From the very beginning, Pete Ganbarg loved music. He listened to everything he could get his hands on. He pored over copies of Billboard Magazine, starting at age 13. And he learned about the process of curation through DJ gigs. If people danced to his selection, that was a hit. Meanwhile, “if people gave me the finger and walked out of the room, that means it wasn’t a hit.” Talk about getting the crash course.
Now, with the self-imposed label of “professional listener” and the official title of President of A&R at Atlantic Records, Ganbarg uses a “genre agnostic” approach to both finding new artists and creatively supporting the ones on the Atlantic roster.
This is the story of Pete Ganbarg.
Pete Ganbarg: I want to hear something that’s going to turn my head, because when you’ve listened to tens of thousands of songs, there’s going to be a lot of good. There’s not going to be a lot of great.
Intro: Hello and welcome to Landed, the story of the music business told by the people behind the scenes. On each episode, we’ll welcome in someone from the music industry, discovering how they started out, how they got the skills to work with the biggest artists in the world, and what advice they have for up and comers. Each conversation will show how they’re navigating the ever evolving landscape of music today.
On this episode, music producer and author Jesse Cannon will be speaking with Pete Ganbarg, President of A&R at Atlantic Records.
Pete Ganbarg: My name is Pete Ganbarg. I am the President of A&R for Atlantic Records.
Jesse Cannon: Awesome. Can you tell us what a president of A&R actually does, and why is that different between maybe junior A&R, etc, etc?
Pete Ganbarg: President of A&R, head of A&R is the senior A&R executive at the label, and we are in charge of overseeing the rest of the A&R staff. And our staff is responsible for discovering and signing the new artists, bringing them into the label, and then overseeing all creative aspects of the recording process.
Jesse Cannon: So, what made you want to work in the music business?
Pete Ganbarg: I was never a brilliant musician, but I always enjoyed listening to music, and I enjoyed listening to music on a very intense level. Where most people would be listening to music and maybe vacuuming the house or eating dinner, I was listening and studying and memorizing lyrics and trying to understand song structure. And basically teaching myself how to do A&R from a very young age of 13, 14, 15 years old without knowing what A&R was, that there was a job that someday I might get paid for doing the same thing, but I was doing it because it was a passion.
Jesse Cannon: Nice. And so what were you doing before you got to Atlantic, or maybe even your first music business job that made you able to get in the door?
Pete Ganbarg: I did a lot of preparation, read the music charts every week, committed them to memory, basically bought every record that I could. When I didn’t have money, got a job with the express interest of making money to go out and buy records. So I started DJ-ing, and I would take the money I made DJ-ing in high school and go out and buy records. And then I would take those records, play them at the next gig. If people got up and danced, that meant it was a hit. If people gave me the finger and walked out of the room, that means it wasn’t a hit. That was a very good lesson I learned.
Jesse Cannon: I like that a lot. There’s this meme that goes, “What my family thinks I do, what other people think I do, and what I actually do.” What do you actually think you do each day?
Pete Ganbarg: I listen to a lot of music. A lot of music. And again, it’s not casual listening. My day starts in my commute. I’m in my car, I’m by myself, and my ears are fresh. It’s the morning, and I’m listening intensely, probably for at least an hour and a half, two hours, to 20 songs, 30 songs, 40 songs.
Jesse Cannon: So, are songs that are in development with your artists, new artists? What does that look like?
Pete Ganbarg: Could be new artists. It could be artists that I have already signed who are in the studio. We’re listening to demos, we’re listening to roughs, we’re listening to mixes, we’re listening to masters, and we’re studying, “Is this right? Is this as good as it can be?” Because a record company is only as strong as the music it puts out, and the music it puts out is the responsibility of the A&R department. And if we are not kicking and prying and prodding and looking for holes in every piece of music that we put out, before it reaches the public, then nobody else is going to do that. And I’m very proud of the creative output of this record company, and I think that one of the reasons why is because of how hard that all of us work making sure that this is really, really, really special music.
