As the winners of the A&R gong at this year’s Music Week Awards, Atlantic Records are riding high right now. Here, Music Week meets co-presidents Briony Turner and Ed Howard alongside members of their triumphant A&R team to find out the secrets of breaking acts…
WORDS: JAMES HANLEY PHOTOS: ELLIOT WILCOX/ATLANTIC
BRIONY TURNER, CO-PRESIDENT
Congratulations on your Music Week Awards win! Fred Again.. was a big success story last year, what defines your A&R methodology with him?
“Every artist needs a different approach, but Fred is particularly unique as a producer and artist. I first met Fred in 2016 and his talent was unquestionable. He was in a small room at Abbey Road playing the piano, and his musicianship blew me away. Not only that, he had a really warm and infectious energy. I started to work with him as a producer across multiple artists on Atlantic’s roster and we got to know each other really well. However, after signing him, it was evident that his own A&R process required a different lens to the more song-focused approach that he used on other artists’ records. The best move I made was to give him time and space to work out his own musical direction.”
How does the A&R process work practically between the two of you?
“It’s a fluid one and I’m on hand when he needs me. I turn up, listen and give feedback. He’s a very smart person, so he takes what’s useful from my commentary. Plus Alex [Gibson], his brother and manager, is also very talented and hands-on, as are a handful of trusted musical soundboards and producers. In terms of the campaign, it’s been a consistent rolling out of music from Actual Life (April 14 – December 17 2020) until now, alongside his live shows, plus the development of his community which has got him to where he is today. He’s an uncompromising artist and releasing music was never going to be a drive towards OCC success.”
You previously told Music Week that Fred has “developed an exceptional reach into fandom”. How has he done that?
“The thing that sets Fred apart is his innate understanding of fandom as the route to creating his culture and community. There’s a depth of care and a level of communication that feels quite unique to Fred and continues to be really important to him. Fred has an ‘always-on’ and unfiltered approach to communication, which he was forced to harness during the pandemic because he couldn’t play live and had to find other ways to build his community. He regularly invites fans into his process, whether it’s road-testing tracks or asking them questions about what they want from him next. His audience are his A&Rs! He massively values their opinion.”
Live has been key to his success. How has the show developed so far?
“We can take it back to his first headline show at Village Underground in 2021. I couldn’t believe the atmosphere, there was a palpable entrancement in the audience and Fred gave so much energy. It was clear he was building a very special community and the intimacy of the show was sure to add to that. Word of mouth started to spread and from there, Tom Schroeder [agent], Oliver Sasse and Alex [managers] along with the force of nature that is Lucy Hickling [creative director] did the most remarkable job of supporting Fred to build out the show. Within two years, he went from Village Underground, to closing Coachella with Skrillex and Four Tet. Need I say more!”
Can you sum up the impact a moment like this summer’s Glastonbury set can have?
“Whenever there’s an ignition moment like Glastonbury, we see an uplift in all other metrics, such as streaming and further reach across platforms. These are such important moments for Fred, as they showcase what a unique and special performer he is and help drive all other aspects of his reach. He keeps producing these moments that cross boundaries and propel him further.”
Where does he fit into UK dance music?
“Fred is carving out his own style and in doing so, he has become a unique brand of ‘star’. He is forward-thinking and isn’t trying to chase or imitate anyone. Instead, it feels like the industry is trying to catch up with him. When you look at the Actual Life trilogy, you get a real snapshot of the artist and the mood of where he is at that point in time. And then you have his ever-evolving USB playlist, which features the more hard-hitting, faster-paced sounds more akin to the Boiler Room sessions. His understanding of the power of a brilliant hook and his aim for perfection set him apart. He keeps things ahead of the curve while staying true to his roots, which can be a tricky balancing act.”
Maisie Peters is another jewel in Atlantic’s crown. What do you consider to be the cornerstone of her success?
“Maisie had a clear vision of what she wanted The Good Witch to sound like and how she would achieve that. She values her creative relationships, so the record is a great balance of people she loved working with on album one, along with some fantastic new collaborators. She has always been an exceptional lyricist and storyteller and has worked hard to finesse her songwriting skills, which meant there was less need to A&R her as closely as we did on her first album. With me in the background, Paul Samuels has been instrumental in his day-to-day interactions with Maisie. She’s also benefited from the oversight and mentorship from Ed Sheeran, whose imprint she signed to in 2021.”
