Mix Master

“What’s blowing up?” asks Craig Kallman, scanning a daunting wall-to-wall array of twelve-inch singles by new hip-hop acts. Kallman, a Boy Scoutish 33-year-old raised on the Upper East Side, is quizzing the homeboy clerk at Fat Beats on lower Sixth Avenue, one of the city’s dozen or so independent record shops that Kallman cruises every Saturday morning.

“We sell a lot of both of these,” says the clerk, handing over singles by groups called Rankoticks and Black Attack.

Kallman scans the labels for any useful factoids, then has the clerk plop them on the in-store turntables. He cocks his head, half listening as he continues to pluck records from bins and racks. Walking out fifteen minutes later with $200 worth of music, Kallman says, “Mostly D.J.’s shop in this store. If you’re a young kid, how many of these can you afford?”

Kallman has been haunting stores like this since he was a teenager at Trinity School and a D.J. at the legendary Danceteria; a dedicated follower of everything from hip-hop to schlock pop, he owns 50,000 records.

But unlike most music wonks who malinger with record-store workers, Kallman has a broader purpose: He’s trolling for a hit for Atlantic Records, where he has worked for eight years. He will spend the next day in his apartment, surfing through these purchases and demo tapes culled by his staff, looking for any raw element – producer, rapper, vocalist, songwriter, remixer – to turn into commercial gold. It’s exhausting, but the payoff can be huge, as it was when he hooked up then-unknown producer Timbaland with black teen idol Aaliyah; the resulting One in a Million went triple-platinum.

Last year, Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun named Kallman executive vice-president, putting him in charge of the label’s A&R (artists and repertoire) department, where he oversees the signing and development of every act on the venerable 50-year-old label except the country ones. His taste – as exemplified by Atlantic’s two current top 10 albums, Brandy’s Never Say Never and the soundtrack from Dr. Dolittle – will now be steering Atlantic into the millennium.

Today he directs his Town Car east to Other Music, the alternative-music store across from Tower Records, where section titles include das krautrock, la decadanse, and psychedelia. Kallman pulls aside co-owner Chris Vanderloo, who passes along some recommendations: the Clears, from Memphis, “very late-eighties, New Wave?sounding”; the rootsy Nebraska band Lullaby for the Working Class; a solo album from the woman in Flying Saucer Attack; a folk-tech act from Sweden called Friend.

Kallman drops another $250 and is driven next to Sonic Groove, a narrow shop on Carmine Street devoted almost entirely to “trance music” – harder-edge industrial electronica. After the success of Prodigy, Kallman thinks the next big crossover will be a band that melds electronica with some real rock songs. He lost just such a band, Stroke, to Interscope and wants the next one badly.

He scrutinizes the racks of anonymous album covers by bands with names like Stumplank, E Flame & Mr. G., Proton Beams. “I never heard of them; they’re all kids,” Kallman marvels. “There could be one genius in the 500. It’s like the needle in the haystack.”

He approaches the close-shaved clerk behind the counter – one of the few in today’s tour whom Kallman doesn’t know – and asks, “What’s selling?”

“What category?” the clerk shoots back. “Hard techno? House?”

“What’s the next Aphex Twin, coming up from the underground?” Kallman replies. “Something that you think could sell.”

“We don’t carry anything commercial,” the clerk practically sneers. “I’ll give you a bunch of stuff to listen to.”

Kallman carries it over to a turntable and skips around different tracks, trying to find something catchy. It’s all just drones – tape loops, drum machines, lulling grooves. “Nothing!” Kallman says. “This sounds like the death of club music to me. There’s no melody, music, song, vocalist. We’re now at the point where an entire store can exist, selling records – a record store without a single song in it.”

He laughs, then frowns. “Either that, or I’m really getting out of touch.”

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.

Though Kallman’s favorite artists are Van Morrison and Joan Armatrading, he’s just as jazzed showing off a Jean-Jacques Perry album of Moog music, a vintage Art Ensemble of Chicago album, or We’re the Banana Splits; he’ll know the song listing, the producers, and every bit of arcana about the making of the record.

Ever the D.J., Kallman sets album after album onto his $6,000 Linn turntable (this major purveyor of CDs is one of the diehards who believe in the superiority of vinyl); soon there are albums and jackets spread all over his couch. Though ambivalent about the vogue for fashioning new hits by sampling old ones, he has a bag of records put aside for future possible sampling. “People were stealing stuff way back when,” he says. “You can’t knock Puffy Combs, because you’d also have to knock great artists who did their own little bits of lifting.”

