Watts (of Taste Creators) Gives Some Tips For Indie Artists, What He Learned At Atlantic & His Beginnings In Hip-Hop [Interview]

Chief Operating Officer of Taste Creators Lawrence Watling (aka Watts) is not new to the industry and in fact, brings more knowledge from his time at Atlantic than you realize. Starting as a disk jockey at the age of 15, Watts knew that he wanted to have a critical influence in the industry. Stretching his arms at Atlantic, Watts brings a ton of expertise to the table. Now working over at Taste Creators as COO, I finally got a chance to sit down with him and talk about his journey in the industry that began at an early age and even got him to give artists some free game on websites, budgets and more. Let’s jump in.

Ok-Tho: Who is Watts for people who still don’t know?

Watts: Watts is Lawrence Frederick Watling. Nickname was given to me back in summer camp when I was a teenager on a roller coaster at Hershey Park. I’m originally from Long Island, New York but moved to Philly in 2011 to attend Temple University; besides my stint at Atlantic Records in NYC, I’ve been in Philly ever since. I’m a dual-citizen in England and America and I’m proud as fuck of my English blood.

Ok-Tho: Any relation to Bill Watterson?

Watts: No relation but Calvin and Hobbes was the shit as far as classic cartoons go.

Ok-Tho: We’re gonna go way back here. When did your love for hip-hop begin?

Watts: My love for hip-hop began when I was maybe eight years old. I began listening to Eminem after he released his Marshall Mathers LP. That record really showed me how raw and harsh rap music could be. From there, I moved on to Notorious BIG (just like every other New York kid) and A Tribe Called Quest. I think because I was listening to all different sounds of hip-hop early on, I really gained an early ear for the various types that could exist within the genre.

Ok-Tho: Quick detour. Give me five albums that you would suggest someone listen to in order to get to know you?

Watts: In no order of greatness…

1. The Marshall Mathers LP - Eminem
2. Ready to Die - Notorious BIG
3. The Low End Theory - A Tribe Called Quest
4. Coloring Book - Chance the Rapper
5. Swimming - Mac Miller

Ok-Tho: Talk to me about the moment when you decided you wanted to be involved in the music industry at a professional level.

Watts: Since I was 13, I knew I wanted to be a DJ. Then I got to high school, where we had a real, student-run, FM radio station. I fell in love with being a music radio jock when I was 15 and began to focus heavily on making sure I was prepared to talk about the music I was playing. Then I got to college at Temple University, where I DJ’d around Philly and hosted my own radio show on the college radio station, WHIP. Then I graduated in 2015 and got a job on CBS Radio’s 96.5 AMP FM, hosting my own show on the weekends and weeknights. The moment I decided I wanted to jump into the music biz was after 96.5 flipped from a top 40 format to an adult contemporary one. I realized then that it was the music all along that was igniting my drive and passion; not so much the medium of radio. I knew I could take my ear to an A&R role but I wasn’t sure how to get there.

Ok-Tho: Obviously, we know you work for Taste Creators now and we’ll definitely get to that in a second, but before TC you did some work over at Atlantic. Can you talk about that a bit?

Watts: After the radio station flipped, I was looking to jump into a major label to get the experience and knowledge in order to be a big time A&R. I hit up friends who worked at SONY and Universal but all of their imprints weren’t hiring in marketing or A&R at the time. I kept on getting emails from Warner Music Group that Atlantic Records had a few openings but I didn’t know anyone there. I ended up cold-emailing, linkedin-messaging, and DMing folks who worked at Atlantic. They all pointed me to a recruiter in their HR department. He gave me a phone interview which led to an in-person interview for a role in their International Marketing Department.

I remember telling the VP who was interviewing me why I think some artists work overseas and some artists don’t. He said to give him an example using Lil Uzi and Kevin Gates. I told him, “Kevin Gates doesn’t work overseas because his music is heavily focused on gangs, guns, girls, and violence. Gun laws are way stricter outside of the US so those audiences don’t feel the same way towards the lyrics as we do in America. Lil Uzi talks about his personal struggles with success and has a bunch of party hits where we’re not quite sure what he’s saying…but the beats are so hot that everyone rages at his shows and has a good time; regardless of what country or audience is listening to it.” I think that was the moment that they realized they were going to hire me. I ended up landing the job and found out I was the only one of twelve applicants who wasn’t a former intern or had a connection to someone at the label. It was the proudest moment of my life so far.

Ok-Tho: What did you learn during your time at Atlantic?

Watts: Oh boy, I learned a ton. I’ll focus on a few primary things. My ear was validated at the label. When Gucci Mane came out with his Mr. Davis album, they led with the song, “Tone it Down” featuring Chris Brown. When I heard this was the lead single after Gucci was freshly coming out of prison, I thought it was a mistake. Chris Brown doesn’t have the pull he once had and the record just isn’t good enough to be the big single. I thought “I Get the Bag” with Migos was the hit off the record. The next week, I got an email blast from the project lead saying that “I Get the Bag” was the next single. I remember feeling excited to see what would happen in its public reception. Two weeks go by after the song comes out and I get another email blast from the project lead saying, '“I Get the Bag” is the #1 added song in urban radio across America!” I felt validated.

This exact scenario happened a few times with artists such as Ty Dolla $ign, Action Bronson, Meek Mill, and even pop acts like Charlie Puth. In essence, I proved to myself that the ear I had been training through radio and DJing for years and years is actually worth something. I began to understand my value. Along with marketing strategies, creative rollout concepts, and how to analyze engagement and streaming numbers, I learned a lot but in my opinion, the hit-calling was my biggest takeaway.

