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Mix Master

Even for someone as tireless as Craig Kallman -- who recently worked three nights in a row until 6 a.m. -- it's pretty hard to keep up with today's music business, which has lately begun to mirror the movie industry in ways that are unsettling. It has been rattled by corporate takeovers and management turnover, as major labels suck up smaller ones, producing blander work so sales will translate more easily overseas; more effort goes into marketing than into actual content. And like weekend movie grosses, computerized sales tabulation now instantly brands a record a success or failure.

As in Hollywood, the music business is torn between overpaid aging superstars (think Aerosmith/Schwarzenegger) and young talents it seems incapable of developing into career artists (think Alanis Morissette/Alicia Silverstone). With MTV-bred consumers hungry for new faces, the industry is blitzing stores with product -- 710 new CDs a week, according to the New York Times. Radio has fragmented into such narrow niches that it's become harder than ever to score an across-the-board hit. The top 10 is dominated by soundtrack albums that are disposable hodgepodge samplers promoting movies more than music. It's gotten so hard to break through the clutter, some labels have taken to buying commercial airtime to play an entire song -- call it legal payola.

In the decade since Kallman graduated from Brown University and started Big Beat, his own indie label, in his father's Greenwich Village apartment, he has quietly become one of the few executives with the potential to fuse all the industry's disparate elements -- gimmicky star pairings and self-produced experimenters, Top 40 popsters and underground club remixers. He's equally at home in the urban jam at Puff Daddy's birthday party and at the opening night of Broadway's schmaltzy Scarlet Pimpernel, whose composer, Frank Wildhorn, Kallman brought to the label. In the course of a day (or even an hour), he might focus with an intense, assured calm on personal singer-songwriters like Tori Amos, raunchy rappers like Lil' Kim, black-teen pop heroines like Aaliyah and Brandy, adult crooners like Anita Baker, and rock bands like Collective Soul. He's as adept at negotiating deal points as at fixing a song's structural problems; moreover, barely beneath his ingratiating, chipper demeanor lies the tenacity of a pit bull.

"A lot of guys in this industry are not music men; they're marketing guys, lawyers," Amos notes. "Often you turn your music in to these guys and they say, 'I don't know.' And you say, 'Of course you don't know. This is for your daughter, who hates your guts right now.' Craig understands that. The fascinating thing about Craig is the music I do is not his preference, but he can listen to it and know when it's done well or when it's lacking, and that's really a gift."

Ertegun, co-chairman (with Val Azzoli) of Atlantic, concurs. "Craig is a star, one of the greatest music people I've ever worked with," he says. "It's not so much that he's a workaholic; it's that he has so much fervor for the business. I see a lot of things in him that I felt when I was young."

After Atlantic made its name in R&B in the fifties and early sixties, then in hard rock in the seventies, the label floundered, but it has lately been revivified by younger executives like Azzoli, Kallman, and Jason Flom (who signed two of its biggest-selling new acts, Matchbox 20 and Sugar Ray). This year, Atlantic had a lousy first quarter, mostly because of delayed releases. But lately Atlantic has returned to the top 10, not only with Brandy and Dr. Dolittle, but also with Amos's Songs From the Choirgirl Hotel and Robert Plant and Jimmy Page's Walking Into Clarksdale, while Brandy's duet with Monica, "The Boy Is Mine," is proving to be the year's biggest single.

Kallman's platinum successes at Atlantic have been all over the R&B map: the reggae band Inner Circle, the female soul duo Changing Faces, the propulsive Florida dance group Quad City DJs, rap acts Junior M.A.F.I.A. and Lil' Kim. But it remains to be seen whether any of them will prove to be career artists. His biggest achievement has been 1996's Space Jam soundtrack, which displayed both the fruits of his dealmaking -- Kallman hounded Michael Jordan's manager in airports to get the gig, then had to placate the various labels that lent their acts -- and his wide-ranging taste. Providing something for every audience, from a trash-talking summit of top rappers ("Hit 'Em High") to a soaring R. Kelly ballad ("I Believe I Can Fly") to a seventies update (Seal's "Fly Like an Eagle"), Space Jam has sold 7 million copies worldwide.

The record business is rife with white male Jewish New York record executives who've made names for themselves in black music, including Tommy Boy's Tom Silverman, Loud's Steven Rifkind, and Def Jam's Lyor Cohen. What sets Kallman apart is that he has a much more ambitious agenda -- Broadway, alternative rock, and Top 40 pop. He's desperately trying to promote his first hard-rock acts, Big Wreck and Athaneum, and he recently signed free agent Sinéad O'Connor to the label. He also co-supervised (with Darren Higman) the distinctly non-R&B soundtrack for The Avengers, featuring O'Connor, Annie Lennox, and the Utah Saints.

Yet Kallman has virtually no public profile; he's not flamboyant or outspoken or a fixture on any scene. "He flies underneath the radar," says Def Jam's Cohen. A few years ago, Cohen noticed that the one person competing with him on every new deal was not Puffy Combs or Andre Harrell but Craig Kallman. "I thought, Damn, who is this guy?" says Cohen. He attributes Kallman's success to the fact that "he's a music dude. It resonates; it seeps out of his pores. When he hears a record, he'll know the sample, the bass line, whereas I couldn't even tell you a record I released a month ago. He's the future of the music business."

But is Kallman its savior or something more ambiguous? Cohen also compliments Kallman as someone who "will try to figure out a way to give consumers what they want . . . Whenever he's in trouble, he surveys opinion."

This Clintonian sort of vision-through-polling can sometimes mistake sales potential for musical excellence. Not that Kallman's alone in this approach: Never before have the words music and business been so intertwined. In the past year, Azzoli cut Atlantic's artist roster in half and reduced its releases from 150 to 55, spending more on fewer acts, hoping to repeat its successes with Jewel and Hootie & the Blowfish, whose records took a while to top the charts, then lodged themselves there forever. Such patience is a dangerous luxury, however. "We're a public company," says Kallman, "and there's intense pressure to have the hits now, bring in the revenue now. The batting average has to be higher than it's ever been."

Kallman's blitzkrieg approach to life is apparent to anyone who eats with him in a restaurant. Instead of ordering a single dish, he'll often ask for custom sampler plates -- three appetizers, three entrées, three desserts. It's not that he's indecisive; he likes and wants them all.

The same obsessive-accumulative impulse rules Kallman's musical taste. "My only criterion is if it's good," he insists. A visit to his three-bedroom Upper East Side apartment suggests that for Kallman, many, many things qualify as "good." Two entire rooms are lined so deep with record cabinets that a person can barely squeeze between them, and cardboard boxes containing overflow have crept into the dining room, living room, and foyer, to the point where his wife, Isabel, an investment banker, won't let anyone visit and is threatening to hold a record sale.