In an update to the story below, which was published on Billboard.biz in September, Alex Wilhelm finally revealed the company he's joined: "I've joined Warner Bros. Records as Director of A&R. A big thank you to Mike Caren, Jeff Fenster, Todd Moscowitz and Rob Cavallo." Caren replied on Twitter, "I predict big things for the combo. big ambition/vision + work ethic = huge opportunity."
For many top-level A&R execs in the music industry, a major place to find unsigned talent over the past four years has not been the clubs of Los Angeles or New York, but rather a website run out of a bedroom in a small town in Germany. The site, called Crazed Hits -- which is now on hiatus -- was created by Alex Wilhelm, a music fan then in his early twenties with a whole lot of time and a knack for knowing a hit. And it didn't take long for the American music industry to take notice. Currently Wilhelm has more than 36,000 followers on Twitter -- many of them the top A&R execs in the business.
Following a knee injury that ended a promising soccer career at the age of 15, Wilhelm dove headfirst into music, picking up a guitar, taking internships at local recording studios, and studying books such as David Geffen's "The Operator" and Jac Holzman's "Follow The Music." Scouring the Internet for music for 16 hours per day, Wilhelm began tracking Katy Perry two years before she signed to Capitol Records in 2007, and discovered OneRepublic a full year before Timbaland brought them to Interscope the same year.
"Seeing them get big made me want to create a platform for artists to get exposed," he said. "I didn't really have a grand goal. I was just a kid trying to expose good unsigned and unpublished music."
With that in mind, he launched Crazed Hits on February 2, 2008, posting songs and artists that he found through Myspace and in the depths of the Internet. In its first month, he came across a young songwriter named BC Jean, whom he featured on his site. "I said to her, 'send me all the songs that you have,'" he said. "She sent me 10 songs, and song number six was a song titled 'If I Were A Boy,' and I was like, this is a smash hit. So I posted that song, and a couple months later Beyonce recorded it." The next year Jean signed to Clive Davis' J Records.
A few months after he featured Jean, Wilhelm got a phone call from then-Epic Records president Charlie Walk, who'd heard about the site. "I always used to call him 'the boy in the bubble,'" Walk, now chairman of advertising/branding company JWALK, told Billboard.biz. "What really made [the site] interesting to me was the purity, in a place without any sort of cultural influence in a bedroom outside Berlin. And what came out of that was some sort of global essence, understanding and curating talent or music that could be global."
Walk quickly grew to appreciate Wilhelm's ear for talent. "I was always more intrigued to hear his point of view than having my A&R team hustle me down to the Mercury Lounge to watch artists perform with 50 other A&R's in the midst of a bidding war," he said. "What Alex was doing was very singular but global. So that became very intriguing to me, I thought that was a very smart, sort of futuristic view of A&R."
In Crazed Hits' first year of operation, Wilhelm featured artists such as LMFAO ("people looked at them as a comedy act," he said), Ke$ha, Owl City and Drake, all of them unsigned and with comparatively miniscule followings. The year after, in 2009, he featured tracks by Nicki Minaj, Mike Posner, and Brantley Gilbert, who wrote two songs that eventually became huge hits for Jason Aldean, and who wound up signing to Scott Borchetta's Big Machine Records. By then, the whole industry was watching.
"Coming to the U.S. from Ireland, I understand the level of commitment and self-belief it requires to make an impact in the American music industry," said Universal Music Publishing Group VP of A&R Declan Morrell. "Alex has a pure and unbiased ear for great music and a talent for finding it before anyone else. He somehow created an A&R site that quickly developed into a feeding station for the entire US A&R community."
By 2010, Wilhelm was wading through 100 pitches per day, regularly communicating with A&R heavyweights such as Mercury's David Massey, and then-Elektra chiefs Mike Caren and John Janick, and had received an invitation from the Recording Academy to serve on the Grammy Awards committee member. "His role was just being ambitious and good," said Atlantic Records VP of A&R Steve Robertson. "He kind of raised the bar for independent major label scouting."
Six weeks ago, Wilhelm shuttered Crazed Hits, setting the stage for himself to take a job as an A&R executive at a major label, though he can't reveal which one just yet. The guy that scoured the Internet for 16 hours per day to find the best unsigned artists in the world is finally getting his own record deal.
"As an A&R person all you have is your gut and your instinct and your opinion. I've always took my gut and my instinct, and that's how I ran Crazed Hits, and as long as I do that there's really not a big difference. My job was before to find great songs, to find hit songs before they were recorded and to find hit artists before they were signed. And now, that's still my job. The only difference is that now I get to be able to sign these artists and make records with them."