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Peter Ganbarg
Peter Ganbarg

Interview: Atlantic/ATCO’s Pete Ganbarg

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This week In the Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc:  Pete Ganbarg, president of A&R, Atlantic Records, & president, ATCO Records.

Pete Ganbarg is a music man.

In time, he will be placed alongside such gifted and admired label executives in music history as Goddard Lieberson, Mitch Miller, John Hammond, Bob Thiele, Norman Granz, Sam Phillips, Ralph Bass, George Martin, Mickie Most, Bert Berns, Seymour Stein, Jac Holzman, Bob Krasnow, Lenny Waronker, and Rick Rubin.

As well as alongside such past Atlantic executives as Ahmet Ertegun, Jerry Wexler, and Jerry Greenberg; and also Charles Koppelman, Marty Bandier, Clive Davis, and Craig Kallman who each contributed to his evolution as an A&R maverick.

Ganbarg is renowned for bringing out the best in artists, songwriters, and producers. He has a legendary ability to identify, and fix musical problems, and a knack for successfully connecting creative people.

Who else but Ganbarg would Atlantic Records tap last year to reactivate its storied ATCO imprint?

ATCO, an abbreviation of Atlantic Corporation, started as a division of Atlantic Records in 1955. Among its leading artists were Bobby Darin, Acker Bilk, Bent Fabric, Ben E. King, Sonny & Cher, Buffalo Springfield, Vanilla Fudge, Cream. and earlier releases by the Beatles (“Ain’t She Sweet”)  the Who, AC/DC, Donny Hathaway, Roxy Music, Genesis, and Pantera.

Following Atlantic’s merger with EastWest Records in 1991, and after briefly operating as ATCO/EastWest Records, ATCO was moth-balled. Rhino Entertainment briefly relaunched the imprint in 2006 with releases by Scarlett Johansson, Keith Sweat, Queensryche, and the New York Dolls before the label went dormant again.

Ganbarg’s first ATCO signing is Philadelphia-based alternative act Zero 9:36 who has over 30 million streams to his credit.

Ganbarg joined Atlantic 12 years ago Among the acts he has signed or A&Red during his label run are Halestorm, Christina Perri, twenty one pilots, Rival Sons, and Theory of a Deadman. More recently, he signed Royal & The Serpent, Reiley, Noa Kirel, and Mia Rodriguez.

Ganbarg is celebrated as well for his canny theatrical and film undertakings, including setting up the original cast recordings of  “Hamilton,” “Dear Evan Hansen,” and, “The Greatest Showman.” He won a Grammy as co-producer on the” Dear Evan Hansen” original cast album, and signed the show’s star, Ben Platt.

After an auspicious start at SBK Records working on the “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” film soundtrack in 1990, and overseeing the SBK recordings of Vanilla Ice, Ganbarg held executive A&R posts at Arista, EMI, and Epic before running his own independent A&R consulting and music publishing company, Pure Tone Music, and working on recordings by Kenny G, Carlos Santana, Kelly Clarkson, Daughtry, Train, Run-D.M.C, Chaka Khan, Aaron Neville, America, and Blessid Union of Souls.

With the COVID-19 pandemic, your job as an A&R executive becomes challenging. You are unable to do face-to-face meetings, go to club showcases nor even invite artists and their managers to the company to interact with Atlantic staff.

You can do everything that you normally do. You just cannot do it in person.

The dynamics of rock music depends largely on a band performing live interacting with an enthusiastic audience. That’s not as evident on film or with streaming.

They can play live for us on Zoom. There’s a group that we are now looking at from out West. They found a hall. They put on a show with amazing sound, amazing lights, and amazing camera work. It was like sitting in a club watching a band, but not leaving your house. One of the things that this pandemic is showing me is that if you have lemons, you figure out how to make lemonade. It might not be the best lemonade that you have ever had. It might not be as good as it was before, but there are still ways that we can show the audience the music. We have a group called Wallows who are starting to take off right now.

(Rock trio the Wallows is based in LA fronted by actor Dylan Minnette of the Netflix series, “13 Reasons Why.” The band recently released the track, “Nobody Gets Me (Like You).”).

While I noticed the Wallows three years ago with their song, “Pleaser” it wasn’t until the release “Pictures of Girls” from their 2018 EP “Spring” that they got  much grassroots traction.

They have done a series of shows from The Roxy that are hard-ticketed shows. that are on your computer.  One thing when you purchase your ticket, and you are watching the band, that you can’t do when you are in-person is—let’s say there are 500 people watching along with you on their computers—is that you can all talk to each other. You are all brought together by a mutual love of this artist. You can make new friends. It used to be, “Hey I’m in line at the bathroom, and you are too; where are you from?” Maybe, you make one or two friends at a club.  Here you can make 500 friends.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, in signing a group, you’d start an 8-12 month social dance cycle with band members, their manager, and their attorney before there’d be a signing. How do you go through all of that today? Part of this process is having group members and their manager meeting the people in the company that are going to be involved with their project. “Feeling the love,” as the saying goes. You can’t do that in a meaningful way, right now. Everybody is adapting, I get it, but it’s still tough.

It is tough, but let’s say pre-pandemic, if I wanted to sign an artist, I’d bring the artist to New York and I’d say, “You are going to meet with me, and you are going to have your day in the office, and you are going to meet everybody. You are going to see what makes Atlantic, Atlantic. We have these artist lounges in New York where we sort of spoke out of. Artists sit there with a coffee or with breakfast and whatever, and different departments come and sit with that artist in-person. In the pandemic, we are doing virtual versions of that. I will do a Zoom with an artist, and with my head of press; my head of digital; my head of marketing; and with my head of radio all sitting in virtual rooms telling the artist about themselves, and hearing about the artist from the artist himself or herself.

Is it as good as…

It’s never as good as being there, but we are adapting. We are making the best of it. And we are signing artists without having met them. I am also recording artists without the artists having met their producers. I have Noa Kirel in Tel Aviv in a socially-distanced studio recording with vocal producer Benjamin Rice who is in L.A., and you would never know that they are not in the same building.

Have you signed acts these past months you didn’t know about before March?

Yes, I have. Right now I am signing an artist from Australia named Mia Rodriguez who just turned 18. She’s been #1 on Triple J (with the track “Psycho”), and she’s really cool. Signed with Michael Chugg and Andrew Stone (their label City Pop Records) in Australia.