Jesse Cannon: So, when you’re looking, is it mostly emotional? Are you actually looking at technical things? What’s your philosophy on that type of stuff?
Pete Ganbarg: I want to hear something I’ve never heard before. I want to hear something that’s going to turn my head, because when you’ve listened to tens of thousands of songs, there’s going to be a lot of good. There’s not going to be a lot of great. And I think one of the things that I enjoy doing is I enjoy listening to a lot of old music. You can look at the beginning of the contemporary music era, what’s called the rock ‘n’ roll era, in 1955. So there’s a finite period, from 1955 to the present day, which isn’t even 75 years yet, where you could really listen to 60-plus years of musical output of all genres. And I do that all the time to really get a sense of a baseline of what’s come before us and what has worked historically and precedentially, and what hasn’t. And all of that is in my mind as I’m listening to something new, and there’s a prism or filter that everything that I’m listening to now is going through.
As recently as this morning, I was listening to something, and I said, “You know what? Let me do something that hasn’t been done since 1978, because when I do it with this, no one’s going to know that it’s old.” So, there’s a lot of that that’s going on too.
Jesse Cannon: So when you say the rock ‘n’ roll era, do you think we are still in the rock ‘n’ roll era?
Pete Ganbarg: I think it’s the era of contemporary music, and the contemporary music era started with Bill Haley, “Rock Around the Clock” in 1955, and kind of the end of the easy listening standards era. So I’m just looking for a line of demarcation to say, “OK, this is where we’re starting.”
Jesse Cannon: Gotcha. So how about on a day-to-day basis? What are some other responsibilities that you have to do here at this job?
Pete Ganbarg: Well, it’s basically managing the creative output of the rosters. So if I’m responsible for a big chunk of the roster, myself, and then I’m responsible for overseeing my staff, that’s a lot of acts. And the acts could either be in cycle, they could be writing for the next cycle, they could be on tour. So we’re working with the acts pretty much all day every day, making sure that the music is right, that the live show is right, that the visual component is right, working with all of our coworkers and other departments. So it’s really, it’s a long day. It doesn’t start as early as some other jobs, but it probably goes later than most, if not all.
Jesse Cannon: I like that. How about can you tell me a story about how this impacts an artist’s career? I mean obviously it’s vast.
Pete Ganbarg: Yeah. It’s our job to sit with them and say, “You know what? If our goal, our mutual goal here is to reach the most amount of people with the music that you’re releasing, then let’s figure out who those people are, and let’s figure out what music will they want to be hearing from you.” I learned a long time ago that it’s honestly not about what I think. It’s about what the audience thinks. And my job is to help the artist figure out what the audience would like to hear from that artist.
No two artists are alike. So if I’m sitting with a performer who doesn’t write their own material, then it’s about going out and finding the best material from the best songwriters and the best music publishers to serve that audience. If I’m working with an artist who writes their own material, well, let’s figure out what we’re looking to say and how you’re looking to say it. And let me help you get to the place that you want to go.
Jesse Cannon: So how does authenticity square to that? I know there’s a common prevailing thing that people like to say: audiences don’t connect with music unless it’s authentically something the artist is feeling and passionate and works within them. How do you square that during your day?
Pete Ganbarg: I think that people have a pretty good bullshit detector, and our job is to do just that, to get to the authentic self of the artist. We sign an artist because this artist is standing for something that is uniquely them, and that is what we’re trying to get across to the audience. And if the bullshit detector goes off, we don’t stand on ceremony here. We will be the first ones to tell the artists that something does not feel right.
Jesse Cannon: You’re obviously not a 17- to 23-year-old girl who is the most rabid buyer of music and consumer of music. When you’re talking about audiences, what does that actually look like about how you figure out what the audience wants?
Pete Ganbarg: I listen to a lot of music that is being consumed currently by the audience, so I like to listen to what’s popular, so I can understand why it’s popular. I may not be a 17- to 23-year-old girl, but I have two daughters who are in that demographic, so I can go home and say, “Hey, what do you guys think of this?” And if they like it, great. If they don’t like it, I want to know, “OK, why don’t they like it?” I’m not asking them why they don’t like it, because they may not know. They may just know they don’t like it, but it’s up to me to figure out, “Alright, why don’t they like it? What can I be doing different to try to hit that sweet spot?”