Ok-Tho: Fast forward to a few years ago and now you’re working for Taste Creators, how did you and Brianna Demayo link up?

Watts: After I left Atlantic Records, I moved back to Philly and began working with a few independent artists on the music side; writing songs and helping them structure the songs so that they were easily digestible. One artist specifically, Joie Kathos, told me one night after a studio session that I have to come to Taste Creators and meet Brianna (Breezy). I came with her to the Taste Creators office and remember just telling Brianna who I was and my recent experience at Atlantic. She said, “We have to talk, for sure.”

The next day, I went back to the office and Brianna and I talked for around 6 hours straight. My throat hurt and I was losing my voice but we were clicking and finishing each other’s sentences. I bring a top-down approach from my experience at the label and she brings a bottom-up, indie approach from her years of experience helping independent artists. Our opposite perspectives and experiences are what makes us so unique.

Ok-Tho: Talk to me about your role on Taste Creators?

Watts: After helping build the structure of the company, I wanted a title. If you know Brianna, you know she really hates titles. She doesn’t even call herself the CEO or Founder even though she is both. I told her that I wanted an identity within the company; how I can view things moving forward. I chose to be the COO, Chief Operating Officer. I handle the operations and overall structure of our business. I also write marketing strategies, rollout plans, social media rebrands, and I run our International PR division. I pretty much handle everything along with Brianna but I think of the company in more of an operations/process mindset.

Ok-Tho: Let’s make one more transition before we get out of here, I’m gonna toss you a few basic questions that I get from artists and see what you think. Deal?

Watts: Let’s do it.

Ok-Tho: First, I want to talk about budget. It’s a misconception and misunderstanding I feel a good portion of artists have. What’s the importance of having a budget as an artist?

Watts: You’ve got to spend money to make money. Nothing is free these days. If it’s free, it’s probably not that useful. Think of it this way - if it were free and easy, everyone would be a rapper or singer, right? This shit is tough. You have to consistently save and consistently prioritize your savings so you’re not spending on the wrong services or items. Budgeting is the most important concept to grasp as an independent artist. Stop spending hundreds per month on weed and clothes; put that money towards a marketing plan, photo shoot, or full-service consultation.

Ok-Tho: I’ve said, you’ve said, I think my mom said it back in the day too. Artists need a website. But why?

Watts: Social media platforms are all owned by the largest tech companies in the world. These companies are so large and this world is so unstable that at any moment, a company can have a major issue/lawsuit and the whole platform goes down. If Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, YouTube, and/or Soundcloud all go down tomorrow, do you exist on the internet? You don’t even own the content you post on these platforms.

Having a website is the only way to own real estate in the world wide web. If I Google your name, your website should come up first and I should be able to listen to your music, learn about you, watch your visuals, and join your newsletter on it. This isn’t changing any time soon; social media is constantly adapting and changing. Invest in yourself and get a damn website; you’ll thank yourself in a few years.

Ok-Tho: We talk strategy all the time. Before an album rollout, before a press campaign, you need some type of strategy. What’s the importance of this? Why can’t I just take my 10 track project and pay someone to push it?

Watts: I feel like this is the biggest misconception in the industry these days. I talk to loads of artists every week and still a good amount of them strongly believe that dropping music without any rollout plan or social strategy is still a good way to keep your fans engaged. It’s totally false. Let me break it down like this - if you keep dropping records without any plan, your current fan base will be fine; they will sit there and soak it up. However, you will not easily obtain new fans.

Think of it this way, the better, more creatively efficient your rollout plan is, the larger the fishing net you’re casting out onto your target audience and those who would like your music if they knew about you. A solid strategy can make a decent album or single come off in a big way and result in new fans! At the end of the day, you’re spending hundreds of dollars in the recording process (always pay your producers and engineers). Wouldn’t you want to put out your product with a bit of planning and strategy?

Oh yeah and one more thing…paid/sponsored posts on Facebook and Instagram are still the most efficient, results-focused method to increasing your brand awareness and engagement. So stop throwing your music and videos out there and have a little bit of patience; the strategy will pay off in the long run and your audience will take you more seriously.

Ok-Tho: When you aren’t helping artists and painting poorly designed ducks, where can we find Watts?

Watts: During the weekdays, you can find me at my 9-5 job at the Wharton Business School at the University of Pennsylvania. I'm an Associate Director of Client Relations in the Executive Education Department. I basically sell advanced educational programs to executives all over the world. There's a big misconception right now that if you have a 9-5, you're somehow not as serious about your side business or creative career. The reality is that if you can find a 9-5 to help you save your money, you'll be able to grow your start-up or music career a lot faster and more efficiently. I read a lot about people who choose to struggle as they think it's the only way to prove themselves and unfortunately, in my opinion, that's just working backwards. If you can get a 9-5 that pays you well and allows you to hustle after work, that's the golden ticket to scaling your business. I'm not ashamed at all; I'd recommend it. After 5pm and on the weekends, you can find me in the Taste Creators office handling consultations and meetings or at home on the phone with artists across the country. Other than work, I’m usually at a concert or at home watching my New York sports teams. In order of most important to least important - Islanders, Yankees, Jets, and Nets.

You can catch up with Watts on Twitter and Instagram