(In late 2019, Michael Chugg, and his business partner Andrew Stone launched City Pop Records. Their first signing Mia Rodriguez was brought to their attention by  Mark Muggeridge, Chugg Music’s day-to-day manager, and head of touring. Sydney’s TikTok megastar Rodriguez has over two million followers. Interestingly, 85% of her followers hail from America. Rodriguez is also signed with the company for management.

City Pop Records sits within Chugg Music, the independent management, record label, label services and publishing company established in 2012.)

Well, Mia, inspired by a blend of K Pop, mainstream pop, and hip-hop, became a TikTock phenomenon when her video debut single “Emotion” and its follow-up  “Psycho” went viral.

We just fell in love with her, and Zoomed with her enough times that it felt like we were getting to know her in person. She liked us, we liked her, and we are signing her. Eventually, we will meet.

It’s been fascinating watching a music industry legend like Chuggi (Michael Chugg) transition late in life–he’s now 73—into being a dynamic label head, music publisher, and manager with his signings of Sheppard, Lime Cordiale, Casey Barnes, Avalanche City, and now Mia. All of us growing old gracefully—me 73, you 54—and doing what we love.

What is an old A&R guy, an old promoter, and old radio guy going to do, eh? I’m not qualified to do anything else. There is a lot to say about youth in the music business, but you can’t beat experience. The fact that we are still here, and we are still doing it, we learned a thing or two along the way. Something that I try to teach my young ‘uns is, “Hey man, about 100 feet to the left, you can’t see it, but you are about to step in a massive pothole.” And I have the scars from when I did it 20 years ago. “Take my advice, veer right.”

Being older, as we are, we now need the eyes and ears of younger peers to navigate what’s happening out there. They have an A&R radar that you and I can’t touch.

Correct. 100%.

As you did two decades ago for Clive Davis at Arista?

Mmmm, yeah. When I worked for Clive I was 30. I am hiring kids now who are 18 and 19-years-old because I know that they know shit that I don’t know.

Your first ATCO signing is Philadelphia-based Zero 9:36 (aka Zero or Matthew Cullen) who was brought to your attention by Prim8 Music’s Amit Krispin who also manages grandson (Jordan Benjamin), an act you signed to Fueled by Ramen in 2018.

Zero 9:36 has had over 30 million streams since his “Paradise Campground” mixtape dropped in 2016. His inclusion on Futuristic’s “As Seen on the Internet” tour, alongside Futuristic, MoGul, and DJ Kode Break and Beez, greatly raised his profile. Then on ATCO, he has released the tracks  “Leave the Light On,” and “Aim Steady,” as well the EP, “You Will Not Be Saved,” last year. And now there are over 10 million streams for his recent track, “WWYDF” (shorthand for “What Would You Die For?.”

Incorporating elements of electronic and industrial music, alternative rock, and metal, I feel that Zero 9:36 is a stone-cold genius. I get the same vibe from him as I did when I heard Prince’s third album “Dirty Mind” in 1980.

I hope you are right. Yeah, he’s terrific, and we have some really great stuff coming from him. Amit is somebody I met through grandson, and we realized that we work well together. So he brought me Zero, and I said, “I am starting ATCO. and I’d like to put Zero on ATCO.” And he was down with it. Then he brought me another artist that I signed, a pop artist from Israel, Noa Kirel, who is the biggest pop star in Israel. She’s 19-years-old. She’s as big as it gets over there.

I recall her winning the MTV Europe Music Awards for best Israeli act, and I know her track “Million Dollar” (featuring Shahar Saul) which recently reached #1 in Israel as did “Ambulance,” her joint duet with her boyfriend Mergui.

Our goal now is to make her a global pop star. Amit is my partner in that deal too.

You have been at Atlantic since 2008, now longer than at any other label.

Yes going on my 12th year.

In 2008, producer Howard Benson recommended you to Craig Kallman (Chairman and CEO of the Atlantic Record Group) to A&R Halestorm’s debut album described by the band’s lead singer and rhythm guitarist Lzzy Hale as, “We lived through a fire, a mudslide, an earthquake and 19 months in Burbank, California to make sure our debut album was released.”

Afterward, Craig asked you to run Atlantic A&R dept. While you told him you were interested, you also emphasized that you had to complete four outside album projects: David Cook, Kelly Clarkson, Daughtry, and Train. Why did the offer from Craig appeal to you?

What I really appreciate about Craig is that, unlike my experience at Sony, at Epic, Craig is an A&R guy, and Atlantic is an A&R-driven label. As an A&R person, I realized, learning the hard way, that you want to work with people who understand what A&R is. The only people who really understand what A&R is are other A&R people. That’s why I had success with Clive Davis. That’s why I’ve been 12 years with Craig because we understand each other. When I brought in the idea of “Hamilton,” which any sane logical person would have said, “That is the worst “elevator pitch” that I have ever heard. Get the hell out of here,” Craig got it in two seconds. “We should absolutely do that.” Because part of being an A&R person is being a dreamer. You have to be able to shut your eyes and imagine the act that is showcasing for you in front of three people including the barman, headlining Madison Square Garden. You have to be a dreamer. The only people that are dreamers are the A&R people. Craig has been the greatest boss over the past 12 years because he lets me do what I want to do; and if I do it well, then I keep going. If I don’t do it well, I don’t get to do it anymore. We have a rhythm on how we communicate that I don’t think that you can have unless it’s A&R to A&R.

In March, when you were announced as ATCO’s president while retaining your position as president of A&R for Atlantic Records, the company also promoted  Brandon Davis and Jeff Levin to senior VP, A&R, and Riggs Morales to senior VP, A&R, and artist development at Atlantic.

Both Brandon and Jeff report to you from Los Angeles; and Riggs reports to Craig in New York.

(Brandon Davis has been with Atlantic for 9 years, having joined the company as an A&R assistant. He helped sign and develop Lizzo. Jeff Levin, who joined Atlantic in 2010, signed Melanie Martinez and Oliver Tree and worked with Warner Chappell Music to sign Logic to a global publishing deal.

What importance are Brandon and Jeff to your A&R team?