Jesse Cannon: So, if a student was in college right now, and they want to be you after hearing what you’ve all just said, what do you tell them to focus on?
Pete Ganbarg: Just be the best you can be at what it is you do, you know? We are, as an A&R person, you are pretty much a professional listener, so you have to listen so closely and so intently. Where I started doing this a long time ago, I started doing this 30 years ago, and I was 21 years old at the time, and I was the rookie, and I worked with maybe nine or 10 other A&R people who are a lot more seasoned than I was at the time. 30 years later, I’m the only one still doing it. And I think the reason is because I’m still listening as closely and as intensely as I have to be to keep myself competitive and to keep Atlantic Records competitive. The minute that I stop doing that, the audience is going to move on.
Jesse Cannon: So is there something that’s kept you with the ability? Is there a theory or a certain quality you have in yourself that’s allowed you to do that? Because I know for me, I’m not…30 years into my music business tenure, and I have a lot of trouble still finding the passion sometimes toward the music, especially as it changes away from some classic tastes I’ve held.
Pete Ganbarg: I think you have to understand. When you do what it is we do, as A&R people, especially for a major label like Atlantic Records, you have to understand why a hit is a hit. The minute that you don’t understand it, you’re done. Doesn’t mean that you can’t be doing A&R somewhere for somebody, or for yourself, but our job at Atlantic Records, we’re a major record label. We want to release music that is going to appeal to the most amount of people in the universe. And in order to do that, you have to understand what it is those people are going to like, even if they don’t know that they’re going to like it. You have to be able to predict, and sometimes you’re going to be wrong, but hopefully you’re right more than you’re wrong.
Jesse Cannon: So you talked about the DJ-ing thing you did when you were younger. Was there anything else that you did that really set you up for success in this job that you can impart as advice?
Pete Ganbarg: It was really doing as much homework and research as I possibly could. I read Billboard Magazine, cover to cover, every week from the age of 13 and I never missed a week. I memorized all the songs and really got to a point where I was passionate about music, but it was more the music business side of everything that was on the other side of the music that we were hearing on the radio and in concert.
When I got to college, I ran the college radio station. I booked all the bands that came to play the school. I managed local talent, so I was really teaching myself the ins-and-outs of the music business, again, without knowing I was doing that. And when the right opportunity came to get my foot in the door, I was prepared. So it’s a combination of preparation and luck.
You know, Billboard has obviously shifted to more popular culture, in addition to what they’ve always done with the charts, but I look at Music Business Worldwide, which is a daily email that I get. I look at Record of the Day out of the U.K., they’re both out of the U.K., and every morning that’s pretty much how I start my day. And it’s a combination of music business headlines and music headlines. I can get into my car that morning and start my listening knowing what has happened in the 24 hours previous, and it’s a good baseline to start.
Jesse Cannon: Since the music business is changing faster than ever, what do you think is making a big difference in artists’ careers now that’s different than, let’s say 5-10 years ago, that you’re really focusing on?
Pete Ganbarg: I think it’s immediate access to an audience. We used to literally, we used to dream about the opportunity to take music and get it everywhere all at once, and now that dream is a reality. So, I think that now we’re in a consumption culture, where back when I was a kid and I was looking to make money to go buy records, you would buy that record and you were paying once to buy that record.
You could listen to it 10,000 times, but you only bought it once. Now, if you’re going to a streaming platform and you’re listening to a song, every time that you listen to that song, it’s monetized, which is a completely new paradigm. You know, if we were talking 30 years ago, you’re like “What?” That wouldn’t make any sense. But it’s exciting. It’s new, it’s scary, it’s exciting, and certain styles of music are definitely out in front of others, but music is music, and one thing that I love to do here is I love to say, “Hey, let’s do that.” And the response is, “Well, that hasn’t been popular in years and years and years and years. Why would we do it?” And I say, “Exactly. Because this is really special, and music is music, and let’s do it, and let’s see if there’s an audience out there for it.”
