Business

Big Beat Boss Gina Tucci Makes It Crystal Clear: 'I Want Sonic Innovation and I Want Melodies'

Gina Tucci
Winnie Au

“Dance music is global music,” says Tucci, photographed on March 20, 2019 at Big Beat Records in New York. “I don’t really see [domestic vs. global] as a division. If you’re fantastic and doing something really special, we’re probably going to sign you.”

The head of Atlantic's electronic/dance music label -- home to Galantis, Chromeo and Rudimental -- on signing artists who keep dancefloors full.

When Gina Tucci was 16 years old, her father -- a songwriter, producer and multi-instrumentalist for 1970s/'80s Columbia disco act Gary's Gang -- brought her to a pitch meeting with an A&R executive. Having grown up with a studio in her parents' Long Island home, Tucci had learned how to write and record vocals and produce on a Korg sequencer at a young age. As she watched her father's dance song get ripped apart, she couldn't help but note that her own thoughts on his track weren't far off.

On the train back from the city, a light went on in her head. "I was like, 'Holy shit, that's a job?'" she says now, her feet propped on a chair in an artists lounge at Atlantic Records' midtown Manhattan offices. "That was it for me. That's how I discovered A&R."

Twenty years later, Tucci, 36, is now vp A&R at Atlantic and GM of Big Beat, the Atlantic electronic/dance music label that houses Galantis, Chromeo and Rudimental, among others. But getting there wasn't easy. While attending Hofstra University on a tuba scholarship, she landed an internship in publicity at Elektra Records, after which an executive at Warner Music Group encouraged her to apply for a job in the legal department. She got the gig, but during her first week, in 2004, WMG announced that Elektra would be folded into Atlantic -- and she was told she would be let go. During the transition, Tucci took it upon herself to merge the two labels' legal files -- "I was touching contracts for Sunshine Anderson and Aretha Franklin," she says -- which earned her a spot on Atlantic's legal staff.

After a year and a half, she asked HR about getting into A&R -- and was told to get in line. Instead, she became an assistant in the radio department, then the assistant to Atlantic chairman/CEO Craig Kallman -- and three years later, she brought up A&R again. At the time, Atlantic was trying to break B.o.B, so Kallman told Tucci to find him a hit. She did. Tucci led the team that put together B.o.B's "Airplanes," released in April 2010, which reached No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 and helped establish the rapper's career.

"At that point, Craig was like, 'What do you want to do?'" remembers Tucci. They decided she would resurrect Big Beat, which Kallman had formed in his parents' apartment in 1987. (The label and its roster were absorbed into Atlantic in 1998.) He sent her to London, Amsterdam and Ibiza to study each locale's dancefloors; by that November, the label was back in business. "And literally," says Tucci, "I have no idea what has happened since."

Winnie Au
“We were challenged in wood shop to carve your name with an actual saw,” says Tucci. “I was 10. I’ve kept this ever since.”

During the past nine years, Tucci has built a roster that includes Skrillex, David Guetta and Clean Bandit; helped The Knocks crack alternative radio with "Ride or Die" (featuring Foster the People); and expanded the label from three to 15 full-time employees. Her focus has stayed the same. "I'm the type of person where I just trust my gut," she says. "If I'm wrong, I'm wrong, but if it feels right to me, I really just try to put gasoline on it."

Big Beat started in Kallman's parents' apartment. Does that make you tread more carefully in running the label?

There isn't an hour that goes by where I'm not conscious about trying to maintain the credibility of what Craig built. I always feel that pressure. I know Craig well enough now that when I play him something, he doesn't have to say much. I can just tell by the look on his face whether he approves or not. It's such an amazing catalog that represents fantastic underground club music and the music that reaches a more critical mass. I try to maintain that.

Who are some of the other mentors who have helped you in your career?

Craig has been, and is still, such a mentor in so many ways. And coupled with [Atlantic chairman/COO] Julie [Greenwald], I feel so lucky. My first day at Atlantic, before I was starting my job in legal, Julie was restructuring the company. I had to temp for her one day, and she was pregnant out to here. For a young woman, on their first day at Atlantic Records, to see this woman calling the shots who is pregnant, that's all I knew from that day forward. A woman can have a baby and call the shots. I have peers in the industry who never had that, and are still trying to find it.

Winnie Au
“This is Soleima. She’s a badass from Denmark,”says Tucci. “She’s signed to Big Beat and is a supertalented songwriter.” 

How does the speed of streaming and social media change how you operate?

It's important to constantly release music, for sure. But because there's so much clutter and people are trying to keep up, the quality of the songs sometimes take a hit. I see both sides of it, but lately I'm leaning toward artists creating something that's going to stand the test of time and that 20 years from now my daughters are going to want to spin at a party.

The independent dance scene is booming. How does that affect your business at a major label?

[I grew] up at a label where I've actually witnessed artist development. As an independent, you can get yourself from zero to 60. You should get yourself from zero to 60 -- there's everything available to you. But [going from] 60 to 100, reaching a more critical mass, becoming a global priority, getting that huge campaign -- that's where we come in. If you really look at companies like Atlantic and how many marquee artists we have here, we show our worth. And I really try to mirror that with Big Beat, so that you're looking at our roster thinking, "Not only have they had global hits, but they're headlining festivals." That's the difference.

Winnie Au
“This is one of my dad’s releases on Columbia, and the artwork is amazing,” she says. “It reminds me of my childhood.”

Dance-pop crossovers are more successful than ever. How does that influence who you look to sign or projects you decide to take on?

Balance is everything to me. I want to sign the most sonically innovative underground artists and never put pressure on them to feel like they have to make a pop hit. And then I want to sign the most innovative mainstream dance producer who has a desire to cross over. I want to be signing both. But no matter what, underground or mainstream, I want sonic innovation and I want melodies.

What's the next trend in dance music?

The underground is picking up again. It's steering away from the SoundCloud era of future bass and getting back to underground house music. And I love that, because great songs can be written to those tracks. There's more room to create the next generation of a Robin S.-esque "Show Me Love."

How will you continue to grow Big Beat?

My biggest challenge right now is the types of deals we're signing. Indies can thrive in dance music, so I am finding it challenging to get artists to stay with us for long-term deals. And I don't love that, because it does take time to become a marquee artist. A big goal of mine is to change our roster to be more female. It's pretty male-heavy right now. I've been working diligently to sign more female DJs and singers. I'm really excited about Alicia Keys' efforts to create writing camps for women producers. I'm trying to change our sessions in writing rooms with our artists so that more women are in the room, so it's not just five dudes.

Winnie Au
A hat commemorating the first documentary from Atlantic Films, 808, for which Big Beat did the soundtrack.

There's a big conversation now around ethical and safe behavior in those studios and writing rooms. How does that play into artist deals?

I 100 percent get a temperature on everyone's disposition and behavior before we enter into a deal. And I've passed on really sexy types of deals with big artists because of bad behavior.

How do you discover new talent?

One of the ways I try to maintain our credibility in the dance music space is through a compilation series called Big Beat Ignition, where we choose a city and get that city's sound and find young artists to contribute a track that embodies the sound of their city. Some of the songs from those compilations have broken out and become an underground track. Everyone always says, "What does a Big Beat track sound like?" And the answer is: "What would a DJ play at the peak hour? It's 2:30 a.m. -- what's that song that comes on that everybody's like, 'This is why I'm here'?" That's a Big Beat track.

A version of this article originally appeared in the March 30 issue of Billboard.