It's no accident that Mike Caren's job titles at Warner Music Group — "president of global A&R" and now "creative officer" — are so vague. The executive takes a holistic approach to A&R, whether collaborating on songwriting and production with artists like Beyoncé ("Ring Off"), Kanye West ("Hell of a Life") and David Guetta ("Where Them Girls At"); signing artists and overseeing their recordings; or helping them get their businesses off the ground under the umbrella of his company, Artist Partners Group.
Caren has inked a new deal that promotes him to WMG's creative officer and provides to APG a multimillion-dollar investment from Atlantic Records and WMG that will enable the company to grow its signings, its staff (from 12 to 20 by the end of 2016) and its studios (which will soon relocate to a new complex in West Hollywood), with all of its releases distributed by Atlantic and published through Warner/Chappell. APG, which grew from Caren's Artist Publishing Group in 2013, essentially acts as a supercharged label-services division for artist imprints like rapper Kevin Gates' Bread Winners Association (whose Islah album debuted at No. 2 on the Feb. 20 Billboard 200), R&B singer Kehlani's Tsunami Mob (which released her Grammy Award-nominated You Should Be Here), a forthcoming venture from Charlie Puth (whose Nine Track Mind is at No. 6 on the Billboard 200) and more to come.
It's the latest progression in Caren's history with WMG, which began when he joined Atlantic in 1996 at age 17 and continued as he rose to become co-president of Elektra Records, where he worked with Ed Sheeran and Bruno Mars. Billboard caught up with the 38-year-old married father of two to find out how he makes it all work.
What can you say about APG's business model? We try to empower artists — to help execute their creative and entrepreneurial visions, which is what we've started with Charlie, Kevin and Kehlani. But it's really just the beginning. We also look at ourselves as sort of an indie-major. We have Atlantic as our partner and all of its resources, but we also have [our own] team, which includes marketing, sync, business development and legal. We approach the artist and his or her brand in a different way because we have no [parent] company to promote.
So you're intentionally operating under the radar? That's sort of the concept: Our artists' labels — their companies — are at the forefront. I'm basically loaning them my staff and their expertise, like some venture firms do, to be able to expedite their early plans and get their companies growing. We want to pass along all the best practices so that the smart ones will be making great decisions. Down the road, we'll be learning from them.
What brought about the idea for the company? I'm a big record collector and … the feeling of seeing the logo when you pull a record out of the sleeve, that has all dissipated. I felt the business is missing the infrastructure to create the brands of the future, companies that would be more culturally invested. I wanted to fill a hole I felt was missing in the business.
When do you find the time to make music? Some people play golf or video games. Making the Beyoncé beat was just another sort of fun.