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Atlantic Records Chiefs Julie Greenwald and Craig Kallman Talk Lizzo, Jack Harlow, Their Big 2022, and What’s Next

Julie Greenwald and Craig Kallman Atlantic Records
Photo: Noa Griffel

Motown in the 1960s? Warner Bros. Records in the 1970s and ‘80s? One has to look back decades to find a record company that has maintained a high level of success and creativity for as long as Atlantic Records under the leadership of Julie Greenwald and Craig Kallman, who took the helm at the company (which celebrated its 75th anniversary this year) in 2004.

Virtually every year, they’ve broken new artists, helped others into successful sophomore albums and launched new eras of their superstars. A look at the past year is as good an example as any: They broke Gayle, assisted Jack Harlow and Lizzo through the second-album challenge, and ushered in new chapters for franchise artists Ed Sheeran, Coldplay and Bruno Mars, via his Silk Sonic project with Anderson .Paak. They also saw major success with Kodak Black, Lil Uzi Vert, Ingrid Andress, A Boogie Wit da Hoodie, Charlie Puth, Wiz Khalifa and more — and a look at the company’s website ranges from legacy artists like Aretha Franklin and Led Zeppelin to dozens of new acts.

They’ve done it with a divide-and-conquer model that has been emulated all across the industry. While both are experienced in multiple areas of the business — Greenwald came up at the hip-hop powerhouse Def Jam Records and then Atlantic; Kallman founded the rap/dance indie Big Beat before joining Atlantic as a VP in 1992 — broadly speaking, he oversees the creation of the music while she markets it and runs the company.

That model will change a bit with Greenwald’s recent elevation to chairman & CEO of the newly created Atlantic Music Group, which also encompasses the 300-Elektra label group forged helmed by their longtime colleague Kevin Liles after the $400 million deal that brought his 300 Entertainment to Atlantic parent company Warner Music. However, she and Kallman will continue to run the label together. “Craig and I are looking at it as the next chapter of Atlantic,” she says. “I’ll just be doing a little bit more with everybody.”

Below are highlights from a long conversation with the pair last month, followed by profiles of the label’s A-Team: eight top Atlantic execs who have played an essential in the company’s success

What was the high point of this year for you?

Kallman: One was definitely the reception for Lizzo and Jack Harlow, because there’s nothing harder than the sophomore album. The industry is littered with stories of how difficult that challenge is, and the odds are against the artist. So to have two artists return bigger and better was great to see.

Greenwald: Especially with Lizzo, we really brought back a global superstar. We launched [the project] with her hosting and performing on “Saturday Night Live,” and then we drove “About Damn Time” not only at radio, but socially — TikTok, Instagram, YouTube, and it became the song of the summer, all of which helped us launch her tour. Lizzo is in that rarefied air, because there’s not that many global superstars anymore.

Kallman: Another success story is Tiesto, he’s actually had the biggest hits he’s ever had, and he’s been leading in dance music for four decades. Also, bringing back Ed Sheeran, who hasn’t toured America for the last five years, with the “=” album and gigantic hits with “Shivers” and “Bad Habits.” He just put up his stadium run, and it sold out — I mean, you do not take it for granted that you have an act that can knock down stadiums. And just last month he performed with Eminem at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame — that was a dream moment for him as a kid, Eminem is one of his heroes. That’s really what we’re here for, is to help our artists do things they’ve always dreamed about.

Greenwald: Like this extraordinary Silk Sonic campaign, giving Bruno the ability to be super creative and create a whole new project with Anderson and have it be a gigantic success. He was very specific about it: “I want to create a new band. I don’t want to be Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak, we are Silk Sonic.” I was like, “You can’t make my life easier?” “No.” (Laughter) But we did it. I think that’s really how Craig and I judge our success — it’s not just based on streams, but it’s how many of our artists are able to tour and keep notching up the buildings they’re knocking down, and how many people are seeing them not only in America, but around the globe.

Craig, how has A&R changed in the last few years?

