Can Atlanta Become the Music Industry's Next Business Hub?
Years after the music industry left the city, ATL is poised to bring the biz back to the South.
This summer, as Atlanta rapper 21 Savage was releasing what would become his first top 20 hit on the Hot 100, his manager Kei Henderson got a call that made her ponder -- and not for the first time -- why Atlanta-based artists and their teams have to travel to entertainment hubs such as Los Angeles or New York to conduct business, even though Atlanta is constantly credited with setting music trends and influencing pop culture.
“The days of Atlanta leaving Atlanta to get business and press done are soon coming to a close. Come to us. There's so much life in the city,” she tweeted. “Don't get me wrong, NYC and LA will always be the hubs for business but it's time we have a platform in our own city.”
From R.E.M. to Zac Brown Band, OutKast to Gucci Mane, James Brown to the Allman Brothers Band, Georgia has a consistent record of producing genre-defining artists. But its capital city has thus far been unable to prove itself as a sustainable hub for the business side of music. Now, many influencers believe Atlanta is currently positioning itself to change that narrative.
“[Atlanta] was always a market that was culturally important, but the business itself wasn’t really that sustainable,” says Troy Carter, Spotify’s global head of creator services. “A lot of artists migrated to New York or Los Angeles to get discovered or support their business. I think for this generation of artists and entrepreneurs [in Atlanta], it’s really important to them that the talent actually stay in Atlanta this time.”
Georgia has always been responsible for producing immense talent across various genres, but the 1990s saw a boom for the music business. When Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds and Antonio “L.A.” Reid decided to start a new label, LaFace Records, in the late 1980s, the decision to set up shop in Atlanta derived from the two music moguls pinning a map to a wall and deciding the Southern city seemed like a suitable place to set up shop.
“It wasn’t some fully-formed strategy,” Reid noted in his 2016 memoir, Sing to Me. “None of us were from Atlanta or had relatives there. None of us had even really spent any time in the town, but Atlanta it was.”
Following the success of LaFace, which shepherded the early careers of OutKast, Goodie Mob, TLC and Usher, came a series of local labels like Jermaine Dupri’s So So Def and Ludacris’ Disturbing Tha Peace. But Atlanta never sustained itself as a key music business city.
“In terms of business, it was really exciting and I think we were a little too lazy and didn’t help our city become all it could’ve been,” says Michele Rhea Caplinger, senior executive director for the Atlanta chapter of the Recording Academy. “[Atlanta] was positioned so beautifully.”
Henderson agrees. She emphasized that none of the labels did anything explicitly wrong, adding that the changes in the music industry due to piracy and digital consumption played a huge part in their declines.
Now, with the music business again on an upswing thanks in large part to streaming, those problems are less of a concern. Carter says that although the market is competitive, managers and entrepreneurs such as Henderson, Quality Control Music’s Coach K (Migos, Lil Yachty) and the management/creative collective LVRN (DRAM, 6LACK) just want Atlanta to thrive, so they’re willing to collaborate to reach that common goal. It’s hard to predict whether Atlanta will finally become a sustainable music business hub, he noted, but added that the pieces are in place. Now, it’s up to the city, local talent and executives to fight for business.
Companies such as Live Nation and necessary funding institutions such as City National Bank already have offices in Atlanta, while Apple Music routinely sends a team to Atlanta to work with local artists and Spotify recently opened an office for a small local team. And in 2018, a new tax incentive in the form of the Georgia Music Investment Act is predicted to bring additional business to the city.
“I have often had top-level industry executives say to me, ‘Give me one more reason and I will move my family and my business to Atlanta,’” Caplinger says. Caplinger has been a part of the team that has worked on the Georgia Music Investment Act for the past eight years. Over nearly two decades of work with the Recording Academy’s local chapter, she’s seen Atlanta’s growth as a music town and watched a lot of talent move elsewhere due to Atlanta’s relative lack of infrastructure and resources compared to cities like Los Angeles, New York and Nashville.
“You can walk from your publicist’s office to your manager’s office [in Nashville],” says Tammy Hurt, president of Georgia Music Partners, noting that Nashville has attracted many of Georgia’s country and Christian acts in recent years. “It’s all centralized there. If things develop as we hope they do [in Atlanta], you’ll see a coalescing of groups and businesses being created so that the infrastructure really, truly exists.”
With tax incentives for scoring, recording and touring, the Georgia Music Investment Act was created to draw music business to the city, following the success of a similar film and television tax credit introduced in 2008.
Stephen Weizenecker, entertainment lawyer at Barnes and Thornburg, helped craft both the film/TV and music legislation. He also assisted in bringing studios such as Pinewood Atlanta Studios, which features 18 sound stages, to Georgia. He believes infrastructure such as this could also benefit the music industry, since artists could use the sound stages to rehearse for their tours.
Industry insiders believe that every time a new film studio opens, or a movie is filmed in the city, that doubles as a win for the music industry, too, by providing potential employment opportunities in fields such as scoring and helping retain musical talent that might otherwise move elsewhere. Similarly, Atlanta’s winning bid to host the 2019 Super Bowl could be a welcome employment opportunity for stagehands and other people who work in the touring industry but would not be able to benefit directly from the tax incentives.
Experts also say the recent growth of Atlanta’s tech industry will also play a role in the city’s ability to conduct business within the music industry; in March, Forbes reported that tech jobs in Atlanta have increased 46.7 percent since 2010. Hurt says that a publicly-traded entertainment company, a major record label and a global brand have expressed interest in having a presence in Atlanta since the music legislation passed earlier this year.
“We’re hoping that even if it’s not the tipping point, it helps to create the tipping point,” she says.
LVRN manager Tunde Balogun said the creative agency is hoping to become the new LaFace of Atlanta. The group recently opened a new space downtown, a three-story building with both office and studio space underwritten as part of their joint venture with L.A.-based Interscope Records that Balogun emphasizes is open for use by entrepreneurs and artists outside of the LVRN collective.
Henderson and Balogun both participated in Spotify’s recent Open House, where Amber Grimes, a senior manager for Spotify who is based in Atlanta, says the streaming service held local workshops for artists, managers, label executives and entrepreneurs looking to learn more about Spotify’s services and how the company can be a resource.
“I don’t think that we need more buildings or people in suits to validate that we do business here,” says Grimes. “This is a creative space. We’ve been able to thrive as a community, and if we had access to the same tools and knowledge as everyone else, there’s no way we can lose.”
In 1995, André 3000 famously demanded respect and attention by declaring, “The South got something to say.” Many local influencers believe Atlanta’s success as a music business market is directly dependent upon the community once again forcing people to pay attention. Henderson says the music business should “move around [the Atlanta music scenes]. Because we are where the culture is.”