Very, very important. I treat executive development the same way that Atlantic treats artist development. I think that it is very important for A&R people like myself and Craig, who have been doing it (A&R) for a while, to be able to find young executive talent who may not even know what A&R is but show an inclination and an ear.

You’ve known Jeff since he was 16?

Correct. When I met Jeff he was in high school and I had my own A&R consulting business, Pure Tone Music. We met through an odd circumstance. He ended up literally on the doorstep of my house when he was a junior in high school. He said “Hello,” and I said, “Oh, you are an A&R guy.” And he said, “What’s that?” I said, “Tomorrow after school, you are going to come over here, and I am going to start teaching you what A&R is. This is going to be your afterschool activity starting tomorrow.” So Jeff would listen in on my phone calls to Clive Davis, and my other clients, and then he began to understand how to use his ear. When I got to Atlantic a few years later, I said to Craig, “There’s a kid that I want to bring with me. And that was Jeff. And he’s been with me ever since. He’s just turned 31. So 15 years.

I know Brandon because he had worked for you as an assistant.

Yeah, Brandon also started as an intern. He came as a referral from (manager) Bill Silva. Both of these guys did really well in college. Brandon was at SUNY Buffalo and he had booked Jason Mraz, and Bill was so impressed with Brandon that he called and said, “You have to find room for this guy as an intern because he impressed the hell out of me.” So we did. He started interning and then he became my assistant. Ultimately, both Brandon and Jeff are now in senior A&R positions, and I am very proud of both of them.

Another key component of the A&R team is Gina Tucci, GM of Big Beat Records, and VP of A&R for Atlantic Records.

Of course. When I got to Atlantic and I was interviewing for my job with Craig, Gina was Craig’s assistant. So I used to talk to her before I talked to him. She is also someone we are very proud of; her growth, and her blossoming as an A&R person. She runs Big Beat which is a label very close to Craig’s heart, obviously.

(Craig Kallman launched Big Beat with the 1987 single, “Join Hands” by Taravhonty. His second release, “The Party” by Kraze turned into a club smash, selling over 300,000 units. In the late ’80s, Big Beat was a significant imprint with hits by Robin S., Jomanda, Tara Kemp, Bucketheads, Artifacts, Double XX Posse, Dawn Penn, Inner Circle, Changing Faces, and Quad City DJ’s. When Big Beat was acquired by Atlantic in 1991, Kallman joined the company as VP/Assistant to then co-chairman, Doug Morris.)

Gina reports to both Craig and I.

(Gina Tucci’s first job in the music business was as an intern at Warner Music. She was a legal assistant, then a radio assistant, and then came to work for Craig Kallman as his assistant for three years. Her first big hit as an A&R executive was B.o.B.’s “Airplanes” that climbed to #2 on Billboard’s Hot 100. Tucci oversaw the re-launch of Big Beat in 2010 with signings including Skrillex, Hercules & Love Affair, David Guetta, Galantis, Clean Bandit, Rebuk, Cloonee, and Cerrone.)

Riggs Morales joined Atlantic in 2014 after being the VP of A&R at Eminem’s Shady Records where he worked with Eminem, 50 Cent, Wiz Khalifa, and Janelle Monae. Previously, he had worked as a music journalist for The Fader, Vibe, and The Source, where he was a music editor. He reports to Craig?

Yes, Riggs reports to Craig, and we have a very close working relationship. Riggs was integral in one of my biggest successes over the past 10 years which is “Hamilton” (the Original Broadway Cast Recording of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical “Hamilton.”) That was a deal that I brought in, but I couldn’t close. I needed help. As much as I thought that Lin and I connected because we had known each other for a while, and we had gone to the same college (Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut) and we had a lot of mutual acquaintances, I am still a very different person than he is. I am a lot older than he is. I realized we had somebody at Atlantic on the A&R staff who was very, very similar to Lin, and that was Riggs.

It was almost like a coach of a basketball team seeing a player on the bench, and saying, “Suit up, I need you.”

We were playing chess against a bunch of other companies to get “Hamilton.” Remember with “Hamilton,” it was the worst “elevator pitch” in the world. Before its success, everybody thought it was doomed to fail. A 3 ½ hour musical about the history of the American Revolution, and the beginning of states’ rights, and the federal bank, all set to hip-hop, and with the founding fathers.

You first saw “Hamilton” at an advance reading at the Public Theater before it opened off-Broadway.

The soul of “Hamilton” is hip-hop. There are shout-outs to Mobb Deep, Eminem, DMX, and Biggie Smalls. At the advance reading, you were impressed when you realized there was an interpolation of a lyric from “Pirates of Penzance.” When George Washington introduces himself, he says he is, “The model of a modern major general/ the venerated Virginian veteran whose men are all/ Lining up, to put me on a pedestal” which you noticed as being an improvement on Gilbert and Sullivan’s patter song from “The Pirates of Penzance.” You later caught a line that was an interpolation of a Mobb Deep rap lyric, and that also greatly impressed you.

Despite your enthusiasm,  you weren’t able to close a deal for a cast album?

I still couldn’t close. We were there first, but then two other labels came in and both had something that we didn’t have. They had a hip-hop co-sign attached. It was very important to Lin to have a hip-hop co-sign. When I called Riggs, and brought him up to speed on what it was, like Craig he got it immediately. He said, “I totally get this.” I said, “We are not going to get this unless we are able to checkmate—in this game of chess—these two other labels who have got the hip-hop co-signs already. He said, “I’m going to call the Roots.” And I’m like, “Dude, if you get the Roots, it’s checkmate. It’s game over.”

And Riggs brought in the Roots.

Yes, and to this day Lin and Riggs are as close as two people can be. So sometimes being a good executive is realizing when you need help.

(Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton” musical has become an international sensation over the past five years, sweeping the 2016 Tony Awards and drawing top dollar for tickets.)

When New York City shut down on March 12th, its theaters were gearing up for a busy spring season. While the COVID-19 pandemic made in-person performances impossible, streamed theater– Zoom plays, Instagram monologues, YouTube shorts, and other hybrids–blossomed. Still, there’s a vacuum. Someone recently said that New York won’t really reopen until Broadway reopens which I think is true. New York City is one of the greatest cities in the world, but its heart is the Great White Way where most Broadway theaters are located.

It must sadden you today to walk through the area bounded by West 40th Street on the south, West 54th Street on the north, Sixth Avenue on the east, and Eighth Avenue on the west. It’s so quiet.

