the family, also including Kallman’s wife, Isabel, lives down the hall) shot baskets on the sprawling patio.
What were you thinking when you started this collection?
The idea was to chronicle the history of popular music. It was all born out of the birth of the CD -- the industry was like, "The CD is the future and vinyl is over," I was like, "I've gotta preserve the history of vinyl before it disappears." That's kinda what started the madness: whatever record I fell in love with, I wanted to listen to in its best form before it disappeared. There's nothing that compares to pulling out a rare 45 and putting the needle on it and hearing it in analog through your home stereo system.
Was there a single song or concert that made you want to be in the music business?
Probably the most impactful was Led Zeppelin at Madison Square Garden in 1977. I have such a vivid memory of that concert, watching Jimmy Page doing his guitar solo inside a laser prism. I was only 12 years old so I didn't quite know what the record industry was, but I just knew this is what I wanted to be close to.
You ran Big Beat out of your bedroom in the early days -- how did you get your records noticed?
As a DJ, I had personal relationships with the radio stations, and I realized that my way in was to talk to them on a music level. So I would buy up 25 copies of every hot import coming out of France or the U.K. and mail them to the music or program directors and say, "This is working in my club, it's gonna be a hit" --
You weren't getting anything from the people who put out those records?
No, I was buying them myself. I was making money from my company and from DJing so I could afford to do it, and it's actually a lot cheaper than flying there and schmoozing them with dinner and God knows what else everyone else was doing. I started to have a pretty good batting average with that, and those relationships [helped] get my records on the radio.
How did you make the choice between Irving and Doug back in 1991?
After the success with Tara Kemp, Irving said "I wanna buy your company and have you come work for me at Giant." Within days I got the same call from Doug and Ahmet. Warner was run by Bob Morgado at the time and he said "I'm not gonna have Irving and Doug bid against each other, you have to pick one." It was a hard choice 'cause they were both great to me, but I grew up with Led Zeppelin and Ray Charles and Otis Redding, and Atlantic was the label that I revered. It started as a joint venture but within months we got along so great that I sold them the other half of the company and they brought me in full-time, Doug literally put me in his office and really taught me the record business. He said "Ahmet and I want to develop you to be president of Atlantic one day."
What do you think they saw in you?
They both were entrepreneurs, they both started indie labels -- Doug's was Big Tree, mine was Big Beat -- Ahmet was a record collector and started Atlantic by borrowing money from his dentist. I would never compare myself to Ahmet or Doug, but I think they saw a passionate music fan and thought, "He's cut from the same cloth." They threw me immediately into the fire with Mick Jagger's [1993 solo album Wandering Spirit] and INXS.
How do you balance being the music guy with being an executive?
That's easy 'cause I have an amazing partner, Julie Greenwald, who allows me to be the curator and focus on talent and record-making, and then hand it to her. Julie is the sole reason I'm able to spend the quality time with the artists and the A&R staff.
You must have been crossing paths with Julie and [former Warner Music chief Lyor Cohen] for a long time before they joined Atlantic. Were you excited when they left Def Jam to come on board?
Yeah. Lyor would tell stories about constantly coming up against me as a tiny indie -- we were always competing against each other, and Lyor generally won because in the hip-hop space Def Jam was the better brand. But we became friends and he's the one who put Julie and me together, obviously. Credit to him for recognizing what that partnership could be.
What do you look for in artists?
Julie and I really put it to the test: could we be doing the box set on this person in the future? Is one of these a song that everybody on YouTube is going to be covering? I think there's a lot of emphasis on the power of the song as opposed to maybe the power of the personality. We certainly believe we're signing career artists.
How has working under Len Blavatnik and Stephen Cooper been different from previous Warner Music regimes?
We’ve been given great freedom from Steve and Len -- they have a hunger like us to break new artists and invest in our roster. We had a fantastic run with Lyor and [former WMG chief] Edgar [Bronfman Jr.] -- one of the great things under that regime was their instilling the 360-deal culture. It allows us to continue to invest in the artist when things are maybe not taking off as fast as we’d like.
