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Life@Kobalt: Finding and Grooming the Future Stars of R&B and Hip-Hop with Al McLean

Tucked deep in Nielsen Music’s Mid-Year Report is a very important nugget, one that profoundly alters the way we look at the music industry as a whole in 2017 — “For the first time in Nielsen Music history, R&B/Hip-Hop has become the largest share of overall volume.” This shouldn’t really be too surprising; just look at the biggest songs and albums of the year. It’s a major turning point for the industry – as streaming grows in popularity, so too does R&B/hip-hop genre.

But as the music landscape shifts toward the urban market, Kobalt’s own Al “Butter” McLean, a music industry veteran who once co-managed Alicia Keys and helped get Jennifer Lopez signed to her first major label, has been ahead of the curve for years. In his eleven years as the Senior Vice President of Creative at Kobalt, he’s signed and worked with some of the biggest names in the industry such as Noah “40” Shebib, Frank Kirklin, Machine Gun Kelly, Mike WiLL Made-It, and more. By solely promoting admin deals, flexing his personal relationships, and never holding back his infectious personality, McLean’s leadership at Kobalt has led to loads of chart successes and awards, including four Grammys and nine ASCAP Rhythm & Soul Awards this year alone.

While McLean has signed and worked with a ton of today's rap/R&B gods, he's also a huge champion of supporting and educating up-and-coming creatives about the music business, firsthand. Noticing a trend, he opened a Kobalt office in Atlanta, right in the heart of the hip hop community, where he would be in direct contact with the next big things. Because of this, McLean is at the forefront of rap’s new independent movement, ensuring that Kobalt is ready to evolve with the urban genre as it becomes even more prevalent in American music. Under McLean’s leadership, Kobalt isn’t caught off guard by the Nielsen Music news, it’s helping drive the change itself.

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Q: There’s been a bigger push for rap and R&B at Kobalt lately. You’ve been here for 11 years. What was it like when you first came in as opposed to now?

McLean: Kobalt was such a new idea in the music business at the time and had such a fresh angle. We were offering things that just weren’t commonplace in the music business 11 years ago.

We were not offering advances and just doing admin deals and offering transparency, instead of the traditional (most of the time no-way-out, “Trust Tony”) co-publishing deals. At the time, we didn’t have a lot of bands – a lot of people  — the old music guard — weren’t cool with what we were doing and they didn’t understand it. After a while, after momentum and some success stories, it became a snowball going down Mt. Everest. Between now and then, it’s just awareness – we’ve awoken everybody.

Q: You’re involved with educating the artists themselves in Atlanta about how the music business works. As the genre gets more DIY with Soundcloud rap – as long as that’s around – how does your role become even more important? What do you talk about when you talk to these artists?

McLean: It depends on the particular artist. First, I really go out and find out what they want and what’s their concern and what’s their perception of what they want and what we do. I let them air out what they want, their worries, and their concerns and I address them. Then I introduce Kobalt and what we do and how we can help. I think Kobalt is built for this new independent movement. We’re right on time with the growth and we’ve aligned ourselves with some great companies like Reach Records, Empire Distribution, T.I.G. 7, and Slip n’ Slide Records and we’re empowering and doing the administration for them.

Down here [in Atlanta], I’m teaching about the benefits of Kobalt, but I’m also empowering these guys to do their own thing and to build up their own companies and have us be their platform. In the past, other companies have been coming in, giving them a check and leaving them. They had no way of knowing what was going on and it let us be the saviors. These kids now want to be independent; they just need a trustworthy platform and we’ve proven and shown that we are the best.

I teach and believe in the Kobalt Holy Grail: transparency, creativity, client control, and accurate accounting. There are no boundaries at Kobalt and I urge clients to push it. They will be supported creatively and our world creative team is amazing.

Q: As rap becomes more independent, where do you guys fit in? It’s really cool that you’re going out there and teaching new artists that can somehow put together a few beats and blow up on Soundcloud and showing them how to maintain that success and monetize it.

McLean: In their hoods, they have their own little communities and because of our platform, they are nurturing the next ones. We teach them how to do it right and develop streams of revenue to keep them out of the streets and clean them up and keep them as successful as they are now. With Migos successful here and all of these other urban guys like Young Thug, they’re all down here creating their own lane and they just need a spot where they can trust in the data and monetization.

Q: You worked out of New York for a while, but you’ve since moved to Atlanta, which is now the center for rap and possibly American music at the moment.

McLean: I’ve got to think that Willard [Ahdritz], Sas [Metcalfe], Richard [Thompson] and Richard [Sanders] at the time supported the idea. Everybody wants to rush to LA, which is great because there’s a lot of creatives there, but I thought that for us to really take a heavy step in urban music, which we were OK in at the time, I recommended that we come here and let me open up the office.

Sending me down to Atlanta was kind of risky but I knew what I could do and I knew the opportunity that it was and they backed me. We cracked ground, got moving, and it’s nothing but going uphill now.

Q: What do you have coming up next in the coming few months?

McLean: We’re going to kill the charts again. It’s my goal to be 1 through 20 on the charts. If we can have a writer/artist on the charts 1-20, I’ll take the day off!

Q: You guys had four Grammys last year, but this year will be even bigger!

McLean: This year, we’re going to tear ‘em up. I think [Mike] Will and Noah “40” Shebib are going to do their thing this year and win a lot of awards. They believe in what we’re selling. We’re doing a lot of great stuff in gospel as well too, which I started. It’s my goal to get everybody. Free the world! Admin only!

Q: Last question: how did you get your nickname?

McLean: It was [Alicia Keys’] idea. I was producing a track and she came in and was like, “oh that’s butter!” I said, “Wow that could be a good nickname!” I went to high school with Puffy and we’re good friends. I said, “If he’s got a nickname, I need a nickname!” She said, “Butter because you always come up with these hot tracks! You make music fat with flavor.”

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