While it’s easy to think about the history of music as flowing through the big icons—the Beatles, Dolly Partons and Nirvanas of the world—that’s often just a fragment of the whole picture. Behind the scenes, thousands of devoted creative professionals make the “magic” happen on nearly every level—from touring managers to audio engineers to publicists to radio DJs, the “industry” part of the music industry is no hyperbole.
One of the most fascinating roles in the ecosystem is that of an A&R rep. Working with “artists and repertoire,” they’re the ones responsible for discovering acts and bringing the creative visions to life. While the specifics of this position have changed alongside technological and economic development, its essential function remains the same: find talent… which is exactly what legendary Atlantic Records A&R rep, Steve Robertson, has been doing for the past 20 years.
Getting his start in radio back in the ‘90s in Florida, Robertson’s been a key figure for some of the biggest rock bands of the past few decades—he’s had a hand in the careers of everyone from Collective Soul to Matchbox Twenty, Seven Mary Three, Shinedown, Paramore and more. To this end, his career has been an exemplary exhibition of the amazing things major labels can accomplish when the stars align just so.
Hopping on a Zoom call last week with American Songwriter, Robertson opened up about his experiences. Offering insight into everything from music history to artist developement to the way labels work to overall, hard-earned philosophy on life, the discussion was an enlightening glimpse into one of the minds that has helped shape the modern music landscape. Read the conversation below:
If you want to get YOUR songs in front of Steve Robertson, then you should enter The American Songwriter 2021 Song Contest.
American Songwriter: Before you were in A&R, you were in radio—tell us about your radio days. How did you get into it? What impact did those early years have?
Stevo Robertson: My brother was a DJ at the local rock station, so literally by the time I was, like, 8 years old, I was like “I’m going to be on the radio and I’m gonna be the guy who picks the records.” I didn’t know how any of it worked… in those days, we thought DJs picked the record. In some cases they did, but over time as things got more corporate, that was happening less and less. But regardless, I knew I wanted that position.
So, I went to broadcasting school in Fort Lauderdale specifically to get a job in radio and get into the music business. I ended up at a classic rock station in Miami called Zeta-4, where I was playing Led Zeppelin and Bad Company records all day, learning about Steve Winwood, Traffic, Spencer Davis and all of that. I was really just getting my education on the foundation of ‘60s and ‘70s rock, which I already had a passion for.
Then came MTV—I went from a steady diet of Led Zeppelin, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Molly Hatchet to saying “Flock of… Flock of Seagulls? What’s A Flock of Seagulls? What’s Haircut 100? What’s Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark?” The door swung open and you were seeing bands like The Cure on TV, hearing songs that you didn’t even know where possible. So in the mid ‘80s, that changed my whole thing.
By the late ‘80s, I was all about The Cure and The Smiths and Morrissey—there was still a place in my heart for Led Zeppelin, but I was really more into this new ‘alternative’ or ‘college rock’ as they were calling it. I was working at a classic rock radio station, so my job was to be in tune with classic rock and play it and talk about it all day. Then, I would go out at night to see new bands. I saw The Smashing Pumpkins when they came with a new record called Gish, which was this psychedelic heavy rock thing. I just happened to see it on MTV one night—they used to have an alternative show called 120 Minutes and I would tape it with my VCR like a caveman. Around that same time, I heard Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit.’ I had Bleach before Nevermind came out—I was collecting all these CDs. It felt important at the time. Yet, there were two rock stations in Fort Lauderdale: one was classic rock and the other was just playing horseshit… I was not a hair metal guy. I thought that whole scene was bullshit. So, I couldn’t understand why it was so popular because I was like “Smashing Pumpkins are so much fucking better.”