Are you doing as many 360 deals as you were four or five years ago?
Yeah, we're still hundred-percent believers in the 360. I think it's really worked for us and for the artists; it's allowed us to continue to invest in the artist when things are rocky at the beginning and maybe not taking off as fast as we'd like. It gives us a much longer runway to be patient about artist development.
Have you had to pass on a lot of artists because they don't meet all the criteria for a 360?
Definitely, definitely. Obviously we're moving into more of a research-driven business, so we're seeing more one-offs potentially happening because it's is getting very hit-driven.
How many artists have 360 deals?
Most of the roster since we started it a decade or more ago. Almost everybody.
Do you feel like you've gotten enough credit for being ahead of the game on EDM?
I never really think about personal credit -- my DNA is to be behind the scenes. I'm happy as long as I can musically stay on top of what's happening and talk a good game with my young Big Beat experts, who are living the lifestyle 24-7.
Where do you see EDM moving musically over the next few years?
I think it's about sonically innovating again, by using both technology and infusing an even higher sense of the importance of the song into the genre.
Who are some recent artists who have been great at that?
Certainly David Guetta -- he's at the forefront of DJing but also understands the power of the song and production and using the right feature for the right song; Skrillex is another example. And Galantis [whose Pharmacy album was released earlier in June], those two guys really understand great songwriting and also innovative, cutting-edge production and sound.
Cee Lo Green torpedoed his career with an insensitive tweet about rape in 2014. What’s next for him?
We’re actually in the final stages of completing his album. We’ve got a big list of songs that we’re going through -- he worked with Mark Ronson, Charlie Puth. We’re looking at a fourth-quarter [release].
Can he move on from the scandal?
You’ve got to let the music do the talking.
Have you gotten to test-drive Apple Music?
Julie and I got an early meeting. We obviously had to sign a non-disclosure agreement for a confidential meeting where [Apple’s] Jimmy [Iovine] invited us to his house. Jimmy and Robert gave Julie and me a great presentation on what they were thinking.
Do you speak with him often about it?
Jimmy is very proactive in wanting to learn about what we are excited about, so his enthusiasm for discovering new music is really exciting and palpable and real, which is so refreshing.
What is the best format for you?
At the time, the vinyl format was so sonically superior to the early technology of CD, and now obviously digital technology has gotten super sophisticated. We've been working on MQA [Meridian Audio's Master Quality Authenticated] -- a technology that allows the ultimate digital experience in sound: studio-master quality that's replicating the sound right from the analog machines. So we'll have the best of all possible worlds.
Can you say how much your entire collection is insured for?
It's not accurate because I haven't gone the full tilt of doing a complete inventory. It's so vast: about three quarters of a million [records], probably about a quarter of a million posters and books and magazines and buttons and t-shirts and jackets.
Did you have these floors reinforced to hold the weight of so many records?
[Eyes the floor nervously] No. I hope I'm okay!
Inside The Kallman Record Vault
OLDEST: Ray Charles 78 rpm record of "Greenbacks," 1955
FIRST: My first purchase was six albums at once at Musical Maze, I think: Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith, Hot Tuna, Sly and the Family Stone, Neil Young and Taj Mahal. I must have been 7 or 8.
MOST VALUABLE: I have sealed mono and stereo copies of the Beatles' "butcher cover" [recalled edition of 1966's Yesterday and Today; in 2013 a sealed copy sold for $15,300 on eBay]. And a Sex Pistols A&M pressing of "God Save the Queen" [one of just nine known to exist; another was auctioned off for nearly $4,000 in March].
Tim Maia's first album -- he's basically the James Brown of Brazil. I found it at the record fair they used to have in Austin. Oh my God -- you don't know that record? You've gotta hear it. [Finds record, puts it on …]
A version of this article first appeared in the June 27 issue of Billboard.