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Atom Factory CEO/Founder Troy Carter on Rebranding Meghan Trainor and Why the Tech Industry Gets an F in Racial Diversity

The Culver City office of Atom Factory — equidistant to both Los Angeles' Silicon Beach and the Hollywood haunts of the Sunset Strip — is much like its owner, who famously has one sneakered foot in the world of tech and the other in music. But while Troy Carter, who made his name as Lady Gaga's manager (the two split, somewhat acrimoniously, in 2013 after five years together) and currently ­represents Meghan Trainor, once carried his future-forward ethos as his calling card, the 43-year-old now wants to remind the industry that he "is still committed to being in the music business."

Credit hitmaker Trainor, who, on the heels of her million-selling debut Title and a best new artist win at the Grammy Awards in February, will release her sophomore album, Thank You, on May 13. The company's 18-member team also works on singer-songwriter Charlie Puth and Kendrick Lamar collaborator/jazz saxophonist Kamasi Washington. Atom Factory also is home to a portfolio of ­investments (Uber, Spotify, Lyft and Dropbox to name a few); Pop Water, a healthier alternative to soda; and Smashd Labs, an accelerator program aimed at ­nurturing next-wave tech firms. Carter also is a founding/general ­partner of Cross Culture VC.

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Born and raised in West Philadelphia, Carter first wanted to be a rapper, but after performing for Will Smith and DJ Jazzy Jeff, that dream faded. Instead, he broke into the music business assisting in Jeff's studio and later moved to Los Angeles, working for Smith and James Lassiter's Overbrook Entertainment.In 1999, Carter co-founded management firm Erving Wonder with Julius "J" Erving, son of the ­basketball legend. Eve was their first client. In 2004, Erving Wonder was acquired by Sanctuary Group as a short-lived tentpole of the ­company's urban arm. Carter next signed Gaga, who exploded in 2008 with her debut album The Fame. But on the eve of her fourth album Artpop, he was fired over "creative differences." Atom Factory since has seen departures from clients Miguel and John Mayer, as well as company co-presidents Ty Stiklorius and Erving.

Decorative elements in Carter’s office include a woven basket and a saxophone that once belonged to Bill Clinton, a gift from John Legend
Decorative elements in Carter’s office include a woven basket and a saxophone that once belonged to Bill Clinton, a gift from John Legend. Noah Webb

The married father of three sons and two daughters, Carter, who declined to comment on his split with Gaga, spoke to Billboard as Trainor's "No" was within reach of No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100.

What is the chief strategy in ­rebranding Trainor the second time around?

It's about pulling back layers. When "All About That Bass" became such a big record, people assumed Meghan would be a one-hit wonder. Our strategy from the very beginning was, how do we change that perception? With the first single [from Thank You], "No," she surprised anyone who thought she would come back with more doo-wop. So the first strategic piece was that element of surprise. Skechers was also a big part in launching this campaign. They did an eight-figure ad buy for "No" and the second single that will go through the end of the year.

Wasn't "No" one of the last songs she recorded for the album? How crucial was it to the album's rollout?

As Meghan was turning in the album, "No" was the final song. She ended up putting a couple of new songs on it after "No" was released. We felt we had a lot of great records. But "No" was that sort of ­statement record that [Epic chairman/CEO] Antonio "L.A." Reid was looking for. So she went in the ­studio that evening after she and L.A. had a conversation.

Could "statement record" be ­construed as "more commercial"?

I wouldn't say more commercial. When you look at the music landscape and just where Meghan sits, "All About That Bass" was a statement record. But "No" wasn't an obvious record considering the sound of her first album. Coming back out, it was important to have a record that people weren't going to expect from her. That's what L.A. was pushing for.

Ancient Chinese figurines dot the cabinetry. Carter’s business mantra? “Chop wood and carry water,” he says. “That’s all it boils down to.”
Ancient Chinese figurines dot the cabinetry. Carter’s business mantra? “Chop wood and carry water,” he says. “That’s all it boils down to.” Noah Webb

Having gone through a failed ­management merger with Erving Wonder and Sanctuary, what did you learn from that experience?

There are pros and cons. The downside was a sort of culture clash. There wasn't a lot of planned integration between Erving Wonder and Sanctuary or how this consortium was going to work. That in and of itself is a recipe for failure. On the positive side, I learned a lot about touring. Seeing the Guns N' Roses, Motley Crue and Destiny's Child business at that time opened my eyes to global touring.

Why did Stiklorius and Erving leave?

It's two different circumstances. With Ty, her deal was up with Atom Factory. She wanted to be an entrepreneur and start her own thing. I can only be supportive of that — I've left companies and started my own thing, and I had a lot of people support me in doing that. The same thing with J. Without getting into specific details, he and I have been friends who've gone through marriages, raising each other's kids … everything, you name it. It was important that we separate business from personal and maintain our relationship.

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Between those departures and your push into technology, is ­management still a major component of your ­business moving forward?

I think the perception over the last couple of years was that I was focused on ­technology. That's true; we've invested in probably 100 companies. But it's also important to me that we break artists. Between Meghan, Charlie and Kamasi, we're showing that we're focused on music. Still, it's ­important that we build a ­company of the future versus a ­management company of the past. That doesn't work anymore.

Can you pinpoint what no longer works?

In order for a company to be sustainable, you have to know a lot more about the business than making records and going on the road. Technology is going to play a huge part in tomorrow's music business. And the companies that will win are going to be the most equipped to understand how to use data to further an artist's career.

Although the tones in Carter’s office are mostly black, this invite to Daniel Ek and Ash Pournouri’s Stockholm Symposium, held in June 2015, helps capture the light.
Although the tones in Carter’s office are mostly black, this invite to Daniel Ek and Ash Pournouri’s Stockholm Symposium, held in June 2015, helps capture the light. Noah Webb

What is a prediction you have for the convergence of technology and music?

I don't think holograms are the future in the music industry. There's technology that's better — and much cheaper — which will deployed in the coming years, ­specifically in augmented reality. Looking at what Magic Leap and a few other people are doing in that space will be a lot more ­interesting to consumers. In the future, an artist will be able to perform for the entire world in one date. For the fan, it will be a fully immersive experience — through a pair of glasses or whatever the device.

Racial diversity has been a key ­talking point in many of your ­speeches. How would you grade the technology and music industries in achieving that goal?

I would give technology an F because the numbers don't lie. The number of African-American companies that are funded is pretty abysmal.

Music is one of those businesses in which, if you're talented and hustle hard enough, you can make it — specifically as an entrepreneur. If you look as far back as Berry Gordy, Russell Simmons, Andre Harrell, L.A. Reid and Sean "Diddy" Combs, there's a whole ­lineage of ­successful black entrepreneurs who have built their own companies from scratch. These guys have given us the blueprint to where we didn't have to wait around for handouts. That's the one part in which I definitely give the music ­industry a lot more credit, a C minus, than the tech industry. Once you talk about the ­corporate side of it, the numbers don't lie in terms of the lack of high-ranking African-American males or females, or any sort of minority executives, truly running these companies.

This article was originally published in the May 7 issue of Billboard.