Atlantic Records’ Harlan Frey On The Label-Live Nexus

This executive interview is featured in Pollstar‘s 2022 Record Company Directory. Purchase a copy via Pollstar‘s store here. .2022

There may be no better or more qualified person working between record labels and the live industry than Atlantic Records’ Harlan Frey. With family ties to agenting (Pink Floyd! Elvis Costello! Rockpile!) a collegiate connection to Phish and Vermont’s jam band scene as well as stints at retail, agency (The Agency Group) and record labels (Time Bomb and Roadrunner), where he worked with management, radio promoters, marketers, social media, festival bookers, promoters and more, Frey has developed a deep and holistic understanding of the music industry ecosystem. From the biggest touring artist on the planet (Ed Sheeran) to innumerable baby bands, the SVP of Touring & Artist Development knows firsthand how crucial live performance is to building and sustaining an artist’s career. Here, Frey discusses his approach to making sure the artists he works with put on the best performances possible and why that is more critical today than ever.

Pollstar: Tell me about your background and when you first got a glimpse of the business.
Harlan Frey: My father was in the business from the late ’60s until the mid ’80s. He managed acts like Elvis Costello, Graham Parker, and Rockpile; at the same time, he was the agent for Pink Floyd. He ran Stiff Records in the mid- to late ’70s, so as a kid, I pretty much grew up backstage, and had artists hanging around the house on a regular basis.

Wait, your dad worked with Elvis Costello, Graham Parker and Stiff Records?! Was he British?
No, from the U.S., but he was sent to the U.K, by IFA Booking Agency to discover talent in the late 1960s. He quickly became tight with the Pink Floyd camp (Tony Howard, Neil Warnock, Steve O’Rourke etc.) and took that business back to the U.S. around 1970. My father, Allen Frey, booked Floyd’s “Meddle” tour, “Dark Side of the Moon,” “Animals,” “Wish You Were Here” and “The Wall.”

Wow, that must have had a huge influence on you.
It was impossible not to be influenced by it. When I was 7, my dad took me to see “The Wall” at Nassau Coliseum, which completely knocked me on my ass. It had such a profound impact that has lasted to this day. Not only was the show incredibly theatrical, but so was the music. The Wall had a theme, a storyline, and the imagery is incredibly thought-provoking. To experience swirling quadraphonic sound was an absolute game changer. Afterward, my dad was given a beta copy I must have watched 200 times in the next five years. I studied it and learned very early on what the possibilities are for artists. I tell all of our artists, “The world is your oyster. Anything is possible. It starts with your music and creative. If you want to move people, you 100% can – dream big.”

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Harlan Frey with Catie Turner, an up-and-coming artist on Atlantic Records.
Photo courtesy Harlan Frey

When did you get into the biz?
I was at UVM in Burlington, Vt. Phish were starting to blow up and the local music scene was thriving. You could see a show and there was a good possibility one of the Phish guys would sit in. The musical spirit was infectious and was a big driver for me to get involved in the music business. During the summer of ’94, I decided to put on my own festival. The idea started when friends and I heard about the return of “Woodstock” and planned to go until we saw the $100+ ticket price. I remember saying “This is total BS, what college kid can afford this!? I’ll throw my own festival the same weekend, and it will be free for all who come.” So I did. … It was called “The Burlington Jam Fest” and it featured the largest local and regional acts. I went door to door to local businesses and raised enough sponsorship money to pay for the entire festival. Even though it was the same weekend as Woodstock, about 5,000 people turned up! It was a huge success and great learning experience for me.

Where did you end up next?
After school, I moved to NYC with hopes of breaking into the biz. I got a $5 an hour record store job stocking shelves. It was a fun starter gig. All the employees were young, heavily into music and we’d go see shows together. During this time, I applied for internships at labels, agencies etc., and it was Neil Warnock who gave me my first opportunity answering phones for The Agency Group back in 1995.

Neil’s a legend – he worked for Brian Epstein’s company.
Indeed, he is a legend, and a real force. Neil booked Pink Floyd excluding North America and I believe he still represents them. If it weren’t for Neil, I would not be where I am today. He told me very early on to “go get ‘em” and to “not hold back.” Within a year, I signed my first act, Jimmy Eat World. I booked them with young DIY promoters across the country and quickly I was able to get them to about 1,000-1,500 capacities, all without radio play.

