Most musicians who know even the faintest bit about the music industry have heard the term A&R. Many of them, however, don't understand the full scope of the phrase. It stands for artist and repertoire. A record label's A&R department seeks out, signs, and develops acts. The definition is simple, but the work involved is not. A&R plays a pivotal role in the success of artists and labels alike.
The artist in the term refers to a musician or band. Repertoire is a leftover from the days when most performers didn't write their own music, drawing instead from a body of songs, or repertoire, written by others. "A&R people used to identify artists who seemed capable of making hit records, then team them up with the appropriate writers and songs; hence the repertoire part of the moniker," explains A&R specialist Michael Laskow. Laskow is the founder and president of TAXI, a membership-based organization that helps connect unsigned artists with music-industry professionals.
Today the A&R process still works in the same way for many pop, hip-hop, and country acts. But rock artists usually write their own songs, so their labels rarely pair them with songwriters.
The landscape of the music business has changed dramatically in recent years, but record companies still need someone to find new talent, ensure that records are made and promoted, and thus keep the profits coming in. Those tasks still fall to A&R--though with a few new twists.
Before I discuss how things have changed in the business, let's take a look at the basic functions of A&R. First, what are A&R reps looking for in an artist? Talent, obviously, but talent alone won't land you a record deal. You need to have that "special something."
"A&R people are looking for three things when they check out new acts," says Laskow. "First, an artist or a band with a unique vision, someone who sounds different but still has commercial appeal. Next, hit songs. And finally, star quality. If you put any artist possessing those three elements in front of an A&R person, you have a record deal."
John Bendich, an A&R consultant and an instructor in music business and production at San Francisco State University, describes A&R very simply. "The basis of A&R," he says, "is seeing in a performer something that you believe in and going with it."
The primary methods of finding new talent are pretty much what you would expect. Word of mouth is the first and foremost way in which artists are discovered. A&R reps are in constant contact with other industry professionals, such as musicians and club owners, regarding up-and-coming artists. A record label's success depends on its A&R department's ability to find and sign exciting new talent, so A&R people are always on the hunt.
Typically, A&R reps go to clubs to see acts only if they've already heard of the artists. They also attend showcases, although I was surprised to learn that many of the reps don't value showcases any more than they do regular club gigs. "Showcases are a cousin of playing in clubs. It's the same kind of exposure," explains Bendich. "Fewer artists are signed in those situations than through word of mouth. But the positive thing is that if you're playing in a showcase, you already have enough of a buzz in your local market. The labels probably know about you. They rarely see anyone that they haven't heard anything about. At a showcase they get to see how the six bands they've had their eyes on fare in that environment."
A&R reps also find new talent on the Internet. "Some industry people that I know just surf the Internet all day looking for new acts," says Bendich. "It's changing everything. Look at Jimmy and Doug's Farmclub [www.farmclub.com]. The founders of Interscope created that site for new artists. The artists put their songs up on the site, and the public rates them. When the public responds well to an act, the artist is flown to New York for a showcase. The name itself spells it out: it's like the farm-club system in sports."
Some major A&R players pose for a photo at TAXI's annual Road Rally convention on November 5, 1999: (from left to right) Tony Ferguson, vice president of A&R for Interscope; Marshall Altman, director of A&R for Hollywood Records; Ron Fair, senior vice president of A&R for RCA Records; Michael Laskow, founder of TAXI; Randy Jackson, senior vice president of A&R for MCA Records; Mike Sistad, director of A&R for Arista Nashville; Andy Olyphant, director of A&R for Almo Sounds.
But having an Internet presence is not enough to get you signed. You still need to put together a high-quality demo, play live as much as you can, and make solid contacts among club owners and industry professionals. The idea is to get your music and your name heard in as many places as possible. Set up a Web site for your band, trade links with other sites, post MP3 files on all the major downloadable-music sites, and follow up with the aforementioned old-fashioned legwork.
What happens once an A&R rep decides to take the risk of signing an artist or a band? It's not as simple as whipping out a contract after a gig and whisking the band away in a stretch limo. First the A&R rep has to convince colleagues at the label that the act is worth the investment. If the rep sees star quality but no one else at the label agrees, forget about it--the deal is over before it started. If the record company is excited about the act, a contract is negotiated. Depending on the genre, the label might then team the artist with songwriters and producers, and the record goes into production. All of these important details take a long time to finalize and put into action.
"An artist who gets signed today won't be known to the American public for one to two years," says Laskow. "Once an A&R rep is interested, it's 30 to 60 days before the contract is even offered, and another 90 to 120 days after that before the contract is done. Then the label starts working on what it's going to do with the artist's or band's career: finding the songs if necessary, hooking the band up with the right producers, making the record, remaking the record, mixing, remixing, doing the artwork, changing the artwork--it's a year and a half to two years before that song has a shot at getting to radio."
I asked TAXI founder Michael Laskow how artists can prepare themselves to deal with an A&R rep. He pointed out that what you shouldn't say is as important as what you should say.
"First, when an A&R department expresses interest in your demo, never tell them that they didn't get your best stuff," advises Laskow. "If you tell them you're working on new material that 'will blow our other demo away,' they know that they'll have to wait about six months. They might lose interest by that time. Second, don't tell an A&R rep that your music is all over the map genre-wise. That's a major sin. A&R people want complete, laserlike focus. They can't sell something that's all over the place stylistically. Last, don't go off on long, inarticulate tangents. Be businesslike and to the point. Never waste an A&R person's time. So many musicians who call TAXI have no idea how to have an intelligent phone conversation. It's sad, really."
