How Artists Like Brittany Howard And Black Pumas Made ATO Records A Grammy Contender

Among ATO’s 2020 nominees are (from left) Howard, Black Pumas’ Eric Burton and King.
Howard: Erika Goldring/FilmMagic. Burton: Travis P Ball/Getty Images. King: Rich Fury/Getty Images. 

Among ATO’s 2020 nominees are (from left) Howard, Eric Burton of Black Pumas and Emily King.

Twenty years after Dave Matthews co-founded it, indie ATO Records is a quietly formidable awards-night force.

Few indies know the Grammys like ATO Records, the label Dave Matthews and his manager Coran Capshaw co-founded in 2000. Throughout the 2010s, ATO became a dependable presence in categories large and small: It secured four wins and nine nominations (including best new artist in 2012 and album of the year in 2015) for blues-rockers Alabama Shakes and helped launch Brandi Carlile to critical acclaim and her first nomination in 2015.

Now, as it celebrates its 20th anniversary, the New York-based label is having its most fruitful year yet for Grammy nominations: seven nods, spread among five acts and four genre categories. Alabama Shakes’ Brittany Howard is up for best rock song and best rock performance; eclectic retro-soul duo Black Pumas for best new artist; ’80s R&B romantic Emily King for best R&B song and best engineered album, non-classical; virtuoso guitar duo Rodrigo y Gabriela for best contemporary instrumental album; and Turkish psych-rockers Alt?n Gün for best world music album.

“When we first set up the label, the focus was a commitment to building career artists without worrying about genre or boundaries,” says Capshaw. “We feel proud to see that philosophy continue at ATO.”

The power behind ATO’s Grammy push comes from GM Jon Salter, who assumed the role in 2011 with over a decade of marketing experience under his belt. “Immediately signing up to become a [Recording Academy] member and understanding Grammy programs like Grammy in the Schools and Grammy U is really critical for artists,” says Salter. “With the Shakes [in 2013], we did a special performance and answered kids’ questions for Grammy U in Memphis and Los Angeles,” remembers Howard. Her band’s next LP, 2015’s Sound and Color, won three Grammys, and the act was invited to perform “Don’t Wanna Fight” on the 2016 telecast. (The single’s download sales increased 806% the following tracking week, according to Nielsen Music/MRC Data.) Says Salter, “There’s a nice correlation between what Grammy voters are feeling and when something is really connecting with fans -- when a record store calls you and they’re out of stock.”

It helps that ATO has focused on specific media looks before the awards. During 2019, Howard, Black Pumas and King all played Jimmy Kimmel Live!, and Black Pumas, Rodrigo y Gabriela and Alt?n Gün gave studio performances for influential Seattle public radio station KEXP. (KCRW Santa Monica, Calif., is another Grammy voter favorite, adds Salter.) Exposure in certain publications is important, too. “I’ve learned a lot of the Grammy voters are really technical,” says Salter. “We try to do technical-based articles in Tape Op magazine.”

But campaign savvy aside, ATO may owe its Grammy nom success to the roster itself -- one rife with the kinds of prestige acts long favored by the Academy and, thanks to the label’s approach, treated like stars whether or not they win awards. King, who was last nominated 13 years ago, came to ATO after Sony’s J Records dropped her. “When I decided to sign with a label again, it was on the grounds of full creative control and a fair deal,” says the 34-year-old today. “At ATO, there is trust and mutual respect. It feels very different now. I put music first.”

This article originally appeared in the Jan. 25, 2020 issue of Billboard.

2020 Grammy Awards


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