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Advice for Emerging Artists & Musicians

Sentric Music Blog

Ask The.... A&R 2017 Edition March 2017

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By Pursehouse – follow me on Twitter.

Back in 2009, we knocked together a rather nifty blog post where we asked a handful of A&R people some questions sent to us by artists which they answered anonymously to, therefore, be as honest as possible. For me, it’s one of the most interesting reads we’ve done at Sentric and as the music industry landscape is somewhat quite different now than it was eight years ago we thought it’d be interesting to go again.

The world of A&R is a curious one and if you asked a dozen emerging artists what they think the job consists of I’d take a punt that you’d get several different answers which barely scratch the surface of what their day to day consists of. As with any industry, the music biz can be quite a village so here at Sentric we’re in communication with a whole bunch of A&R folk on a daily basis, chatting about new artists and potential ‘next big things’, but what makes a good A&R person? One thing I’ve always noticed about the profession is that they have an extraordinary eye for picking out a good coat. Seriously. Go to a gig of a hyped band and they’ll all be stood at the back, trying to look quite disinterested whilst wearing a top quality coat. Someone should set up an A&R coat watch fashion blog. I’d subscribe.

Anyhow. Here are some questions and some answers. Enjoy…

 

Q. What gets your attention more; an artist with 10,000 Facebook fans or 1,000,000 streams?

 

Big Indie A&R

They’re both pretty good yardsticks with regards to how your music is being perceived out in the real world. I’d take either of those statistics as a positive. That said, for me, it would have to be the streams. Streaming music is undoubtedly, categorically, without argument, the future for the distribution of recorded music. If you disagree, you’re wrong, and if I hear another person ask me whether the vinyl resurgence is going to save the music industry I’m likely to go postal. A million streams shows me that your music is connecting in a meaningful way with listeners; that curators at streaming services are paying attention to you (it’s unlikely, though not impossible that you’d have racked up that many plays as an emerging act without playlist support); and that you’ve also got the nouse and vigour to go out and upload your music, and maybe do a bit of promotion and marketing around it (acts showing they’re willing to be masters of their own destiny is very attractive to me).

So, yeah, the streaming element shows me that MAYBE your music might be a viable business proposition. No number of statistics stops a shite song being shite, though.

 

Small Indie A&R

Honestly, Facebook is one of the first places I look when I hear a band I'm into, but the streaming figures are actually much more important. Probably says more about me being stuck in my routine than it does about the effectiveness of these platforms, though!

 

Major Label A&R

If you love the music and have a vision for it the I don't think any stats really matter, but to be honest neither is really that impressive these days.  

Facebook numbers can be massaged so I’m always a little sceptical. A base of 10k genuine Facebook fans isn’t to be sniffed at for any new artist, but you'd ideally you'd be in the region of 50k+ if you're wanting to make any kind of impact with an album release.   

As for streams, I think they can be slightly misleading too. One track occupying an influential playlist or a few influential playlists might have big streaming figures but it doesn’t mean people are connecting with the artist behind it. A track might actually have a high skip rate, meaning it is being listened to in theory, but people are skipping onto the next track in a playlist. On the other side of that, the play count might not be huge but the saving rate is high, meaning people are connecting to that song and saving it into a personal collection. Several tracks with several million streams are certainly very impressive for an unsigned artist. (ps the back end information artists have access to is massively important to get a view of how their music is connecting so use it).

 Some description

Q. What, in your opinion, is the most important thing you do in your role?

 

Big Indie A&R

It sits somewhere in between being the act’s cheerleader within a record company and beyond and being a creative sounding board for their music and overall direction. In any label made up of more than a few people, there’s always going to be competition for focus, resources and space on the release schedule. I’m lucky that the label I work for takes on a sensible number of artists and is also well provided for in terms of marketing and promo. Even with that in mind, though, it’s a big part of the job to motivate and excite the team working on any project. It’s a funny business, in that it's very emotionally charged and most people harbour strong opinions on the music. It’s a little-known fact that A&R guys spend a lot of time screaming and shouting about projects they care deeply about – doubly so when things aren’t going as well or are taking longer than expected.

The other side is the creative side. I’m a source of advice on producers, studios, mixers etc. as well as a sounding board for whatever creative endeavours they’re embarking upon. I’m there to encourage when it’s good and make it known when something’s not good enough. This bit can be pretty contentious and is probably the main reason why A&R people get a bad rep. At brass tacks level it’s about creating a project that not only reflects the artist’s intentions but also can have some form of commercial appeal.

Outside of those two elements, a lot of people, managers especially are seeing A&R as just a form of funding. I guess the whole investment or patronage aspect has always been important and it’s certainly true that with fewer risks being taken more and more artists and managers are working on developing themselves. I’d like to think there’s a definite and quite separate skill in being a good A&R person, though.

Small Indie A&R

Communication. As much as I love the creative side, swaggering around at sold out shows or topping our distributors stocks up because they've run out of a certain record, none of that works unless we're all communicating, and a label (especially when working with small artists who perhaps don't have a full team) are at the very centre of this.