It’s sad. It is kind of without parallel because the last time that something like this happened was 100 years ago. It’s sad. It’s very sad especially in getting to know the people behind the curtains having done a lot of the Broadway albums over the past few years now it’s very sad.

Has overseeing such musical recordings as “Hamilton,” “Dear Evan Hansen,” “Mean Girls,” and “Jagged Little Pill,” been an adjustment for you? It’s one thing to hang at Paddy Reilly’s Music Bar on Second Avenue (corner of 29th)–the home of live Irish music in New York City–in order to sign Black 47 to, jumping forward, securing clearances for original cast albums. You also had a jukebox show in London’s West End this year, “& Juliet.”

Yes, with Max Martin.

Amidst UK theatre closures due to coronavirus, many shows there have either rescheduled their runs or extended their booking periods. “& Juliet” will go on once the pandemic is over or deemed safe.

(“& Juliet” features music and lyrics by Max Martin and various artists plus a book by David West Read. Based on the original play “Romeo & Juliet” by William Shakespeare this is an unofficial sequel to the tale of young star-crossed lovers. What would have happened if Juliet Capulet never picked up the bloody dagger? What if she had left Romeo and got on with life?)

It’s Juliet’s story. So it’s called “& Juliet,” and it features Max’s catalog. It’s fantastic.

You got to work with my friend Alanis Morissette who transformed herself from being a Canadian teenaged pop idol into one of the biggest-selling musical artists in history on the strength of her 1995 Maverick Record debut “Jagged Little Pill” which has sold over 30 million albums worldwide. Despite the inclusion of her original confessional songs, “You Oughta Know,” “Hand In My Pocket,” “Ironic” and “You Learn,” and from her catalog, Atlantic has struggled in selling the “Jagged Little Pill” original cast album.

(The musical) “Jagged” was fun, but the album hasn’t done as well as some of the other ones. You still learn every day, especially in an evolving industry. I realized that 30 years in.  It used to be that you could do a jukebox musical, and you could sell CDs from the cast recording the same way you could sell (artist) CDs. Like (the 2005 jukebox musical) “Jersey Boys” sold platinum, and it was the same songs that you could get on any Four Seasons’ record. Now with the ease of streaming, where everyone has access to every song ever recorded, basically, why would you go and listen to “Jersey Boys” when you can listen to the original Four Seasons’ songs? So we’ve struggled a bit with selling “Jagged Little Pill” in the volume that we sold “Hamilton” because “Hamilton” is all original. “Dear Evan Hansen” is all original. “Mean Girls” is all original. I think what is happening is that people were seeing “Jagged Little Pill” and thinking, “Oh my God, I love that Alanis record, let me listen to it.”

Let me listen to the original.


What were the demographics for “Hamilton.”

It ultimately ended up being everybody, but in the beginning, it was what they call “the blue-haired ladies set” who go to the matinees, and some of the downtown hip-hop kids coming after hearing about the Roots’ association with the show, and seeing it downtown Off-Broadway. It was always this very weird amalgam of odd bedfellows.

Nevertheless, still a transitional jump for you coming from a club and concert background, working one-on-one with artists, and then working with ensemble casts with Broadway’s theatrical world?

I enjoy creative problem-solving. I have never been a genre-specific A&R person. It has always been music as music. Give me a project, and I’ll figure it out. If it means that I am flexing different muscles out of the side of my brain, all the better. I remember when I worked for Clive (Davis) as a consultant. He called me one day, and he said, “Would you be interested in A&Ring a Kenny G record?” I was like, “Sure. Why not?” Kenny G was coming off millions and millions of sales. The opportunity to put vocalists with his horn. “Yeah, great.” So that gets me as excited as any type of creative jigsaw puzzle you are putting together. When I did that record I called Gladys Knight, and I got Barbra Streisand, and I got Earth, Wind & Fire. Who wouldn’t want to do that?

(“ At Last… The Duets Album,” by saxophonist Kenny G, was released by Arista Records in 2004, and featured Lee Ann Rimes, Yolanda Adams, Chaka Khan, David Sanborn, Gladys Knight, Richard Marx, Earth, Wind & Fire, Burt Bacharach, David Benoit, and Barbra Streisand. The album reached #1 on Billboard’s Contemporary Jazz chart, #21 on its Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart, and #40 on the Billboard 200.)

Ironically, you had not followed Clive Davis to J Records when he was ousted from Arista in 2000.

Probably the biggest single mistake that I made in my career.

Did Clive see it as a betrayal at the time?

He never said to me that it felt like I betrayed him. But I look back on my life, and that was a major mistake that I made. The reason that I made it was because remember at Arista, I was the architect of the (1999) Santana album “Supernatural,” which sold over 30 million albums worldwide. I didn’t sign him, Clive signed him. Clive had the genius to know, “Okay, we could make this guy a hit (act) again,” but he didn’t know the record to make, and I took it on as a project. I figured it out, and with Clive’s help, we did the record. Clive is credited as the album’s producer. He won the Grammy and deserves all of the accolades on that project as well as everything else he’s done. But 30 million albums. I didn’t have royalties on that record. I didn’t have an A&R point plan. I got a nice little check, “Thanks Pete.” It wasn’t a lot of money.

If I knew then what I know now, I would have done things differently. Back then what do you do? You have a hot record. So you hire an executive manager, and you have all of the high-powered lawyers. I had Joel Katz and, ironically, Fred Davis (Clive’s son), and Stephen Moir as my team after Arista and while at Epic. What I didn’t realize is that a bunch of these (lawyer) guys work on commission. So they know that Clive is not going to pay me (at the new company) what other people will pay me. They are going to encourage me to make the most amount of money because if I make the most amount of money they can make the most amount of money. There’s nothing bad about that. It is just a certain philosophy. As you get older, you do realize money is not the most important thing. That you can take less money now for more happiness and more success in the future. So I rebuffed Clive after being approached by his second in command at Arista. I went back to my lawyers, and they said, “Don’t do it.” Probably the biggest mistake that I’ve ever made.

What I should have done, what I should have said is, “I just had the biggest success of my career, and it’s because of this guy who hired me, and who had given me a chance. Clive. I should stick with him because we have a good thing going.” And I didn’t do that.