Deplaning: Harlan Frey on his way to Lollapalooza in Chicago. Courtesy Harlan Frey

How long did you work at The Agency Group?
About three years. I picked up a band there named Crumbox who were on Time Bomb Recordings. Jim Guerinot ran Time Bomb; he also had Rebel Waltz management with Rancid, Social D, The Offspring, Trent Reznor, etc. Jim liked my work and asked me to open up a regional office for Time Bomb on the East Coast. It was a very tough decision to leave Jimmy Eat World and a slew of other up-and-coming acts I was developing. In the end, I decided to take a chance and learn a new skill. The job entailed radio promotion, sales, and scouting for talent.

How did that go?
Fucking terrible. I hated every minute of it. Radio promotion was not for me. I realized this when I was in Buffalo trying to get a Mike Ness song played. I had just gotten done driving five hours in a terrible snowstorm which caused me to be a whopping five minutes late to the station meeting. Of course, the PD was annoyed. He proceeded to type on his computer throughout the whole conversation. When it came time to play the track, he put the CD in some rinky-dink boombox with the bass blown out. Midway through, I got up, pressed eject, grabbed the CD and told him, “Our artists deserve better than this. Their music gets played on real speakers, not this piece of garbage.” I immediately thought to myself, “Oh, I will definitely get fired for this” and proceeded to walk out. The next Monday, I don’t know how, but we got the add. Nevertheless, I realized begging for airplay was not what I wanted to do. I knew I needed to get back to the live side.

How did you get there?
A couple of months later, Dave Kirby, a former boss from The Agency Group, called and tipped me off on a Touring & Artist Development gig at Roadrunner Records. Up until then, Roadrunner was known mostly as a metal label, which I had very little exposure to. Somehow, they looked past my lack of experience in the genre and hired me for my potential to help grow the label into a wider rock space. I spent the next 13 years at Roadrunner developing artists and had quite a run. We sold over 50 million records during this time span with the likes of Nickelback, Slipknot, Killswitch Engage, Stone Sour and more.

Nickelback was huge, diamond-selling.
Yes, one of the biggest selling acts of all time. It was a potent combo – the band wrote massive hits, worked super hard for every bit of success, and the Roadrunner staff was very hungry to prove that they could hang with the majors. It all worked extremely well over the course of five records, and almost worked too well. The band ended up becoming one of the most played artists ever on radio. As we all know, with that type of exposure, sometimes comes a backlash. It’s unfortunate, but it happens.

So now you’re at Atlantic. How has it differed from other labels?
Well, for one I work for the most bad ass woman in music, Julie Greenwald. She’s the best marketing mind I’ve ever been around. I don’t think I’ve experienced anyone like her anywhere. The other difference is the extremely wide range of artists we’re lucky enough to work with. To be able to go from a Bruno Mars/Silk Sonic conversation to Ed Sheeran, to Lizzo, to Oliver Tree, to The War On Drugs, then to Wallows or FKA Twigs – it’s really refreshing to work with such a diverse and talented roster.

Hair Today Gone Tomorrow: Oliver Tree with Harlan Frey after his show at the Hulu Theater at MSG. Courtesy Harlan Frey

How do you approach live, working on the label side?
We try and approach things differently than other labels. For one, we hire people who have real touring expertise. We’ve got former agents and promoters working on behalf of our artists on a daily basis helping with touring strategy and execution. Other labels’ touring departments mostly just book logistics for artist interviews, and buy ticket buys for staff and clients. We do this, but our services go well beyond. Our main job is to help grow the artist and with that said, we constantly ask ourselves, how does this move the needle for the artist? Are we marketing to the right demographic? Are we helping to secure the right support slots on tours, or festival slots? Are we providing our artists the best resources to tap into once these opportunities are confirmed? Is our artist rehearsed properly? Is the set list where it should be? How’s the show creative? Do we have the right production, especially for the most meaningful moments? Are we set up to convert fans? At the end of the day, this is how we think and a focal point of our approach

What’s an example?
The artist is standing in a box on stage and never moves or looks the audience in the eye. We might hire a movement coach to teach the artist how to utilize the stage in a much more impactful way. Or, we’ll have an artist that loses their voice every other week, so we’ll hire a vocal coach to teach them proper mechanics in order to sustain it. If we have an important showcase for a developing artist in N.Y. or L.A., we’ll encourage a small lighting package to give the show a little extra oomph. Everybody can make a record from their college dorm room, but not everyone can perform the music in a way that moves people or have it coming out of those speakers sounding incredible. We make sure to connect our artists with some amazing music directors who can make all the difference producing a good show versus a great show.

With the rise of artists on social media are you finding talent is running at a deficit in terms of performing?
We come across lots of artists who can make incredible music at home, some of which will garner hundreds of millions of streams, but have never picked up a microphone. Not only do they not know how to perform, they lack stage banter, which is such an integral way to connect with fans. Overall, it takes real practice playing over and over in front of warm bodies for an artist and their show to become great. We can stick artists in rehearsals all day long for weeks, but that only goes so far. The artist must learn through repetition what works and what doesn’t.