Kallman gets most animated when showing off his extensive collection of early flops by artists who later became superstars, including Attilla, a duo featuring Billy Joel; Gulliver, with lead singer Daryl Hall; Milkwood, the first group of the Cars’ Ric Ocasek; World Class Wrecking Crew, featuring Dr. Dre in a red lamé suit; Babyface’s first group, the Deal; and Steely Dan’s precursor, The Original Soundtrack. Though there is hardly a memorable musical moment among them, Kallman says he often puts them on “as an exercise. You listen and go, ‘Would I have known?’ “

Kallman’s drivenness isn’t limited to business pursuits. He first spotted Isabel when she was a Columbia student moonlighting as a dancer in a video for a Big Beat band; he dogged her for a year – lying to get past the switchboard where she worked, bombarding her with books and attention – until she consented to a date.

After the band Big Wreck played a major-label showcase in Toronto, recalls the band’s lead singer, Ian Thornley, “Craig was in the dressing room before we were. The other labels were waiting for us to come and mingle.” Kallman’s two assistants wearily recount how they come in early only to find a half-dozen messages from him. This relentlessness can be exhausting and annoying at times, but Kallman’s saving grace, says Arthur Spivak, who manages Tori Amos and Collective Soul and speaks to Kallman almost daily, is that “Craig never gets carried away with himself like some people in this business. He’s always self-deprecating: ‘I know I’m neurotic, but that’s what makes me tick.’ “

Considering how much time he spends in the office, Kallman hasn’t done much to give the place warmth. There are some worn suede couches and a lot of clutter – dat tapes of unsigned acts and producers, trade publications, posters, gold records, CDs. As the day progresses, he’ll suck cough drops and chew gum – his only vices – while ricocheting from phone call to meeting. He often orders two lunches so he can eat one later for dinner.

At one point during the making of Brandy’s Never Say Never, Kallman, wearing an untucked suede shirt and slacks, met with two young R&B producers, Silky and Teron, in an attempt to sharpen an up-tempo track. “We want to make it hard and street,” Kallman was saying. “Janet and Mariah’s new records are just a loop of someone else – I think it’s wide open for Brandy to take them out. When she starts really singing, it’s hot, that’s dope.”

When they leave, Kallman seems a little deflated. “Most of the kids who come to my office can’t play, can’t write music or read a song, but they’re ‘producers,’ ” he says. “Gamble and Huff, Holland-Dozier-Holland were songwriters as well as producers. It’s gotten cheaper to buy equipment, easier to sample other people’s music. Fewer and fewer artists are coming to my office saying, ‘Hey, I got this new song; I just played all the instruments and I wrote it at the piano.’ ” Kallman bemoans the trend, yet he’s a pragmatist. “I’m not pooh-poohing it,” he says – but then does: “Unfortunately, it’s the wave of the future.”

In fact, it’s precisely the ease with which an R&B hit can be manufactured (compared with, say, developing a rock band) that led Kallman to form the house-music label Big Beat. Kallman says he finds his rep as a black-music specialist “ironic, because I was much more into rock for many of my formative years.”

His musical fanaticism started when he was a child, and Kallman’s father, Stanley, at the time an attorney for Cannon Films, started bringing him along to shows – Gilbert & Sullivan operettas, rock and jazz performances. (Kallman is an only child; his parents divorced when he was young, and his mother died when he was 5.) After trying nearly every musical instrument and failing miserably, Craig started collecting records. His taste was wholly conventional: The first six groups he bought were Fleetwood Mac, Bad Company, Aerosmith, Led Zeppelin, Parliament/Funkadelic, and Hot Tuna. He’d pore over the albums, wondering why some songs were weak, why radio didn’t seem to pick the right singles.

By the time he’d become a teenager, he was a club kid and budding ethnomusicologist. Trinity classmate Elizabeth Saltzman, now fashion director of Vanity Fair, recalls, “Craig was way straighter than I was yet had this incredible knowledge. I’d find him and say, ‘Do you know this song?’ and hum a few notes, and he’d bring me all the remixes and import versions. He was interested in the music, not the scene.”

Indeed, in marked contrast to his famously high-living mentor, Ertegun, Kallman avoids most aspects of the club life. He never did drugs, and to this day he doesn’t even drink beer. He befriended club doormen, volunteered at the New Music Seminar, and haunted record stores. It was in 99 Records that, in 1981, Kallman, then 16, met D.J. Richard Vasquez from the club Berlin, who introduced him to the art of D.J.’ing. He worked his way up from playing Motown for yuppies at the Mansion on lower Second Avenue to Friday and Saturday nights at Danceteria – where, he recalls somewhat wistfully, “I went from playing Kraftwerk into Loleatta Holloway into Nitzer Ebb into Parliament/Funkadelic, and the dance floor stayed packed.”