Laskow continues with an example of what to say if you're lucky enough to get an A&R person on the phone: "Say, 'Hi, my name is Bob. I have a five-piece band in Minneapolis. We regularly draw 150 people every Friday night when we play different clubs around town. People tell us that our music sounds like Gin Blossoms meets Steely Dan with a female vocalist.' The A&R rep will then have all the information he or she needs to know about that band: where they're from, that they can draw a live audience, and what their music is essentially going to sound like. The A&R person decides whether to continue down the path with them based on those facts."
Simply put, artists who convince A&R reps that they have talent and star quality get record deals; the record labels help them make great records that sell millions of copies; and everyone ends up rich and creatively satisfied. Well, not always, but that's the theory. Now that I've gone over the basics of A&R, I'll move on to the current state of the industry, how things have changed for A&R in recent years, and what it all means to you.
Record companies were once much smaller operations run by people who loved music and wanted to expose talented musicians to the public. Many small independent labels are now run the same way, but the major record labels seem much more concerned with big profits than with high-caliber music. "The thing that's changed A&R most in the last ten years is the increasingly fast corporate consolidation," explains Bendich. "That has brought a mentality to labels that didn't used to exist--the bottom-line mentality. With the consolidation of all the smaller record companies into corporate conglomerates, labels are now run by people who have no background in music. They're strictly accountants and lawyers; their responsibility is to their shareholders."
The major labels' desire for instant hits is one result of corporate consolidation. In the past, labels developed musical acts. That process included helping the artists develop their sound and refine their appearance, as well as generally nurturing them through the record-making and promotion process. Among the major labels, that practice has all but disappeared.
"The labels don't care about artist development," says Bendich. "It costs a major label half a million dollars to sign, record, produce, and promote an act. So they don't want to hear that it's going to take three to four albums to build that artist. They don't want to wait to see a return on their investment. They want to make money right then and there. Today the business is based upon a value structure of commodities, whereas before the emphasis was on artistic value. Of course, back then you still had to make enough money to stay in business, but look at Sam Phillips at Sun: he was making money, but he was also making music that he believed in. Those little labels like Sun, King, Chess, and Brunswick were run by guys who loved the music and were willing to take a big risk. They knew that it might take them a while to develop an act, but they believed in that person. That's lost today."
A&R has also been influenced by the public's shifting musical tastes. Modern R&B and hip-hop have dramatically changed the record-making process and, consequently, deal negotiation.
"Hip-hop and the aesthetic that it introduced brought in sampling and an incredibly big shift toward MIDI and the self-contained producer/musician," says Bendich. "That shift crept into all of popular music, and so you started to see the producer who also wrote the songs and was sometimes the artist as well."
The rise of the producer/musician gave labels the economical option of one-stop shopping. Producers face enormous pressure to churn out hit after hit. Labels sign producers who can guarantee them success, and today's producers often are as famous as the artists they record (and sometimes even more famous). Just look at producers such as Sean "Puffy" Combs, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, and Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds.
"With the introduction of the superstar producer, artists became interchangeable," says Bendich. "Labels stopped worrying about artist development; they became like factories. Furthermore, most artists in the pop, hip-hop, and R&B genres use more than one producer per album. Labels want to hedge their bets, so they hook the artist up with several producers and hope that at least one track hits the top ten with a bullet.
So where is the love? Where can artists get help with career development? In response to the labels' lack of artist-development resources, many publishing companies have established their own A&R departments. A publisher can bring together artists, writers, and producers on a speculative basis and let them develop the artist's sound, all for much less money than it would cost a label. The team can work on a winning formula, and the publishing company can shop around for a deal. Explains Bendich, "Publishing companies have figured out that they can sign an artist who might not be ready today but who has the ability to make it big. Then when the artist gets a deal, that company has the publishing rights."
Laskow points out that many musicians are turning to his organization for the development once provided by record labels. TAXI members submit songs, and the staff screens them. If the screeners think that a song lacks what it takes to pique the interest of an A&R rep, they return the song to the artist with a constructive critique. If the song does have that "special something," TAXI forwards it to A&R reps, music supervisors, and other parties looking for new material, thus providing the crucial word of mouth that you need to get the attention of the deal makers.
Much of the responsibility for career development now falls squarely on the shoulders of the artist. Musicians need to have more savvy today than they did in the past, and they develop that savvy by constantly honing both the creative and business aspects of their acts.
Laskow advises aspiring musicians to broaden their artistic horizons by reading a lot of literature and listening to musical classics. "By exposing themselves to as many different artistic influences as they can," he says, "musicians gain rich, broad sources of inspiration to draw from when creating their own sound."
He continues: "The number-one thing that people can do to prepare for a career in music is to educate themselves about the business of music. It's called the music business--that's two words, both very important. Everyone wants to play Who Wants to Be a Millionaire in the Music Business, yet no one wants to do the homework. The reality is that the people who get discovered are the ones who completely dedicate themselves to building a career. You can't be just a musician anymore. You need to understand the business in order to get signed, stay signed, be successful, and have some money left in your pocket in the end. You need to live it, breathe it, and turn it into an 18-hour-a-day job."
The business of music can be ugly indeed, but it's also very exciting. Why else would so many musicians write, sing, and play their hearts out year after year just for the promise of a shot at the elusive record deal? The opportunity to dedicate their lives and careers to making music is impossible to pass up. The fact that musicians today need to look after their own careers more carefully isn't necessarily a bad thing. If, as Laskow suggests, you turn your passion for music into "an 18-hour-a-day job," you will at the very least gain greater control of your music and your career than most artists did in years past.