Epic wasn’t the best fit for you, although you did introduce your friends (songwriter/producer) John Shanks and songwriter Kara DioGuardi to each other resulting in the two of them quickly becoming a great hit-making team with a string of 2004 releases: Ashlee Simpson’s “Autobiography,” Kelly Clarkson’s “Breakaway,” and “Anastacia,” the third studio album by Anastacia.

When Polly Anthony was fired as Epic’s president in 2003 and returned to California to become president of Dreamworks Records, a lot of her people at Epic also departed Epic including you.

I was hired there by Polly who was a wonderful woman, bless her, and I did A&R for Polly for a few years. But then there was a coup inside of Sony corporate, and Tommy Mottola (chairman & CEO of Sony Music Entertainment) was out, Polly was out, and all of these people were out. If anybody was aligned with them, they were thrown out too, and that’s what happened to me.

in 2003, after being bounced from Epic Records, you launched Pure Tone Music. You were about to embark on a nationwide talent tour when Clive calls and throws you a rescue line of A&Ring the Kenny G album. In doing so you had a reason to contact all of the major  labels, and say, “I’m interested in one of your artists recording with Kenny G. What do you think?”

Oh, 100%, and especially early on, I used Clive’s name liberally because having gotten thrown out of Epic, I wasn’t on the tip of people’s tongues as I once was.

In launching Pure Tone Music, you decided on doing a tour of America to refresh your creative batteries. You hired a publicist, and you visited a bunch of cities seeking new talent. Did that creative expedition recharge you?

Oh my God, yeah. The problem with Epic was it was after I had been working with Clive at Arista. Clive is an A&R man’s A&R man, and Arista was an A&R driven company. I went to Sony/Epic to work. Polly was a promotion person, and a promotion person running a record company, they are going to look at (A&R) a different way. So that was not my favorite stop along my job highway. It just didn’t feel right to be there coming from working with Clive. So when I left, when I got thrown out after Polly left, I had to figure out, “How do I start liking music again?” Because my soul was a little bruised coming out of the Sony experience. The way that I got back was going around the country and renting out a club for half a day in each city. Detroit, Minneapolis, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and places like that; and having artists come in, and perform three songs for me, having scouted them online with the help of this publicist. It was great because it was like getting my groove back, and learning why I loved music in the first place. A funny thing happened to me on my way to my first city, Minneapolis. Clive called, and said, “Can you stop by on your way to the airport?”

To talk to you about A&Ring Kenny G’s “ At Last… The Duets Album.”

That is when I became an A&R consultant.

With its success, you started getting calls from other labels to do the same thing for them. You worked as an A&R “gun for hire” for Warner Brothers, Capitol, and Atlantic. Clive Davis introduced you to Simon Fuller and Iain Pirie at 19 Entertainment, and you A&Red 7 albums for the “American Idol” franchise, including recordings by Daughtry, Kelly Clarkson, Taylor Hicks, David Cook, and Blake Lewis.

Those were all of the “American Idols” that Clive gave to me. I also did Santana, again for Clive, and another Kenny G with Clive. I didn’t work for Clive as a full-time employee. I was a consultant. I was able to work for other people as well. A bunch of friends had all ended up at Sony/BMG Strategic Marketing after Sony had merged with BMG. They called me, and they said, “We want to start a frontline label. We don’t have any A&R people. Can you be our A&R staff?” I was like, “Sure what do you want to do?” They said, “We want to sign heritage acts, but we don’t know where to start, who to sign, where to go.” I said, “No problem.” They then said, “Can you make a list of all heritage acts who are available to sign?” I send them a list of 100 acts and the guy who ran it, (Sony executive VP) Joe DiMuro calls me and says, “Can you find these people?” I said, “Yeah, who do you want?” He said, “I want all of them.” So I ended up signing Chaka Khan, Donna Summer, Aaron Neville, and America. I signed them. I made their records  and Sony/BMG Strategic Marketing marketed them (through Burgundy Records, a subsidiary of Sony Music Entertainment).

How did the albums fare?

My Chaka Khan record (“Funk This” in 2007) won two Grammys. My Donna Summer record (“Crayons” in 2008) was the last studio record that she ever made. My America record ((“Here & Now” in 2007) was done with producer/musician Adam Schlesinger, rest in peace—(a founding member of  Fountains of Wayne, Ivy, and Tinted Windows who died of COVID-19-related complications April 1st, 2020)–who I ran into one day. He said, “I’m going to write with (founding America member) Gerry Beckley. “I said, If that turns into an album I want to do it.” I was able to do a lot of fun things that I couldn’t do necessarily if I was pinned down to one place.

I love the story you tell of working with Clive on a 2009 album for Kelly Clarkson. You sent him a song co-written by Kelly and Ryan Tedder that you thought would be perfect for the project. When he called you after he received it, you thought he was calling to congratulate you. Instead, he reamed you out, “Have you read these lyrics? Don’t you see the problem in this song?” You then change maybe 6 or 7 words, and it became the smash hit, ‘Already Gone,” one of the musical and lyrical highlights of her “All I Ever Wanted” album.

That’s a great story. I love Clive. Clive is probably my single favorite human in the history of the music business. Not only because he threw me a lifeline a bunch of times, but just because he’s got a great heart that a lot of people might not know about. He’s just a really really special guy, apart from being one of the greats of all time.

When Clive hired you in 1999 to be senior director of A&R at Arista, as you mentioned, the first artist you worked with was Carlos Santana. Clive had signed him 30 years earlier at Columbia Records, but Carlos had not had a top-selling album in years. Is it true that the breakout hit “Smooth” from the album “Supernatural” almost never got made? That Carlos didn’t like the song, co-written by Itaal Shur and Rob Thomas, and it was the last song added to the album? It’s such a jackpot song.

Carlos didn’t. Clive did. I thought that it was going to be the other way around.

You were at Arista only 6 weeks when you sent Clive a Manifesto, detailing an album concept of artists collaborating with Carlos, one ultimately including Rob Thomas of Matchbox Twenty, Wyclef Jean, and The Product G&B, plus what led to appearances by Dave Matthews, Eric Clapton, Everlast, Lauryn Hill & CeeLo Green, and Eagle-Eye Cherry. 

