THE PHILOSOPHY OF MIKE CAREN
Written by Michelle Sullivan
Photography by Damian Weilers
“If you want to keep talking negative about our music business, maybe you should get another job?”
Mike Caren is an American A&R executive, producer and songwriter. At 17, he moved from Los Angeles to New York City after Craig Kallman offered him a job at Big Beat. Throughout his longstanding career, he has helped sign a plethora of artists, including Bruno Mars and Ed Sheeran, and produced on successful records that include Asher Roth’s “I love College” and “Hell Of A Life” with Kanye West.
Mike Caren serves as the Worldwide President of A&R for Warner Music Group. He also founded Artist Publishing Group in Los Angeles, a boutique music publishing company that is administered by Warner/Chappell. He is an interesting mix of modesty and confidence. A softly spoken man, who has honed his craft through the experiences life and work, got his first taste of industry life when he began to DJ at age 12. “I have a big thing on gut decisions” he says, “Did you spend the last 20 years in an isolated room? Everything you hear and see and do and absorb helps formulate your decision. That’s why you have to stay open, otherwise your ability to make that “gut decision” is impaired.”
The Manifesto shares Mike’s passion for the future of music. While many are quick to highlight the failings of the former music business model, it is a thinker and leader such as Caren who truly understands the possibilities of what is before us. We do not know exactly what the future will bring, but we do have the tools to take full advantage of new advancements in technology and social connectivity. The solution is in the perspective. “Take full advantage and stop worrying about diminishing downloads” he says, “I was having a conversation the other day where someone was quick to outline all the problems of the music business. After going back and forth on the different arguments I simply said “If you want to keep talking negative about our business, maybe you should get another job?”
Over the past twelve months, The Manifesto has worked with Caren to identify the key philosophies that inform his ways of working. This is not an easy task, as Caren is continuously changing, innovating, testing, failing, re-setting and moving forward. He is unassuming, considered and agile.
This case study explores ideas of:
• Artists and Repertoire (A&R)
• Communication and Information Flow
ARTISTS AND REPERTOIRE
Mike: I have a deep philosophy of pop music and how it correlates to advertising and movies, requiring juxtaposition.
Explain your theory for me?
You can’t put a crazy character in a crazy world; that’s chaos. You can’t put a boring person in a boring world; that’s boring. So in the movies they put a crazy character in a normal world or vice versa, and only then you create something that’s interesting. It’s about juxtaposing the character and message. If you mix happy lyrics, happy melodies and happy music you get the Gummy Bears song. We don’t need anymore of those songs. If you wouldn’t say it in actual life, don’t write it as a lyric
Indeed. So what’s the bottom line?
If you wouldn’t say it in actual life, don’t write it as a lyric.
We should feel a responsibility in what we put out to the world. This year I’ve been over- whelmed with too many radio tracks about being in the club and everyone having an amazing time. It’s become monotonous.
It’s so boring. Same as those boring songs on love – “woe is me”, “I’m so depressed that I can’t look up, so I’m looking at my shoes, and I’ll never be the same.” I think people just appreciate originality. I have this song with Trey Songz called “I can’t be friends”. It goes through that experience of having a friendship that gets complicated. I think each one of my friends has had this issue, and yet no one talks about it. I think the biggest songs are the ones that help people to express themselves.
I’ve been suggesting that somebody writes a song on the idea of running late to meet some- one – “I’m running late”. That way you can call them up and just hum the melody. And they already know “Ok you’re late!” It’s a cute way of saying that you’re on your way. You know since I saw you last, I’m still on the hunt for that song.
I can imagine the possibility for an iconic lyric within that idea. In the same way that we reference “Things That Make You Go Hmmmm.” What fundamental skills does an A&R need to possess?
There are three skills that an effective A&R must have:
• Ability to find talent
• Ability to find their creative repertoire
• To move repertoire and to move talent
A perfect A&R has all three, but if you are part of a cohesive team then you must have at least one. What if you can find the right artists and the right songs, but you can’t get them to record? You will not accomplish anything. You will accomplish what they call “dinner stories”.
"Build a skill set that will help prepare them for every situation"
My goal is for Warner, Atlantic and Artist Partners is to create a culture of mentorship and of people helping each other. I want everyone to build a skill set that helps prepare for every situation, and that increases the flow of information and collaboration. It’s all about minimum viable product. Lets get the cheapest recording studio possible, and get the hours in. Don’t be afraid to grab the mouse and edit something yourself. If it doesn’t sound good then you don’t have to play it for anybody. But try it and know if it’s working, instead of thinking about it.
Who has been an important mentor for you?