Do you work closely with promoters?
Yes, very closely. It’s essential to a successful tour. From the start, we all need to be on the same page for the announce, who the presale partners should be, and what the timing looks like on everything. This includes single/album releases, big promo looks, and actual onsales. Then we need to coordinate how promotions get set up, whether it’s with radio or other third parties who can be proper drivers for selling tickets. We’re constantly in communication with whoever the marketing lead is for any promoter, as well as the agency marketing rep. My team has scheduled calls with Live Nation and AEG to make sure everyone knows who’s really bubbling under on our side. Half the battle is educating gatekeepers on our artists so the offers can come through and opportunities are created.

How does putting resources into touring pay itself back in terms of music consumption?
All too often labels throw songs at the wall with hopes that they stick. Sometimes they do, but does that artist have staying power afterwards? Can they get to the next single? Is the artist creating a fanbase, one that can help propel future success? Of course, hits cure so many ills, but a lot of the gatekeepers for big drivers of consumption look
to social growth and fan engagement. It’s no secret that a great touring plan, and the overall development in the touring space, lends itself to fan growth, social growth and tons of fan engagement. All these barometers play right into music consumption at the end of the day.

Has the math changed now that streaming has scaled?
The pie is bigger, that’s for sure. There seems to be more music fans than ever before, and I think pandemic aside, the touring business has benefited big from this increase in consumption. Are labels making more money as well? That’s been well documented, yes, but at the same time, the artist deals seem to reflect this larger pie of revenue. I think in general, labels are spending a lot more on A&R and other areas of marketing and development.

The Shape Of Him: Ed Sheeran on his record-setting “Divide Tour,” which Frey worked on. Photo by Zakary Walters / Courtesy Stuart Camp

Pollstar did a ton around Ed Sheeran as he set the all-time touring record; how did you support his tour?
My department worked very closely with Sara Winter at the Messina Touring Group to create as many tools of promotion as possible so we could light it up from the announcement, all the way through to the last date of the tour. With so many stations and partners involved, there’s a crazy amount of coordination involved. My team would be the conduit between the label, the promoter, agency and management to make sure everyone on our side was fully in sync and executing what we needed to with our partners. What an honor it is to work with such an amazing group of people from Ed to Stuart Camp to Louis Messina, Sara and Marty Diamond.

What’s your team look like and what resources are at your disposal?
We’re 11 deep in our touring department. Most of the team is composed of “artist development reps” and they’re responsibility is day-to-day management of promotional scheduling, budgets, logistics, tour marketing, live tour development, and creating opportunities for artists. We have a person who handles ticket buys, and someone who’s processing payments on the admin side.

You mentioned you have former agents, are they agenting, so to speak?
No, they are not negotiating deals and contracting with promoters. But they do come with relationships and understand the core of what’s needed to develop an artist. Half the battle is knowing who is touring so opportunities don’t just pass us by. The other half is being able to secure those opportunities, whether it’s a direct support slot, key festivals or simply knowing when the right time to headline is. We’re probably one of the only labels out there who speaks to festival buyers regularly and gets festival slots for their artists.

It Takes a Village: L-R UTA’s Mathew Morgan, Harlan Frey, GAYLE (who recently had
the No. 1 song globally), UTA’s Marissa Smith and GAYLE’s manager Kristina Russo.
Photo courtesy Harlan Frey

What makes a great agent in your opinion?
A great agent is someone who’s not constantly telling the label, “I can’t get the artist anything until he/she is in the top 20 on the pop radio charts.” A great agent signs an artist because they believe in them no matter what is going on around them. They’re someone who is willing to roll up their sleeves, get in the trenches and do whatever it takes to help gain traction. A great agent has the respect of their peers, promoters, and other agents. A great agent has vision, and makes a 12-month plan, not a tour-by-tour plan. A great agent understands that it takes a village to raise a child, and the label can be a friend, not an adversary.

Now we’re looking ahead to a crazy number of shows in the summer and a lot of traffic in the marketplace. How are you managing?
We’re focusing heavily on making sure the content we’re creating with our artists is quality over quantity. When the music is good, the videos are fun, and our artists can perform with impact, we’ll cut through all that clutter. Based on where the festivals sit, there’s always going to be traffic in spring and fall. That’s never going to change. We just need to do our part, the artist does theirs, and then we hope the market speaks!

This executive interview is included in Pollstar‘s 2022 Record Company Directory. Purchase a copy via Pollstar‘s store.