THE ART OF A&R

One of my most regular and popular Master Classes that I deliver to early career music industry professionals is ‘The Art of A&R’. A&R spelt out is Artist and Repertoire. The A&R department of a record company is responsible for:

A. working with the talent who are already under contract, and:

B. finding new talent; that is seeking out new material and acts to sign in an attempt to develop a roster of artists for the company.

The A&R department’s staff are frequently involved in all aspects of an artists’ relationship with the record company, including the initial negotiations and the signing of the recording contract, the rehearsal arrangements and production, and promotion divisions of the record company. The training of new creative, entrepreneurial forward thinking and business savvy A&R managers is, I would argue, central to the very survival of the music industry.

In a time of crisis and collapsing sales of recorded music in the music industry, creative and entrepreneurial A&R workers are more important than ever. Only by continuing to create new products and value can record companies compete in this rapidly changing market. The reorientation of A&R instruments and strategies are critical to meeting the consumer’s needs in the present climate. The relationship between the product/artist and the fan has to become closer through the use of new marketing and production instruments and strategies. New tools like. for example, fan community contests, new gatekeeping functions, new financial opportunities and new technologies afford record labels the chance to rally against falling turnovers. Even if record companies concentrate on buying and selling copyrights and catalogues in the future, A&R departments will be important as a gatekeeper to maintain the company’s A&R guiding principles and policies. In other words, A&R managers and departments are there to ensure the quality of artists and content associated with the record company.

To be able to survive this crisis new challenges have to be conquered, new requirements fulfilled and new opportunities seized. As a result of collapsing sales in the music industry, recording labels have less capital at their disposal. Production and artist development budgets have been dramatically reduced. When I worked in A&R we had at our disposal lavish budgets. That said nothing stifles creativity more than wealth. As such, it has become harder for labels to invest in new artists and to develop their careers. However, the business of finding and recruiting new artists still operates as it has done for decades. There is no shortage of hard working, talented artists who want to become stars but it seems to have become harder for labels to earn money with the music they are producing, and as a result they have less budget for their development.

To withstand the drop in sales, new income streams have to be found to ensure the development of, and investment in, the careers of new artists. As long as record companies are developing, releasing and selling new artists, a turnover is guaranteed. A&R management not only involves the process of scouting for and finding new talent, but also acts as a gatekeeping tool allowing record labels to meet the company’s A&R guiding principles and policies, even if finished products are being signed to the label. Even if labels decide to concentrate more on buying, selling and monetizing copyrights rather than developing and producing new artists and/or products in the future, A&R management will remain one of the most important instruments. To be able to conquer the current crisis and to compete economically, record labels have to recalibrate the instruments of their A&R policy.

I recently gave my ‘The Art of A&R’ Master Class in Sydney, Australia at the Australian Institute of Music (AIM) to a bunch of highly creative and motivated undergraduate students. During this session I realized that I was lacking some ‘takeaways’, so in order to re-address this gap, here are some possibilities and ideas:

