Why A&R Needs a History Lesson, by Atlantic Records’ Pete Ganbarg (Guest Column)

Pete Ganbarg Atlantic Records
Jimmy Fontaine

Pete Ganbarg is a two-time Grammy-winner, president of A&R for Atlantic Records and also president of Atco Records. His most recent signing is Gayle, a 17-year-old pop artist from Dallas via Nashville whose debut Atlantic single, “abcdefu,” topped the singles charts in several countries.  His “Rock & Roll High School” podcast, a series of interviews with legends of contemporary music, is available on all DSPs.

I recently asked my A&R department at Atlantic Records to create playlists of the songs that best define them. It was an exercise as much for me as it was for them. There were a few Beatles tracks, an errant Coltrane song, one Dylan’s “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.” But for the most part, it was a lot of Kanye, and that got me thinking. The history of what we call contemporary music arguably begins with the advent of the “rock & roll era” circa 1955. So why did an artist who hadn’t released any music before 2003 receive the most mentions?

I once asked a younger A&R team member to name a song by the classic rock band whose T-shirt he was proudly wearing that day.  He couldn’t.  And when I pressed him on it, his response was, “Pete, you don’t understand. No one my age knows any of this stuff.”  That led me to try to do something about it.  I’ve always believed that you can’t set a path for the future without understanding the past.  So I dusted off my dormant teaching degree from college and started a class for our crew: “This is Chuck Berry. These are the Everly Brothers. Have you ever really heard James Brown?”  And, it turns out they actually wanted to know this stuff. They just never had a real opportunity to learn about it.  We kept going chronologically and attendance started to grow.  When we got up to the current day, there were over 50 Atlantic Records staffers who wanted to know more.

Around that time, I ran into Carmine Appice, world-renowned drummer and a founding member of Vanilla Fudge, one of the first rock bands ever signed by Ahmet Ertegun to Atlantic. I asked him if he’d be up for making an in-person appearance at our class to share stories about his career. Carmine’s appearance was a hit and led to appearances by Clive Davis, Seymour Stein, Peter Yarrow (from Peter, Paul & Mary), Memphis songwriting legend David Porter, Paul Williams, Lamont Dozier, Woodstock’s Michael Lang, and many others. Attendance continued to grow and grow.

When the pandemic hit, Warner Music’s global head of HR asked me if I could continue the program virtually and open up the next set of conversations to more of our staff all over the world.  As we lined up more incredible guests, we figured, why stop there? So we created the “Rock & Roll High School” podcast, which recently kicked off its second season.

Getting to hear the stories behind the music directly from the people who helped create it is truly eye opening. We all know Gloria Gaynor’s iconic vocal performance of “I Will Survive.” But how many of us knew that she actually recorded that vocal while recovering from a traumatic injury and wearing a full-body cast? Talk about life imitating art (or is it the other way around?).

Everyone is familiar with the hits from our latest guest Tommy James, including “I Think We’re Alone Now,” “Crimson & Clover,” and “Mony Mony.” But few know that Tommy James was signed to Morris Levy‘s Roulette Records, which was actually a front for the Genovese crime family.  Everything you would imagine happening with a business deal like that is exactly what happened. Tommy’s story (which he tells in detail in his 2011 memoir, “Me, the Mob, and the Music”) is the music business as Scorsese film.

I love the dichotomy between doing the research to prep for the next interview while also doubling-down on my day job as head of A&R at Atlantic Records.  There’s nothing more schizophrenically awesome than spending a few hours with a new artist still in their teens who’s just exploded overnight on TikTok, and then later that day deep-diving into the intricacies and differences of 2-finger and 3-finger Piedmont blues guitar picking styles with Rock & Roll Hall of Famer and co-founder of Jefferson Airplane (and Hot Tuna), 80-year-old Jorma Kaukonen.

The late music industry icon Joe Smith wrote a seminal book in 1988 called “Off the Record.” It was a collection of interviews he did with the legends of popular music, from Artie Shaw to Jerry Garcia.  In all, Joe conducted 238 hours of interviews, which are now housed in the Library of Congress.

My goal for “Rock & Roll High School” is to continue those conversations.  As the first few generations of contemporary music’s forebears get older, now is the time to make sure their stories are preserved and heard, not only for the next generation of A&R people but for music fans all over the world.  I want fans to hear the stories from those who have played a real part in creating the soundtrack that defines all of our lives.  Yes, even you, Kanye.  Consider this an open invitation.