 

Major Label A&R

Supporting an artist’s vision and making sure the music is the best it possibly can be are a given, but galvanising the label/team behind your artist is pretty vital. If everyone else working on a release isn’t as inspired as you, or if they don’t fully understand the proposition then results will reflect that. At any one time, you're competing with other artists/releases both internally and externally and there definitely aren’t enough opportunities, column inches, playlist spaces etc for everyone, so making sure your team is focused and fighting for your act is pretty key!

 

Q. Do you show interest in an artist, just because other rival A&R people are chasing them?

 

Big Indie A&R 

Nope. There’s that famous William Goldman quote that ‘nobody knows anything,’ that’s as true for music and particularly the A&R process as it is for filmmaking. Some of the biggest acts on the planet were completely rejected by the A&R and tastemaker community before going on to sell an embarrassingly large number of records and sell out stadia worldwide. There’s probably an even longer list of acts that signed for ludicrously high advances thanks to competitive deals and were never heard of again. The A&R community is a small world and tips of great new talents travel fast – it’s no surprise that there can sometimes be an abundance of A&Rs at a hot gig – they’re all talking to the same people! Trusting your ears is a really, really important part of the job – I don’t think many A&Rs succeed by following a pack mentality.

There’s also a reality that competitive deals can make artist advances disproportionately expensive. I work at an independent label – there has to be a moment of reality that no matter how much you personally love an act, sometimes they’ll get an offer that you can’t realistically match. I’ll fight tooth and nail to sign acts I really believe in, but sometimes you’ve got to look at the way the market is performing and let the head rule over the heart. There are very few acts who can resist the allure of a big cheque, and honestly, with it being harder and harder to make money as a musician, I can’t begrudge those who take it.

 

Small Indie A&R

Not really. I've definitely listened to new artists, intrigued after hearing others are interested, but unless they turn out to be incredible it has absolutely no impact on our intentions.

 

Major Label A&R 

As a label, we wouldn’t attempt to sign an artist solely because other labels were showing interesting. We’d be idiots if we didn’t do due diligence on artists we knew had attention elsewhere, but we’d be even bigger idiots if that’s all we cared about.

 Some description

Q. What’s the most frustrating misconception about your job?

 

Big Indie A&R

It’s a personal bugbear of mine, but I hate the concept that A&R is all about talent scouting. Coming across something brand new is obviously enormously exciting, but it’s really the work to develop and nurture that talent that I find most rewarding. The grandstanding and one-upmanship that exists around talent discovery are exceedingly dull. I’d rather be cracking on and making records – that’s what A&R’s really about for me.

The other annoying misconception for me is that A&Rs don’t care about music and are only motivated by chasing the lowest common denominator of pop. It’s (largely) a complete myth propagated by people who are upset that A&Rs don’t like THEIR music. I bloody love music and have the record collection and gig memories to match. It’s not the lucrative world people seem to believe it is – I shan’t be commuting home in my helicopter this evening; if I was motivated purely by profit then I’d have sacked this off a decade ago and gone to work in a bank with everyone else I went to university with. It’s my job to make money for my company and I have to do things that I think have a shot of making a profit – that doesn’t mean I can’t take risks or can only work on music that doesn’t make me (and hopefully others) happy. I’ve never signed anything I think is shit just because there’s a potentially lucrative upside.

 

Small Indie A&R

Probably that we do nothing. It's much discussed that the label role has changed - and will continue to do so - but sometimes I think people see us as the guys who just sit at the end of the chain forcing bands to change their sound and getting fat off the royalties. In actual fact we (and I mean WE as in our company and not the royal we here) work our arses off every day. The first thing I do every day and the last thing I do every night is check my email and the 18 or so hours between are spent putting out fires and trying to help bands reach new levels. There are so many days I wish the misconception was true.

 

Major Label A&R

I don’t know if it’s a misconception, but it always annoys me when people think it’s easy to break an artist. It isn’t.

 

Q. What’s the most important team member an artist can have at the beginning of their career?

 

Big Indie A&R

To be honest, if you’ve got half a brain between you, you should be able to handle most of your band’s business yourself at the start of your career. At that stage, the most important thing is that you’re honing your performance and songwriting skills. Maybe look at putting some music out, test the water, play some gigs. It’s what musicians have been doing since the advent of pop. There’s a wealth of tools and online expertise you can use to do this. Build a profile and get great before you involve anyone else – if they’re not adding value why are they there? If you honestly think you’ve got a shot at making a career as a musician you want to get the best representation you possibly can. To do that you need to prove yourself an attractive proposition.

Beyond that stage, though, your manager should be the most important person on your team. I begrudgingly admit this as a records guy, but managers are increasingly running the show. Preferably look for someone smart, trustworthy, with an infrastructure, a contact book and a track record. A bit of seed money to put into the project probably wouldn’t go amiss either. It’s a long shopping list but it’s probably one of the things musicians routinely balls up early in their career. There are some phenomenally average bands who have exceeded everyone’s expectations thanks to smart and entrepreneurial management, and there is a load of bands who’ve sunk without a trace because they entrusted their project to morons. A great manager doesn’t guarantee you a long and successful career, nobody’s got a perfect strike rate, but it does increase your prospects enormously.

