It’s a December morning, and Craig Kallman is caught between cities, and perhaps years, too.
The co-chairman/CEO of Atlantic Records has been busy cultivating 2020 projects, shuttling among Los Angeles (where Portugal. The Man has been recording with Jeff Bhasker), Miami (where Cardi B has been working on the follow-up to Invasion of Privacy) and Atlanta (where a scripted TV series about Aretha Franklin that he’s producing is shooting). “It has been a crazy month,” he says. But right now he’s pushing pause to reflect on the A&R approach that made Atlantic both the industry market-share leader (with 12.57%, according to Nielsen Music) and the No. 1 label on the Billboard 200 in 2019 — not that it’s really over. “We’re doing some touch-up single mixes and edits for Lizzo [and] trying to find one more single for A Boogie [Wit Da Hoodie] and looking at producers for his new album,” he explains.
Lizzo and A Boogie both contributed to Atlantic’s chart dominance this year: His Hoodie SZN rose to No. 1 on the Billboard 200 (and Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums) in January, remaining on the chart for six weeks; her Cuz I Love You peaked at No. 4 and hasn’t left the top 30 since its May release. “We haven’t changed our opinion about the importance of the album, even in a digital, singles-driven era,” says Kallman. “It’s all about connection and fulfilling the voracious desires of fans who are used to direct engagement with the artist through social media. But fundamentally, when it comes to artist development and building culturally significant artists, the album is still a body of work that signifies what they represent.”
Certainly that was the case with Meek Mill’s Championships, which addressed the rapper’s well-documented struggles with the Pennsylvania court system. He teased the album during a conversation at Georgetown University about criminal justice reform. “He was using his platform not only to talk about the music, but also to talk about his experience and what he was battling,” says Atlantic co-chairman/COO Julie Greenwald. Kodak Black took a different route to the top with Dying to Live. “When that little clip of him in the studio with Travis Scott recording ‘Zeze’ was released, it skyrocketed,” says Michael Kyser, Atlantic’s president of black music. “It went triple-platinum off of Instagram.”
After Meek Mill, A Boogie and Kodak Black all hit No. 1 on the Billboard 200, all three pursued what Kyser calls “old grass-roots promotion”: touring. “All these artists put out great music, then hit the road to talk to the fans and touch the consumers,” says Greenwald. “So we can do a lot of tour marketing, get radio stations involved, local fanzines and blogs — just light up the marketplaces as we’re moving around the country.”
Established Atlantic superstar Ed Sheeran also delivered a new album in 2019 — No.6 Collaborations Project debuted at No. 1 and has racked up 1 million album-equivalent units as of Nov. 28. Busy touring the world, Sheeran couldn’t come to the United States to support the project, so he and Atlantic took a digital approach. “Ed did videos for seven of the songs,” says Greenwald. “And he’s so good on social media, doing acoustic versions, lyric videos — a lot of great digital assets to make sure we have all the tools we need to keep marketing and promoting the album.”
But the secret weapon in Atlantic’s 2019 success story may well be an album that arrived two years ago. The soundtrack to The Greatest Showman has amassed 3.2 million album-equivalent units since its late-2017 arrival, and it remained in the top 40 of the Billboard 200 through most of the 2019 chart year. “It has just been a nonstop juggernaut over 2018 and 2019,” says Kallman, who hopes the original Broadway cast recording of Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill will continue the trend. “We’re big believers in the soundtrack and theatrical cast album world, from Hamilton to Dear Evan Hansen to Greatest Showman.” Speaking of secret weapons: The cast recording of Hamilton has spent over four years on the Billboard 200.