Atlantic Records' Lanre Gaba Honored as RIAA's Executive of the Year

Lanre Gaba and Abir
Daniel Swartz

The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) honored Lanre Gaba, GM/senior vp urban A&R for Atlantic Records, on Sept. 25, 2019 on Capitol Hill at its first-ever “RIAA Honors” event. Pictured L to R: Lanre Gaba and Abir

The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) honored Atlantic Records GM/senior vp urban A&R Lanre Gaba on Wednesday on Capitol Hill at its first-ever RIAA Honors event. 

Gaba received the RIAA's label executive of the year award for her instrumental role developing legendary artists during her 20-year career in music, including Lizzo and Cardi B, and also for inspiring generations of women in the process. 

Country music superstar Miranda Lambert, House majority leader Steny Hoyer and House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy were also honored at the event for their outstanding contributions to U.S. music community.

Billboard sat down with Gaba before the award ceremony to get her take on the industry and what she looks for in signing a new artist. 

How have you seen the industry change over the years for women and for women of color ?

There have always been women to some degree in the music industry. What is changing is we are seeing women in senior positions. When we talk about inclusion it's not just about checking the boxes of "I have X amount of this person," but actually having those people be put in positions that matter and in positions that can change things. We have more women at our company in senior positions than probably most companies in America. 

A&R is probably one of the last frontiers of old boys clubs. Now that I am a woman in that position leading an A&R department, I am definitely trying to change those things. One of the things, I am hyper focused on is mentoring young women. To be an example to other women and show that you can do this. 

What do you think of this new explosion and climate for female rappers -- Cardi B, Lizzo -- can they maintain the enthusiasm in this typically male dominated genre? 

I think it is about time. I think the landscape, as far as the gatekeepers and the barriers to access that, has changed a lot and it has become a lot more democratized. Twenty years ago, there were a handful of gatekeepers that controlled who got to shine, who got the access, who got their CDs in stores. Now, that it's the people that are deciding. And the fact that we were seeing more female rappers is just an outcome of giving people choices and them saying this is what they want to see. 

For Lizzo, she has been out there for 10 years preforming, what do you think is it about this point in time where she has become so successful?

I think it's a couple of things. It's good old artist development and that takes time. A lot of times we see things and we think "overnight success" but it really does take time. Time to hone their craft, develop a sound and perfect it all. Show by show they are building an audience. Yeah, she is having her moment now and a global phenomenon but we have watched her for the last several years from small venue to small venue build this critical mass and this following. 

You have a young artist here with you today, Abir. Is that the path you recommend for emerging artists starting out?

It's the same thing. She has been making music, getting better as a songwriter, doing more shows, being exposed to more people and that is kind of what it usually takes to get to that level of critical mass. Any major artist that feels now like they are larger than life, I can probably document their path and it's usually years and years of work to get to that place. 

Daniel Swartz
Michele Ballantyne and Lanre Gaba

Speaking of larger than life, how did you discover Cardi B?

It's so funny that my sister is here. She was the one who was telling me about Cardi B on Instagram that was just when she was a stripper. I tuned in one day and thought, "She talks too much," but I couldn't look away. She was so entertaining, engaging, funny and really smart. I thought, "Oh wow there is more to this woman that people thought on the surface." She went on to do a reality show and then started to make music and put out mix tapes. She came to the attention of an A&R at Atlantic, who brought her in. Craig Kallman, chairman and CEO of Atlantic Records, and I met her. A lot of people said we hired her because she was on a reality show, but we hired her in spite of the fact she was on a reality show. For us, we saw an artist who was serious about her craft and had the eye of the tiger and was willing to do he work. She had real ambitions for herself and that really set her apart and made us want to take a chance on her.... I always gravitate towards really strong women with points of view and she was a strong woman with a point of view. Hate it or love it. 

Was it a similar situation with discovering Lizzo?

Lizzo was brought to us with a partnership we have with a producer named Ricky Reed and he started developing her and brought her to our attention. That was early days when we first met her. She had been in a band and was just venturing on her own. It was a very weird mix of rapping, singing, who knew what this was? But she was very charismatic and, again, had a really clear point of view. She had a story to tell and was going to say it her way and I think that is what attracted us to her. 

What do you look for in signing new artists?

There are so many things. Whether that is you have an incredible singing voice, you are a great performer, you are a great songwriter, a good entertainer, but for us it is having something that is special and different about you that we can kind of build off. In this sea of artists, there has to be something about that artist that connects with people on a larger level that makes them special. It's that and it is also work ethic. I have been disappointed by so many artists, who you knew could have gone further, but just didn't have some of the necessary ingredients, the passion, the work ethic and the ambition.... There are so many artists so to be able to rise to the cream of the crop there is so much work that goes into it. You have got to be ready to stick through it. 

Daniel Swartz
Michele Ballantyne, Mitch Glazier and Lanre Gaba