One of the best pieces of advice that I ever received was from Lyor Cohen; he really took the time to understand me and is still an incredible mentor. I think he takes the time to understand people and where they come from. He works to understand their parents and their relationships. Lyor said “don’t sign anyone until you’ve been to their house. Understand how they live. How their room is organised. Who is in the house with them?” Successful artists are so much more than music. Let me say this – When you sign an artist, and what that artist becomes at five albums into their career, is significantly different. So understanding them at the time of signing is really important. Understand their ambition and what drives them, it will give you an insight into where they are going, versus where they are, given time.
COMMUNICATION AND INFORMATION FLOW
"Being the smallest of the three majors, we need to be the fastest and we need to have the least amount of speed bumps".
Tell me about a new initiative for fostering communication?
It is so important to create ways for people to communicate, and to accelerate the flow of information, instead of bottlenecking it. One of the things I did on my first day, when I took the global A&R job, was to create an inter-company Wikipedia for the bands that are on the label. Who is the A&R? Where do I hear their newest music? Some bands put their newest music on their YouTube channel, others keep it on their website, but don’t regularly update it. Even our rosters on the label website are sometimes not updated as fast as they should be. Sometimes there might be a delay in communication flow between our A&R, business affairs, product manager, and digital manager. We need to be improving those processes. Being the smallest of the three majors, we need to be the fastest of the three, and have the least amount of speed bumps. So we built the wiki on a google platform. It took 5 minutes, but now helps everyone update their roster.
Can you give me an example of how it supports international communication?
If you were going to Sweden to meet with songwriters, you can instantly see who is A&R for our projects in Sweden. Which relevant songwriters are in Sweden? Listen to their mu- sic if you weren’t familiar. Then easily contact that A&R, who can easily guide you through who you should meet while you’re in the country.
I can imagine it helps people be more efficient with time spent doing really basic research?
We have so many complementary skill sets, so much we can learn from one another, and yet traditional A&R has been a silo. There are individual decision-making processes, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have all the information, together with shared experiences, to help broaden your outlook on a specific artist genre or career arc. The wiki has been a huge help. We’ve also done a lot of surveys. They are semi-mandatory surveys. We want to know what our people need, and we ask questions like: Do you feel you have a mentor? If you don’t, who can we pair you up with? We’ve seen the results from some of those things, together with solutions on how certain problems can be easily fixed. Information and asking the right questions is key. I work to build a culture of positivity around discussing issues.
Can you give me another example?
When I took on this position, I felt like people didn’t even know when people started at this company, or at the label. People in New York didn’t know when London hired somebody. If somebody in L.A was fired, people didn’t know until months later. So I started an inter-company newsletter for A&Rs, so that the information can be traded back and forth. For example – to alert them when new acts are signed. Just flowing the information. I started a small team of direct reports to be hands on assisting when people needed producer advice, mixer advice and setting up sessions. Hands on support is crucial. I set up a global annual conference so that people could get together once a year and trade ideas, brainstorm and get to know each other better.
Tell me about a mistake you’ve made?
Forgetting that every person is a different per- son, year after year. It’s a process. I’ve not taken that into consideration, and been really early on a lot of things. You have to keep this crazy open mind. It’s overwhelming at some points.
There is so much you can’t control. When you are signing an artist now, you can’t control what they will go through, or what their behaviour will be like in a year.
Things do change. I think of artists, where everything changed when they met their soul mate collaborator. When Bernie Taupin and Elton John connected. When Dr Dre and Snoop connected. Missy and Timbaland. Phil Lawrence and Bruno Mars. Then The Smeezington’s became a unit. When Jeff Bhasker came out of his Kanye West experience. People improve and they find inspiration. You have people who find their yang to their ying. I have some of the best young junior A&R guys, but they will be too early on something and get tired of it. Then a year later it starts to bubble up. They say “this is flawed because of this this this and this reason”. I say – “wow you sound just like me 15 years ago”. The moral of that story is to never listen to an artist tell you about another artist.
No. Never. It’s like you talking to your boyfriend about ex-boyfriends. What do you mean by that?
Well, you’re 22 and you hear about this artist Eminem and your artist tells you “he’s awful! He’s only getting buzz for this, this and this. You skip that night because you say “this artist truly knows what he’s talking about, so I guess I would be wasting my time going and checking that one out”.
This is a true story right Mike?
Yeah. I remember hearing Eminem on the radio for the first time.
The Real Slim Shady?
No, I think it was a song with the line “the whole world can kiss my ass”.
Isn’t that a line in every Eminem song?
It was on The Wake Up Show. I was like “what the fuck is this?” You know those ones where you wait to get out of the car? Then they back announced his name – EMINEM. I’m like – “That’s EMINEM! 6 months ago when I heard about Eminem, this other great rapper said he’s shit!”
But isn’t it their job to knock each other? Isn’t that the rap game?
