Scroll through the blue-ticked Instagram accounts of most major-league US music executives, and you’ll tend to find the same old schtick: images of their artists playing career-boosting stages; flattering snaps of their newly decked-out office; a smattering of vacation/weekend shots accidentally-on-purpose showcasing that sleek second home in the Hills.
Mike Caren’s Insta feed, however, offers a little something more – a little something indicative of the inquisitive mind of the man himself. A swift perusal of Caren’s page throws up graphs, charts and textual provocations covering themes like ‘10 trends that will reshape the music industry’, how fast TV watching is declining amongst Millennials, the average ages of social media use in 2019, and the ‘share of ear’ that radio claims amongst US consumers over 13.
This all fits because Caren, as well as being obsessive about the A&R process, is also obsessive about media trends, and how consumption of everything from HBO to Fortnite and Instagram are munching into the daily music habits of today’s teenagers.
Such compulsive attention to detail is serving Caren’s businesses well. The Beverly Hills-raised exec founded Artist Publishing Group back in 2006, followed by the launch of Artist Partner Group in 2013. Warner Music Group and Atlantic Records, with whom Caren has worked for more than 20 years, injected a multi- million dollar investment into APG three years ago.
Since then, APG, which now employs more than 40 staff, has developed and broken stars including Bazzi, Charlie Puth, Kehlani, Kevin Gates and NBA Youngboy, as well as an electric array of songwriters such as Hitmaka, Yung Berg, Amy Allen and Madison Love.
Most recently, Los Angeles-based APG unleashed Ava Max, who hit No.1 in many territories this year including the UK, Sweden, and Germany with international smash “Sweet But Psycho”.
Caren began his career aged 17 with Atlantic Records, and later served as Co-President – alongside John Janick – of the relaunched Elektra Records (Bruno Mars, Ed Sheeran, Cee Lo Green) between 2009 and 2012.
MBUSA recently sat down with Caren within APG’s Fairfax studio complex to ask him all about his A&R philosophy, and where he sees the future of multimedia going in the next few years…
Tell us a truism about the music industry.
So much of what moves the needle in this business is just about listening – really listening. When a label or publishing exec has a 60 minute meeting with a producer or songwriter, once you’ve caught up with each other, you’re already 30 minutes into it, and only then do you start listening to music.
That leaves you 25 minutes to listen, and consider eight to 10 ideas. Then the meeting is over – and you haven’t even cracked the surface. If you’d allowed for 90 minutes of music, you would probably have found something really special.
So for that last 20 minutes, I might ask you to [hand over] everything you haven’t played me – whether you think I might or might not like it. Then I’m actually going to listen to it all and hear the stuff that other people don’t get to.
You employ more than 40 people at APG, and you’re expanding. Can you actively keep the roster here capped at certain size?
Yes. We started in the publishing world, where I felt that one A&R executive couldn’t really have a high impact on every one of their writers unless they were limited to approximately 10 writers.
I noticed that at most of the major publishing companies, when I talked to executives, their personal roster would be over 50 writers. I found it hard to believe that they would be able to deliver something significant for every writer with that roster size. Records is about a smaller amount of artists, but it’s also about building teams.
People with different perspectives, different skill sets all working together, learning from each other and bringing different things to the table. I work with people that have so much passion and intelligence and determination. This company is a sum of those parts. There’s 40 people here that have the impact of 150.
What would you say is the defining A&R philosophy of APG?
We believe that work ethic and intelligence are just as important as talent. A smart and hardworking creative will keep improving whereas someone without that work ethic or vision might creatively just tread water, or even decline in their quality.
“We work with [talent] for days, weeks or even months before we sign a deal.”
The biggest thing is getting to know writers and artists personally. We work with them for days, weeks or even months before we sign a deal. We will often lose a deal because somebody – after working with APG – is rushed elsewhere in the industry by a bidding war or whatever. And if that happens, it’s okay. It wasn’t meant to be.
Why is getting to know artists properly so important to you?
Ideally, you want to enter a relationship that’s a decade or decades- long. You can marry the first person you kiss, but I think it’s better to go on more dates and ask a lot of questions to see if your vision of the future is aligned. When you have tough conversations upfront, it leads to better conversations for years to come.
Give us an example of a tough conversation with an artist.
Those conversations revolve around expectations, timeline, patience, vision. I love artists that have huge goals and who know several moves they want to make to get there – who aren’t expecting to make it all in one single play. I love songwriters turning into artists too, because they’ve had this passenger seat in other artists’ careers to which they’ve contributed. The writer-turned-artist has seen other artists making tough decisions, and what the results were, which helps them avoid their own mistakes and pitfalls.
“If you just try to protect artists from making those mistakes, it doesn’t help, because when they become very successful, they will ultimately take all the big decisions; your job is to prepare them to make great ones.”
