Interview with MIKE CAREN, A&R at Atlantic for Trick Daddy, Sunshine Anderson - Oct 16, 2001
"Go out and establish a fanbase. Then let the music business people come to you."
As VP of A&R at Atlantic in Los Angeles, Mike Caren works with acts including US Platinum artist Trick Daddy and US Gold artists Sunshine Anderson, Trina and Drama.
How did you first get started in the music industry?
I got started as a DJ when I was 12 years old and I did an internship at Interscope Records when I was 15. Then in 1993 I started a high school and college marketing company called School Rules Promotions in Los Angeles.
Which qualities did you have that enabled you to be appointed as an A&R for the very first time?
It was my knowledge of hip-hop and the marketplace.
At the time I was also producing hip-hop records for The Pharcyde, for Heltah Skeltah, for an underground artist named Saukrates, as well as several local acts.
Which qualities do you think are actually needed to be a successful A&R?
You need to understand the marketplace, understand songs, to be able to recognise goods songs and understand production. You also need to have forward thinking and be able to respond to the changing trends.
What proportion of your time is spent looking for new acts to sign, in comparison with the time spent dealing with already established acts in your roster?
50-50. There's always the wish there would be more time to do both.
So how do you find new talent?
Through producers, managers, attorneys … I do a lot of research with regards to retail, radio, club venues, press, which is all very effective.
I found Trick Daddy through research. He was selling records and getting airplay in Miami. Sunshine Anderson, I found through a guy who works at Urb Magazine who knew the producer.
What do you look for in an artist?
I look for artists who have charisma - a charisma which shines through in their vocal abilities and in their stage presence. I generally look for artists that write, who have interesting perspectives and angles in their songwriting and in their subject matter. So, great voices and original personalities.
Which kind of producers do you work with?
I generally work with producers who have some credits - not so much with brand new producers who have no credits at all. I look for people who are hungry or have a fresh, unique sound. Many of the producers who have produced hits for me didn't have a long repertoire of successful records before, but they do now.
I talk to a lot of people and get recommendations. I look at independent records and see which ones have big productions. Even if I don't like the artist, I look at the producers of those records to see if they can work with my artists.
As someone with a production background yourself, how much input do you usually have on the productions?
Depending on the artist and on the track - a lot to a little. It varies since I have so many different projects. The best is when I don't have to do anything, then I know I've chosen the right producer. That’s the bar to reach.
How self-contained are your acts when it comes to songwriting?
For all of my acts we use outside songwriting to a degree - some more than others. They're all open to great ideas if they come. For the most part, I prefer artists that write songs themselves.
Do you pay attention to things like who the manager is, who the attorney is, who the team is, when considering signing a new act?
Absolutely. I definitely take everything into consideration.
From which people and departments at Atlantic do you need support before signing an act?
I like to involve everyone. It's always nice to have as many people as possible supporting the act. To a minimum, at least the A&R department’s support - which I generally get.
What advice would you give unsigned acts on how to approach music biz people?
My advice would be: don’t approach music business people. Go out and establish a fanbase. Then let the music business people come to you.
Do you accept unsolicited material?
Yes. I actually listen to every single thing, the day it comes in. 10 to 20 a day. I usually don't listen past the first song, unless it was good. But most of them are below par.
Has the amount of time given by labels to new acts before they break, decreased in the last decades?
I think artists are given much more time these days before they are released in order to really build it up for bigger releases. The labels rely more on artists to be successful with their first record than they ever did before. The window of time and opportunity is smaller now than ever before.
If you could dramatically change some aspect of the music industry, what would you do?
I would create more outlets for new product, open up the narrow playlists of radio stations, and have more competition between the radio channels and between the TV stations. Radio now is too genre and niche specific, I’d like to see the formats change.
What has been the greatest moment of your music career?
I believe it still hasn't come. I've had many successes, but I try for much bigger ones.
What do you see yourself doing in 5-10 years?
I plan on making good music, still working in a creative capacity. Possibly start my own company.
interviewed by Kimbel Bouwman
Read On ...
* Atlantic's Aaron Bay-Schuck on his career break A&Ring Flo Rida
* Trick Daddy and Mary J Blige producer Sean Foote on what he looks for in a rapper
* Manager Michael Blumstein on discovering T-Pain in a car showroom