In his latest Lefsetz Letter, veteran music industry critic Bob Lefsetz details a lunch meeting he recently had with Mike Caren, a veteran record producer and songwriter who is currently the CEO of Artist Partners Group (a publishing company responsible for the success of Kevin Gates, Charlie Puth, Kehlani and more) and Creative Officer at Warner Music Group, in which Caren details how he finds new acts and why talent, not a social following, is most important.
Per Bob's "Lunch With Mike Caren" newsletter:
Mike finds an act, brings him to the studio for a week and sees if the act has what it takes.
And how does Mike find these acts?
First and foremost you must know he's addicted to YouTube, he reads the comments, to get the flow, it's a data resource nonpareil. You see beatmakers post their work under "(famous name) type beat" for wannabes to rap over and post to Soundcloud. These beatmakers are not worried about getting paid, they just want to get in the game. They're not worried about being ripped off, because if they are, if a hit is based on their work, the labels will come calling, everybody wants to work with a hitmaker. If you're thinking about getting paid first, you're old school.
And Mike doesn't sign a deal with these acts, not right away. It's the opposite of get the manager and the President and the act in a room and no one's leaving until a deal is done. As a matter of fact, most lawyers don't want to broker new artists deals these days, there's just not enough money in it. Attorneys are rarely a source of new acts.
So Mike brings them in, based on their online work, and checks out not only their talent, but their dedication. Do they come early and stay late? Are they willing to learn? If yes, Mike knows it's gonna be two to three years of work before he sees any payoff, and he's wary of betting on the wrong horse. As for a competitor scooping up his talent after he's invested in it, before he's made a deal, Mike's not worried about it. Because if the act feels comfortable with Mike, his writers and his producers, he's not gonna go anywhere else (and, of course, it's not only men, it's women too...)
And Mike laments the fact that too many of today's "artists" focus on socials instead of music. Because it's easier to gain a following, easier to work the public, and it gives you data to quote. But Mike is more interested in the music, he's getting in way early, and then helping you find your way to who you want to be.
I won't pretend to know the inner workings of any of the three major labels, nor would it be fair to assume that every executive and every A&R operates with the same goal in mind, but I can confidently say that Caren's approach to discovering and developing talent in 2017 is more the exception than rule.
Over the past few months, I've had several conversations with multiple label heads and A&Rs at two of the three major labels. The message was fairly consistent across the board: A&Rs are currently looking to sign acts with "culture relevance" (i.e. who people are checking for on Instagram and Twitter and Snapchat). Of course, talent is great and important, but it takes more time and money to develop talent. On the flipside, it's far easier (and cost-effective) to jump on a wave that an artist created and has been riding on their own.
If Mike's setup sounds like the perfect breeding ground to develop talent (he worked with Bruno Mars after his failed deal with Motown and believed in Ed Sheeran when he was busy recording records with rappers), that's because it is. A multi-million dollar investment in APG by Warner has allowed Caren the luxury of taking chances on talented artists who have little or no social currency and patiently waiting until the time (and material) is right.
While not every artist is a candidate for this type of setup (it's much more conducive to singer-songwriters and producers, not rappers), it does provide a great blueprint for future success under the major label umbrella.
Editor's Note: Aaron Bay-Schuck, not Mike Caren, is the A&R who signed Bruno Mars to Atlantic Records. Caren worked with Mars on "Billionaire," a Travie McCoy single, while working at Elektra in 2010. In related news, Bay-Schuck recently left his post president of A&R at Interscope for the top position at Warner Bros.