ATO Records GM Jon Salter on Alabama Shakes' Big Grammy Wins, His White House Visit and Why He's Still Bullish on Rock Music
When Jon Salter said he would be arriving from Washington, D.C., shortly before his meeting with Billboard at ATO's New York offices, he didn't mention the reason for his trip there. It turns out he had an engagement at the White House: the final PBS In Performance event of the Obama presidency, in which Brittany Howard, lead singer of Grammy-winning ATO act Alabama Shakes, and others honored the late Ray Charles before the leader of the free world -- an avowed Shakes fan -- and many others.
"It was Brittany's thing, but they were kind enough to invite me," says Salter. "The president was very personable and Michelle [Obama] was great, but it was still a surreal, out-of-body experience."
February was that kind of month for the 44-year-old married Brooklyn resident, as Alabama Shakes' sophomore album, Sound & Color, won four Grammys less than four years after the group released its debut. Born and raised in the San Fernando Valley, Salter got his start in the Virgin Records mailroom, then moved into sales and digital marketing at Geffen, Trauma, BMG, RCA and finally ATO in 2006. But he also is a drummer who ran his own independent label, Camera, for many years.
It all comes into play in his role as GM of the Caroline-distributed indie, a post he has held since 2011. ATO was founded 15 years ago by Red Light Management chief Coran Capshaw with rocker Dave Matthews and two others; the 10-person label's big sellers are Alabama Shakes (1.2 million albums, according to Nielsen Music) and David Gray (4.6 million total) as well as My Morning Jacket, Phish's Trey Anastasio, Brandi Carlile and Rodrigo y Gabriela. For the first half of 2016, the label will release albums from sister trio Joseph, singer-songwriter Margaret Glaspy and psych-rockers King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard.
How does ATO operate differently from other labels?
This is a label built by managers -- [co-founders] Coran and Chris Tetzeli and Michael McDonald -- and it's run with that spirit. They would follow the tours -- "Do this in Seattle; make sure you invite this person in L.A." -- and connect with the promoters and ask questions a manager would, which not all label people do. They had direct relationships: They knew the promoters, the radio guys, the buyers. And that's invaluable, because as a [label head], you've got a couple of cards a year to play with those people. They feel it in a different way coming from you, as opposed to your radio [promotion] guy who's plugging 10 or 15 records. If there's a new artist and I really want them to know about it, they'll listen.
ATO and Red Light share offices and some artists, owners and staff. What's the relationship between the two companies?
It's a sister-company vibe. We share radio staff, digital, some digital business development roles and a kind of a marketing/branding role. And we release records by several Red Light artists, like Alabama Shakes and Drive-By Truckers, and newer artists like Joseph and Rayland Baxter.
How do you find artists?
I have an A&R assistant or scout, whatever you want to call it: Jeanette Wall, who's our marketing coordinator and also my ear to the ground. But I'll hear about artists from lawyers or agents or a blog that I have relationships with, people at Red Light. And I follow my gut: One of the guys at Monotone [Management] sent me Benjamin Booker's video, and the next day I flew to Tampa [Fla.] and signed him in the parking lot after his show.
Did someone bring you Alabama Shakes?
The group had just signed with Red Light, and Kevin Morris [who manages the band with Christine Stauder] gave me their first EP. I threw it in my CD player, and one morning the opening chord of "On Your Way" just rang through my apartment. That chord was the moment: I heard Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin -- and then I heard the intensity and the emotion coming from Brittany's voice. That one song has everything I love about rock'n'roll. Because of [Morris] I was kind of early, and within two weeks they had 20 labels chasing them. But I met with them and had this extraordinary musical connection with Brittany -- I knew she would be a transcendent force -- and the band. I told them, "Give me the finished record. I'll execute your vision and do everything I can to make this a tasteful and strategic experience." We had two or three meetings and were really comfortable together. Many years ago Coran told me, "Make sure you have a real, valuable relationship with every artist on the label."
How can you do that with 30-odd acts?
They're not all active all the time, and it's manageable because we have a hands-off approach. Like, Benjamin is writing right now. I'll check in with him after a few weeks, just to see what he's thinking about. Plus, I'm a night owl, so I'll go until two in the morning.
Why do you think Alabama Shakes struck a chord with Grammy voters?
The Shakes remind folks why they fell in love with rock'n'roll. They reconnect you to your favorite Zeppelin riff or Roberta Flack song or Al Green record, but they're young and deliver memorable songs with real human messages. They bridge the past and future. Also, there's a group of Grammy voters who are engineers and producers, and this album made a huge impact in that world based on its extraordinary fidelity. [Shawn Everett and Bob Ludwig won the 2016 best engineered album Grammy for the disc, while Blake Mills was the only producer to receive a Grammy nomination on the basis of his work on just one LP.] Plus, there's a lot of thought behind their calendar: We spread the TV [exposure] out over the entire campaign; we don't just pulverize them in a single week. For example, they play San Francisco once a year instead of three times. There is no saturation.
They're one of the few exciting rock bands to come along in the past decade. As the head of a primarily rock label, what makes you optimistic about the genre?
I see bands on the road -- like King Gizzard or Mac DeMarco or Ty Segall -- playing rock music with teenagers and college kids crowd-surfing and going bananas. That single-handedly gives me hope. But those are the same kids who, at a festival, will walk to the other side of the park and see Drake or Jamie XX. It all can coexist.
This article was originally published in the March 12 issue of Billboard.