Kallman: Research has become so important, but you have to really dig deep to find out if there’s an artist behind those songs. There’s so much data now, and you have to mine all the platforms: TikTok, YouTube, Spotify, Apple, Amazon, Shazam, SoundCloud, the list goes on and on, in addition to the old school methods: calling booking agents, promoters, managers, music supervisors, we’re back to having mom and pop retail stores again, and I also have to go through what my A&R staff filters through for me. Technology has made it so much easier to create records that 100,000 songs are being released a day — that’s a real number. So that means you’re competing with 700,000 songs a week, and you need to scour through that to find the needle in the haystack of who’s actually worthwhile to pay attention to. And I’ve also got my artists themselves sending in demos, mixes, rough mixes, mastering for approval, mixes for approval. And that same process happens not just with the artist, but with the songwriter and the producer. There’s an overwhelming volume of incoming stuff. I’ve never had to go through so much music on a weekly basis as I do now.

Do you still trust your gut above all else?

Kallman: Yeah, it’s still the ultimate call for me. But I can’t say that I don’t throw things to research for a gut check.

Is it the same if a lot of people involved are saying a song is great, and you you’re not feeling it? Will you say, okay, maybe they’re hearing something I’m not?

Kallman: Yeah, I mean, you’ve gotta give the artist a shot, right? If the artist feels super strongly, at the end of the day, they’re the ones that ultimately have to live with it.

I went back to an interview you and I did about seven years ago and you said that your and Julie’s criteria for signing an artist was whether or not you could see yourself doing a boxed set with them, years down the road. Is that still the case?

Kallman: I’ll tell you what’s changed — how competitive it is signing artists now that lawyers won’t give us a long enough term to even get to a boxed set. They’re cutting down the number of albums [required per contract]. It’s terrible.

Julie, what are the key ways that breaking a record has changed in the last few years?

Greenwald: I still believe that what hasn’t changed is great music, great art and great performances will cut through — we just have a lot more noise to get past. We’re competing with gaming, video streaming, short, short-form content — you have to grab somebody in 15 seconds. We have to be so committed and unwavering and fight to find the opportunities to expose our artists in all the new ways that kids are using to discover music. So we’ve had to wrap our brains around short-short-short-form, but we’re also not giving up on the fact that a song can be incredible even if it’s three minutes and 45 seconds long. If we believe in it, we’re going to fight the good fight and figure out multiple different ways to get our songs out there — sync, movies, television, performances, and obviously all the social media stuff that we do. We sign artists, we don’t sign songs. I think that’s the difference with Atlantic Records: We fall in love with the artists, and then we go to work. We want to get them to Madison Square Garden — that’s our favorite building. It’s right down the road from us.

How well did you guys know each other when you first started working together in 2004? Obviously you moved in the same circles.

Greenwald: Craig and I were friends socially, we’d see each other out a lot and we were always super cordial. But the truth of the matter was, we were competitors.

Kallman: Yeah, I remember those days well. Going up against Def Jam wasn’t exactly easy, especially with hip-hop.

What do you think makes your partnership so strong?

Greenwald: What is this, “The Newlyweds”? (Laughter) This is the thing. Craig does A&R and that side of the business, and I have the marketing, the promotion, taking care of the staff, and that whole other side, internally and externally. The reason why the partnership works is because we really divide and conquer and support each other, and collaborate when necessary. But we’re super-aware of knowing what the other is really good at, so we trust each other to handle our business, and we don’t second-guess each other. Now, we can challenge each other: “Yo, Craig, is this the single? Do you love the album? Are the mixes done?” He gets under the hood and can really help an artist take a record and improve it — he can talk about the structure and the mixing and all that. Then he’ll say, “The music is done. Go see Julie, and she’ll dream up a fantastic release and promotional plan and campaign for you.” He trusts our process, and we trust his process.