I don’t think that Clive ever read the Manifesto.  That was a crucial moment for me because it was like, “Do I wait for my new boss, the esteemed head of the company, to get back to me,” or once I realized that he wasn’t, “Do I just do it because I am hired, and let me try it, and if he wants me to stop, he will tell me to stop?” I called Santana’s manager, and I introduced myself. He was like, “Oh, cool, you are someone from the label who gives a shit about our project. What do you want to do?” So that is kind of how it started. Clive never told me to stop. When I brought him “Smooth” it was after, jeez like after 15 rewrites, 17 demos, and I’m nervous as all get up to present this to Clive because Clive hates everything. His bar is so ridiculously high.

“Smooth” was birthed in your office at Arista?

Yeah, and that was about nerves. It was almost like a test tube experiment in my little laboratory without a window at 6 West 57th Street (Arista’s 10 office floor headquarters next door to the Crown Building). Finally, I come out, and I am going to play it for Clive. This is a song where I threw out the lyric. I played it for Evan Lamberg (then senior creative executive at EMI Music Publishing) and he suggested that Rob Thomas write a lyric to Itaal Shur’s track. Finally, I get it to a place where I am ready to present it to Clive. I go in. It’s a 3 ½ minute demo, and I am holding my breath for 3 ½ minutes. At the end, I exhale, and Clive says, “I love it.”

It’s one listen for him.

“I love it.”

He then says, “What does Carlos think?” I say, “Well, Carlos hasn’t heard it yet., Clive. I’m not going to play it for him if you don’t like it.” He says, “I love it. Play it for Carlos.”  Here I’m thinking that the hard part is done. So I send it to Carlos, and his manager calls back, and says, “Carlos hates the song. He won’t ever record it.” So you think that you have cleared one hurdle, and there’s another hurdle.

( “Supernatural” went on to sell 30 million units worldwide . The first single from the album, “Smooth,” topped the Billboard Hot 100 chart for 12 weeks, spent a stunning 58 total weeks on the Hot 100, and went on to win three Grammy Awards: Record of the Year, Song of the Year, and Best Pop Collaboration with Vocals.)

So many bands and artists refuse to consider writing with outsiders.

It depends. Clive said it best, “You have the artist. You have the performer. Patti Smith is never going to be pitched an outside song, but Whitney Houston and Aretha Franklin will.” You have to understand who the artist is, and the artist has to understand who the artist is.

Aerosmith, Bon Jovi, and Kiss were among the pioneering rock bands to use outside songwriters including Desmond Child, Holly Knight, and Jim Vallance. Today, so many pop and rap hits have multiple collaborators involved. I don’t get why some artists balk at the idea.

Some artists now like Mia Rodriquez will write a song if she has time, but she’s too busy doing other things. She’s like, “This is the kind of thing that I am looking for. Just send me a song, and I will sing it.”

One of the best examples of a successful collaboration is Train’s 2009 Columbia album, “Save Me, San Francisco,” in which you matched (Train’s lead singer/writer) Pat Monahan with the Norwegian production duo Espionage. Together they co-wrote “Brick by Brick,” and then “Hey Soul Sister,” co-produced by Gregg Wattenberg who also co-wrote Train’s #1 hit single, “If It’s Love” with Pat the same day.

I worked with Pat Monahan right before I got to Atlantic. He had never co-written for Train. He had co-written for outside projects, and he had co-written for his solo record (“Last of Seven” in 2007)  but he had never co-written for Train. I said, “I think we should co-write for Train, and he was like, “Great, I’m up for anything because I have kind of run out of ideas writing on my own.” I had been working on the “American Idols” for Clive with these guys from Norway, Espionage (Espen Lind and Amund Bjørklund), who are managed by Tim and Danny (Tim Blacksmith and Danny D) the same guys that have (Norwegian songwriting and production powerhouse) Stargate. I said, “I want you to work with Espionage. They are really good.” He was like, “Cool.” So they went in, and the second song that they wrote in that first week was “Hey Soul Sister.”

Veteran DJ Erick Morillo,  who broke into the mainstream with the 1993 hit, “I Like to Move It” (produced under the pseudonym Reel 2 Real) was found dead on Sept. 1st (2020) in Miami Beach. He was 49 and had struggled with substance abuse throughout his career. He took a break from music in 2013 after being escorted off stage due to “erratic behavior.” At the time of death, he was facing charges of sexual assault and was scheduled for a court hearing. While we must never forget his transgressions, we must recognize that tragic health, addictions, and financial hardships faced by so many members of our community are often being downplayed.

I didn’t know Erick, but it was a very sad story to read. One of the things that we are trying to do at Atlantic is that we have set up an internal leadership group to help tackle issues that are important to our artists’ well-being, and mental health is one of them. We are trying to make sure that our artists have the resources that they need and that they know that someone is here to help them.

The Recording Academy’s MusiCares Foundation has become one of the leading forces in identifying, and addressing health and addiction issues in the music industry.  It now has a COVID-19 Relief program to help those in the music community affected by the coronavirus pandemic.

MusiCares is so important.

You host a speaker series inside the Warner Music Group.

We call it Rock and Roll High School. It was started in 2014. We’ve done it in person in New York, L.A., and in Nashville before the pandemic, and now we do it via Vimeo for the Warner Music global staff. It started because Jeff Levin came to work one day wearing an Andy Warhol banana Velvet Underground shirt. I said, “Why are you wearing that shirt? You have no idea who this group is.” He’s basically my kid at that point, right? He said to me, “What do you mean? They are cool.” I’m like, “It doesn’t matter if they’re cool. Who’s the lead singer?” He said, “I don’t know.” I said, “Name one song that Velvet Underground recorded.” He said, “I don’t know.” I said, “Jeff, you can’t wear that shirt if you don’t know the group.” He’s like, “Pete, you are the one that is wrong because nobody my age knows about music from when you were growing up. You are too old.”

Something we music industry veterans hear often.

I said, “Jeff, if you are going to be an A&R person you have to understand the history of music so you know what happened in order to figure out what is going to happen moving forward.”