Jesse Cannon: How about advice you have for musicians who would want to be on Atlantic one day?
Pete Ganbarg: I think that every day that we come into the office here at Atlantic, we walk by a mural of Ahmet Ertegun, who started Atlantic Records with a loan from his dentist in 1948. So that was 70 years ago. We literally walk by this mural every day. Our job is to continue the legacy of what he started. He did this because he wanted to be in a position to sign artists that he loved and to share them with the world. Every day, as we’re listening to new music, “Is this music of a caliber that Ahmet would approve?”
That goes into everything that we listen to, and I think any artist that wants to sign to Atlantic Records should really be best in class. It should be, they are making music that is unique, is really profound in what it is to itself. It could be a pop record, but let it be a profound pop record, and maybe just profound in the sense that it’s really, really good. I think that we just want to be associated with best in class. I look at my roster now and the entire roster of Atlantic, and I feel great about it.
Jesse Cannon: Is there something that you’re interested in outside of work that often comes handy at work?
Pete Ganbarg: A couple of things, but one thing that I can think of is, I love running for exercise. Every morning I’m out running for around 45 minutes, and what I do when I run is I listen to the competition. So I will listen to 20 songs when I’m running every day that are brand new, that are released by other record labels, going to radio formats that week. And it also gives me a sense of, “Alright, that sounds like a hit. Why? Who wrote it? Who produced it? Who mixed it? Who mastered it? Who was the manager of the act? Where did the act come from? Why didn’t we sign the act?” You know a lot of internal dialogue that goes on here. That’s something that I do that isn’t related to sitting here at my desk at Atlantic, but I’m exercising, but I’m also listening to music at the same time.
Jesse Cannon: It might be a hint at something you were talking about before, but is there a style or group that you wish would come back into popularity today?
Pete Ganbarg: I just love the fact that my boss Craig Kallman and myself both, when somebody says, “What’s your favorite type of music?,” I think we would both refer to ourselves as genre agnostic. Where I like everything, like everything, and the fact that we’re now in Broadway, which I think is amazing. Because Broadway, when I was a kid, we were listening to 8-track tapes of “A Chorus Line” in my father’s Cadillac, but with the rare exception of a “Rent” or a “Book of Mormon,” there really hasn’t been a lot of a pop spotlight on Broadway.
And when I first was introduced to the music of “Hamilton,” it’s like: “This is pop music. This is contemporary. This is urgent. We have to do this.” And there were people here who really got it and there were some others who didn’t, but the A&R person has to have the courage of the conviction to say “yes” when everybody else says no, and also to say “no” when everybody else says yes.
Jesse Cannon: And we know you were proven right with that one.
Pete Ganbarg: Yeah. That was a good one. That was a good one.
Jesse Cannon: Is there any artist you wish you could work with the most in the history of all this that you haven’t gotten to work with?
Pete Ganbarg: You know, the trinity for me is the Beatles, Sinatra for purity of vocal tone, Springsteen for narrative. Those three are always…with the voice of Karen Carpenter, the voice of Luther Vandross, like right behind that in terms of purity of vocal tone. One of the highlights of my career is I got to A&R Run DMC on their last album, who was a big influence for me growing up.
Pete Ganbarg: I’ve been very, very lucky to work with a lot of special artists who I grew up listening to. I’ve worked with Carlos Santana. I’ve worked with Chaka Khan. I’ve worked with Donna Summer. I’ve worked with Aaron Neville. I work with America. Right now, I’m recording a cast album with Bryan Adams and Jim Vallance. And if you told the high school version of me that, “Hey, 25 years from now, you and Bryan are going to be in the studio until midnight working on a new project,” I would say, “Really?” So yeah, I think that we’re here because we love music. If there’s a baseline where I need to hit reset, it’s probably going back and listening to Sinatra and just getting lost in the vocal tone.
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Today’s music is courtesy of Grandson.