Do you know what Ed Sheeran, Cardi B, AC/DC, Bette Midler, Donny Hathaway, Yes, Skrillex, Chic, Tori Amos, and Lizzo all have in common? They all got signed by Atlantic Records, and made some of their most iconic songs and albums with the New York-based label, which is celebrating its 75h anniversary.
In honor of the remarkable milestone, XITE has partnered with Atlantic Records and arranged a captivating conversation between journalist Pierre Oitmann and Craig Rosen, EVP of A&R and Label Operations at Atlantic Records. Together they reflected on the journey of Atlantic Records and how the music label has managed to stay relevant for 75 years - and counting.
There are only a few record labels in the world that have managed to safely steer through the tidal waves of the ever-changing music industry for as long as Atlantic Records has. Emerging from the post-World War II jazz era, established the year before LP records were introduced, all the way through the influential soul music boom of the ’60s, disco and hard rock’s competitive heyday in the ‘70s, and the modern age of internet streaming services, Atlantic Records always had their top-selling artists up in the charts.
Whether it was Ray Charles ‘messing around’ with the early sounds of rock ‘n’ roll, Aretha Franklin belting out her signature soul tunes of female liberation, Led Zeppelin single-handedly reshaping the landscape of rock music for decades to come, or Nigerian superstar Burna Boy ushering in the current global dominance of the Afrobeat genre, Atlantic Records has always been at the forefront of the ever evolving musical landscape.
“I think the legacy of Atlantic has always been discovering artists that could have long careers. Identifying talent and understanding how that talent could translate to a broad audience and have longevity.” says Craig Rosen, EVP of A&R and Label Operations at Atlantic Records who has been with the company for over a third of its existence. “We are far more interested in artists like Bruno Mars and Ed Sheeran, who can have a career with album after album of continued reinvention, than the artist with the biggest single that's blowing up on TikTok.”
Much has changed in the music industry since legendary founders Ahmet Ertegun, Herb Abramson and his wife Miriam first set up their, at-the-time independent, New York City record label in late 1947. Rosen recounts how songs were cut during the pioneering days of Atlantic Records. “The legend is that, at the end of the day, they would push all the desks to the side of the room and set up a microphone. An artist would come in and they would record a song that night and press up copies of the record the next day. Over time, that developed into the company having legit recording studios and executives at the company becoming sought after record producers.
Artists came to Atlantic because they made the best records, and your A&R person was often also your producer. For several decades, many of the most successful Atlantic recordings were made in Atlantic run or associated studios, under the guidance of legendary record men like Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun, Jerry Wexler, Arif Mardin, Tom Dowd and others. While the landscape changed over time, with both producers and recording studios tending to be more independent and not necessarily associated with individual labels, over the last ten years having in-house recording facilities has come back with a vengeance, in a reinvented way. The most important element of our studios today is to provide a safe place for our artists to be creative in a variety of different ways.”
Craig Rosen started his career with Atlantic Records in 1997, when the company was about to celebrate its fiftieth anniversary. The first big project Rosen was involved in at Atlantic was Brandy’s multi-platinum sophomore album, Never Say Never, which produced the global smash hit The Boy Is Mine, a stellar Billboard number 1 R&B duet with Monica, which became one of the best-selling songs of 1998. “That was the first album release that I was fully immersed in,” he recounts. “That was a massive priority for the label. It was very complicated, and then it also became very successful.”
Around the same time, Rosen also worked on nu-metal band P.O.D.’s major label debut, The Fundamental Elements Of Southtown. “That was also significant, because that was a real kind of underdog band, that had a very specific, rabid following,” remembers Rosen. “The expectations were modest, so the success of the project was that much sweeter. Brandy, on the other hand, had so much focus and attention from the company. The Boy Is Mine, in particular, was a very complicated song to complete. You had Brandy and Monica’s individual creative input along with Craig Kallman (Brandy’s then A&R and current Atlantic Chairman/CEO) and Clive Davis (The legendary record executive who founded Arista Records, where Monica was signed) all wanting the last change or approval.”
In more recent years, Rosen has been closely working with artists like Bruno Mars, Kelly Clarkson, and Melanie Martinez, as well as working on movie and Broadway soundtrack albums, most notably the tremendous 2015 Hamilton cast recording, whose success exceed all expectations. “I mean, the idea that a Broadway cast album could be certified Diamond (the RIAA designation for 10 million sales) is preposterous,” he claims half-jokingly, based on thegenerally modest sales of such albums in the last few decades. “Just having an extraordinarily successful Broadway play or an incredibly successful movie does not mean that your cast album or your soundtrack are going to be successful. And, unfortunately, making a great record doesn't necessarily guarantee success either.”
Fast forward to 2023, and Atlantic is back on top of the charts again with another major soundtrack album, this time to the Greta Gerwig movie adaptation of Mattel’s Barbie franchise, spawning worldwide top 10 hits for Dua Lipa, Billie Eilish, and Nicki Minaj. “It's a great example of a collaborative effort between Atlantic creatives and outside partners,” explains Rosen. “When you create something powerful and it gets the right opportunity to connect with people, that's what makes a hit. These are projects that have cultural significance, as well. That's the perfect storm that makes the kind of success that you see with Barbie or Hamilton.”
Moving forward to the next exciting phase within the ever-evolving music industry, Rosen feels Atlantic Records will still be a dominant force for years to come, because it continues to emphasize on the longevity of their artists’ careers and the quality of their artistic output. “Artists really should be choosing a label knowing it's going to be the home for their art,” he explains about the relationship between talent and record labels. “It's like, they get to choose their own gallery or museum,” he says, continuing the metaphor. “Of course it is so critically important to an artist's career to make the right choice when it comes to how their music is released and who their partners are.
From their managers to their collaborators, to their record label, to their A&R person. These things are all so important to an artist's career. I'd like to think that the Atlantic Records ‘museum’, so to speak, would have a large collection built over time, full of classics, but also reflecting the constantly evolving power of music. Displaying all this art in the coolest, most reverent way. It would still feel fresh and vibrant, in addition to having a long history.”