And we know how hard each other’s job is. He knows that the music industry keeps changing every day, I’m constantly is in his office saying, “Hey, this or that doesn’t work anymore.” We’ve got to keep thinking about how we’re going to market and promote in a really honest, authentic way. So he understands how hard my gig is — and I don’t think there’s anything harder than putting your neck out to sign an act and then being responsible for delivering music that we can sink our teeth into, because it’s still art. That’s a tough conversation when you have to tell an artist who has put their sweat and tears into making something, “I’m not sure we’re going to be able to achieve the commercial success you want.” But we get into business to be partners with people, and we say to them, “If you sign with us, we’re going to be honest with you.”

Julie, is your promotion going to change things? On the one hand, it felt like a formalization of the way things probably would have run regardless of titles, but will Atlantic be different?

Greenwald: I always thought I was Craig’s boss, now it’s in writing, right? (Laughter) No, Craig and I are looking at it as the next chapter of Atlantic. We kicked off Elektra [as a stand-alone company], which we’re super excited about because it’s going beautifully, and we’ve partnered with Kevin on helping to grow 300. I’ll just be doing a little bit more with everybody.

Can you talk about what that next chapter of Atlantic is going to look like?

Greenwald: We have a bunch of new artists that we’re super excited about, and we have been promoting a bunch of young executives that we’re super excited about as well. We just made the announcement about Brandon Davis and Jeff Levin [becoming executive vice presidents and co-heads of pop A&R], Lanre Gaba is now the co-president of Black music, and Marsha St. Hubert is the head of marketing for Black music. Brian Dackowski, who’s been with us for 18 years, is now running marketing and analytics and really driving a new part of our business. We have a bunch of people that have been with us for the ride, and it’s their turn to really help us architect this next chapter. it’s exciting for us to help develop and grow artists, and it’s just as exciting to do that with employees, and watch them take the ball and run with it and make decisions and make some mistakes and learn from them, like we all do. [See below for more members of Atlantic’s A-Team of top executives.]

What trends and genres do you see coming in the next couple of years? What’s next?

Kallman: Africa, for one. We’ve had terrific success with Burna Boy and CKay. I couldn’t be more excited about the major-league DJs that we’ve signed from Nigeria and South Africa and other places. The alt-country movement is really exciting as well, the country artists that kind of lean rock and roll. I think the blending of those sounds and styles is going to continue to kind of blur the lines of what you define is country and what you define as rock or alternative. The new Eagles or Jackson Brownes or Bonnie Raitts are going to come out of whatever this is called.

And the other one is harder to define. I think it’s going to come from pop music, but there’s things on the fringe [that are also] in electronic music that are kind of teasing us and flirting with us — things like hyper-pop, we’ve got 100 Gecs and Fred Again who are knocking at the door of doing things differently in electronic music. It’s kind of similar to the way Skrillex came on the scene and was so unique, and kind of pioneered a new sound. I think something is going to break through — I couldn’t say what yet, but it’s there. We just haven’t hit the Nirvana moment yet, but we’re due, and we’re due for that moment in hip-hop as well.

Songs are definitely getting shorter — we’re getting complete songs from artists like Pink Pantheress and Tierra Whack that are 80 seconds long. Do you think that’s going to continue?

Yeah, that’s just naturally happening. On the one hand, I think artists are feeling like they’re getting repeat plays if their songs are shorter — people are just going to keep replaying them. Or, they’re just feeling like, “Hey, I’m OK with 90 seconds, it’s a complete thought to me. I don’t have to do verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus, outro [song structure]. The rules defining song structures are breaking down, and no one’s feeling like they have to conform to the old traditional ways in which one would conventionally construct a song. I definitely see shorter and shorter songs continuing to populate streaming services.

Julie, what do you see coming up next?

Greenwald: For us, we still just have to make great songs that touch people’s emotions. We need great music more than ever, because the world is in such a crazy, funky spot. We definitely have to be smart and embrace new technologies and new ways of marketing, but man, we can’t give up on the fact that great art takes time.

