Leading Kobalt's Hip-Hop Signing Spree, Al 'Butter' McLean Talks Betting on Atlanta and 'Making Administration Sexy'
The publisher’s liaison to the South on its hip-hop-fueled surge past its competitors.
It might seem brazen to refer to yourself as "the Martin Luther King of publishing." But it does take a level of audaciousness to break into the Atlanta music scene as an outsider. While the city has been a music hub for decades, local creatives have long complained of its less-than-robust music business infrastructure. Artists have had to venture to Los Angeles or New York to do business since the 1990s, when Atlanta labels like So So Def Recordings, which celebrates its 25th anniversary in 2018, had their heyday.
In 2011, Al "Butter" McLean, Kobalt Music's senior vp creative, convinced the publishing company that he should move to Atlanta. As one of the few music executives to plant roots in the city, he reasoned that he could foster a sense of trust among locals who had long grown tired of giving their business to outsiders. Despite his team's apprehension, McLean accurately predicted that hip-hop would become the world's dominant genre, and that Atlanta, boasting such artists as Future and producers like Mike WiLL Made-It, would be its nucleus.
The 49-year-old New York native started at Kobalt as a vice president 13 years ago; prior to that, his roles in the music industry included rapper, producer and intern at Island Records, where he was responsible for sorting through the label's slush pile of demos — one of which belonged to a group called Girl's Tyme, later renamed Destiny's Child.
McLean went on to co-manage Alicia Keys, helping her release huge albums such as 2001's Songs in A Minor, before discovering his passion for publishing. At Kobalt, McLean has signed publishing or administration deals with Jeezy, Noah "40" Shebib and, most recently, Childish Gambino and his creative agency, Wolf + Rothstein.
This fall, as services such as Pandora and Spotify hope to capitalize off growing music business incentives in the city, Kobalt will expand its Atlanta team from a two-person staff comprising McLean and his assistant to about 14 employees, on par with the company's Nashville and Miami offices. "I came down and people expected me to fail because I was a black man in Atlanta with a corporate card [and access to] strip clubs, this and that," he says. So far, so good.
Where did you get the name "Butter"?
Alicia Keys. At the time, [people] called everything "butter," meaning something is good. I was a producer at first, and I came up with some hot things, and she was like, "Yo, that's butter. You always come with it." And then she said, "That's his name. 'Butter.'"
How were you able to convince Kobalt to open an office in Atlanta?
The New York music scene was not as fruitful as it used to be. L.A. was thriving, so they said, "Look, we need one of our senior people to go to L.A." And I was like, "Well, if you want to do urban music, L.A. is a dead zone." What convinced them is when I took the Billboard charts and I looked at the top 20 people on urban, R&B and hip-hop, and I said, "None of [these artists] are from L.A. We're in a job and position to find talent early and then move forward. Half of these people are from Atlanta. Half of these people are from Florida." I kept going to that region. I said, "The sound that all the [pop] acts are doing are trap beats from Atlanta." And they were like, "Oh, shit. You're right. Let's give you a one-year trial."
What was your first big deal when you got here?
The first big [company] that I signed, I think, was Reach Records. A smaller writer that I signed named Torrance [Esmond, also known as] Street Symphony, was the A&R for them. I introduced Kobalt to them and my boss was like, "Why are you signing a gospel company?" I'm like, "This is the way it's going. You don't understand; this is hot." Next thing you know, Lecrae went No. 1 on Billboard's pop, R&B and rap [charts]. [That had] never happened before.
What are the pros and cons of being in Atlanta?
It's stigmatized as just urban. So you got the pro, which is that it's urban. It's poppin'. It's hot. And the con is that it's just urban. Atlanta has to continue to grow in other aspects of music and entertainment for it to be a force.
What percentage of Kobalt's business would you say is hip-hop?
I would say, right now, 80 percent, perhaps 75 percent.
In the second quarter of this year, Kobalt jumped from 11.68 percent to 19.6 percent in market share. How much of that would you credit to hip-hop?
Ninety percent. I would almost say 95 percent since that came out. What people don't realize is that hip-hop has influenced the rest of the [genres], too.
Spotify recently announced plans to let indie artists upload their music directly to the streaming service. What are your thoughts about that?
The problem is, with no filter, there's going to be a million [artists] hoping their song is played once, and it's not going to mean anything unless you have some push or some repetition so that people get used to it. It gives the independent acts an outlet, but it's still an outlet with no strings to grab on to. You need marketing so people know to listen to your stuff [and you can build] a fan base, get on tour and on TV.
What would you consider your biggest accomplishment so far?
Making administration sexy to an entire industry. That whole campaign of "Look, somebody came in and changed the way black people think about their copyrights in music." And opening up the Atlanta office and being successful in it.