Columbia Records has promoted A&R executives Luis Mota and Maria Arangio to senior vice president and vice president, respectively. The Sony Music label is home to such up-and-coming acts as 24KGoldn, Polo G, and Lil Tjay, as well as perennial superstars like Beyonce, Harry Styles and Tyler, the Creator. Headed by chairman Ron Perry, Variety‘s 2020 music executive of the year, it boasts the sort of diverse roster that’s built by good ears and solid leadership, as evidence by the successes of platinum-selling artists like Lil Nas X, who Perry signed.
The A&R-first approach extends to Mota and Arangio, whose work with Tjay led to a top 10 debut for both of his studio albums, “True 2 Myself” and “Destined 2 Win,” as well as a No.1 song, “Calling My Phone.”
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Arangio started at Columbia as an A&R intern in 2014; Mota joined Columbia’s A&R department in 2018 and played a key role in signing young stars like the 20-year-old Lil Tjay and Fivio Foreign, both buzzing acts in the burgeoning trap and melodic rap waves.
Mota and Arangio, who report to Perry and executive vp and general manager Jenifer Mallory, spoke with Variety about their new positions, developing Lil Tjay and where they hope to take Columbia’s A&R department in the future.
Tell us about signing Lil Tjay, Fivio Foreign, and what were your roles specifically?
Luis Mota: Our journey was a little different with [Lil] Tjay. I started working with Tjay when I was actually at a different record label. I discovered him early on, and he just became a good friend. I was a mentor figure at first and worked alongside him. Then, when I went over to Columbia, Maria and I started working on him together. She discovered him at Columbia; I discovered him at a different label but we ended up partnering up.
Maria Arangio: When we first found Tjay, he had a few songs out on SoundCloud, and what we noticed was each song was getting performing better after each release. It was an interesting process in terms of signing Tjay, and then Lu joined, and we both worked very closely together and see very eye-to-eye on his career and his sound. It’s just been a process over these last three years of growing and pushing him to the next level.
Do you work together generally — how do you collaborate? What’s your process?
LM: The whole thing about Columbia is unity. We work as a team. There is no ego or pride, we both have the same goal for Tjay: to see him grow as an artist. We both pick Tjay’s beats, we both mix his music along the whole development process, so we work very closely with everything. It’s not even just music, just his personal life as well. It’s like a big family, to be honest.
MA: Columbia is super collaborative, so if we have ideas, we always share them with each other, and Lu and I really balance each other well.
Signings are so competitive these days, what do you think Columbia offers as far as A&R that puts it above the rest?
LM: I feel like we come from an A&R-centric CEO. Ron Perry is an A&R first, so it always puts us at an advantage because he’s super involved in everything. He just gives us that extra edge to be on top of things.
How has he changed the culture of Columbia in his time there?
MA: Ron is very creative and innovative with the way he thinks. He’s extremely forward-thinking, so that really plays a role into everything at Columbia, and he’s built a team to reflect that.
A&R is a combination of data and gut intuition, how do you balance the two things?
LM: For myself, I pay attention to the culture. It’s what backs us up and ties in with the numbers in the end. For me, it’s all culture.
MA: It’s what you said: a balance of everything. The artists that we look at have to check off certain boxes, and it’s a combination of everything. Definitely have to trust the gut, though.
For up-and-coming artists trying to be discovered by A&Rs like yourself, what do you think is the most important to have?
LM: Two things: No. 1 thing is making good music. Make good music, and fans will discover you. We’ll discover you. Another thing, be socially active. Interact with your fans.
MA: Just to add on, to see consistency across their catalog and that they have multiple records. … [But] we don’t want someone dropping music just for the sake of dropping music. There has to be a purpose behind it. We are an artist-driven label, so artists come first.
What have you learned about leadership in your rise up the corporate ladder?
MA: So I started as an intern, and it’s important to just build relationships. That’s how I got in and started at Columbia as an assistant. And honestly, just taking in as much as you can from the leaders at the company, and Columbia has given me that opportunity to continue to grow. Specifically, as a female A&R, it’s really important to inspire other young women to pursue a career in the industry.
LM: Same thing, I started out as an intern. It’s about having good leaders and learning as much as you can. Then, try to teach what you learned to the next generation. Especially, as Maria said, she’s doing it for women. I have a daughter, so I’m doing it for the same reason. I want to help women along their journey.
Where do you hope to take Columbia’s A&R from here? What kind of acts are you looking for in the future?
LM: We just want to continue looking for dope artists that fit the brand and continue working as a team to keep breaking artists. That’s what Columbia is about, breaking new acts and making sure we have the next, five, ten artists that will continue breaking.
MA: To continue to build out the Columbia roster as we have in the past and following Ron and Jen’s lead in doing that.
What do you think are the biggest challenges facing minority groups in the music business?
LM: I just feel like there’s just a lot of educational gaps. We have to learn the industry more, and a lot of us are just getting into the industry. I’m a minority in the industry, and my goal is to get more minorities in the industry. Columbia is all about giving everybody an equal opportunity, so I love working here.
MA: I think just being a resource to young people looking to get into the industry in whatever way we can help throughout our intern programs and things like that.
What do you think is the most pressing issue facing your field today?
LM: An issue is just making sure the artist’s message is getting out there and that the company understands what the artist is trying to say. We’re focusing on that, making sure we’re aligned with what the artist is trying to portray into the world.
MA: We do that well by connecting with the artist closely and us A&R’s understanding the vision first, and then we can spread that throughout the team that we build very specifically to cater to that artist.
LM: And also educating the artist. A lot of artists come up making music and not understanding the business, so we’re here to teach them the business as much as we can. Being mentors along the way. Nowadays, artists are blowing up a lot faster at a younger age, so we have to be mentors.
What are you both most excited about in these new positions?
LM: Working with the next guys coming up. Now that we’re stepping into more senior-level roles, being more of a helper to our younger A&Rs coming up and making sure we find the next generation of A&Rs and interns.
MA: Being a woman in a senior A&R position; it’s exciting for me to be that role model for other women that are looking to be in the industry.
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