Kobalt's Sas Metcalfe on How A&R Is Changing and That Time Prince Gave Her Some Eye-Opening Advice

Michele Thomas
Metcalfe photographed on July 10, 2017 at Kobalt Music in West Hollywood.

Helming a global team that has signed Zayn Malik, Lionel Richie and Mike WiLL Made-It, the A&R veteran welcomes the return of angry lyrics and recalls advice from Prince.

Hired as Kobalt Music Group's first employee, Sas Metcalfe recalls that she and founder/CEO Willard Ahdritz "started in 2001 with a plain piece of paper and an idea" of pursuing Ahdritz's vision of a digital-age publishing company. Since then, she says, "the world has come our way a bit."

Fueled by its data-centric, real-time ­royalty tracking technology, the ­privately held independent music publisher closed out 2016 with estimated revenue of $320 ­million, a 30 percent boost over 2015. Armed this year with $75 million in funding, led by Hearst Entertainment and such 2016 acquisitions as ­publisher Fintage House and the Nettwerk ­publishing ­catalog, Kobalt stands at No. 4 in Billboard's new Publishers Quarterly with close to 8.9 percent of U.S. airplay.

From her flower-filled fourth-floor office with sweeping views of West Hollywood, Metcalfe, 56, oversees a global creative team housed in nine additional cities: New York, Miami, Nashville, Atlanta, London, Sydney, Stockholm, Berlin and Hong Kong. Under her watch, it has secured such recent high-profile signings as Zayn Malik, Lionel Richie, producer Mike WiLL Made-It, deadmau5, Banks and the Elvis Presley estate.

A native of North Wales, Metcalfe has been "mad about music" since her first post-college gig in the early '80s as a ­marketing assistant at CBS Records in London. A lesser-paying job as a scout for a startup label/publishing firm, Rocking Horse Records, with former CBS boss/mentor Jeff Gilbert, gave her the A&R itch. After three years with Arista Records (which bought Rocking Horse) as an A&R manager, she segued to Warner/Chappell for nine years as head of A&R, where she signed acts such as Radiohead and Dido. Metcalfe took a similar post at EMI Records in 1998 before joining Kobalt in 2001.

What are the biggest changes you've witnessed in A&R?

That A&R is not just being done necessarily within record companies. There are many small boutiques comprised of very talented managers, producers and publishers that are working early on to help develop artists. And artists also have a lot more freedom these days. People are more into the art: the voice and the song. And there are no rules as to how the two are put together.

What music trends are you seeing?

Obviously, R&B/hip-hop is growing, and that's something we're expanding upon at Kobalt. It's also happening in the U.K., where Afrobeat is the big scene and acts like Stormzy are coming through. I'm also enjoying the melting pot of ­artists from Sweden, Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere all ­working together. All of the barriers are being ­broken down, which ultimately is good for art.

And I'm beginning to hear more anger, lyrically, from the youth. I've been hearing it in hip-hop, but you have to dig deep to find it in indie rock. But now it's starting to come through, which I'm pleased about. I'm like, "Come on, kids, do something. Where are you all?" We have a U.K. band called Wolf Alice whose latest single is called "Yuk Foo." It's angry and quite great.

What artists have made an enduring impression on you?

I spent an afternoon with Prince at Paisley Park several years ago. We put out a couple of singles on his label. He was exactly like I thought he would be: very nice, very funny. One thing he kept ­saying was, "It's all in the eyes. Always look in the eyes of singers to see the passion."

This article originally appeared in the August 19 issue of Billboard.