A & R. Artists and Repertoire. What the hell does that mean?
In the good old days record labels would sign performers to contracts. They were exactly that, performers. The label didn’t care if they wrote songs, music, soundtracks etc. They only cared if they could perform. Then they would take this lucky person and tell them play this song…Add this musician to your band…Look at doing this style of music. In short the label would tell them what they were going to record. Their recordings would influence and define what they played live.
In order to guide these empty vessels the label would employ a person called and A & R guy. (sometimes a lady) This person had the magic touch of knowing the correct music to perform, the right producer to employ and, often, how the music should be arranged. This was the system. Then along came Bob Dylan.
Bob Dylan wrote his own material. They had seen that before upon occasion. Bob Dylan decided what he wanted to record. They hadn’t seen that before although there had been many arguments over it in the past. Bob Dylan did whatever the fuck he wanted and he had the talent to back it up. I’m simplifying things here. It wasn’t just Dylan. It was the Beatles. It was Carl Perkins. It was a bunch of Country Music Greats. But Dylan is in many ways the beginning of the end of the old system of A & R. After him the A & R guy became an expert in finding artists that could do it all. They knew just what scene to follow or just what town to hang out in. They were detectives.
When I entered the business that was the way it was but already things were beginning to change. A & R guys with the rare combo of talents- talent scout/producer/visionary became extremely powerful once they had a few hits. It was plain that they knew the new system and everyone else in the music business didn’t. Soon A & R guys started to demand their own labels like this guy. To make things worse for the major labels other talented visionary people like this guy decided they would begin their own labels. The punk and underground scene began.
Record labels still employed people that were called A & R people but they soon became disposable. They continued to be highly paid but if they released a few artists that flopped they were roadkill. For bands the changes in the business made life even tougher. If they got a major label deal they had one shot. If their record charted and the kids started to riot every time the TV showed their image then they were all set. If not they got dropped. In the past labels had recognized that it took a band 2, 3 maybe five records to develop a sound that was mature and would sell. They could see the evidence of it before their eyes. Despite the evidence they continued to sign and drop bands in an endless cycle. There were a few genuine A & R guys, like Joe at Warners and Mike at Electra but even though they had been successful they had to fight to hold onto every band they signed.
In the background indy labels gathered steam. REM came from nowhere in Georgia and rose over the course of a few years to become stars. There were even a few labels that ignored the rules, radio play and the major labels and released bands that sold big. One of these labels was run by this guy and another one of these labels was run by this guy.
Then along came Nirvana. When Nirvana broke through to commercial radio the major labels went into a feeding frenzy. They bought up every label that would sell and signed anything that sounded even vaguely like a guitar band. Regional music conferences like South By Southwest were suddenly overrun by label reps fighting over any band with buzz.
All across America kids got guitars for Christmas. Musical instrument sales boomed. All of them started bands and the relatively small underground music scene became central to the following generation’s world view. This continued through the 1990’s until around 2001 then came the internet and downloadable music.
In the past seven years downloadable music has destroyed the major labels. It has rewritten the rules and for the first time in about a hundred years it brought about a world where thankfully musicians could be successful and never learn what the term A & R means………………………..
Copyright Brad Morrison/Billiken Media 2010