I guess you figure that out later in life. The answer with almost everything is just more work. There are so many incredible opportunities, but every good one requires a significant amount of time.
Which is why the efficient flow of information is paramount.
Every time somebody asks me a question “can you help me with this?”, the way I think about that answer is, “how can I help you with this and do it one time and help everyone who’s ever going to ask that same question again in the future?” How, when I evaluate a song- writer. When a songwriter comes in and they want to play you their songs – say they’re unbelievable songs – how do we know if they are the best songs from the last 6 months or the past 10 years? That’s what I want to know!
So how are we going to know that? You have to develop processes, share information, and then review and streamline those processes. You’re able to compare people to one another through some sort of method. You amplify something, instead of just taking a situation and repeating the same process.
This is what I find interesting about what you are doing. It’s a strong mentoring perspective. Helping others ask the right questions.
I want to pass it onto people who are open-minded. Who show those traits and want to learn. That are asking the right questions in all those things. I’ve tried to use all the advantages and resources that exist to make the right connections. I want to help people who want it the most, and are the most attuned for it, therefore having the best chance of success. The music industry gets very incestuous, just out of convenience. I don’t think it has to be.
"We need to be better at those systems and structures, those William Morris mail rooms, those ways for intelligent, focused, hardworking, passionate people to get into the music business."
I hope to continue evolving a culture of sharing and of mutual support within A&R and that we continue to give people who deserve – the opportunities and support them. To allow people to be as successful as they can in this environment.
So how do you encourage a culture of them sharing that information and collaborating?
It’s one of the main things we’re trying to get to. The easiest way I can understand that is by association with the acts. For example – I encourage people to assume that those doing the A&R of the dubstep artist, are also the dub- step experts at the company. The guy that’s doing the folk singer-songwriter is hopefully the most knowledgable person in the company about that genre.
Does everyone know that they can call each other?
Yeah. They are actually incentivised.
What’s the incentive?
A&R is very competitive, because your reputation and bonus is based on your individual success. We are all out there meeting with so many song-writers and producers, and opportunities come, and I thought people should be just as incentivised financially for helping another A&R person. It helps to foster a culture of collaboration. For delivering something great for an artist that isn’t their repertoire, that isn’t on their public perception of performance. We incentivise by giving bonuses for people delivering tracks that are not their public perceptive track record. Like Aaron Bay-Shuck delivering “Nothing on You” for B.O.B.
Forward thinking and effective recruitment is vital for the business. We need to attract the best and brightest. And, one of the problems of the music business is there are some perceptions that it’s an insular business, one of nepotism and all these aspects that would dissuade people. And so, I think that technology has changed and social has opened up all these doors and there’s this massive growth in music schools. Therefore we need to be better at creating those systems and structures, those William Morris mail rooms, those ways for intelligent, focused, hardworking, passionate people to get in to the music business and less of recycling the easy, the convenient recruitment of the people you already know and are social with, that are a little too permeated in the music business for too long. So, I’m using tools like ZipRecruiter and leveraging social to be able and get reach.
Have you heard of an app called Lever?
No I haven’t.
You should consider it. They offer a clear, well-designed and transparent system for a socially driven recruitment process.
Cool. Yes this is what we need, as a business and as an industry. Transparency and meritocracy. We need to have the structures in place that help us go wide on the projects we are working on. We need to be able to give everyone a fair shot and to recruit from outside the business equally as from within the business. So, that’s been important. And then with recruitment comes training and comes systems. I want to focus on finding the best executive talent. The best from outside the business, and attracting them into our business by being competitive on all levels and offering that strong two to five year plan.
What sort of person do you think thrives here at the Warner labels?
Someone with strong opinions but an open mind, someone who is proactive, intelligent, knows how to inspire and be objective. And, if you work with me, you have to be pretty organized too because we multitask. We do a lot and you have to be able to juggle and shift from one project to another without dropping balls.
When I was recruiting in 2012, I found a guy named Quinn who was consulting for a lot of tech start ups. Together we created a strategic recruitment activity. We created a questionnaire where each question had a strategic answer. We knew anyone could google it; would they bother to? Some were with questions, some were just the ability to follow direction. One was – “In 16 words or less, why are you right for this job?” The only thing that was important was that it was 16 words or less. You see the 24 word answers and you know they aren’t militant in the detail.
CROSS IT OFF THE LIST AND MOVE FORWARD
Any closing words for our conversation?
The business is changing, and it frustrates a lot of people that like to be comfortable and for things around them to be predictable. To me, that’s boring. I like new challenges, strategy and experimentation. I like being wrong, because I get to cross it off my list and move forward. Or perhaps we learn that I was right? Either way I’m on to the next thing.
* For full interview and feature, purchase The Manifesto Book 2 HERE.