As Calum Scott Soars, A&R Exec Alex Wilhelm on Signing Him to Capitol & Finding Hidden Gems When 'Goosebumps Meet Data'

Courtesy Photo
Alex Wilhelm

The former 'Crazed Hits' blogger discusses his signing philosophy, one that got away and heeding wisdom From Warren Buffett.

When Calum Scott went No. 1 in 19 countries on iTunes with the Mar. 9 release of his debut album, Only Human, former Capitol Records A&R executive Alex Wilhelm was among those celebrating.

"I love when goosebumps meet data," says Wilhelm, who approached Scott's manager Luke Williams within hours of Scott self releasing a cover of Robyn's "Dancing On My Own" in March 2016, detecting a large spike in sales and streams as he hunted for unsigned British acts. But Wilhelm, who has since left the label, says the data didn't make the decision for him -- he also instantly "fell in love" with the British crooner's voice and original material. 

"We discussed my dreams, what I envisioned for my first record, what I wanted to achieve," Scott, a former Britain's Got Talent contestant, tells Billboard. "[Wilhelm] shared my vision and believed in me." 

Wilhelm, 32, got his start launching a blog called Crazed Hits 10 years ago from his bedroom in his small German hometown near Cologne, featuring unsigned musicians that he "had a feeling about." He parlayed that into career scouting talent for Warner Bros. Records and then Capitol, analyzing data to find "the hidden gems" among the ballooning number of tunes online.

Amid intensifying competition for to sign new acts as streaming drives double-digit industry growth, Wilhelm talked to Billboard about what he looks for in an artist, competing against other scouts with similar data and his Warren Buffett-inspired approach to A&R.

How did you get into the A&R world? 

[On Crazed Hits] I would post unsigned talent that I liked and ended up finding and featuring the likes of Drake, Imagine Dragons, The Weeknd, Mike Posner, Nicki Minaj and others before they were signed. Crazed Hits turned into a go-to A&R resource, despite me having no previous experience working in the music business. I was able to connect with a lot of prominent executives, like Mike Caren, which led me to A&R positions with Warner Bros. and Capitol Records.

What has it been like to watch Calum Scott's success?

It is very gratifying watching Calum go from an unsigned artist to scoring 19 No. 1 positions with his debut album. Not only is he a fantastic vocalist, but also an extraordinary writer. It was an incredibly moving journey watching him write close to 100 songs and creating this compelling body of work. Many other talented individuals worked on the album, Fraser T. Smith, who produced the bulk of the record, but also Corey Sanders, Jayson Dezuzio, Oak Felder, Ross Golan, Phil Shaouy, Jamie Scott, Oscar Görres and many others. Nate Albert, EVP A&R at Capitol, helped co-A&R the album with me. Nate is a force of nature and best known for signing The Weeknd.

What is your A&R signing philosophy? 

My approach to A&R is heavily data-driven and relies on analytics coupled with a strong intuition. At any given moment, I am more than likely tracking over 100 unsigned artists. I want to continue to be on the lookout for inspiring unsigned talent all over the world, regardless of the platform or country. A hit can come from anywhere and, while that makes it extremely challenging to stay on top of everything, it is also what fills me with so much excitement. 

Who's that one that got away?

Most recently, Alice Merton, who just became the third female artist of the decade (after Lorde and Elle King) to top the U.S. Alternative Songs chart. I spent some time with her in Europe and then had the opportunity to bring her and her fantastic manager Paul Grauwinkel out to L.A. to meet the team. Alice wanted to sign with us. I did all I could do to get a deal done; it just didn't happen and she signed elsewhere. Experiences like that are frustrating but they do come with the territory. The positive is that Alice and I remain friends and she deserves all the success she is currently having.

What are your proudest signings?

At Warner Bros., Passenger (via Nettwerk) and Bebe Rexha, whom I co-signed, were definite highlights. At Capitol, signing Calum Scott and Silento. Calum's "Dancing On My Own" was the best-selling U.K. song in 2016 by a British male solo artist and now the album is showcasing his full potential. Watching Silento's debut single "Watch Me (Whip/Nae Nae)" turn into a phenomenon was unlike anything I had ever seen before. The single ended up going six-times platinum and the music video is currently at 1.4 billion views. Those are moments that are hard to replicate.

How can you compete with a data-driven approach to A&R if everyone has the same data?

It is not about the data but more so how you interpret it and the way in which it is used to guide you through your decision-making process. The data will not make the decisions for you. You have to build a strong circle of competence so that you can make decisions independently. Warren Buffett once said, "You are dealing with a lot of silly people in the marketplace; it is like a great big casino and everyone else is boozing. If you can stick with Pepsi, you should be O.K." I find that to be a genius way to look at things.