So, eventually a company that owned a classic rock station in Miami bought a new station in Orlando and they were looking for a young program director that knew rock music—they didn’t want it to be an alternative rock station exactly, but they did want it to be kinda like a new type of rock station. I ended up getting the job, so I moved to Orlando and became the Assistant Program Director for WJRR. Finally, I was the guy picking records, the thing I wanted to do since I was a little kid. That’s really when I learned how it all worked. I started reading books about the industry, record labels had people who would take you out to dinner and stuff. Because I worked for people who were older and weren’t really into alternative rock, they kinda had to let me do my thing. I still had to worry about ratings, it wasn’t all about just playing music that was cool, but I did know that “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and Pearl Jam’s Alive and Smashing Pumpkins Cherub Rock were all changing everything. Not just music and radio, but culture—I wore my flannel in the summer, it didn’t matter. It was potent, you could feel what was happening. Because I was running a radio station, I got to help Orlando find out about this stuff earlier than it would have otherwise.
AS: At a certain point, you started using your position to give pivotal airplay to some bands that were just starting out, like Collective Soul, Matchbox Twenty and more. What were those discoveries like?
SR: Collective Soul sent me their album—I didn’t know who they were, but I just happened to pick up their CD from the pile, so I listened to it. I heard a song called “Shine” and played it on air—there was no Shazam back then, so people were calling up the radio station saying “What is this? What’s the name of the song?” After that, we added it to the station and their manager made sure that, like, all the record stores and Best Buys in Orlando had the CD.
Atlantic Records picked up on that—Jason Flom, a well-known A&R guy, came down to see Collective Soul in Orlando at a show we sponsored… and they signed them on the spot. The next year, “Shine” became a No. 1 song and they played it at Woodstock ‘94. So, that was my first hit. After that, I figured out that the music industry loves a track record—it’s not really about picking one, it’s about showing you can pick it again and again. So, I started looking for unsigned bands. There was a band from Orlando called Seven Mary Three who had sent me their CD—same exact thing. I played a song called “Cumbersome” and people started calling in. Atlantic signed them too. Then, there was a band called Tabitha’s Secret, who were also from Orlando. They had a song called “3AM,” which I started playing on air. We booked them for a festival we created, they were one of the first headliners. They got signed to Atlantic too and became Matchbox Twenty.
AS: When did you make the actual switch over to A&R? Was there a learning curve?
SR: After all of that, Atlantic eventually called me up, flew me to New York and said “We want you to find more bands… you can stay in Orlando if you want.” So, that’s what I did. I thought it was going to be easy, like, “Now I’ll just do the same thing—clearly if I find artists I like, they’ll sell millions of copies.” But in reality, it’s a whole lot more than that. That just goes to show you, though, that there’s nothing wrong with thinking that way—it’s all I knew. There’s nothing wrong with being naive or making mistakes so long as you’re open to the broader picture.
What I learned was that record labels had a lot more than radio promotion—there was publicity and artist development and touring and all of these things that went into making artists and CDs. So, that was a huge learning curve. I was no longer at the radio station, so I became a little more invisible. I had to learn how to get out and hustle. Bands weren’t just going to automatically send me their stuff like they did before, so I had to make myself visible.
AS: Once you were doing A&R, one of the most notable projects you helped bring to life was Shinedown—when did you first discover Brent Smith? How did Shinedown come to be?
SR: Returning to the theme of learning from failure: Shinedown was born from failure. I was in a studio in Alabama recording with another band I had signed for Atlantic when their drummer’s girlfriend came up to me and handed me a CD with scribbled handwriting on it. She said “I’m from Knoxville—this guy’s voice is great, you should listen to it.” I was like “Great!” and put it in my bag, and then it sat on my desk for a couple of weeks. Finally, I listened to it and she was right, his voice was great! At the time, voices like that—like Chris Cornell and Eddie Vedder—dominated the airwaves, and this young guy from Knoxville was entirely competitive with those guys. So, I signed Brent’s band, which was called Dreve.
