Business

Kids Became A&Rs' 'Secret Weapon' In a Work From Home Year

ILLUSTRATION BY MOJO WANG

This year more than ever, executives leaned on their kids for music discovery and confirmation of soon-to-be hits.

Amid the ongoing pandemic, 300 Entertainment senior vp A&R Selim Bouab recalls, he played music by a new signee, Lil XXEL, while working from home soon after his team had closed the deal. To Bouab’s surprise, his oldest son came into the room and said, “That’s my favorite song. How do you know this?”

The 9-year-old had already heard the hip-hop artist’s song “LMK” on TikTok, where he often discovers new music through dance challenges. (“LMK” is tagged to 1.6 million TikTok videos, and an upload from Charli D’Amelio of its viral dance has 4.8 million likes.) Bouab says a similar situation recently unfolded with Jeris Johnson, a genre-hopping 300 signee whose song “damn!” recently hit No. 2 on Billboard’s Rock Digital Song Sales chart.

That kind of discovery has become more apparent — and frequent — out of necessity this year, as A&Rs are spending much less time spotting talent at concerts and festivals, and more time at home learning about fresh TikTok challenges and meeting new talent over Zoom. And for Bouab, whose youngest son is 6, it couldn’t have happened at a better time.

“They’re getting to the age where I’m able to talk about music with my kids and hear that they’re into some of the same stuff that I’m looking at or working with,” he says. “Normally, I’m gone 12 hours of the day, so to really be able to connect with them and know what’s going on [is amazing].”

It’s a sentiment echoed across the music industry, from Travis Barker — whose 17-year-old son introduced the Blink-182 drummer to jxdn on TikTok, leading to the alt-rocker becoming Barker’s first signee on his label, DTA — to Billy Mann, who manages Dixie D’Amelio (Charli’s sister) and credits his 13-year-old daughter with helping him keep his finger on the pulse. “Any executive who has kids and has reached this altitude in their career would be lying if they didn’t say their kids were, in many respects, their greatest A&R source,” he recently told Billboard.

And while Bouab says he’s mostly discreet in polling his kids on their musical tastes — “There have been certain records where they will come to me and say, ‘Hey, I know that,’ or ‘I like that record, play it again,’ and I think I’ll be able to use that more as they grow older,” he says — Big Machine Label Group executive vp A&R Allison Brown Jones questions her teenage son and his friends all the time. “I’m like, ‘What do you like? What are you listening to?’ It was hard when he was younger, and now he’s actually my secret weapon,” she says. “I am 500 times more relevant because of my son. He plays every instrument, he’s on every music platform, and all he cares about is music.”

Looking ahead, Bouab doesn’t plan to stop conferring with his kids, even if and when he returns to an office environment. After all, some of the biggest hits of 2020, from Jason Derulo and Jawsh 685’s “Savage Love” to Doja Cat’s “Say So,” started out as kid-friendly dance challenges — and 2021 will surely contain more. But he says even greater than having his kids confirm a hit in the making is the unexpected time they’ve spent together this year. “This whole quarantine, being so close, you realize what you’re doing it for,” he says. “It’s like, ‘This is what it’s about. This is why we’re all busting our asses.’”

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 19, 2020 issue of Billboard.