He believes in artist development.

This is another thing the old guard has wrong. Stuck in the last decade they don’t know the ball has been moved.

Mike finds an act, brings him to the studio for a week and sees if the act has what it takes.

And how does Mike find these acts?

First and foremost you must know he’s addicted to YouTube, he reads the comments, to get the flow, it’s a data resource nonpareil. You see beatmakers post their work under “(famous name) type beat” for wannabes to rap over and post to Soundcloud. These beatmakers are not worried about getting paid, they just want to get in the game. They’re not worried about being ripped off, because if they are, if a hit is based on their work, the labels will come calling, everybody wants to work with a hitmaker. If you’re thinking about getting paid first, you’re old school.

And Mike doesn’t sign a deal with these acts, not right away. It’s the opposite of get the manager and the President and the act in a room and no one’s leaving until a deal is done. As a matter of fact, most lawyers don’t want to broker new artists deals these days, there’s just not enough money in it. Attorneys are rarely a source of new acts.

So Mike brings them in, based on their online work, and checks out not only their talent, but their dedication. Do they come early and stay late? Are they willing to learn? If yes, Mike knows it’s gonna be two to three years of work before he sees any payoff, and he’s wary of betting on the wrong horse. As for a competitor scooping up his talent after he’s invested in it, before he’s made a deal, Mike’s not worried about it. Because if the act feels comfortable with Mike, his writers and his producers, he’s not gonna go anywhere else (and, of course, it’s not only men, it’s women too…)

And Mike laments the fact that too many of today’s “artists” focus on socials instead of music. Because it’s easier to gain a following, easier to work the public, and it gives you data to quote. But Mike is more interested in the music, he’s getting in way early, and then helping you find your way to who you want to be.

And Mike’s also helped make stars of castoffs, like Bruno Mars, who had a deal with Motown and then was dropped. That’s right, being dropped is no longer the kiss of death. It was about surrounding Bruno with the right people, helping him find and execute his vision.

As for Ed Sheeran, he was an incredibly hard worker. He wrote for everybody. Released an EP of collaborations with rappers. In retrospect the climb looks fast, but it wasn’t.

And both Bruno and Ed could keep themselves alive with their writing work.

Whereas today you sign an act and they want to see income in two years and in reality it takes at least three years to find out if you have anything. But the act has little patience, it burns through the advance in two years, and if the manager isn’t making money…

And Mike feels the second album is more important than the first. That if you break through you can’t take all the offers, you can’t do gigs on the weekend and then write and record during the week, there’s not enough time, either you don’t produce or you do so substandardly.

And every act is different, some need a lot of collaboration, others not so much.

And there’s got to be a steady stream of product. An album every six months or a year, so there’s something to tour on.

As for EPs, Mike points to the fact that no one’s ever broken on one. That’s something he does with all his acts, sit them down and ask them who they want to be, their role models, and usually he finds out the wannabe has no idea of the pitfalls of the star, the failures, the hard work, the wrong turns. It’s a long way to the top if you wanna rock ‘n roll.

And the truth is we live in a hip-hop world. And we might not have had a new sound come along which eclipses hip-hop, but hip-hop has been through five or more changes in the last decade. Furthermore, today’s artists grew up with hip-house in the house, that’s what their parents were playing.

So upstairs is Mike’s office and his publishing company. Everybody has a piece of the action. And the ratio of acts to execs is very low, so there can be hands-on interaction.

Downstairs are the studios. With a computer and board and a couch and a coffee table that rises up so your laptop is at the right level. Furthermore, the writers have control of the speaker volume. Everything has been built from the ground up to foster creativity.

And a few buildings away is where the label marketing people are.

And on the same street is Crush Management, which has production next door.

And Anderson .Paak is across the street.

And down the street is the epicenter of hip-hop shopping. They were lined up for blocks outside the Supreme store and it was three o’clock on a Thursday afternoon. The internet may rule, but the public still wants to belong, still wants the identity totems.

So this is the way the new world works.

If there’s traction on Spotify Mike will spend marketing dollars. He doesn’t need radio to do so. As for radio, he wonders how long until they embrace the algorithms, go with what works on the streaming services as opposed to callout research.

So today you’re a self-starter, alone, at home, with your laptop. You pull beats from YouTube and you post your rap atop them and wait for a reaction. Some of these Soundcloud mixes have 250,000 listens. Because hip-hop is a community, a whole culture, which you can not only embrace, but stretch, innovation is treasured.

Whereas learning to play an instrument is hard. And there’s nowhere near the culture in other genres.

As for the success of Adele, Mike believes it’s not easily replicated because of the involvement of XL, the hipsters were interested, where normally the hipsters avoid this sound.

And if you were with Mike for three hours either you’d get really excited or really depressed. And your depression would come from realizing the game has changed, everything you believed is in the rearview mirror.

It’s not your music business anymore.

It’s the teens’ and twentysomethings’.

And they have no idea what you’re talking about. And they believe opportunities are plentiful. As well as money. They’re not talking about what once was, but what is. Meanwhile, too many labels are complacent with the uplift from streaming. You’ve got to rebuild your operation according to the new model. Empower not only the musicians, but the executives too.

Mike has.

 

Bob Lefsetz

Lunch With Mike Caren