While streaming and social media have drastically lowered the barriers to entry for finding, developing and communicating with fans, the path to getting that first meeting with a major label — let alone a deal — remains a black box for many independent artists.
Atlantic Records and label services company Artist Partner Group (APG), both subsidiaries of Warner Music Group, are trying to eliminate this roadblock with the launch today of EMERGE, a nationwide, social media-driven search for exceptional urban pop talent. AEG Presents, Deckstar Artist Management, Deutsch and Spotify will be supporting the search as well as the lucky artists selected, marking the first such cross-sector collaboration in the modern music business.
EMERGE is accepting submissions from pop/R&B artists and musicians between the ages of 13 and 19, who are residents of the U.S. or Canada (excluding Quebec), from today (Oct. 10) through Nov. 12. The submission process is simple: upload a video no longer than five minutes long that includes a 90-second intro, plus a performance of one song of your choice. Atlantic A&R representatives will review every single entry, and may select one or several artists that they think are most deserving of a major-label contract.
In this sense, the search is not a talent competition with a singular winner, and may expand into a more continual, rolling process for all parties involved. Moreover, social media will act not as a quantity-driven search filter, but rather simply as a mechanism for communicating directly with talent — countering the traditional narrative that modern A&R relies more heavily on data and vanity metrics than ever before.
Billboard spoke with Mike Caren, founder/CEO of APG, to learn more about what role EMERGE will play in the modern A&R landscape. An edited version of the conversation follows.
Billboard: How will EMERGE be different from other talent searches?
Mike Caren: Aside from the fact that it’s not a contest, it’s also not a content or entertainment vehicle. It’s really about identifying and nurturing long-term relationships with the best talent. We’re trying to eliminate the need to build up large fan bases to get even a first meeting with a major label. We want to make the same opportunities available truly on the basis of talent. Also, when you submit online, you’re not binding yourself to any sort of 360 deal if you’re selected. The negotiations come much later in the process.
What artists are you trying to cater to who might not benefit from conventional scouting methods?
The tools available on the internet have given a certain advantage to self-starting acts with existing resources or fan bases, and a lot of labels are relying on these resources for their own development. We’re trying to think beyond that — not just relying on the resources that are already there, but also creating new ones for those who don’t necessarily have the proper infrastructure to get discovered. I believe it’s always best to have multiple approaches to A&R, and not to rely on any single process.
Why the 13 to 19 age bracket?
Back in the day, you had acts like Stevie Wonder and the Jackson 5 who were signed and nurtured from an early age. Today, there’s a notable lack of younger talent being signed, and we’re hoping to learn through this process about why that’s the case. There are a lot of theories, whether it’s label consolidation, less emphasis on local scouting or geographic diversification, or excessive attention given to artists who have found massive social media success.
Why do you think this sort of cross-sector collaboration — a label, a management company, a streaming service and a concert promoter all working together — hasn’t happened before?
To be honest, I don’t know why it hasn’t happened before. It does take a lot of work to find like-minded people in other areas of the music business, and I’m excited that all these companies who are genuinely interested and invested in breaking new artists are coming together for this adventure. I find a lot of the projects we’ve worked on at APG haven’t been done before, but should have existed.
What key lessons from leading APG will you bring to EMERGE?
I can’t overstate the importance of truly getting to know an artist before you sign them. The diligence process — taking time to understand an artist’s goals, psychology, work ethic, collaborative spirit and tenacity — is as important as the discovery process. A lot of artists get signed to labels before either party really knows the other well enough. With EMERGE, we hope to open the doors to more people, but also to really get to know the passion and philosophy behind the talent, and to develop much longer-term relationships with that.