So that led to me making a mandatory class for Jeff and a bunch of our other A&R people to learn about the history of music. I have a degree to teach, and I’ve never used it, and this was me dusting off my teaching certificate, and starting a class inside Atlantic. One thing led to another, and I started bringing in guests. People who had been part of the history of contemporary music. Clive did it a bunch of times. Seymour Stein did it. Then I started getting artists. I got Graham Nash. I got Jon Anderson from Yes, Paul Williams, and The Temptations. I also got (producers) Kenny Gamble & Leon Huff. I love this shit because I get to read up on them, and I get to interview them, ask them questions that they will answer in a way that will educate our staff. During the pandemic, Masha Osherova (the chief human resources officer for Warner Music Worldwide) came to me, and said, “You should do this now for the entire world of Warner Music. We started doing that a few months ago. Today, I’m doing my fourth virtual class, my 35th class in total, and it’s with Nile Rodgers.

I just finished reading his book (“Le Freak: Upside Down Story of Family, Disco, and Destiny,” Sphere, 2011), which is absolutely fascinating and a must-read for anyone interested in learning more about what makes him such a genius. He’s very candid not only about the music but also with talk about the drug abuse that was rampant at the time.

Nile has quite a colorful past. Teenage homelessness; attending Stuyvesant High School when he wasn’t officially enrolled; being a member of the Harlem chapter of the Black Panther Party; being the guitar player in black jazz-fusion power trio, New World Rising; drug, and alcohol addiction, plus a fistful of hits with Madonna, Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, David Bowie, and his own band, Chic.

If you read this book, and you realize that the guy is still alive you think, “How is this guy still alive?” from the drug binges, and all of the adversity that he was up against? It just brings to the forefront how important an organization like MusiCares is because if we don’t take care of our own who will?

You graduated from Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut majoring in English and Educational Studies.

Yeah, I went to Wesleyan University which would later be the school Lin-Manuel Miranda attended. I chose Wesleyan because my buddy’s brother went there, and I went to visit. “Yeah, this seems like a good school,” but more importantly they have a good radio station.

You had been a DJ at Spring Valley High School in New York.

Yes. I started reading Billboard and studying the charts when I was about 13. I realized I needed money to buy a lot of records if I was going to be able to keep up with everything I wanted to hear. So I started a mobile DJ business and used the money to buy records. I started to analyze the songs I was hearing and, without knowing it, started to teach myself A&R.

You took full advantage of opportunities to get further involved in music at the university’s radio station WESU. You also booked the annual Fall Ball and Spring Fling concerts, and managed campus bands.

For four years, I ran that radio station. I was the music director. Even though my college transcript says that I majored in English and Educational Studies I really majored in radio station. For 90% of my time at Wesleyan, I spent it at the radio station. Basically, I taught myself the music business.

(WESU is one of America’s oldest college radio station, dating back 81 years to when WES-AM, as it was first called, sent out its first official broadcast on Nov. 9th 1939.)

Did you graduate?

Yeah, I graduated with a degree in English and Educational Studies. I just never used it. Probably the most important thing that happened to me at Wesleyan was that first day I met Ed Grauer who is now the business affairs department of Cash Money Records. Back then, we were both 17 or 18-year-old kids. I met him, and he became my first friend. He introduced me to his friend from home, Brian Koppelman. Brian was a freshman at Tufts University (in Medford, Massachusetts), and the three of us ended up becoming this triangular friend group for the next 4 years. We were all there when Brian found Tracy Chapman in 1986 (and later executive-produced her first album.) Brian and I got to know each other, and he said, “Man, one day you have to work for my dad.”

(Charles Koppelman signed to a publishing deal the unknown singer/songwriter Tracy Chapman on a tip from his son, Brian. The veteran song man–through Koppelman/Rubin Associates–had signed the Lovin’ Spoonful in 1965. Later at CBS Records in various positions, he signed Billy Joel, Dave Mason, Janis Ian, Journey, and Phoebe Snow. Koppelman was renowned for matching up artists with hits. It was on his advice that Dolly Parton recorded “Here You Come Again” in 1977. He matched up Barbra Streisand and Barry Gibb on “Guilty” in 1980, and Diana Ross and Lionel Richie on “Endless Love” the following year.)

Wesleyan made it possible for you to meet people who later ended up making introductions that changed your life. Any other school, and it would have been a different future for you. Joe Reed taught you about William Faulkner novels and short stories set in the fictional Yoknapatawpha County, based on Lafayette County, Mississippi.

Joe, rest in peace, he was crazy. Crazy genius crazy. I can’t say we were friendly. He probably never even knew who I was, but yes he taught Faulkner. He also taught an intro film class that I took as a freshman. Wesleyan is known for its small classes, and this was the only class I ever took with teaching assistants. My teaching assistant was an upperclassman named Joss Whedon who went on to create “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” and who wrote and directed the Marvel superhero films, “The Avengers” (in 2012), and its (2015) sequel, “Avengers: Age of Ultron.”

Among other projects, Joss co-wrote the Pixar Animation Studios’ animated film “Toy Story” (1995). When he realized that the original script wasn’t working, but had a great structure, he added the character of Rex, and sought a pivotal role for Barbie. He also transformed Buzz Lightyear from being a dim-witted cheerful character into a Space Ranger action figure unaware that he’s a toy–an inspiration that transformed the film.

So it’s a very very small world.

A teacher who did know you well was Marjorie Rosenbaum the chief administrator of Wesleyan’s Educational Studies Program.

Oh my goodness, she was the best. She ran the Educational Studies Program, ESP. It wasn’t a major. It was a concentration. So you could take this program along with whatever your declared major was—mine was English—and it would get you a teaching certificate in the state of Connecticut. So I did that for three years and I got very close to her. She was as close to a grandmother figure that I had at college. I enjoy teaching. I enjoyed student teaching in the schools in Middletown. I really enjoyed it. But I didn’t enjoy it as much as what I thought the future history of the music industry could be because Brian Koppelman had discovered Tracy Chapman and turned his dad onto Tracy Chapman. His dad signed Tracy to SBK Productions before it was a label, and SBK Productions did a deal with Bob Krasnow at Elektra Records

So Tracy Chapman’s debut album is about to come out in the Spring of 1988, and I am student teaching in Connecticut. The day Elektra is going for (radio) adds on “Fast Car,” I’m in the classroom, and I am more interested in how many adds that “Fast Car” is going to get that day than I am in little Jessica learning how to use the semi-colon.