APG is the best at amplifying, investing in and turbo-charging artists who have a lot of ideas. And the best ideas always come from artists. It’s always better to let an artist make a mistake, because when a smart artist makes a mistake, they learn from it. If you just try to protect artists from making those mistakes, it doesn’t help, because when they become very successful, they will ultimately take all the big decisions; your job is to prepare them to make great ones. You can’t shelter talent early on, then expect people to act like an experienced artists when they’re successful.
How do you feel about the number of songwriters behind the majority of hits today?
The other day somebody sent me a video with Bob Marley, One Love and said, ‘What an incredible song and songwriter.’ I said, ‘Yeah, Curtis Mayfield was a fricking genius.’ They said, ‘Are you kidding? That song was written by Bob Marley!’ It’s a co-write. Curtis Mayfield and Bob Marley. And if Bob Marley can co-write, anyone can co-write.
One defining modern A&R trend is that of collaboration. Two people from largely different genres cross-pollinating fan bases. What do you make of that trend, and does it ever concern you?
I saw an exhibit of Picasso and Matisse years ago. They were friends and they did interpretive pieces of each other’s work. Their artistry was so clear when they did so. Anything that allows someone to demonstrate creativity and originality is an amazing vehicle – but the song [has to be] organic and creative.
Why did you started APG in the first place?
First, I had been working as an A&R person at Atlantic for 10 years. Having been in one company for so long, I wanted a different experience and I wanted an entrepreneurial experience.
I built a lot of trust at Atlantic, so they allowed me to create a partnership venture with them. But I operated it independently, and I love to experiment. Every session is an experiment; every marketing idea is an experiment; every day here is about experimentation.
“I had this philosophy, this is 15 years ago, that songwriters and producers are artists in their own right.”
And second, I had this philosophy, this is 15 years ago, that songwriters and producers are artists in their own right – and that a publisher could publish their songs and get them paid, but could also treat them as an artist and A&R them in that way, providing the introductions, the insights, and the resources that labels provide to artists.
It was a learning process because I didn’t know about publishing, and I didn’t have the budget to chase hits, so we had to be bold.
Why is so much A&R focused entirely on the new – the thrill of ‘breaking’ something?
Out of anything in this business, I get the most satisfaction from seeing other people with their first big successes: their first hit song; their first platinum record; their first sold out tour; their first song on the radio.
Every time a new artist, a new writer has an experience like that, it’s contagious. To me, that’s more powerful than congratulating someone on their fifth of sixth platinum album. It’s an honor to make music – it’s exciting and it’s an adventure.
I’m really proud of the artists and writers that have been successful, but I’m just as proud of the executives. That goes for the team here, but also people that have previously worked or interned here and moved on. I root for their success.
“Every time a new artist, a new writer has an experience like that, it’s contagious.”
Right now, I’m in awe of A&R moves from Miles Beard (pictured), Jeff Vaughn, Tizita Makuria, Eli Picarretta, Edgar Machuca, Matt MacFarlane, Lisa Mottahedeh, David Phung, and Dan Snyder, all of whom landed their first A&R roles here – several starting as interns or assistants – and all of whom have signed Gold or Platinum artists or writers, or had hits this year.
But I’m also thrilled to see fast career growth and broadening responsibility from vets that joined us such as Elyse Rogers, Angie Pagano, Mike Mathewson, Olly Sheppard, Jessica Kelm, and the list can go on. Fifteen years in, I look around and see our team members thriving, and people who’ve cut their teeth with us at pretty much every label, from A&R Executive to Chairman.
APG takes a white label approach with its artists – your brand is kept on the sidelines. Why?
We’re too broad to create a single, forward-facing brand. The great labels that I love had, and continue to have today, sonic consistency. They had a cultural voice and a specific niche, with a sound or a through line.
I lean in to creative people; we’re not going to not sign an artist just because they don’t fit in with other artists on our roster, or not work with an executive because they’re a certain type. There are no rules and no limitations to who APG works with. We just want to work with people for whom we can deliver more than anyone else out there.
Also, I love our entrepreneurial artists and I don’t want to take away from their opportunity to build their brand – both their artist brand and their company brand. I love it when an artist’s dreams include everything from festivals to clothing to charitable organizations. If I can help build an artist’s brand, it’s one more resource that we’re providing that I don’t think many others offer.
What makes a good artist manager?
One, they have to have enough experience to know that everything changes every year. Two, they have to listen to their artist but also speak the truth to them. And, of course, work ethic and intelligence are so important – especially the work ethic, because managers have to provide an example for their artist. Great managers are also great communicators; people who bring people together.
“there’s this ‘Napster Gap’, as I call it, 2002 to 2014, where only a few people invested into the business, and only a few people got hired – so there was not as much opportunity for mentorship for a lot of people versus what had come before.”
It’s a weird time for the music business because there’s so much opportunity now. But there’s also this ‘Napster Gap’, as I call it, 2002 to 2014, where only a few people invested into the business, and only a few people got hired – so there was not as much opportunity for mentorship for a lot of people versus what had come before. There are some incredible managers out there who are just so smart, and had to learn the game on their own.