  1. Closer artist/fan relationship. Major labels in particular still have a very impersonal system of information distribution for fans and end-consumers. It has become more and more important to show ‘the person behind the star’. by revealing to fans and consumers the real lives of their idols and stars with all their strengths, weaknesses and mistakes, The product can gain an emotional value This personalisation evokes compassion (a Dalton Koss HQ key word). The fan feels bound to the star, both emotionally and personally. By being transparent about the recording process through daily or weekly updates, pictures and videos of the work in the studio on the artist’s website, blog, You Tube, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts it is possible to show the fan how a record is made. Fans learn to appreciate the intrinsic value of music by seeing the intensive work required before a final product can be bought in the store. Its time to fully exploit social media and turn it into a powerful marketing tool.
  2. Product development process. Fans could be actively engaged in the production and development process of artists via demo listening, remix contests and artwork contests. Demo listening
 would allow various versions of song demos that had been uploaded to the artist’s Bandcamp or SoundCloud accounts and fans could vote which songs should be produced as part of the next album. Modern young audiences are familiar with this format because of the numerous TV talent shows that exist. Remix contests are already a very popular means of creating a more personal relationship between artist and fan. Fans could download the audio stems of a song for free, or even for a fee, allowing them to create their own version of their favorite artist’s new song. By selling these audio stems another source of income could be generated. Their creators could upload these finished remixes and the fan community could vote for their favorites. Within the scope of a digital or physical release the most popular remixes could be sold guaranteeing a further income stream. For the re-release of the 1976 David Bowie single ‘Golden Years’ an iPhone app was created which allowed fans to create their own remix. The app was made available the same day that the EP ‘Golden Days’ was released, with remixes by well-known producers. For artwork contests
, the fan community could be asked to upload pictures or graphics they associate with the artist or with the artist’s song. After a vote by the fan community, the most popular ones are then included in the booklet artwork or even as the cover.
  3. Improvement of product policy. With the introduction of the compact disc (CD) from 1986 onwards, sonic quality reached a new high with the added bonus that CDs had more ‘space’ than a 12” vinyl record. To boost the income of successful singles, subsequent albums were often filled with inferior songs, of live or rehearsal versions, just to fill the empty space. Some of this material was of rather dubious quality and I’ve heard a number of my own live mixing board recordings end up as a ‘bonus track’ on records. It is important that the quality of the whole product is high and sadly this just hasn’t being the case. My main problem with digital dissemination is the poor sonic quality of MP3 and MP4 files; they sound awful. All the other creative media have moved into High Definition (HD) or Ultra High Definition (UHD) e.g. TV, Cinema, photography, yet music’s sonic quality has gone down the quantity over quality route. If music production moved into HD or UHD mode then the process of developing the product may take a little longer and be more costly but the product would be greatly improved and have more customer appeal. Who knows there may be an end consumer who is willing to pay a premium for an album of near perfect production and of a super high sonic quality?
  4. A&R competence of imprints. To cover a lot of different music genres, major labels are forced to depend on the A&R competence of their imprints. Through imprints, which specialise in non-mainstream and niche music markets, major labels get the opportunity to uncover underground trends earlier and to develop them. As such, imprints are talent pools, experimental research and development laboratories for their parent companies. Not only do they develop the performing talent they also develop A&R management talent too. For this reason niche imprints need fostering and developing.
  5. New strategies of market cultivation. According to record company marketing guru, Marcel Engh, A&R policy has to be the basic element of modern music marketing because it provides and produces the value of the value chain in the recording industry, the content is the strategic factor of success. As the developer of true value, A&R policy has to remain the foundation of record labels. A company’s turnover has to grow not only through artist copyright but also through comprehensive use of the 360-degree contract. Very controversial but worth considering?
  6. The use of new technologies as instruments of A&R policy. With the rapid growth of the Internet, it has become easy for unknown artists and musicians to share their music over the World Wide Web. With Web 2.0 artists can present themselves with their biography, pictures, videos and their music. The challenge of using the Internet as an A&R instrument to find new talent is the access to vast numbers of new and unknown artists. Fan communities can act as gatekeepers to show A&R departments which artists are likely to appeal to potential customers. Relevant indications include the number of plays of uploaded songs, the number of profile views and the comments written on an artist’s wall, all very useful metrics. The popularity and media presence of casting shows helps record labels increase their income. But developing long-term careers with the winners doesn’t appear to work all the time. It is hard for the artists to compete against the following season’s participants and often the winners of one year disappear from the screen when the next show begins.
  7. Public Subsidy. During the global financial and economic crisis of 2008 and 2009, automobile companies had recourse to financial support in several countries in order to be able to survive and avoid bankruptcy. Keeping these unprofitable automobile companies afloat translated into decreased job loss and maintaining industry activity until post-financial crisis. It’s very controversial but maybe something similar could also occur in the music industry? In a postindustrial service based economy, the creative industries, in which the music industry resides, employs significant numbers of people. Increasingly, governments are recognising that public subsidy may be part of the business model for the the creative industries.

Through the reorientation of instruments and strategies of A&R policy, record companies can overcome the recent sales collapse. However, the industry needs fresh ideas and creativity when it comes to selling new products and artists. The days of sitting back and waiting for the big money to roll in are long gone. It has become difficult for record companies and artists to promote and sell their music. Only with good ideas, extraordinary marketing tools and instruments can companies maintain the consumer’s interest in buying music. Major labels, in particular, need to return to developing long-term artist careers instead of relying on one-hit wonders and TV talent shows, even if these do provide some short-term increases in turnover. Successful long-term careers are the key here; the re-imagination of past business models, such, as the three or five album deal is probably the solution. Sign talent with a view of developing and growing it along with its audience over a significant period of time. In order to do that we need new, creative, entrepreneurial and media savvy A&R managers and workers.

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