Craig Kallman

Portrait of Craig Kallman

“The emotional power, the visceral connection, the memories that are attached, the excitement of hearing something new or the repeated joy that comes with listening to a favorite piece over and over – these are just some of music’s magical attributes. Music is without question the most powerful of art forms.”

Craig Kallman, chairman and CEO of Atlantic Records; excerpted from an interview with the National Museum of American History, July 21, 2017.

On learning to love music at an early age

Music was the passion that took me at an early age. My dad had an incredibly eclectic collection of music – rock, reggae, folk, blues, classical, theatrical, jazz, opera. As a very young child, I would walk into his den every day while he was listening to different kinds of music, and I started devouring it all. He was very into the arts. He loved the ballet, the opera, going to concerts, and he started bringing me to rock shows. My first concert was Fairport Convention at the Beacon Theatre. I was incredibly young and at some point I fell asleep. From then on, I remember going with my dad to see Hot Tuna, Taj Mahal, Ry Cooder, Randy Newman, Neil Young — a fantastic mix of artists that I fell in love with. And digging into his record collection started me on an unbelievable journey to find my own personal taste and go out and discover music that he didn’t have.

Album cover, Led Zeppelin's Physical Graffiti
The English band Led Zeppelin’s 1976 award-winning album cover featured two New York City tenement buildings. When opened, the windows featured Hollywood icons.

I remember Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti being a first album for me; and Fleetwood Mac, their self-titled 1975 album, when Lindsey and Stevie joined the band; Aerosmith’s Toys in the Attic; Sly and the Family Stone, the Fresh album; Funkadelic, Maggot Brain; and Hot Tuna, Burgers. I had the bug. I was hooked, and music overtook everything else. I started frequenting all of the downtown record stores in Manhattan every weekend. Greenwich Village was populated with the most incredible record shops, so I started literally living in them every Saturday and Sunday. There was Vinyl Mania, Downtown Records, Rock and Soul, Downstairs Records, 99 Records, Rocks in Your Head. So, around age 13, that became my weekly routine for the next 30 plus years. I would play basketball and live in the record stores.

“He started teaching me how to DJ, and that was it”

99 Records was an incredible mom-and-pop record store and independent label, and I would go there every week. One day the guy behind the counter, Terry Tolkien, was playing a record, and I said, “I have to have that.” He said, “I’m sorry, the guy next to you just bought it, and that’s my last copy.” So I struck up a conversation with him, and it turned out it was Richard Vasquez, one of the big New York City DJs. We got to talking about DJing, and he said, “I’ll show you what it’s all about.”

Richard owned a brownstone right around the corner from CBGB’s, and he had this unbelievable sound system with these gigantic Klipsch speakers and two Technics 1200 turntables and a Bozak mixer, and crates and crates of records all over. I was in heaven. I was completely transfixed, as you can well imagine. He started teaching me how to DJ, and that was it. I would basically live at Richard’s house on weekends, and we did the Saturday record-buying pilgrimage together, hitting at least seven or eight stores every week, buying all the new releases. We would then go back to his place to sort through everything that we had gathered up. Finally, after apprenticing with Richard for many months and making my own demo tapes at his place, I set out to get my own turntables and mixer and started practicing in my bedroom.

Dual turntable
This 1950s handmade dual turntable allowed Bob Casey, then a teen, to play records at dances, which was less expensive than hiring a live band.

My first opportunity to DJ for real was when my high school dance needed a venue, and I said, “I’ll DJ the party. Let me see if I can help find the venue.” I found a club called Mansion. They told me they had private events all the time, and they needed DJs once in a while. So I made a demo tape and said, “If you ever need a DJ, please give me a call.” I didn’t hear from them for a while, and then one Wednesday night, when I was 16, in 10th grade, and studying for an exam, I got a phone call: “We’re looking for Craig Kallman. We need a DJ in an hour. We can’t find anyone else. You’re the only person left on our list.”

I went to my dad and said, “I know I have this big exam, but I have to be at this nightclub right now, and I’ll be there until about two in the morning.” After much negotiation, and a promise that I’d get straight A’s for the rest of high school, he let me go. I literally packed up all my records, every single milk crate I had, and loaded everything into a yellow taxi. I had every genre of music known to man in those crates. I got there, and it was a Wall Street party that pretty much only wanted to hear Michael Jackson and Motown. Thank goodness I had brought all of that, and fortunately it went well enough that they hired me back. And that kicked off my DJ career. I went on to DJ at First City, which turned into the Cat Club. I springboarded that gig into becoming a regular weekend DJ at Danceteria, The Palladium, The Tunnel, Area, The Saint, The World, and Mars. It was an incredible run. I also was fortunate to become a regular DJ at The Wag and The Camden Palace in London.

