Mike Caren could have been as famous as grumpy American Idol judge Simon Cowell. But after two interviews with the producers of the popular television show, Caren decided that TV judge was not a role he wished to play.

“I thought that it would probably destroy my career,” said Caren, vice president of Artist and Repertoire Development at Atlantic Records.

With an invitation from the Yale Entertainment Society, Caren spoke about his experiences in the music industry at a crowded Morse College Master’s Tea Thursday afternoon. Caren, who at 25 has already worked with Rob Zombie and Courtney Love and signed successful artists such as Trick Daddy and Nappy Roots, has built a career upon making few mistakes.

While an average of one out of 10 artists signed to labels are successful, Caren said he has a 50 percent success rate.

“Mike Caren seems to be a person with a golden touch,” Morse Master Frank Keil said.

In order to become one of the youngest executives in the recording industry, Caren started early. Caren said he began his career in music as a DJ in high school, and at 16, he had already created his own marketing company. After making successful demos for artists in his bedroom and interning at record companies, Caren began working full time at Atlantic when he was 18 — a job he managed to maintain while attending New York University.

Caren said although he began by signing hard core rap artists, he gradually learned to take greater risks.

“I realized that for good music, there really aren’t limitations,” he said. “Each act I sign, I try to take a bigger risk with.”

One of his risks was the rap act Nappy Roots, whom he discovered when they were a group of students at Western Kentucky University recording an album on one keyboard at the back of a record store.

“There was no one else that thought they would have any chance,” Caren said.

Caren said the group has now sold 1 million records and has received two Grammy nominations.

“It was just about doing whatever you can to get the music heard,” he said.

Of course, finding the rare, successful artist takes a lot of time. Caren said he reads 60 to 80 magazines a month and receives 20 demos a day.

“You want an artist with charisma, and good song writers, and artists who are hard working,” he said. “The most common factor [shared by successful artists] is drive and determination.”

During his 10-year career, Caren has learned to turn down opportunities as well. He said he declined to work with notorious rapper 50 Cent, who recently has topped the Billboard charts, because of safety concerns. Even 50 Cent’s managers must wear bulletproof vests.

“They can be successful without me,” Caren said.

Despite his accomplishments, Caren discussed what he felt are some of the current problems with the music industry, including the replacement of independent radio with corporate stations.

“I think popular music is at an all-time low,” he said. “The problem is that there are fewer outlets for popular music that is cutting edge.”

Nevertheless, Caren said he maintains a positive attitude about the future, especially new technology like Peer-to-Peer file sharing, which he called “the greatest thing that ever happened to the music industry.”

Many of the students at the Master’s Tea said they came because they are interested in the music industry.

“It’s somewhat intimidating that he’s done so much at such a young age,” said Tiffany Hunt ’04, who wants to work in the music business. “It kind of makes you question grad school.”

Mollie Farber ’06 was also amazed by Caren’s success.

“Who wouldn’t want to be this guy?” she asked. “He’s 25 and he has the greatest job in the world.”

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