Golden Ears: Carl Chery Rises at Apple Music, Talks Breaking New Artists with 'The Cosign'

Courtesy Photo
Bryson Tiller and Apple Music’s Carl Chery.

Earlier today (Dec. 1) on Zane Lowe's Beats 1 radio show, Apple Music's head of artist curation Carl Chery premiered two new songs, Kehlani's "Advice" and VanJess' "Touch the Floor" feat. Masego. While Lowe is known for premiering new records from some of his favorite artists, Chery's premieres are part of a new segment called "The Cosign," launched Oct. 21 as part of Lowe's show.

Chery, a former hip-hop journalist who took on the head of artist curation role just this week, has been with Apple since the company's 2014 acquisition of Beats, serving as the head of hip-hop/R&B programming for iTunes and Apple Music. In that time, he's become a major part of Apple's programming team, spearheading alliances with artists like Bryson Tiller -- whose debut album TRAPSOUL arrived early as an Apple Music exclusive last September -- and Chance the Rapper, who released Surf alongside Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment as the first-ever free album on iTunes in 2015 and whose solo project Coloring Book was a two-week Apple Music exclusive in May. Now, with "The Cosign," Chery is stepping out from behind the scenes to put his stamp of approval on, and flex Apple's considerable muscle towards, his favorite new records.

"The objective is to really start a fire and have [a song] chart," Chery says. "Every time I premiere a song, I'm putting all my weight behind it to start some momentum for that song and artist."

So far, it seems Chery's picks are working. Since "The Cosign" first aired in October, songs from relative unknowns, like Buddy's track "Shine" and Daniel Caesar's "Get You" feat. Kali Uchis, have both passed one million streams on Apple Music, with the latter hitting that mark in just two weeks. Chery's first premiere, D.R.A.M. and Erykah Badu's "WiFi," has racked up 1.6 million streams, a particularly satisfying achievement since Chery was the one who connected the two artists in the first place. Add those to his pre-Cosign successes with artists like 6lack (whose song "PRBLMS" soared to a million streams in its first week), Andra Day, Russ and Anderson .Paak, to name a few, and there's little mystery to the foundations of Chery's golden-eared reputation.

"The Cosign" emerged out of a meeting between Lowe, Chery, Apple Music's Jimmy Iovine and Apple senior director (and Chery's boss) David Dorn, with the idea of integrating Chery into the Beats 1 framework. The segment is just one of the resources at Chery's disposal when he gets behind a new song: each track is immediately added to a playlist called "The Cosign," just as Lowe's premieres appear on his World Records playlist, and is also added into the rotation on Apple Radio, as well as being cross-promoted to applicable playlists across the Apple Music ecosystem and placed on the Hot Tracks section of its front page. That is, to put it mildly, a lot of promotion.

With the fresh debuts of Kehlani's "Advice" and VanJess' "Touch the Floor" today and a new Jacob Latimore song called "Love Drug" on deck for next week (which will premiere within Chery's playlist), Billboard spoke to Chery about finding artists, breaking songs and the process that makes "The Cosign" work.

Billboard: How do you decide which artists and songs to feature?

Carl Chery: It's a number of things. I talk to people pretty much every day, whether it's a phone call, email, text, whether it's our label reps, managers, A&Rs, artists themselves. It starts with the music with me: first off, I don't care if it's a single or not, I just have to really love the song and have it reflect what my taste is. The timing also plays into it, but it starts with the music, and also with artists that I want to break. So if this started a year ago, I would have brought in Bryson, or I would have brought in Andra Day. But now, I'm really invested in the artists that I want to break, so that plays into it as well.

How do you discover new artists? Is it all based on these conversations you're having every day?

I don't have as much time as I used to to scour the blogs and be online, but I still do it. And not to be redundant, but after Bryson and Chance, what's happening is that there's a conversation in the industry of, "To start momentum, you should really go to Carl." I really get flooded with people who want me to get behind their artist. So I always have an ever-lasting list of new music to listen to, and I listen to music way ahead; most of the records I've premiered, I've been listening to for a couple months or weeks.

I'll give you an example: the Buddy record, "Shine," which has probably been my biggest premiere to date, it was really casual. We'd been talking to Buddy's manager for months. They sent me the video for "Shine" and I really liked it, then we had Buddy and his manager come into the office, play us a few songs and we really vibed, then a couple weeks later they sent me a link to the entire EP and I really liked it. Once "The Cosign" started I was lining up my premieres and I was like, "Oh, sh-t, I gotta premiere this Buddy song." So it's hard to explain -- it's never the same thing.