On founding Big Beat Records

After graduating from Brown University, I took a bunch of odd jobs – working at Billboard magazine and at Factory Records, and then DJing at night. I spent every Saturday as usual at all the different record stores, buying the hottest records to play in the club that night. One day, Downtown Records was playing a song I wanted to buy, but the guy behind the counter said, “Sorry, that’s a demo tape.” So I said, “Can you give me the number of the person who recorded it?” I called him up from the store and said, “I just heard this instrumental that you made. I DJ at the Tunnel and I’d love to play it, but I think it would be even better if you put a singer on it.” There happened to be a record on the wall of an artist named Taravhonty, who I thought would be great to sing on the track. I hung up and called everyone I knew to try to track this singer down. I found him and convinced him to come to my house to make a record. Then I called back the guy who made the instrumental and said, “I found Taravhonty, and I have a friend of mine who has a bunch of recording equipment. I’m going to set it up in my house. Let’s make a record.”

Somehow, I convinced all these people to come to my house, and we started making the record in my bedroom, while I was writing the lyrics in the bathroom. Before I knew it, we had this record that was my downtown New York version of Chicago house music that I could play in the clubs. It was called “Join Hands” by Taravhonty. I went to Barnes & Noble and bought a book called This Business of Music so I could read about trademarks and copyrights, and how to do contracts. My dad was a lawyer, and I said, “Dad, I need you to convert this document in the book to a one-page contract, so I can sign the artist and put this record out.” Then I used all my DJ savings to press up a thousand copies.

Album cover, 'King's Record Shop'
Rosanne Cash’s record album cover, King’s Record Shop, depicts a real record store in Louisville, Kentucky.

I came up with the name Big Beat Records. I borrowed a shopping cart from the supermarket, and I went to the drugstore and bought an invoice book. I loaded up as many boxes of records as I could fit into the cart, and I wheeled it down Sixth Avenue, going to all the mom-and-pop record stores in Greenwich Village that I knew so well. I had spent much of my life and my life savings at all of them. I said, “I need you to do me a favor. I need you to take this record in and put it on the wall. Here’s an invoice for 25 records at $2.00 apiece. Please put it in the cash register on consignment, and if you sell them, you can pay me, and I’ll bring you more.”

I then hit the big record stores in NYC, including Tower Records and J&R Music World, giving them my record to carry. I ran around to every nightclub and radio station, giving a free copy to every DJ that I knew. Then I set up an answering machine, and I would come home every night, after working all day at Billboard and Factory Records, and listen to my messages. Sure enough, it started to sell out. So I loaded up the shopping cart and took it down to all the stores again. I started getting calls from stores in the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens and I said, “Dad, I need to borrow your car.” Then I was getting calls from Boston, Philadelphia, D.C., and I was driving all around the Northeast. My first release ended up selling 5,000 copies. I made about 5,000 bucks, and I figured, if I can do this three more times, I can make 20 grand a year, and I can just record music and run this label for the rest of my life.

On moving to Atlantic Records

To compete with the major record labels, I wasn’t going to be able to outspend them, so I knew I had to out-taste them. I got to know the groundbreaking radio programmers who wanted to break new music and I used to send them import 12-inches from around the world of songs they never heard of. Many would become hits many months later so they came to know me as a really passionate music fan who was super knowledgeable about music and was able to pick a lot of hits very early.

I got a call one day from the music director of KMEL in San Francisco about a record breaking there. The artist was Tara Kemp and “Hold You Tight” was the song. I immediately jumped on a plane and signed her on the spot. In a very short time, I got a call from Irving Azoff, who told me he had just started Giant Records, and asked if I would sell him the “Hold You Tight” record. Given the opportunity to compete on the major-label level with much bigger resources and money and the ability to make competitive videos, I decided to do the deal. I got to know Irving, and it was a great experience.

I then put out another record, Jomanda’s “Got a Love for You,” and I started getting calls from the major labels again. Doug Morris and Ahmet Ertegun from Atlantic called and said, “Hey, we’d love you to come in and sit with us.” I grew up as an unbelievable fan of Atlantic Records, and the notion of being able to work at the most legendary label, with the greatest record man who ever lived, Ahmet, was extraordinary.

So I made the deal. That was 1991, and I was very fortunate to get raised by two of the most influential people in our business. I lived in Ahmet’s office and Doug’s office and got an incredible education in making records, picking songs, and how major labels worked. One of the first things I did was sign a reggae band called Inner Circle, who had a song called “Sweat (A La La La La Long),” and also “Bad Boys,” which was the theme song from the TV show Cops. Then I heard an incredible record called “Party and Bullshit” by a hip-hop artist who was just starting out, and I had to find this guy. It was Notorious B.I.G. He told me about his group called Junior M.A.F.I.A. and introduced me to a young lady called Lil’ Kim. I signed both of them and we had an incredible run together. I then signed Aaliyah and put her with Timbaland and Missy Elliott. That was a remarkable collaboration.

