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The A&R division
By now all rock bands are wise enough to be suspicious of music industry scum. –Steve Albini (singer-songwriter, producer)
The most important department in a record company is the A&R division, at least from an artist’s point of view. Wikipedia has a quite good description of what the A&R is, so I’ll simply cite them here:
Artists and repertoire (A&R) is the division of a record label or music publishing company that is responsible for talent scouting and overseeing the artistic development of recording artists and songwriters. The A&R division is responsible for finding new recording artists and bringing those artists to the record company. Personnel in the A&R division are expected to understand the current tastes of the market and to be able to find artists that will be commercially successful. For this reason, A&R people are often young and many are musicians, music journalists or record producers.
An A&R executive is authorized to offer a record contract, often in the form of a “deal memo”: a short informal document that establishes a business relationship between the recording artist and the record company, while the actual contract negotiations will typically be carried out by rival entertainment lawyers hired by the musician’s manager and the record company. It also acts as a liaison between artists and the record label or publishing company; every activity involving artists to the point of album release is generally considered under the purview, and responsibility, of A&R.
So the A&R department is basically responsible to look for new and interesting artists, to sign them, and to uphold the relationship between the artist and the record company itself. While mostly trying to defend the interests of the company of course.
Modern music is people who can’t think signing artists who can’t write songs to make records for people who can’t hear. –Frank Zappa
After an artist has been signed, the A&R division will – based on their budget or in accordance with the upper management – decide how much cash will be spent to produce a first record. They’ll hire a producer and book a recording studio, they’ll take care of the single and / or album production, and they’ll find an appropriate video producer. Finally they’ll work close with the marketing division to (hopefully) turn the artist into a successful product. In smaller independent labels, the A&R and the marketing will probably be one single division, or even one single person.
The A&R division will not only organize all of this, they will also pay for everything. An A&R division has a limited budget, and depending on how big or small they calculate an artist’s chance to become successful, they’ll spend more or less money on the project. As the A&R is responsible for the project and pays for everything, they will also be decision takers. This means that they will be involved in the selection of songs, they will want to make sure that a hit song can be found on the album, and they will have influence on the cover design for example.
All of this means, of course, that the A&R division and their executives have a massive influence on the music you hear out there.
So yes, those are the people who are finally responsible for the music you hear on the radio. A good A&R executive may influence the entire history of music in a very positive way. I will cite Wikipedia once more:
A&R man John H. Hammond discovered Billie Holiday, Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin and Bruce Springsteen. Hammond’s colleagues were initially sceptical of these artists because none of them appeared to be creating “commercial” music. Hammond’s instincts proved to be correct, and these artists went on to sell hundreds of millions of records.
Gary Gersh signed the band Nirvana at a time when alternative rock music was not considered commercial. Gersh was able to convince his co-workers to push the record in spite of their misgivings. This kind of prescience is, however, the exception rather than the rule. Historically, A&R executives have tended to sign new artists that fit into recent trends and who resemble acts that are currently successful.
Unfortunately it seems that today’s A&R managers don’t want to take risks anymore, which means that they will only sign artists that seem to be compatible with the music you’ll find in today’s charts. This is yet another reason why there isn’t anything really innovative or even revolutionary anymore.
By signing artists that all sound more or less the same, and by only following trends, A&R divisions are achieving the opposite of what they intend.
If everything sounds the same, then artists will be in a situation of high competition, which leads to over-saturation and thus to lower total sales.
This is very basic business 101, but apparently executives in the music industry don’t get it, even after years of failure. The Wikipedia article includes a great paragraph about the situation since the end of the Golden Age Of Popular Music:
The general move towards more conservative and business-minded signings from the 1980s onwards is seen to be symptomatic of an industry where the most powerful figures are no longer music fans or people with musical backgrounds, but business people. Traditionally A&R executives were composers, arrangers and producers, but today an A&R with musical ability and knowledge has become a rarity.
In other words:
The people responsible for today’s music DON’T HAVE A CLUE.
They’re pure business people – which is basically not a bad thing – but they have no idea what music is about, while music and art are their products. If you’re an executive in a certain industry, then you have to know what your product is about. But that’s not the case in the music industry, and that’s one of its biggest problems.
The people selecting the music that will be pushed and promoted by the record labels often have no idea what their product is about. Most A&R executives as well as most of the rest of the people working at record companies don’t know much about music or art.
What makes things worse is the fact that they only select products that fit current trends, instead of looking for the next big thing that could change everything. Today’s A&Rs are responsible for the fact that there is no change, that there are no alternatives for people who are not mainstream, and that it has become very difficult for real artists to get a deal, unless they give up their ideals and start producing mass-compatible crap.
In the end the A&R execs are responsible for the fact that the industry continues to release and to push music that people DO NOT BUY. All of this also means that getting a record deal too early will be quite risky for you.
The record labels and their A&R execs will try to transform you into a more commercial, mass-compatible and trendy product, which means that they will try to eliminate everything that makes you special and everything that makes you different from what you’ll find in today’s charts. The bigger the label and the less important you are, the more dangerous this situation will be.
It’s really not hard to keep your dignity and sign to a major label...Most people don’t have any dignity in the first place. –Kurt Cobain
Therefore I recommend to first kick off your career on your own, to learn as much about the music industry as you can, to develop your own sound and style, and to become successful before eventually getting a deal with a (bigger) label. Of course this may still sound difficult or even impossible right now, but it can be done. This is what this manual is all about.