Not many industry specialists get to be part of a musical revolution of sorts — Joe Calitri has been fortunate to be one of them.
As former General Manager of Fueled By Ramen, he spearheaded the label responsible for some of the biggest pop and rock acts in the past decade — Paramore, Twenty One Pilots, Panic! At The Disco, Gym Class Heroes, many others.
He was there when Paramore broke the Billboard charts with their invigorating sophomore album Riot!, and he signed Twenty One Pilots onto their roster, a band which boasts record-breaking streaming numbers and a devoted worldwide following.
Calitri, ever hungry and devoted to growing emerging artists, is now the GM of Red Bull Records, a label replete with promising bands and established names like AWOLNATION, The Aces and Beartooth.
We go in-depth with Calitri as we navigate from his beginnings in the industry to his recent take-over as GM of Red Bull Records, the future of the music industry, and why streaming is only just getting started.
Take us way back: how did you first start out in the industry?
Well, it goes back to 1993, when I got my first start in the business and I got really lucky because I went to a university in Boston, Massachusetts, called Northeastern. They had a music industry program and, at the time, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life.
I was actually thinking of going in to fix cars with my dad or something like that. I got into the music business program there which was equal parts music — on the theory side, copyrighting laws and all that — and all the business stuff. My parents were really happy because I was getting a business degree and I was happy because I was doing something I enjoyed. At the time, I was in a band and Northeastern required each student to get meaningful co-op or internship within their field of study.
What did your school think of your plan?
When they asked me what my co-op was going to be, I told them I was going to jam with my band, go into the studio and record some stuff and work at a restaurant on the side. They said no. (laughs) They helped me get an internship at Polygram Group Distribution, which was about 25 minutes north of Boston, in this little office park.
I walked in for my first interview and I was completely blown away that something like this existed. There were all these people who were running around, playing new music for people, radio stations, selling music to retailers and I was just completely floored to the point that within minutes of my interview starting, I just knew this was going to be my career.
So I did every job they would let me do, I was a college rep, where I was working records through college radio and press at Northeastern which was a heavy market for music, which was an amazing experience.
Then they moved me to California to be a field rep, where I was going around to record stores, putting posters up, checking inventory on stock levels. Then I was an artist development rep in Seattle where I oversaw all the marketing efforts locally for all the artists through Polygram, which at the time consisted of Mercury Records, A&M Records, MoTown, Island Records, Def Jam.
So I had pretty much been with Island Def Jam my whole career at that point, first out in the field and then they brought me to New York and that was my history. My determination was to do as many jobs as they would let me do, and luckily, they let me do a lot of them."
Joe Calitri, when he served under influential record label Island Def Jam.
Let’s go back to your time with Island Def Jam in 1999. There were over 14 different record labels under them — how extensive was your role as VP of Sales and Field Marketing? Did you oversee the sales and marketing for all the record labels, or just a portion of it?
I oversaw all the labels and all the genres to varying degrees but my main responsibility was everything that happened outside of our office in New York.
So if something was happening in an individual market anywhere around the country, I was working with our distributors and market teams, making sure that the right message was being sent to the consumer via a retail outlet or any other marketing channels.
It was pretty diverse and it was an amazing experience to be able to work with pretty much every genre under the sun. We had acts like Bon Jovi and The Killers and Sum 41 and we had everything from Jay-Z down on the urban side. So yeah, that was an incredible experience."
How much had the music industry changed between your time with Island Def Jam and your time with Fueled By Ramen?
A lot of things changed. Obviously, CD sales started shrinking and we weren’t ready to see what streaming was going to be. Downloads were important as soon as CDs started shrinking so there were some linears there.
There was more of a cultural shift that the industry had to accept and I was very thankful of it. I had always thought there was a lot of excessive waste in the industry and it kind of all had to go away, so that’s why my transition to Fueled By Ramen was so brilliant.
At the time, they were already barebones, D.I.Y, like “let’s not spend a lot of money, let’s be creative and let’s not try to muscle our way into things.” So Fueled By Ramen was already there and they were prepared for it."
Tell us about your time at Fueled By Ramen.
Full credit to John Janick and the team of D.I.Y kids that were running the record label out of Tampa, Florida at the time. They had built this brand that was so strong and so well-defined in what they were doing. Bands like Paramore, Cobra Starship, Panic! At The Disco, Gym Class Heroes and all the other bands that were really starting to happen when I came over were brilliant artists and marketers. They knew how to make great music and knew how to speak to the community.
Fueled By Ramen was taking advantage of the technologies that was available at the time that the rest of us at the major labels couldn’t quite figure out — that was how to communicate with people on MySpace and really build a following that you can constantly speak with in a genuine, honest, transparent manner. Those kids really reacted to it.
I’ll give you a small example. At Fueled By Ramen, every week on Friday, one person on the team would get on MySpace and reply all the questions that came in that week and the responses we would get back were just like “I can’t believe you responded to my email, I’m trying to get my band heard” and it was kind of amazing because I had never seen anything like that. In the major labels, we were very separated from the consumer.