Maisie was on the cover of our new music issue in 2020. Can you give us some insight into A&R as a long-term process?
“Yes, thank you for that – it was a great moment for her and the team! Paul and I signed her in 2018 based on gut instinct and positive streaming data. We knew there was work to be done, and we were delighted when Maisie and her manager Bobby Havens chose us. The journey we were about to embark on excited us, as artist development is the DNA of Atlantic’s A&R. By album two, Maisie’s songwriting and direction were really impressive, and she had the music to match. I’d also like to mention her grasp of superfandom, which was very apparent early on, as you can tell from her social media. She is self-deprecating, funny and smart; it’s an infectious combination that has entranced so many.”
What has been the biggest challenge on The Good Witch so far?
“Time! Maisie had a busy live schedule supporting Ed Sheeran on his stadium tour, so time for creative was quite squeezed. However, it forced focus, and Maisie went into sessions with a brilliant drive and work ethic, so we were okay. We went down to the wire when delivering this album, mixing it just before Christmas over just one week with the brilliant Spike Stent. The deadline was stressful, but the challenge was a lot of fun, too.”
Overall, what do you think your team’s work tells the rest of the industry about Atlantic’s approach to A&R?
“Ed [Howard] and I encourage a very collaborative approach. This is the third time we’ve won this award over the past 10 years, which hopefully speaks to a consistent approach to signing, developing and sustaining artists. It’s an interesting time for A&R, as consumption habits change and discovery is impacted, so we’re constantly reassessing what we’re doing and how we do it, but we remain at the heart of the label. We’re still very confident we can help bring artists through and set them up for long and lucrative careers.”
How do you see your role as a mentor, leader and role model for your team?
“Being a young female A&R over 20 years ago was difficult. Having a perspective and opinion
was often frowned upon. I was aware of only one or two senior female executives at the time –
shout-out to Annie Roseberry – so it was hard to ever imagine that A&R could be a career path as a woman. I hope that my role as co-president of a major label, with a 20-plus year A&R career, shows it’s possible. As I’ve just alluded to, having an opinion was often seen as a negative, but it’s literally the backbone of what makes a good A&R person. I encourage all women around me to express themselves, not only in A&R but across the whole label.”
Finally, have things changed in terms of A&R being more open to young women?
“A&R is challenging to get into, full stop. It’s probably the most mysterious part of a record label. It was almost impossible for females when I started. I’m optimistic that gender is becoming less of an issue, though that’s not to say it’s still not a challenge for women in A&R roles, particularly at labels, which is of course reflected in the producer/engineer/mixer community. This is something that Ed and I have continuously worked on, as you can see with the brilliant female A&R talent we’re fostering at the label with the likes of Emily [Kent], Cannelle [Bencherqi], Jessie [Bull] and Amy [Webber].”
From an A&R perspective, how did you navigate the change in tone and sound for the new Ed Sheeran album?
“It was led by Aaron [Dessner, producer] and Ed. It was all very much from the heart and in pretty short order in a very condensed time period, so we were just trying to support that process. There was a little bit of input around tracklist and sonics – mostly around the tracks, because they’d made a lot of music and we just offered our honest feedback in terms of what was moving us the most. But once I started speaking to Ed about the stories, it’s so personal, so he led [the process]. Aaron was sending mini-instrumentals to Ed and because he’s such a fine producer and musician, a lot of that finished production sound was built into those initial ideas. Once they got going, it was pretty self-contained, but it was beautiful to be part of.”
What were the sessions like?
“We always offer our honest input into whatever Ed’s doing. He’s very
open-hearted and open-minded about that. I remember going down to Dungeness where they were working and it was a beautiful thing to witness. Seeing Ed go back to more of an acoustic sound was really welcome, and a real return to the beginning. I remember some of those recording sessions from + and they were very different obviously, but it reminded me of similar touchpoints and it felt like we were going full circle in a way.”
How did the personal subject matter on the new album impact the A&R process?