At Brown, he D.J.’d funk nights in the campus dining hall, programmed the student radio station’s urban- and alternative-music shows, and worked as a college rep for Columbia Records, earning $45 a week to promote acts like LL Cool J, the Psychedelic Furs, and Bruce Springsteen. Most notorious were the annual “Mike’s parties” Kallman and some friends threw, promoting them with cleverly cryptic flyers and primitive but hilarious videos that played in the student post office.

When Kallman graduated in 1987, his father recalls, “I suggested he go immediately to Harvard Business School, but he said he wanted to start his own record company.” To school himself in the various facets of the business, Craig took a job at Billboard tabulating radio charts and another promoting videos at Factory Records, home of New Order, while continuing to D.J. at night. When he was shopping in a record store one day, he heard a catchy house-music demo. He tracked down its creator, hired a singer named Tara Vhonty, borrowed a friend’s equipment, and emerged with a song called “Join Hands.”

To figure out what to do next, Kallman read William Krasilovsky and Sidney Shemel’s standard text, This Business of Music, drew up a contract, pressed 1,000 copies of the single, and gave it to club-D.J. friends and radio people he’d met through Billboard. It started getting on KISS and BLS, record stores started calling, and soon Kallman was literally wheeling a shopping cart through the streets of Manhattan, selling door to door. “Before I knew it, I ended up selling 5,000,” he says.

He quit everything but D.J.’ing, an invaluable test-marketing tool, which he says taught him “how long an introduction should be, how often to repeat the hook to get the crowd to repeat it.” His second single, Kraze’s funky “The Party,” sold 300,000 copies worldwide. Soon, Big Beat was a $3 million?a?year business and Kallman had assembled a twelve-person staff. When he signed dance singer Tara Kemp, the major labels waged a bidding war for her. Kallman sold her contract to Irving Azoff at Giant for enough money to fund Big Beat’s annual payroll.

Kemp’s record ended up stiffing, and Kallman started to worry. “Vinyl was dying,” he says. “You couldn’t make as much profit on singles, and I didn’t have the hundred grand it took to make competitive videos. I needed to hook up with a major.” In 1991, when he had another indie hit, by the group Jomanda, the majors all came calling again. Kallman sold half of Big Beat, along with his services, to Atlantic’s then-chief, Doug Morris. Three months later, Atlantic bought the other half, too.

Still, Kallman has yet to find and break a career artist of the caliber he admires – the Van Morrison or Joan Armatrading of the next decade. Of course, these days it’s hard to imagine an artist coming in with a record as sprawling as Morrison’s Astral Weeks – one of Kallman’s all-time faves – and getting any kind of support from the label (or even being signed in the first place). Kallman is pinning his hopes for posterity – and a lot of Atlantic’s money – on Nicole Renée, a budding female Prince (she writes, sings, plays, and produces) whom he bested Sony’s Tommy Mottola to sign. Renée is the Ur?Kallman act: On her self-titled album, scheduled for a September 15 release, she covers a mind-bogglingly broad musical terrain – hard rock, jazz, folk, classical – while sounding very up-to-the-minute.

It’s the end of a recent workday, and Kallman calls Azzoli into his office to play a homemade demo he got from a rep in England. Azzoli, a former manager who has graying rock-star hair and a genial air, sits in a chair, head bowed, eyes closed, as the tape rolls. A drum machine and organ give way to a woman’s poppy, girl-group vocals, layered with a processed sound reminiscent of the Eurythmics.

Kallman paces back and forth, grooving to the music, sucking a cough drop, but not saying anything. Before the song is half over, Azzoli can’t contain himself. “It’s the best!” he cries. Kallman finally cracks a grin: This is what they all live for, a hit so palpable that, as he says, “all you have to do is get out of the way.” When Azzoli likes the second song even more, he demands, “So, we signed them?”

“No,” Kallman says. “I just got this today.” But by the end of the week, he’s in London, signing the duo, Pocketsize, and now he hopes to get their album out by February. By then, of course, he’ll be on to five more projects, searching for the elusive next new thing. “I don’t want it to sound like anybody else,” Kallman says. “I want what’s next.

Mix Master