The head of Netflix, Reed Hastings, said earlier this year that Fortnite was a bigger competitor to his company than traditional rivals like HBO. What do you make of the idea that other media is stealing attention from artists and music?
It’s something I think about a lot. I heard about something recently that said that Americans have over 11 hours a day of media consumption because of how much multitasking they do – like how they will play video games while listening to music. Their consumption is literally doubling.
I see incredible opportunity there, because if you work in the music business and you’ve never played Fortnite, you’re going to fall a few steps behind.
“If you work in the music business and you’ve never played Fortnite, you’re going to fall a few steps behind.”
How Fortnite makes its money is worth thinking about: the short windows of items being for sale; the opening for other platforms [as the game can be played across different devices]; the live events; how [Epic Games] updates and changes the game’s dynamic to keep things so exciting. There are so many amazing things to learn from it.
As far as competing in media, there’s going to be huge L.A. production competition. You have Netflix, Apple, Amazon, Hulu, Spotify and a bunch of other companies with endless amounts of money going to go into content production. It’s going to mean a whole new competition for creative talent, and it will be interesting. It could be incredible for talent – and it will definitely fortify L.A. as the creative capital of the world.
How do you counter that with the value of labels?
There’s no one-size-fits-all, right? Some people love business. Some people love managing people and administration. Some people love to be creative. Some people can do all of those things together. And there are some people who are just true artists who want to color outside the lines and break rules. They don’t want any of the administrative burden. They don’t want to reconcile tours, or deal with Social Security or 401ks, you know?
Some of that’s to do with different points in your life. You may be young; you may want to have fun and be creative and break the rules and not deal with turnover and all of these things. And later in your life, you may want to be more stationary and operate a company and a business. People just need to know what things entail.
“Staying independent is probably the right thing for a lot of artists and it’s probably the wrong thing for a lot of artists.”
There are an increasing number of artist managers who now say that running an independent operation for an artist isn’t ‘management’ – it’s a business partnership, so it shouldn’t be 15 or 20% commission, it should be 50% across everything, including touring. And that all depends on how much of an artist’s business is just music – whether they need a manager who’s just doing music, or managing several businesses.
Staying independent is probably the right thing for a lot of artists and it’s probably the wrong thing for a lot of artists. It all has to do with individual ambition, and how you actually want your 16 to 20 waking hours to be spent.
In an age awash with A&R data, how do you feel about the reduction in signings based purely on based on gut instinct?
I love data… partly because so much of the major label business is focused on it, which leaves all this open territory for us. But, also, I will say data can definitely show more than just momentum, it can reveal a pool of artists who didn’t wait for anyone to move their career forward, who got out of bed every day and worked hard to move the needle.
Somebody can tell me they’re going to work hard all day long, but an artist that had no resources that went out and built some fans? That’s someone you know wants it. I’ll never discount that, as work ethic is so essential.
Where do you get your work ethic from?
My mom’s creative. My dad’s organized. I love this job – this isn’t work, look how soft my hands are! The worst part of my job is sitting waiting for someone to show up who’s late. That’s it! And nowadays, I can always fill those hours by listening to music anyway.
I’m very sure you could have capably run an established major label group. Contemporaries like John Janick are doing it…
Why did you choose to build something from scratch, rather than run a big frontline label during this period of your career?
I don’t think anyone ever offered me a job that had the freedom that I now enjoy as an entrepreneur. As an industry, we need to empower people and trust them. There’s always a lot of oversight and structure in majors – and it’s probably needed. But now, we’re facing an ever-evolving future, we have to experiment and to do R&D.
“Change is inevitable. Change is good. But you have to try things in order to figure out what works with change.”
Change is inevitable. Change is good. But you have to try things in order to figure out what works with change. It’s inevitable that artists are going to change the way they make music and market music – and anyone who clings on to the past will get left behind. I love nostalgia like anyone else; we can still tell great stories of the good old days, but we have to be open to try new things all the time.
Let’s talk about the future, then. What are you excited about?
We are a very de-centralized company; I’m trying my absolute best to build the most entrepreneurial organization possible. I want everyone here to think like entrepreneurs, and to make decisions. I choose to run this company differently from, say, the way the legendary Clive Davis ran Arista. He’s incredible, but I hear he personally approved every piece of art and every mix.
Again, just like the artists here, everyone should be making decisions, seeing the results and learning from them. I want every executive I work with to feel that their career grew twice as fast in this organization than it did anywhere else.
What’s going to change at APG over the next five years?
We’re trying to reorganize the entire approach to being a global company. Many major labels don’t seem like singular global companies; they’re a bunch of companies, around the world, that license to each other. Spotify is a global company; they have editors in different offices, but they are a global company.
That’s something we’re a couple of steps ahead on and I don’t think it will take five years. I think it will happen way before then.