Are there any metrics you look at to determine whether a song is really "breaking" or making waves?

Initially, it's 100 percent gut and taste and instinct. There's no metric at all that tells me if I should get behind something or not, it's just me believing in the song and thinking, "Okay, this is something I want to put out there." My goal is to make everything chart, so once I see something on the chart, that's an indicator. 

Let's take 6lack for an example, even though he's pre-"Cosign." 6lack was an artist that had absolutely no following; I may be extreme in saying that, but nobody knew who he was. And within his first week, "PRBLMS" got a million streams. That's a metric. Within the first week, a guy that no one had heard about had the No. 3 song on the R&B charts in the [iTunes] Store, he sold 10,000 copies independently. And then, he was the No. 6 streaming song on the chart. This was back in May.

I always joke that 6lack benefited from an accelerated and advanced Bryson formula, just because I was able to do it quicker. But I was reaching out to all these people, like [Republic's] Charlie Walk or [Atlantic's] Dallas Martin or whoever, and saying, "Have you heard of this guy? I've never seen a song move that fast on Apple Music." And everyone's reaction was the same: "Who is this guy? I've never heard of him, but this song is fire." When I started with 6lack, I put it on one playlist called Mood -- the playlist started with Rihanna's "Needed Me" and then right after that you had 6lack's "PRBLMS," it was the second song. And two days later I was looking at the charts and all of a sudden I see "PRBLMS," it was like No. 69 or something. That was an indicator: if it's just doing that off one playlist, what happens if I put my whole weight behind it?

How long does that relationship last?

If I'm in, I'm in. It's not a one-off. And it's also, for an artist that may not necessarily be working: if I believe in you, I believe in you. Jacob Latimore is another artist that I'm really supporting, and Jake has been putting out music off this album for almost a year. I gave "Remember Me" to [Beats 1 personality and Hot 97 radio host] Ebro [Darden] to premiere, and initially it wasn't working that well. "Remember Me" charted a little bit, but we may have been too ahead of the curve, where the public wasn't ready for it. And it's not like I said, "Jacob's not working, I'm moving on," it was like, "Okay, they're not ready for it, but I really believe in this project." And as it happened, eventually he came out with "The Real" with IshDARR, that charted, and now he just came out with "Mutual" this week, that charted. So finally getting close to a place that we've been working towards for almost a year. 

The goal -- you being from XXL, you understand the feeling of seeing someone at that [XXL Freshman] photo shoot, and then a year later seeing them on stage at the VMAs. [Ed. Note: Both Chery and this writer previously worked, at different times, for XXL Magazine.] There's no better feeling; it's very fulfilling. And in this context, I'm really the one making the decision. Of course I'm collaborative, but I'm the one making the decisions and pushing the buttons. So if I'm in, I'm in.

Who should we be on the lookout for in 2017 then?

Well, I'm gonna plug some of the artists that are on "The Cosign." [Laughs] 6lack is gonna turn into a much bigger story; Daniel Caesar, I met with them in Toronto recently and had a conversation about next steps, and as well as "Get You" is doing on Apple Music, they kept joking that the song might not even make his next project, that's how confident they feel about the music they have. Buddy's project is really dope, I think you've gotta look out for him. VanJess -- I need to hear more music, but everything I've heard is dope. And Alina Baraz; she's someone I've been championing for a couple years now, and I feel like people are still asleep at the wheel when it comes to her. It's successful, but it reminds me of Bryson in terms of something that's getting momentum but most people weren't aware of it. 

And then on a bigger scale, Chance should have a very interesting 2017; I'm actually going to hang out with them in Australia around New Year's Eve and I'm gonna get to see them perform on a different continent across the world. Talking about that feeling -- I don't like picking [favorites], but that's been surreal to see the way that [Chance] has taken off.

The thing that's most fulfilling about Chance is that was the first idea I ever brought into Apple. I called Pat [Corcoran, Chance's manager] and said, "I know you guys don't want to sign, let's meet up and see what we can make happen." So to be two years later in Chicago at his Magnificent Coloring Day Festival and be in their suite, that's what makes it all worth it. Like, "Man, we did it. Mission accomplished."

I remember the first meeting we had when Chance said, "Yeah, I want to do something with you guys, but I want it to be free." And keep in mind that this was my first idea as a programmer at Apple, and you want me to go back and pitch a free album on iTunes? But it worked. Two years later he's arguably the hottest rapper in the game. You could make that argument.

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