Over the course of his prolific career in A&R, Pete Ganbarg, Executive Vice President and Head of A&R at Atlantic Records, has worked with a wide array of artists ranging from Run DMC, Kelly Clarkson, Train, Halestorm, Santana and Daughtry, to Christina Perri, Twenty One Pilots, Donna Summer, Chaka Khan, Aaron Neville and more. He has A&R’d projects and/or worked full time for Columbia, Arista, Virgin, Warner Brothers, RCA, Epic, Capitol, and now Atlantic Records, where he has headed up A&R since late 2008. Pete’s projects have sold over 75 million units worldwide. Pete generously took time out of his busy schedule to discuss his work as Head of A&R at Atlantic and to give some advice to aspiring artists on how to get discovered.
Interview by Jonah Bayer
How did you end up in your current position at Atlantic Records?
I have been doing A&R for a while–most recently working independently for five years prior to coming to Atlantic Records. One day, [Atlantic Chairman/CEO] Craig Kallman called me and asked if I would be interested in working as an A&R consultant on a one-off project making a record with the band Halestorm. So I did that and had a great time working with the band. Craig liked what I did and asked if I would join the label as head of A&R in October of 2008.
What initially drew you to Halestorm?
My approach to A&R is to view every project as being different or unique. Every project is a jigsaw puzzle and, for me, the fun of artist development is when you find that one missing piece and put it in the right place to solve the puzzle–cracking the code. When I first met Lzzy, the lead singer of Halestorm, I was like, "You're great, let's dig in together and figure out what you need to say and we'll make the right songs and go from there." I was most intrigued by the puzzle that other people were having difficulty solving and I thought it would be exciting to help put the pieces in place.
Are artists generally receptive to you being involved in the creative process?
I think most artists appreciate the experience that I bring to their project because there are really not a ton of creative issues in the record-making process that I haven't seen in my 25 years of doing this. If there's a problem, chances are we can pinpoint it and say, "this is how we handled it the last time", and from there it's just a question of figuring out the best way to solve it.
What advice would you have for artists who want to get discovered by Atlantic?
I think the most important thing is to work on developing a strong live show. Going back to Halestorm, the reason that it didn't matter that their debut album took so long to come together was because they were so good live. It was the same with Twenty One Pilots: the first time you saw them live you knew that they had the potential to be one of the biggest live acts we have and everything else would follow. These bands put so much work into their live shows–so I would say if you're a touring act it's really important to tour as much as you can and really hone your craft. The other thing I’d suggest is to really work on your songwriting–focus on how to make your song cut through the sea of noise from all the millions of songs out there.
"You just need a great song and the great song wins. It's always been about the star artist performing fantastic repertoire; that's what A&R is all about and what makes it work."
What keeps you excited about discovering new artists?
I love hearing great songs. I get a big smile on my face every time I hear something unexpected that feels like it has the potential to be a special song that's going to resonate with people. When you discover a special song, shepherd it into a record, and then watch it become one of the biggest songs in the world, it's a great feeling.
Rock band Skillet, Craig Kallman, Julie Greenwald and Pete Ganbarg at the platinum plaque presentation for Skillet’s Awake.
What are some of your personal career highlights?
I've been very fortunate to work with some of the greatest artists of the past 50 years. When these artists were not at the top of their commercial peak, I was the lucky guy who got the call saying, "Hey, we have this artist who used to be one of the biggest artists in the world and now they're not. Can you help?" That included everything from working with Santana and giving him the song "Smooth", which was written by Rob Thomas (who I now A&R at Atlantic), to sitting with Pat Monahan from Train and figuring out how to make Train's music resonate again several years after their last hit. Trying to connect the dots between the artist and audience is always one of the most fun parts of this job.
Music seems so image driven today. Do you feel you like the industry is more superficial than it used to be?
No, you just need a great song and the great song wins. It's always been about the star artist performing fantastic repertoire–that's what A&R is all about and what makes it work. Sometimes the artist will write their own songs and sometimes they won't. In fact, some of the greatest artists of all-time didn't write. If you give Frank Sinatra "Strangers In The Night" or "Respect" to Aretha Franklin–or give Barbara Streisand "The Way We Were”, those are all 10 out of 10 songs sung by 10 out of 10 artists and that’s always going to be a winning combination.
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