“It took a minute to learn the genesis for each song and it was important to not be too opinionated prior to understanding those. Retrospectively, I felt myself feeling, ‘Oh, wow, now I really understand what this song is, where it came from and what Ed was going through and why it’s so important.’ I think the feedback one might have given from a purely musical perspective maybe wasn’t relevant when you consider the narrative arc of the album, and that was a learning curve for me on this record. So we were much less involved musically than maybe historically, but the job was making sure that those stories were understood very well by everybody on the project. We encouraged everybody to open up as much as possible about the themes, or why a song was written, and to do so in interesting, visual ways. It was also for Ed to speak up. He spoke in front of lots of people prior to release and it was important for him to tell those stories. Rather than necessarily getting super into the weeds of the music itself, it was about asking, ‘How do you bring it to life? How do you narrate it? How do we add to it and encourage Ed to develop the story beyond the music?’ That was the role.”
Can you shed light on what Ed Sheeran is like to A&R?
“It’s obviously a great privilege and I feel very lucky, he makes us look very clever. More specifically, he’s extremely prolific, so you have to deal with a lot of ideas and creative flow and it’s important to honour and support that and not interrupt it. Unlike some people who have fewer ideas and you need to coax them out, with Ed it’s more of a supporting and editing role. But he’s super open-minded. He’s super collaborative. He’s really fun. We always have a gigantic bottle of red wine at the mastering in the studio, which is a bit of a tradition. But the process is robust, it’s not fluffy. He says what he thinks and we try to do the same, but he always comes from a place of love. Obviously, we’ve known each other for a long time and he’s very respectful of what everyone gives to him, he is a super-respectful guy from that perspective. He knows everybody that works for him all around the world, so he’s very forthcoming with his praise and appreciation for whatever input we have, which isn’t always the greatest or the most valuable, but we help at the key moments and I think he appreciates that.”
Is every artist so involved in every aspect of the process?
“I think that’s evolved over time to be honest, because Ed was the DIY blueprint in a way at the beginning and obviously, as you get bigger and more successful, your life changes. I’d say he’s still super hands-on in some ways and less in others. So again, as with every artist, it’s about supporting those areas. Obviously, he’s never going to need encouragement to write songs, or help writing great songs. So we get out of the way when we need to get out of the way and support where we need to support, but that changes over time with any artist and certainly it has done with Ed.”
What does the length of your relationship with Ed say about the power of Atlantic’s A&R?
“That’s a real privilege. To meet a person at such a young age and see them grow and to far outstrip our own successes and abilities – which was on the cards from long ago – and to still have a very healthy relationship, has got to count as the most treasured thing you can find in this industry or any other.”
What’s the best example of Atlantic A&R with Ed Sheeran?
“We’ve been involved in introducing Ed to some key collaborators, be that Fred Gibson, Pharrell, Benny Blanco and others. When he makes connections as deep as those, he ends up taking over and running them, as he should, and that’s why he makes such special music. But to be a part of identifying who he might get on with, and who might be an equal musically, is one of the more valuable things we’ve been able to do. By the way, he has identified just as many himself, if not more, but I think he has appreciated us being part of that process. That’s a great satisfaction for us too.”
Now the ‘mathematical era’ is over, where are you going next?
“This tour is running through not just this year, but next year as well. So we’re going to enjoy the wrapping up of this period as we prepare for what comes after, which no doubt will be just as well thought out and equally exciting. He obviously never stops writing, never stops creating, so I don’t think he’ll be away for long, let’s put it that way.”
You work on Ed with Cannelle Bencherqi. How does that partnership operate?
“Cannelle has treated every part of the campaign with a great deal of care and a real desire to make sure that everything felt right for Ed. That has certainly been appreciated by me, but also by Ed as well. That always contributes to that smoothness in these things, and being faithful to the creative process and supporting that is something that Cannelle believes in. We all believe in it, but she manifests that. You take the stress out of those areas and the creativity can flow in the way that it’s meant to. I think that’s sometimes underappreciated and she deserves a lot of praise for that.”
Finally, what is the role of the A&R in helping artists’ stories come to life?
“Our job, even if it’s not to get super hands-on with the crafting of the music, is to translate those stories and draw them out into the wider world. The job of an A&R isn’t always just to introduce people or to give mix notes. Those things can happen too, but sometimes it’s really understanding where the artist is coming from and what’s behind the music so that we can make sure that all of the other decisions – of which there are tens of thousands – sing from the same hymn sheet. Briony [Turner, co-president] and I have worked hard to foster the strong A&R tradition within Atlantic and to maintain a team full of passionate and driven young execs. Their energy, dedication and commitment to our artists is inspiring and we are incredibly proud to see their hard work recognised with the Music Week Award.”