Fueled By Ramen was very transparent and so when YouTube started to become an important factor, Fueled By Ramen was so far ahead on subscriptions, compared to every other major label, because they had dedicated so much of their time and energy to make sure that people understood that that’s where we were going to premiere things.
In the end, those were all great bands and they were all going to be successful whether or not we were involved, we just made it a little bit easier."
Fueled By Ramen sounded like a great place to be. So why leave them for Red Bull?
The reason I went over to Red Bull Records and left Fueled By Ramen was because in the major label system, you have very little control over what happens with your artists anywhere in the world. They basically get handed off to the affiliate and the person who runs that office decides if they’re gonna put the record out or not — if they’re going to hire a real publicist who’s right for that record or just use someone internally.
When Red Bull Records called, they said they wanted me to come in and actually build their entire international infrastructure from the ground up. So I was traveling 200,000+ miles a year, going to every country and meeting the radio station people and getting distributors on board and rebuilding how they were doing business globally.
After a couple of years, we looked at it and felt like it was working pretty well. Why not apply it to the entire company?"
How did you adapt to deal with different genres with different audiences? Did you have to cater differently to different genres?
You do, and certainly depending on what your role is in the company more so than others.
I was predominantly concerned with general marketing and advertising and retail, so it wasn’t a massive shift in how you thought about approaching those things. It was more of what’s the most effective way to market and sell at that moment. The genres weren’t really the challenge when you talk about a big company like Island Def Jam.
In fact, the multiple genres were the best part of the experience. To be able to work in a place where I was talking to nearly everyone in the United States at the time, we were domestically focused at Island Def Jam."
What differences have you seen in the industry since the advent of music streaming?
There have literally been no negatives, it is all positives. The early stages of my career we were always plagued with inventory levels and product distribution chains. I’m so glad that is all in the past, now it’s all about pressing a button and the product is available everywhere globally, it never runs out.
It’s there for consumption and now it becomes way more about the marketing and the exciting stuff about trying to break bands, not worrying about the logistics of that old music business which still exists. Physical product is still important but we have so much more control over it now and life has just become so much more simple and there's a whole new different set of challenges.
Now there are more people you have to get through to on a digital space that are gatekeeping it. Previously, it was a couple of retailers, now it’s a lot of different people handling a lot of different ways to market so that’s the main difference."
Since we’re talking about streaming— what’re some of the challenges a record label faces in trying to get a newer band to break out.
This might be a question that might be coming later in the conversation but it’s still about relationships. Relationships today are even more important to me than they were 10 or 15 years ago. Everyone’s got a pretty leveled playing field.
Everyone wants to put their music out. You can go through a number of ways to make a record in your garage and put it online and actually get it sold. So now, the relationships with the people that are kind of controlling the editorials and marketing and all of that become that much more important.
It’s not just your relationship with a radio station or a press outlet, now you have to work with a whole new set of people but it still boils down to that relationship — like, can you get somebody on the phone and explain to them why your project is a little more important than someone else’s? You still need to be able to do that."
What's one unwavering philosophy you've had since working in the industry?
You really have to work and look at every single little detail — take advantage of every little opportunity to get the slightest of an advantage over someone else."
What do you think is the biggest music trend in Asia right now?
I don’t know that I’ve ever focused on the trends, I believe everything is cyclical. You’ll have international repertoire doing great in Japan and then it won't be. Everything’s a cycle.
If something’s under-performing, I think it’s only a temporary thing. Metal bands do really well in Southeast Asia, hardcore bands do really well here too, electronic is massive and there are festivals everywhere, I just think it’s booming now.
I think anyone who plays in an international role in the music business really has to pay a lot of attention to what’s going on because I think it’s all going to be relevant, with the exception of new country music, maybe. In a couple of years another genre will take over EDM and then years after that EDM will come back again."
What do you think the future holds for Red Bull Records?
Hopefully a deeper cultural impact. Right now we have a very small roster, maybe like six or seven artists. I’d like to see us get to something like 12 or 15 where there’s a lot more diversity in it.
Right now we have a hip-hop group from Venice, California called Warm Brew, who have an amazing album coming out next year. We have AWOLNATION who have just been certified Diamond for their track, 'Sail', meaning they’ve got over 10 million downloads. They’ve got a new album coming out next year. Beartooth, who’s a heavy, hardcore band from Columbus. Our newest project, The Aces.
We have a very diverse roster already, but I’d like to see it get even more diverse and have a couple of Southeast Asian artists in the mix, same with Australian and South American artists and have a significant staff to track every detail on what’s going on with their careers globally. We want to think outside the box."
You’ve mentioned wanting to get Southeast Asians on the label. How are you planning on sourcing them out and recruiting them?
We’re looking around the globe all the time, we’re looking at the Spotify viral charts and Southeast Asia is doing phenomenally in terms of participating, they’re producing huge numbers.
We have a lot of data to look at to see what’s working and then it comes down to a few different factors that boils down to what motivates us to further those conversations, but right now it’s all about trying to find that right fit."