The rest of the band was… well, no offense to those guys, but it just wasn’t the right combo for that music. But Brent Smith had greatness and we knew it, so we developed them for a year and… it wasn’t really going anywhere. Like, it felt like Brent was getting better and the rest of the band was getting worse. They were demoing, writing new songs, recording covers that I would ask them to do, all just trying to find out what this project was going to be. In the end, we dropped the band… but a few weeks later, Brent called me up and said “I’m no longer in Dreve and I’m not really sure what to do next.” So, I went to my boss, Craig Kallman, and he let me sign Brent, like “Well, that kid has the raw talent—let’s sign him, put him with the best songwriters we can find and build him a band.” It was like a textbook example of all the things a major label can properly do to benefit artists.
After that, we set up shop in Jacksonville, Florida because there was a lot of good modern rock coming out of there, and that’s where we helped find the rest of the band. So, he was an artist who didn’t know where to go and we helped him. We didn’t invent him or anything, we just saw his talent and passion and gave him the tools. I’m really proud of that, especially now. Shinedown is making their seventh album and the others have gone gold or platinum or multi-platinum. So yeah, a lot of major labels get a lot of shit for being… whatever. Some of it is well-deserved, but this is a case where, in the right hands, you can use those budgets to identify talent early on and actually make something incredible out of it.
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AS: Likewise, you were pivotal in the discovery and development of Paramore—what’s that story?
SR: Paramore was similar—it was Hayley Williams. I got the CD from famed Nashville attorney, Kent Marcus, when I was living in Florida. It just said “Hayley Williams” on it and had six songs that were really Avril Lavigne-type songs. I sat on it for a while… I knew she had a great voice, but I didn’t know exactly what to do with it yet. Tom Storms, another A&R guy from Atlantic called me—he had heard the demos too and we decided to partner on it. But, we weren’t geniuses or anything—if you get close to Hayley Williams, even back when she was 15 years old, it’s clear that she’s the real deal, the highest level you can think of. So, Tom, Jason Flom and I signed her.
When we met with her, she was like “I’m not Avril Lavigne, I’m not even a solo artist—I have a band. You guys should come to Nashville to see us play.” So, we went to Franklin and saw our first Paramore show. It was in the bassist’s parents’ living room, they had moved all the furniture out of the way and set it all up. It was Paramore, the original Paramore—Hayley, Jeremy, Josh and Zac (the latter of whom was 13 years old at the time). It was amazing, we were like “Okay, yeah, Paramore, sounds good!”
It was great—there were hardly any female-fronted bands at the time. There was No Doubt, but that wasn’t the norm for what was happening. At the same time, we had just bought a piece of Fueled by Ramen (an indie label from Florida), so we reached out to them to see if they liked it… which they did. They got behind the project and became the ultimate partners for getting Paramore off the ground. After that, the band started making records and playing shows and got on Warped Tour and so on, and the crowds kept getting bigger. So, that’s the thing again—major labels can really be of service to young, talented artists who haven’t quite figured out what they are yet. We didn’t invent Hayley Williams, we’re not like some boyband factory. All we did was find out about a great artist, asked “What do you want to do?” and then helped them do it.
AS: You recently joined the roster of judges for American Songwriter’s 2021 Song Contest. What can you tell us about the experience of being a judge?
SR: Ever since I started coming to Nashville to check out music, I’ve known what this publication is, how credible it is and who it speaks to. Then, in recent years, I’ve had in my social media feed. I would always see friends of mine—either artists or executives—posting about how they were judges and I always thought it would be so cool to do. So when I got the call, it was an automatic “Yes!” I know the type of names they’ve gotten to do it in the past, so to be asked alone was an honor.
So, even though I already listen to a lot of music, now I have even more to search through! Selfishly, I’m thinking that maybe I’ll hear something that I’ll end up signing and working with. Who knows? Stranger things have happened. Having met the folks over at American Songwriter and getting to know the Nashville songwriter community at large, I’m so happy to do it. If I can be of service in some way by giving the right kind of feedback on songs or artists, then it’s time well spent.
Steve Robertson is a judge for American Songwriter’s 2021 Song Contest, learn more about that HERE and watch some music videos from artists he helped discover below: