Photography by Isaac Rosenthal
Kristan McCann is an A&R executive and can be found most days at RCA Records in New York City. She is a Detroit native, but now calls Brooklyn her home. She has exceptional taste in music that goes beyond sound, and into a remarkable empathy for the creative spirit. Her career as an A&R is in those delicate first few chapters, although her natural sensibilities as a creative guide and curator are wise beyond her years. Kristan is a true advocate for the artist.
STORY AND DISPOSITION
A new series that profiles artists and advocates of the music industry community.
We choose to document these wonderful individuals, because we believe in them. We want you to see the magic and beauty that we see.
Our tools are the art of portrait photography, interview and song selection.
I was born in Washington, D.C. I only stayed there for a couple of months, and then me and my mom moved to Detroit with my grandparents. We stayed there until I was about nine. After that, I lived in South Carolina for a year, Memphis for two years and then came back to Detroit and finished high school.
The first move was because we lived in a four family flat with my grandparents. The two upstairs apartments were rented out, my grandparents stayed in one downstairs, and my mom and I were in the other. My grandmother's name was Jean. My mom's name was Beverly, she was handicapped and diagnosed with MS when I was two, or maybe three. As you can imagine, there was a steady trajectory of her health getting worse. By the time I was nine, she could only get around with her wheelchair, but she was very adamant about leaving Detroit, because she hated Detroit! She hated, you know, living with my grandparents, and them having that kind of control over both of our lives. So, she decided that we were going to move to South Carolina, and we did.
That was a time when Orangeburg was a small town, and you could build a house for not very much money. We literally had a house built for us. It's kind of a fucked up story. When we arrived, the house wasn’t quite done. My mom and her best friend literally had houses built next to each other. So we stayed next door for a while, until our house was ready. That was November of 1998.
We had only been living in our new house for a couple of months before my mom got really sick. She had a bedsore that got infected and she ended up going to the hospital. At that point my grandmother and my uncle came to stay. Different people came. It got to the point where after 90 days, she couldn’t stay in the hospital anymore. The insurance wouldn’t cover it. So she needed to either go to a hospice or a senior citizen’s home. She wasn't getting better – information that was definitely not appealing to the insurance company.
It was my grandmother who decided that we should go to Memphis, because we had family there. She arranged for my mother to be in an adult care center, and I was sent to live with my mom's first cousin, her husband and daughter.
The fucked up part of this story is that when we left South Carolina, doctors told my family that she had six months to live, and no one told me. My mom had been sick throughout my whole life, and in some ways I became desensitized to it. Somehow it never really crossed my mind that she would die.
We came to Memphis in May of 1999, and she passed away in August. It was a very surreal. I remember that moment when my uncle came to pick me up from school. He would often take me to the park or the mall. That day, he said, “how's your day going? I have to tell you something, but if you're having a bad day, I don't want to.”
Of course, I made a smart-ass comment, “just tell me – it’s not like she’s dead or anything.” Low and behold, she was. My mom died in August 1999. That was that. Right after she died, it then became a question of where I would live, because my grandmother was in Detroit. She was old, like 80 something, and not really equipped to take on a child, and things were going well living with my mom’s cousin, so it was like – you can just stay with them.
My mom’s cousin and her husband were very religious, and in the process of building their own church. They went to church a lot, multiple times a week, twice on Sundays, bible study and choir rehearsal. There were all these things that became mandatory for me. I did not want to join any of it, especially not the choir. I was forced to go, and my lack of enthusiasm was very obvious. I stood in the choir stand, not singing, not wanting to be there. But, you know, I've always loved music. I had my boom box, CD player, a radio and I loved them all. My mom’s cousin and her husband became angry at my lack of care for going to church. They literally took away all my devices that played music until I agreed to be in the choir and to act like I loved it.
My grandmother would send me clothes. Tommy Hilfiger clothes. She would ask me what I wanted, you know, and being my grandmother she would spoil me. She would send the clothes, and my mom’s cousin would literally take them from me. I was not allowed to have them until I earned them. My grandmother would send me pumpkin seeds and snacks from Detroit – they would take those too. Also, because my mom was disabled, she got a Social Security check, and I got a Social Security check. When she passed away, mine increased. So as my guardians, they now received that check directly. Considering they were building a church, it was a great time for them to be taking that extra $900 a month. I didn't really see any of that money. I'm not going to say they starved me, because they didn’t. I ate. But rather, they took that money and used it for their church.
They didn't buy me anything – especially when I asked. I remember asking for a new coat, and being turned down. No and no. They would try and control what I wore to school. I was not allowed to wear shorts or wear my hair straight.
This was all happening from when I was 10 years old and in Memphis. The thing is, I love Memphis, but I just hated living with them. Each summer I would go to Detroit. My grandfather died in July 2000. That summer when I went back, it was just my grandmother up there. She was funny, strict, stubborn and set in her ways. But when I came back to visit from Memphis she was always super nice to me.
That summer in Detroit, I told my grandmother that I didn't want to go back, I explained what was happening, and she agreed that I didn’t have to. I thought – this is going to be great! But then my grandmother totally flipped the script and became incredibly strict. She wouldn’t allow me to go to the mall with my friends, or let me sleep over at a friend’s place. She wouldn’t let me do anything except sit in her house. I would say to her, “why? Why are you acting this way? Why, when I came from Memphis, did you make me think that this would be different?”
She responded, “I felt sorry for you.”
I know this story is kind of dark. What happened next? I came back to Detroit when I was 12, and stayed there through high school with my grandmother. I stayed with her until the eleventh grade. I had cousins there too. Another of my mother's first cousins also lived in Detroit. I remember my mom totally hating her, and I never really understood why. The upside was that I was allowed to go and spend time at their house.
At the time, I found it all so confusing. I was a really good kid. I got straight A's. I was a nerd – like, I barely did anything wrong – and yet my grandmother would still hold me in the house.
I decided that for my senior year, I wasn't dealing with any of it, because I knew that I deserved better. I told my grandmother that I didn't want to live with her anymore, and that I wanted to live with my cousins in Detroit. They lived about 20 minutes away, on the same side of town as us. We all lived on the west side. So, it wasn't anything crazy to be able to get to their house. That year, my grandmother was 85 and could drive herself around. She would say to me, “you’re ungrateful! I’m going to write you out of my will!”
She would say crazy things. She would take me to her older friends’ houses so they could tell me how ungrateful I was. These old women told me that the devil was going to get me, and explained that I was going to go to hell for how I treated my grandmother.
Now – don’t get me wrong, I was no angel. I argued with her. Talked back to her. I was a proper teenager, but this whole situation was horrible. She would say, “go live with them if that’s what you want to do, but then I’m disowning you!”
I was like – okay. I didn’t know how much money she had, or what it all really meant but I know that my sanity was worth it. So, I’m like – ok, I’m outta here.
I decided to apply to be legally emancipated. We went to court, because my grandmother was trying to fight it. She would say crazy things. For the court case, my cousin June’s best friend represented us as our lawyer. Because I didn’t want to live with my grandmother anymore, I needed to go through court proceedings, and it was a shit show. Eventually the court granted my cousin guardianship rights for the next year and a half, because then I would be 18 and considered an adult by the law. So, that was that.
Over time, things with the cousin didn’t wind up so great. That got ugly too.
I graduated from high school with a high GPA, 3.6 or 3.7. I decided I would go to Hampton College in Virginia. They had a summer program as a way for kids to get a head start on a few classes. Some folks went because they had a low GPA and needed to make it up. There was no need for me to go and do that, but my cousin would insist that I needed to. The more I held my ground, the more she insisted and wanted my grandmother to pay for it. My grandmother said, “if you don’t want to go, then I’m not paying for it.”
And then my cousin said, “we will take the money from your graduation party and pay for it because you're going.”
I thought – people are giving me this money to buy things that I need for school, not to go early to the program. I believe that she just wanted me out of the house for the summer, because she was redoing my room. Quite literally, once I did leave for school, she got all my shit out and redid the room. The drama was about what she wanted, not my education. She was very into appearances, and I’m sure the check helped, because I was still getting it while I was living with them.
In her defense, they didn't need the money. She used my check to pay my car and the insurance. People are different shades of fucked up.
In the end I didn’t go to the program. I stood up for myself, and told them that it was my money, and I would decide what it was used for. They weren’t helping me purchase essentials. I needed a comforter. Books. Clothes. I needed basic things, not to take more classes.
We ended up in a teary confrontation. She wanted me gone. That was that. So I went to school.
After graduation, I was deciding if maybe I should go to law school. I wasn’t clear on what I should do, so I went back to Detroit. In college, I majored in public relations and minored in marketing. I had started off as a print journalism major because I always loved to write. I would write short stories when I was a kid. I had stopped after my mom died, but when I was writing I really loved it
It's weird to think about now. Yes, I was a little writer. I was convinced that I was going to be a print journalism major, although I took the classes and didn’t enjoy it. I could tell that I wouldn’t be able to do the grunt work needed to become notable in the field.
I looked across the school of communications, and thought – ok, journalism isn’t for me and so I’ll be a PR Major. Clearly, I knew nothing about real life. So, I had a PR major and a marketing minor. It was cool. My college experience was cool and I met some good people. I didn’t party really crazy or study really crazy. I was just around. Also, it was a predominantly black school, and we just don’t party like the spring breakers you see on TV.
Once I returned to Detroit, I was taking the steps to go to law school, but I’m also a master procrastinator. I applied. The year was 2010 and it was the height of the recession – all grad school applications were really competitive. I had good grades and was a solid applicant. I was determined to go to a top school. Columbia. NYU. Vanderbilt. University of Chicago. The majority of them waitlisted me. The only school I got into on the first round was the University of Miami in Florida. I thought, okay, I’ll do that – and I commenced a pre-law program that summer. In doing that, I decided I wasn’t passionate enough about law to go into six figure debt.
Why did I want to study law? As a little kid I liked to argue with people, and so I thought that must mean that I should be a lawyer. My cousin’s husband was a lawyer for Ford in Detroit. In my life I didn’t have any major role models. I probably got the idea from TV. Maybe Law and Order SVU? I remember watching New York Undercover a lot. It’s very generic. In the same way that, I guess, we are influenced by what we see – TV, movies, magazines, and little Kristan wanted to be a lawyer! That was that.
As graduation rolled around, I thought, you know, I'm smart, I'm good at school, I'll just stay in school and be a lawyer. My plan was to combine joint programming, get my GD and my masters degree in music business from the University of Miami. It was all going to be so great! Then, I did the program, and didn’t enjoy it. I also kind of hated living in Miami. I just started to really question everything - what am I really doing this for?
So, I thought – let’s try again. Take the LSAT. Try again for the schools that I want to study at. I really wanted to go to Columbia University in New York. I took the LSAT course in Detroit, and I prepared to take the test again. I wanted it so much, but I also knew that for me, it was about my dream of attending a prestigious school, and not just getting the law degree. So, I made a deal with myself. I said – if I get at least a 160, I’ll go to law school. If I don’t, I'm not going.
I retook the LSAT. I got a 159, so I didn’t go. I trusted in the outcome, and instead I decided to move to New York City. You know, people think I'm crazy when I say that, but I feel like I spoke out loud and I was clear about how I would guide my decision. I was specific that if it wasn’t a 160, then it was an indication that I needed to move on with my life. So, I did.
Can you imagine if I had gotten that 160? My life would be drastically different, and we wouldn’t be having this discussion. I would be somewhere in a cubicle.
On May 2nd in 2011, I packed my bags and moved to New York. I moved into a five-bedroom apartment in Harlem on 129th and Lennox. With strangers. I had found it on Craigslist. I showed up with two 70-pound suitcases, and the journey began. It was a huge room, only $600 per month, and with just one bathroom between everyone. I thought – no problem. I'll just throw this back to dorm life, have my little shower caddy, my shower shoes, and everything will be okay. And you know what? That’s what happened. My roommates were cool, they were theater kids who were mostly traveling. I lived there for three months.
As a next step I got my own place. It was on 151st street in Harlem. In 2008, my grandmother passed away, and she didn't actually write me out of the will, like she had threatened so many times. There were also leftover insurance policies from my mom. Which meant that when I turned 25, there was an account for me. If I needed something, I could withdraw money from it. It needed to be for school or rent purposes. I basically used that money to get my own place, and I paid the rent upfront for a year, because I didn't have a job. The joys of getting an apartment in New York! That was that. I had a one bedroom, and it was a lovely experience. One day I'll have that back.
After that magical year on 151st street, I moved to 139th and 7th with a new friend that I had met in the city. We lived in that two bedroom for two years and then I moved onto Brooklyn. Once again, I started about making a new life for myself. I went through a quarter life crisis at 25, moved to Brooklyn, cut off all my hair and pierced my nose. It was a transformative year. I was so very frustrated with my life. So I guess the next chapter started there. I took temp jobs, I began interning at a PR firm in the city, and I hated it! Those girls were all so superficial. They were airhead characters out of Mean Girls. It was wrong and I hated every minute.
In an attempt to move on, I got a part time job as a marketing assistant intern at a studio in Harlem, and that was my first real move into the music business. I found it on Craigslist. Bless Craigslist, it's changed my life! The studio no longer exists, but I met some really great people, and that's what matters the most to me.
With that job, things really began for me. The producer Frequency worked out of there. He produced “Monster,” the track with Eminem and Rihanna. His lawyer Josh would be there all the time, and he brought me in on stuff that he was working on, and got me to help with things for some of his other clients. We were cool.
Fast forward to 2014. I applied for a job at Warner/Chappell and I met Jake Ottmann for the first time. He interviewed me and the job was to assist him. Jake knew Josh, and he was like oh – so if I call him right now, will he vouch for you? I hadn’t talked to either Josh or Frequency in months, and I was like – oh… okay.
I remember leaving that interview and I thought – maybe it went well. I texted Josh later that night, and he said that Jake had already called him. He really came through for me!
That studio in Harlem was my first music job. Then I went on to be a receptionist, right before going to Warner/Chappell. After Jake offered me the job, I was at Warner/Chappell for 2.5 years. I remember that time as magical, because I could finally see the power of manifestation. Once I had decided that the PR thing wasn't for me, I wanted so much to get a job at a label, or pretty much any music company that would have me. I would, you know, fill out applications online, and while it was a totally a fruitless exercise, I would wake up every day and do it. I would go out and try to meet new people, and just do the little things that I could.
If I’m honest – I remember knowing at heart that I wanted to be an A&R. I would meet people who would say – you’re not going to be an A&R. Maybe you should look at something else? You’re not a Jewish man. Like, it's not going to happen for you.
They were sometimes joking, but also serious! As naive as I was, I took it to heart. I was thinking – maybe I can't be an A&R, but maybe I’ll do something else, like be a music supervisor. That was also a goal, because I watched this episode of Grey's Anatomy, and there was a really powerful scene between Cali and Arizona where they played a song by Laura Welsh. I was really into the song. This was before the days of Shazam, so I googled the lyrics, and found it – “Hollow Drum” by Laura Welsh. Literally, the song was only on YouTube and had 1,000 views. They had only just played it on Grey's Anatomy, and I was like – that is amazing! That was 2013 and I was still living in Harlem. Alex Patsavas did the music supervision for Grey’s, she had a company called Chop Shop and she was my idol. What she does is give a platform to artists, and that is all I want to do.
My time assisting Jake Ottmann at Warner/Chappell will always remind me of the power of intentions. Wanting something for the right reasons. It might not come in the package you thought it would, but if you truly want it, then it will come into your life in some form. My time at Warner/Chappell was about building my confidence. I never had role models, mentors or anyone who would help me know what was possible in life. I mean, my friends said I made dope playlists, but not in a serious way. Warner/Chappell was a good growth incubator for where I am now, which is at RCA Records.
Working at a major label is very different to working at a publisher. It’s a lot more intense in certain ways, because you’re so invested in the artists that you sign. As a publisher, if you sign a writer and it’s not really working, that’s okay because you’ve signed them for 12, 13, 14 years. So, if it takes 5 years to really develop, then that’s fine. But now, in 2017 at a major label, it’s a much higher stakes game. That’s my experience so far. You are signing an artist for the world to see, and in a fast-paced market.
When I consider the ramifications of working at a label, the artists that are signed and projects that are put out, I feel like everything has more weight. I feel like everything on the label side is turned up. When an artist is signed, it’s their life that you become part of. Helping them create and navigate their choices. Decisions. Image. All of it. I take it all really seriously. It’s their life and livelihood – it’s all valuable and important.
The artist’s music is their offering. Their product. Their soul. A publishing deal doesn’t restrict you releasing your music, because everything is still yours. But a record deal – it’s something to treat with real care. Most of the time you sign over the copyright in your masters. If there is a problem and there is a stalemate with the label, you literally might not be allowed to share your art with the world. That is a scary thing, and so I want to be part of improving how we can best help artists and be a true partner between the business and creative.
We are in a customer service industry. So, let’s be good to our customers and help each other. They make art, product and the moments that then help us make an industry operate. That’s why everyone should be mindful, return phone calls, and find new ways to do things better. It’s because of the work that the artist makes, that we’re able to have jobs.
On May 1st of this year, I went from Warner/Chappell over to RCA Records. At first I was really overwhelmed, because there was so much to take in. Now where we are in September, I’m in a much better place. I feel like I’m definitely on a strong learning curve and I’m in it every day – learning and doing.
If I was to look at the next 12 months, what that might look like, how I see myself, I see travel. Probably many hair changes too! I would love to be involved with more conversations, like where my input is invited and needed. I feel valued where I am at RCA and it feels really good.
Life has lots of up’s and down’s. So long as you don’t get too far down, you’re all good. I am conscious to manage my mental state where I can. That means when things are really great, and also when things are really bad, and just knowing that nothing lasts forever. And that is that.
I N C O N V E R S A T I O N
I was interning at the studio where the demo that ultimately became Eminem and Rihanna’s hit song “Monster” was recorded. I sat right outside of the room where Bebe Rexha cut the original verses, and her infamous yodels in the chorus. She’d been working with Frequency (the producer of the track) for the last few weeks, and I loved hearing the song come to life. Fast forward a few months to our holiday party, and Freq’s lawyer played the song for Riggs Morales ... one listen and he wanted it for Eminem. Fast forward some more (some minor split disputes and various issues) and the song won a Grammy in 2015 for Best Rap/Sung collaboration. Sadly, I didn’t contribute anything to the creative process of the song, but to witness their journey was a defining experience.
At some point, the word failure stopped having any real meaning for me. When I was younger and even in college, you get an “F,” and that means you failed. You don’t get into the law school you applied to, so that's another fail. No job when you graduate? Yep, that was failure too. About 3 years ago, my perspective changed when I realized all the things I appeared to have failed, simply weren’t a part of my journey. I replaced the word "failure" with words like “opportunity” or “result.” Failure is completely subjective, and since we ultimately define failure for ourselves, I decided to stop.
So much of our childhood dictates who we are, from the way we relate to people, to the kind of food we eat. In my case, my mom’s musical tastes majorly shaped mine. She was a big fan of En Vogue, Tevin Campbell, Anita Baker, Luther Vandross and Jodeci. These big RnB names from the late '80s and early '90s. As a result, I grew up listening to those artists, and started my own obsessions with Brandy, Aaliyah, Deborah Cox, Xscape (SO excited about their reunion) and many more. My tastes have definitely evolved to include more alternative and electronic elements, but '90s RnB is at my core, and I credit that to my childhood.
Intent matters more than action to me (provided, of course, that you take action). I don’t endorse intending to do something that never happens. I love music and I want to help artists (ones that aren’t shitty humans) build their platform and share their art with the world. Every day, that’s what I try to build on. That’s what motivates me. I am definitely not driven by the lifestyle or notoriety. You’d be hard pressed to find someone to actually admit the opposite to be true. People's actions tell their true story.
The Quality She Most Admires IN OTHERS
I admire people who genuinely from the bottom of their soul don’t give a fuck. They their authentic selves and could not care less about the opinions of others. I often fall victim to trying to appease others, and sometimes that means suppressing parts of myself. I often catch the behavior and check myself, but it must so awesome to rarely, if ever, have those thoughts at all.
Her Greatest Limitation
Using “no” as a complete sentence. I’m working hard to change that.
Kristan was asked to select eight songs that would help us understand her better.
Songs that have shaped her life and experiences.
1. Back & Forth by Aaliyah
My first introduction to Aaliyah. She was from Detroit as well, so she was one of my early role models ... especially with her tomboy chic vibe. Had I been a bit older, I like to think we would have been friends somehow.
5. Creep by TLC
I have a very distinct memory of hearing this song is on the radio on the way to school in 2nd Grade. My grandmother gave me the biggest side eyes as I sang along, but I think she knew I had no idea what I was talking about.
2. Hipster Girl by Sango and Xavier Omar
This songs describes me and my friends to a T. Especially my best friend ... her favorite band is really Warpaint, and we love too many Sango songs to name.
6. Her by Majid Jordan
When someone asks me who I’m currently into musically, I always lead with Majid. And “Her’ is their best song so far.
3. Are you Still Down (ft. 2pac) by Jon B
This song was like six years too early for the first rap/sung performance Grammy, but had that been a category back then, this is the hands down winner. Plus I had the biggest crush on Jon *insert heart eyes*
7. Hold On by En Vogue
This intro was/is everything. And unfortunately for anyone who’s ever been around me when this gets played, I sing every word and rarely hit any note.
4. Reason by PLAZA
Representing my obsession with Soundcloud and the power of playlists, I couldn’t leave PLAZA out. I discovered his debut EP about a year ago, put all my friends on, and couldn’t be happier he officially linked with the OVO crew.
8. Wave by Abir
I think Abir’s sound is the future, she is literally her own wave. I might be biased, but she undeniably has the potential to put a fresh sonic perspective on what’s considered pop music. Don’t say I didn’t put you on …