This Article Originally Published August 2000
by Kenny Kerner
One of the most unpleasant tasks a manager has to face is the in-person meeting with an A&R guy. At the meeting, the manager is supposed to play a tape of his artist and expect the A&R guy to both listen to it and make a decision regarding seeing the artist live, signing him, or throwing the manager and the tape out of his office. No pressure, right?
I can’t tell you how much I despise these meetings. To begin with, whenever I agree to manage a band, it’s only because I believe in their talents, their songwriting and their ability to entertain. I feel that they are destined to become one of the biggest bands in the world—or I don’t get involved. Period.
But there I am—handing over a three-song CD to a perfect stranger, believing that he will listen through the first chorus and then, as if by wizardry, share my visions for the band! Not likely. Instead, we both sit there uncomfortably, and suffer. I suffer because I am convinced that what I am handing him has the word GREAT written all over it and he suffers because he knows he cannot commit to anything now.
So we play the game: He listens politely and tells me it sounds good but he needs more time and more songs. I thank him for taking the time to listen, promise to get back to him with more songs and then leave. And the beat goes on.
Ever try to get an A&R person down to a show? What’s interesting is that you’ll probably get a commitment over the phone—especially if you’re persistent. But nobody will actually come down to the performance. Naturally, if you happen to manage a superstar act, labels will roll out the red carpets for you—but handle a local, unsigned band, and it’s like pulling teeth.
Not too long ago, I met with a certain major label vice president of A&R (who shall remain nameless and clueless) at his office. I scheduled the appointment in advance, so I was expected to show up. After shooting the breeze for a few minutes, he played the tape all the way through. All three songs. A good ten to eleven minutes worth of music.
When the music was over, he turned to me and asked when he could see the band perform live. “These are good songs,” he said, “where are they playing next?” He wrote the information down in his appointment book and actually came to the show!
The following day we spoke on the phone and he gave me his critique of the show. Basically, he liked it—but he wanted to hear more. So I followed up a week later, sending him a second selection of songs. I gave him a few days to digest the new stuff then phoned him for a follow-up. He said that there was “some interesting stuff” there on the CD. More positive reinforcement. All of these comments led me to believe that he was interested in following the band’s career over the next few months to monitor their development. Wrong!
I kept inviting him down to one show after another, one club after another, month after month—each time following up with phone calls and fax messages. Nothing. After about three months, he stopped taking my phone calls completely and his assistant answered for him. So here’s the question: What do I tell my band? Is this A&R guy interested or not? If not, why not just say so and stop wasting everyone’s time? If interested, why not just do something—anything?
This third A&R game can be called “What Do You Think?” because it involves the original A&R person attempting to ask everyone else at his label for an opinion. Here’s how it works: If an A&R guy likes your tape, he will ask to hear the band live. If he likes what he sees and hears, he will ask for a second tape with three or four new songs.
If he likes the second tape, he will want to see the band live for a second time—just to be sure. Then, when he’s sure he wants to proceed, he’ll ask to attend a third show at which he will bring other members of his label and ask them for an opinion. A single negative reaction is more than enough to kill the deal. Many times, that is exactly what the A&R community looks for—a reason to not sign an artist.
If all is positive, he will still want opinions from the East Coast office and then from the President of the label. All of this screening can take well over a year. Ever wonder why artists decided to release their own records?