Lesson # 8 A & R………………………………….

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. There 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 occassion. 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 begininng 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 scount/producer/visionary became extremely powerful once they had a few hits. It was apparent 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 disposible. 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 musicians could be successful and never learn what the term A & R means………………………..

Copyright Brad Morrison/Billiken Media 2010

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6 thoughts on “Lesson # 8 A & R………………………………….

  1. This information is great! I came across your blog while I was watching a video on YouTube.

    I’m looking to become an A&R myself (as well as a songwriter).This has been my dream since the age of 11, sounds cliche but, true. I have worked really heard into getting internships at a record label,management companies but to no avail. I have a BA in Public Relations, I thought I’ll try to “get in” by either one of the two or both. Seemingly, I figured A&R and PR go hand-in hand as far creating a product, branding and a little marketing.

    So, in attempts to further “brand” myself I will be go back to school, to get my Masters’ in Media Management to learn more of the business side of things. Ultimately opening up my own company is the plan!

    What other steps might you suggest would get me closer to my career? With, the advent of technology, I am aware the music industry is failing–nonetheless it’s still a business going strong, so all can’t be totally lost. Should I looked more into independent labels, especially with ambitions to own a label?

    Thank you,

    WhitleyG.

    • Dear Whitley,
      So your ambition is to work in A & R for a label? The music business is changing and it is questionable what A & R jobs will look like five years from now. It is very difficult to get to be an A & R person. These positions are well paid and high status as a result there is a great deal of competition for every possible job. As you have discovered having a degree in PR doesn’t help you get an A & R job. Public relations has nothing to do with discovering great artists and helping them make great albums. Media Management won’t help either. Remember that most of the courses taught in college about the music business are utter bullshit. They are taught by foolish wankers with no experience. Generally they make up everything they are teaching. When it comes to the music business school has nothing to do with it. If you were to force me to pick a college program to pick as helpful I would suggest Music composition or Music History or Accounting. Basic business skills are rare in the music business and help you get ahead.

      Instead of enrolling in school try to get experience. Here’s a quick list of things you could do to help you get a shot at an A & R job.
      1. Start a independent label. This doesn’t take much money. You just have to have balls (figuratively speaking). Signing bands and figuring out what bands sell and what bands flop is the basic skill set of an A & R guy.
      2.Start producing records. Learn studio engineering and start to produce tracks for bands. This is the other skill that an A & R guy needs.
      3. Get a gig on a web radio or college radio show. This will teach you about what music is hip and what music is commercial and as a result sucks.
      4 Work for a promoter. Having extensive contacts with promoters and the gigging circuit is a valuable network and this is how A & R guys find bands.
      5. Start collecting records. The more you know the more likely you have a shot at being the guy that decides how gets a recording contract……………………..

  2. Hey Brad,
    I am in a band and looking for all the things you speak of.I came across your blog by accident, but couldn’t have been better timing.We have been on support for our 2nd ep,its a great cd,has gained us a good following,we have won regional awards for it,but I am looking for bigger and better things.I have yet to come across anyone who can help us get our music to any labels or a&r.I have used every online resource and anything that that would put our music out there.I have never signed up for anything like TAXI or anything you have to pay for.It cost so much to keep the band running that its hard to pay for things that your not sure will really help the band out.So I was hoping you may have some advice for a band that all the capability to be great but no access.

    • Jesse,
      All of my advise is here on my blog for free. I try to stick to practical advise that you can actually use. Read all my postings, there is over a hundred thousand words here…. Good luck…
      Brad

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