At that point, I realized, “Let me try this music thing, and see if it sticks.” And I have to tell Marjorie Rosenbaum. I had won an award for the most promising teacher coming out of that program. I have to tell her, “Thank you very much for the award—it means a lot to me—but I am not going into teaching. I’m going to try to do something else.” In the momentary reaction, it is one of the most memorable moments of my life I can remember, she looked at me, and in a split second she was disappointed, but then smiled and said, “You know, we all teach.” And that was it. And now that I’m getting ready to interview Nile Rodgers in front of 600 people today, we all teach. So it all goes back to Marjorie.

(In 2012, the Ganbarg Internship Program was established for Wesleyan students interested in a career in music. Each year, one student is selected to receive up to $5,000 in grant funding to support a summer internship at a for-profit or nonprofit organization that focuses on music.)

Sure enough, when I graduated from college a year later Charles and Marty Bandier (and Stephen Swid) had started SBK Records, and that was my first A&R job.

You had a very tragic experience as you started at SBK.

Two weeks into the job at SBK Records, I got a phone call that my mother, who hadn’t been feeling well, was diagnosed with cancer. Literally two weeks in. We all rushed to the hospital and, of course, my dad is there. He had been a habitual four pack a day smoker. The doctor looked at him and said, “You don’t look too well either.” My dad was diagnosed that same week with lung cancer. So I had both parents diagnosed with lung cancer two weeks after I started at SBK. My dad died a couple of weeks later. My mom held on for about 6 more months. I ended up in the hospital with a collapsed lung at 22. So there was all this crazy shit happening in my personal life. And Charles and Marty could not have been better. They were just the best bosses. Very, very caring, very empathic. Great, great human beings to work with.

You went on to work 8 years at SBK Records which had hits with Vanilla Ice, Jesus Jones, Boy George, Wilson Phillips, Jon Secada, and Technotronic.

It was my first A&R job and I thought that I was never going to leave.

While still the rookie at SBK, you were tapped to A&R the first “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” soundtrack.

Once I got on the other side of all of my personal issues, Charles called me into his office, and he said, “Okay rookie, I need your help. I am going to give you a movie script. I want you to read it, and I want you to come up with the end song of the movie. “ I’m like, “cool,” thinking that this could be like “Gone With The Wind,” “The Godfather” or “Casablanca.” He hands me the script, and I turn it over and it says “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.” I’m like, “I don’t know what this is but sure. I’m game.” There was an executive at SBK at the time, Arma Andon, who ran the SBK Management division, and he had little kids in the house. His office was next to Charles’ office. He sees me coming out of Charles’ office with the “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” script and he’s like, “My kids are obsessed with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. If you have one of your groups write a song for the movie you should call it ‘Turtle Power’ because that’s all my kids do. They run around the house saying, ‘Turtle power. Turtle power.’”

So I read the script, and I called this (New York City) rap duo that I was developing Partners In Kryme, and I said “I think I have a way to turn your developmental deal into a record deal. This is a way for you to cut the line. I’m going to send you a script for this movie called ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.’ Can you write a song to order and call it ‘Turtle Power?” And they did. And the song went to #1 in a dozen countries. It was a gold single in the U.S where it reached #13 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. And it stayed #1 for four weeks in the UK. I was 22, and I was like, “This is the easiest job in the world.” Little did I know.

From “Turtle Power” to Santana to “Hamilton.” Quite the trajectory.

It has always been a bit of an embarrassment for me or what I thought was an embarrassment for me because like, “What’s the first hit that you ever had? Well, it’s not Bob Dylan or whatever, it’s “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.” And I was always a little bit embarrassed about that until I met somebody who that song really meant a lot to. And that was Lin-Manuel Miranda. When I met him, he said, “Yo, you did ‘Turtle Power?’” I’m like, “Yeah do we have to talk about that?” He’s not talking about Santana or any of the other shit I’ve done— He said, “That shit changed my life.” And he was serious. So you never know when you are working on a project who it is going to connect to.

Next Charles Koppelman signed Vanilla Ice (Robert Van Winkle) and you A&Red his “To The Extreme” album which sold 11 million units. He became a superstar so fast, but his career ended just as fast.

My SBK Record experience went from the sublime to the ridiculous. With Ninja Turtles being the first hit, I shouldn’t have been at all surprised that I ended up working with Vanilla Ice who Charles signed. Do you remember the music lawyer Peter Lopez?

Actress Catherine’s Bach’s husband. He committed suicide in 2010. He had been instrumental in developing and managing the careers of Wilson Phillips, Vanilla Ice, and Andrea Bocelli.

He called Charles one day, and said, “I’ve got a record that is exploding.” He played it for Charles on the phone, and Charles signed it on the spot from over the phone, and that was “Ice Ice Baby.” Charles called me in. I was still his rookie, and he said, “I want you to go out to the airport. You are going to meet him. You are going to be his A&R guy. Just work with him.” For the next 11 months, I watched his career go from zero to 8 million and back to zero. But it was fun. I went on the road with Vanilla Ice. We made a live album. How do you make a live album when you are using pre-recorded tracks every night? I have no idea, but somehow we did it. I music supervised his film “Cool As Ice,” There was a lot of learning that went on in those 11 months. I was 23 years old. What did I know?

Along with Beastie Boys, 3rd Bass, and House Of Pain, Vanilla Ice was one of the earliest white rappers to attain major success. Chuck D credits him for being a regional hip-hop breakthrough, saying, “He broke through in the mid-South, in a Southern area in Texas, in something that was kind of indigenous to that hip-hop culture down there. He just doesn’t get credit for it.”

Nevertheless, after overexposure and a series of disruptive interviews, Vanilla Ice was viewed as a novelty act rather than a legitimate rapper, and his popularity plummeted.

He said some stupid things. You can only imagine today in the cancel culture how long he’d last on Twitter.

Larry LeBlanc is widely recognized as one of the leading music industry journalists in the world. Before joining CelebrityAccess in 2008 as senior editor, he was the Canadian bureau chief of Billboard from 1991-2007 and Canadian editor of Record World from 1970-80. He was also a co-founder of the late Canadian music trade, The Record.

He has been quoted on music industry issues in hundreds of publications including Time, Forbes, and the London Times. He is a co-author of the book “Music From Far And Wide,” and a Lifetime Member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame.

He is the recipient of the 2013 Walt Grealis Special Achievement Award, recognizing individuals who have made an impact on the Canadian music industry.

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