Atlantic's Music Week Award-winning A&R team talk TikTok, AI and how to break mainstream acts

Atlantic's Music Week Award-winning A&R team talk TikTok, AI and how to break mainstream acts

Atlantic’s Music Week Award-winning A&R team have affirmed their belief that the arrival of UK’s next global superstar is just around the corner.

The major may have lost its Record Company crown to EMI at this year’s biggest-ever Music Week Awards, but Atlantic triumphed in the fiercely competitive A&R category, in recognition of its work with Fred Again.., KSI, Nathan Dawe, Charli XCX and more.

It was the second trophy of the night for the Warner-owned label, who also took home the promotions team title.

Senior A&R director Kevin Christian-Blair and A&R directors Emily Kent and Joe Barbe joined Music Week backstage after accepting their award with co-president Ed Howard, who is leading Atlantic’s new era with Briony Turner.

Atlantic’s A&R team made clear that the two presidents, who took over three years ago following Ben Cook’s exit, are enabling the label to thrive.

“Record labels should be led by A&R people and it’s amazing, a different kettle of fish,” said Barbe. “We’ve definitely got room to be more creative and take more risks, it’s not as rigid.”

“We’ve got two amazing presidents that have done it before and are empowering us to be the future of whatever the next iteration of the label is,” added Christian-Blair. “We’re really passionate about music and equality. Their resume is second to none, you know? It’s really impressive and we have a great ecosystem of energy, innovative ideas and pushing things forward.”

Kent described the co-presidents as “two of the best A&Rs in the music industry”.

To find out more about Atlantic’s talent operation, Music Week asked Barbe, Christian-Blair and Kent about A&R, AI, TikTok and the UK's issue with breaking global talent…

We have a great ecosystem of energy, innovative ideas and pushing things forward

Kevin Christian-Blair

First off, how are you feeling to have won?

Kevin Christian-Blair: “It’s a little bit unexpected, but it’s amazing. We’ve been working hard all year so it’s good to see that recognised.”

Emily Kent: “We’re really grateful, it’s a team effort. We always want to win, it’s a big award and we don’t take it for granted. Why have we won? I think it’s because we’re sustaining acts and breaking acts at the same time.

KC-B: “Yeah, we have a lot of artists across different genres and at different levels doing amazing stuff.”

Joe Barbe: “We’ve had a good run, from Fred Again.. to Ed Sheeran, to singles success with Joel Corry, Nathan Dawe, Anne-Marie, KSI, Kojey Radical, Charli XCX, Maisie Peters…”

Fred Again.. had been bubbling up for a while before last year. Why was 2022 so big for him?

JB: “It’s not been a short time in the making, it’s been three or four years of development to this point. Briony Turner signed him and believed in his creative genius and we knew he was going to get somewhere amazing.”

EK: “He really had something to say, it was his time. He found his crew of people and it was his moment.”

Charli XCX continued her great run after Crash hit No.1 by winning at the Ivors recently. Can her success be held up as an example of Atlantic’s approach to A&R?

JB: “She’s been encouraged to be creative and given her space. And she hasn’t been rushed, you know, it wasn’t a quick process.”

EK: “Charli steers her own ship and we just amplify and support her to do so, that’s what it says about Atlantic.”

KC-B: “That’s what great A&Rs do, they find really good talent and they steer it, just gently, in the right directions. And every single album, every single piece of music she’s done has been experimental, fresh and forward-thinking. For us, as a label, it’s been really interesting to watch her growth and now she’s in a place where she’s a superstar, there’s not an artist that doesn’t want to work with her. You can see our marketing teams and everyone else is so gassed to work with her, she’s an impressive artist and it’s been a pleasure to watch that journey.”

We’re sustaining acts and breaking acts at the same time

Emily Kent

How are you going to win this award again next year?

EK: “Continue to sustain and break new acts, we’ve got a few on the roster that we’re really excited about. Needanamebro are a girl band coming through who are yet to have a name and we’re really excited about them, three young girls, super-talented, it’s just the beginning.”

KC-B: “I have a drum & bass guy called Goddard, he’s had two Top 10s in the last year.”

JB: “And Isy Cross. She’s going to be the next big voice in dance music.”

And how difficult is it to be successful in A&R now?

KC-B: “Impossible! We’re doing miracles! [Laughs].

JB: “I think we still believe in great creative talent. If you invest in that you’ve got half a chance of succeeding.”

EK: “It’s also about the power of storytelling and we support that.”

Where are you looking to find artists? How much do you lean on TikTok, for example?

KC-B: “All that is a red herring. You’ve just got to look at where the energy is and where youth culture is moving. TikTok would be one thing, but sustaining long-term artists can come from anywhere. As you saw with Fred, he’s not a TikTok artist.”

EK: “It’s in the real life moments, it’s not just about TikTok. It’s how things translate into actual reality for people to see that fan hysteria in real life, a moment for people to actually talk about. That’s what excites us.”

Is there a UK breaking acts crisis?

KC-B: “Something will pop through…”

JB: “The pandemic has had a big knock-on effect for artists developing and doing their ‘100 shit gigs’, but we will see more talent of that stature coming through. Especially with Atlantic.”

KC-B: “We’ve got some cooking.”

The pandemic has had a big knock-on effect, but we will see more global talent coming through, especially with Atlantic

Joe Barbe

How much pressure are you under as A&Rs to make it happen, though?

KC-B: “Immense! My eyeballs are popping out every day. [Laughs] No, we’re hardened, we’re seasoned, we’ve been doing this a long time. We want to find the next thing, be really passionate about it and create magic moments for artists. Whatever it takes, however it needs to be done, we will figure it out. As the industry changes and shifts and all these different things like AI come along, we will find the fresh talent that utilises those things to the best of their advantage.”

Finally, can AI help A&Rs?

KC-B: “Definitely. Hopefully, in this world where there’s too much going on, it can simplify a lot of things and we can get onto being creative, being out there with artists and figuring out what’s happening on the ground.”

JB: “That’s more on an administration level. We don’t want to write creators out of jobs.”

Pictured above L-R: Kevin Christian-Blair, Emily Kent, Joe Barbe, Ed Howard

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