What are the big records you’ve got lined up for next year?

Greenwald: Kelly Clarkson’s coming back, she made an extraordinary album, it’s real music with real players. I’m super excited about you know, the Uzi, FKA Twigs, Tiesto has got a new album. I’m excited about we’re about to just, you know, put out finesse two times a boogie super excited about his new project.

Kallman: We’re gonna have new music from Sia — and Janelle Monae. I just heard her music, it’s a gigantic celebration.

ATLANTIC’S A-TEAM

From creative to administration, Atlantic’s top execs operate a well-oiled hit factory

MICHELE CRANFORD Senior VP, Digital Marketing
Now running the department she joined nearly 15 years ago, Cranford credits her team’s “focus on creating and surfacing compelling multi-format video content” with “working hand in hand with the artists to engage and react.” She says, “We want fans to feel a personal connection, whether it’s a glimpse of Jack Harlow in the studio or Lizzo dancing to ‘About Damn Time’ on her vacation.”

BRIAN DACKOWSKI Executive VP, Viral Marketing and Analytics
Dackowski started at the company not long after Kallman and Greenwald took the helm in 2004. But his role today is a newly created one, which he describes as “identifying viral records moving across the entire roster of Atlantic, and quickly marketing / promoting to capitalize on that activity.” He cites campaigns for Lil Uzi Vert’s “Just Wanna Rock” and Oliver Tree’s “Miss Me” as current successes, as well as the recent rollout for Charlie Puth’s “Charlie.”

LANRE GABA Co-President, Black Music
Gaba cut her teeth in Atlantic’s A&R administration department — “managing projects, negotiating deals, handling budgets and logistics and being the problem-solver and the adult in the room,” she says. In 2022, she was promoted, sharing her title with Michael Kyser, just as releases by Kodak Black, Lizzo, Jack Harlow and Silk Sonic saw massive streams and airplay.

CAMILLE HACKNEY Chief Partnerships Officer
Two different stints in the building — at Warner Music and then Atlantic (which she joined in 1994 and 2004, respectively) — have seen Hackney expand her role exponentially. “As matchmaker to brand partners, it’s the artists who come in bearing a strong sense of self, unapologetic about who they are and what they stand for and against,” she says. “Their music moves the masses, and they’re the ones who enchant and enthrall brand partners.”

MICHAEL KYSER Co-President, Black Music
Kyser, who’s involved in running all aspects of the Black Music department with Lanre Gaba, recalls going down to Atlanta to hear the latest music from the label’s white rapper, Jack Harlow. “Jack played us the whole album, and when he got to ‘First Class’ we knew we had something so special.” In April, the single became Harlow’s first solo No. 1 hit, and the company is looki n g ahead to major releases from A Boogie Wit da Hoodie, Roddy Ricch, Don Toliver and Lil Uzi Vert.

CRAIG ROSEN Exec VP, A&R and Label Operations
For all the glamour of the music business, someone has to ensure the music actually reaches people’s ears, and that’s the process Rosen, a 25-year veteran of the label, supervises. “My team includes A&R administration, release planning and studio operations, which oversees our recording facilities across the country,” he explains. “It’s the work these folks do in the background that allows creatives on both the A&R and marketing sides to focus on great ideas while we handle the finer details.”

PAUL SINCLAIR General Manager/Executive VP
As GM of a massive, 75-year-old house of music, Sinclair wisely keeps his mandate tightly focused: long-term artist development in a world of virality and label innovation through creative marketing and tech. “Gayle, Lizzo, Jack Harlow, Ed Sheeran, Kodak Black … these are some of the absolute best examples of this long-term approach,” he says.

KEVIN WEAVER President, West Coast
Atlantic’s left coast presence and a veteran of music for film, TV and theater, Weaver touches developing artists on the roster (like Sueco and Breland) and also helps the more seasoned acts achieve their visual dreams. To wit: the Lizzo documentary, “Love, Lizzo,” which aired on HBO Max Thanksgiving Day.