 

Small Indie A&R

A band leader. I've often talked about the importance of every band having at least one member who takes them all to hand and drives things forward. Some bands work brilliantly with each member handling a specific role but others rely on one person to really get out there and create opportunities. It's often a thankless task and sees them handling every responsibility until each job is slowly/hopefully taken over but without this individual, no one's ever going to hear your music.

 

Major Label A&R 

For me, the most important member of an artist’s team full stop is a good manager. I’ve had the pleasure of working some great and some not so great managers and the difference is remarkable. You want someone that is not only organised but adds value to different aspects of a campaign. They don’t need to have broken numerous artists or have a wealth of experience – just someone with great ideas, that’s good with people, and has a bit of hustle is all you need. An artist and manager that just sit back and want the label to do everything just aren't going to work. I’d probably go as far as to say that if an unsigned artist had terrible management, no matter how good the artist, it would make me question if we should be getting involved.

 

Q. What do the deals you’re doing look like now, compared to those you were doing five years ago?

 

Big Indie A&R

Not markedly different in terms of what we’re asking for and what we’re giving. I think the last major upheaval was around the time I was getting into the industry and the 360 model was in vogue. I don’t think many people are pursuing those ideals with quite the same fervour as they were in the mid-2000s, but the idea that as (usually) the major financier in an artist career, the label should participate in more income streams than just records feels like a bit of a given for most deals nowadays. It’s either that or decrease budgets to an amount that makes doing anything interesting seem unfeasible. I think the trend is that deals are offered more cautiously and with more thought put into them – clothes are being cut more accordingly than they’ve ever been before. It still happens, of course, but the days of the ‘close it at any cost’ record deal are largely behind us.

The really interesting thing is what happens next with record deals now that albums are becoming less and less important. How do we negotiate terms? When does the investment come in? I’m thinking about that a lot. That’s going to be the next big question in terms of industry deal making.

 

Small Indie A&R

In the most part, they're exactly the same. We're in a very privileged position that we now get to work with some big artists and our roster grows year on year, but we pride ourselves on keeping the fundamentals the same. We operate on very simple deals, which (as our lawyer often furiously points out) are extremely artist friendly, but we're not in the business of locking bands down to deals they later want out of. We're here to build something together.

 

Major Label A&R 

In five years they’ve not really changed much. Maybe over five years ago our deals were strictly just record deals, but now we do aim to be partners with our artists in other areas, not just recorded music –  for example, our deals will include a share of other revenues - live, merchandise, brand etc. We do have a great infrastructure and great expertise that add value in these areas so it isn’t just an attempt to get a cut of something for nothing.

Now we’re seeing the impact of streaming, the industry is evolving I’m sure deals will change in the years to come to reflect that too.

 Some description

Q. Music aside (as that’s a given), list three things that are a turn on when you come across a new artist.

 

Big Indie A&R

Obviously, yeah, the music has to be great. Honestly, my first piece of advice is always ‘be great.’ Everything after that should be relatively easy.

1) Hard working and self-motivated artists. Without sounding too much like I’m writing a job spec, this is a clincher for me nowadays. Unfortunately, it’s not good enough to just be really good – you’ve also got to want it more than anyone else and be prepared to go and kick arse to do so. I’m lucky that with a fair wind behind me I’ll be doing this job for a while yet. You generally only get one shot at having a successful musical career, so you should be the person working hardest to make it happen. I’ll happily go to the end of the planet for my artists, but they should be willing to go further.

2) Strong sense of identity. TV talent shows have done little to improve the landscape of pop music, but they have proved that people love artists with a strong identity and hopefully a great story to go with it. The purists will always insist that music comes first. It should, and I believe in most decisions it does, but having a bigger talking point than just ‘they have some really good songs’ is a massive boon to get people to talk about you and recommend them to your peers.

3) Don’t be a dick. Nobody’s making enough money to be able to afford to maintain the classic rockstar personality. I’ve walked away from a couple of deals with new artists before because it’s transpired upon meeting them that they’re complete tools. There’s nothing wrong with being edgy, opinionated or confrontational; that shit’s exciting, but when it turns into you being an entitled arsehole, things will begin to unravel. There’s a certain sense of schadenfreude I take in that none of the artists that I’ve turned down because it wasn’t worth years of torture have gone on to be successful.

 

Small Indie A&R

They like football, beer and Nando's. Not a deal breaker, many of our bands hate all of those things but tick those three boxes and we're gonna be best mates.

 

Major Label A&R

1) A strong and unique visual aesthetic and vision is really important. An artist without any ideas of how they want to be presented isn’t a true artist.

2) Someone hardworking with a hunger to succeed is massively important too. Everyone around you is going to work their arses off for you so you need to too!

3) A great live performer/band is a must.

And this probably sounds cheesy, but star quality. It comes in many forms and all different shapes and sizes  – you can be shy and retiring or a complete gobshite and be a star. You either have it or you don’t.

 

END.

 

So there you go! Some rather interesting insight there don’t you think? Any thoughts, questions, reflections then join in the conversation over on our Twitter/Facebook.

 

 

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