Theater costume in 18th-century period style
Lin-Manuel Miranda wore this costume in his portrayal of the eponymous Hamilton.

Hamilton was a transcendent moment that made everything before it feel like ancient history”

As a musical theater enthusiast growing up, that was one of the areas that I was very interested in bringing to Atlantic. I created a theatrical division with Frank Wildhorn, and we did Jekyll & Hyde and The Scarlet Pimpernel together. Then I brought Hedwig and the Angry Inch to the label. Fast forward, and Sean Patrick Flahaven, who was then the head of theater for our sister publishing company, Warner/Chappell, told me about this musical being developed called Hamilton. I heard some early demo tapes of the music, and I was blown away. So my colleagues, Riggs Morales and Pete Ganbarg, and I started to basically stalk Lin-Manuel Miranda to convince him to bring Hamilton to Atlantic. It was brave and different. We all believed in Lin and that we could bring hip-hop into the theater world. We knew we could record and promote it in a way that had never been done before.

Every once in a while in our business, there’s an artist or an album concept that just changes the landscape forever, and Hamilton was truly doing something revolutionary. You had this brilliant artist and visionary talent in Lin-Manuel, an album that redefined and reinvented the cast album, and a musical creation that singlehandedly reinvented what Broadway can be. Hamilton was a transcendent moment that made everything before it feel like ancient history. What Lin has done for hip-hop, for Broadway, for modern art and culture, is truly history making.

On documenting the history of music on vinyl

I started out as a vinyl collector, and I’m always striving to find best-in-class sound. When the CD was introduced and the major labels said, “We’ve got the best new technology in this compact disc,” I was curious to hear what it would sound like alongside the vinyl record. With vinyl, I get goosebumps and the hair on the back of my neck will stand up when I play music I love. I am immersed, transfixed, transported, and the music is truly euphonic. But with the first generation of CDs, when I did the experiment, the experience with CDs was cold and brittle and without any of the emotion. I started to sweat, because the industry was talking about killing off vinyl and thus, the best medium for enjoying music the way it was meant to be heard would be gone. I urgently felt compelled to go to the library and take out books on every genre of music and make a list of every important artist that ever existed, or any artist that had a hit, or any artist that was critically acclaimed. So I filled notebooks with an entire discography of everyone who was noteworthy, everyone who needed to be remembered and listened to.

I truly believed I needed to Noah’s Ark the history of music on vinyl before it disappeared. I felt like I was one of very few who realized that vinyl was the superior format and the way in which people needed to experience music. Honestly, I was not thinking very philanthropically at the time. It was quite self-serving. I was still discovering so much new music for myself that I didn’t want to discover a song that I would only be able to listen to on CD. I wanted the full emotional experience that I could only have listening to it on vinyl. So the only way I was going to be able to safeguard against that happening was to buy every recording ever made that could conceivably have something great on it. So I set out to find perfect copies of every single album by every single artist that I had on my list. And that’s been one of my life’s missions. Now, 35 years and a million plus records later, I’ve built a true archive of the history of music on vinyl. Of course, I’m still in search of things that I need, and it will likely never be truly complete. But it’s a start.


On Dorothy’s slippers, baseball, and Ma Rainey’s 78 rpm vinyl record

Costume shoes from Wizard of Oz
The slippers worn by Judy Garland in 1939 retain a power to move some people today.
Autographed baseball
Baseball autographed by Babe Ruth and other members of the 1926 New York Yankees team.

Looking at Dorothy’s ruby red slippers, I immediately think of “Over the Rainbow” and Herbert Stothart’s great soundtrack for The Wizard of Oz. You show me a baseball and I immediately think of Meatloaf’s “Paradise by the Dashboard Light,” with Phil Rizzuto announcing, “Okay, here we go. We got a real pressure cooker going here.” That’s the power of music to forge connections, conjure up emotions, and create indelible memories.

Record album
Ma Rainey, depicted on the album that featured her voice, was among the first blues musician to be recorded in the 1920s.

Of course, the 78 rpm recording is an object near and dear to my heart. The life that explodes out of a 78 recording is pretty remarkable, and they sound incredible in their own way. We all know the impact of the blues, and how it influenced almost every genre, from jazz to gospel to R&B to country to rock ’n’ roll. Blues pioneer Ma Rainey was one of the first real blues artists to make records, and her 78s were hugely influential on generations of artists to follow. The essence of modern musical history is in those grooves.