The following MBW blog comes from Lucas Keller (pictured), founder of Los Angeles-based management company Milk + Honey, which reps songwriters and producers who have written or co-written hit songs made famous by the likes of Demi Lovato, The Chainsmokers, Justin Bieber, Alessia Cara and Dua Lipa.
Throughout my 16 years in the music business, just about nothing has been more confusing to me than major record label culture.
It’s parallel to the macho Wall Street-guy character, with all of the same eccentricity. There’s a certain mix of arrogance and ignorance that seems to somehow work inside the system. This all comes from the top down; people mimic their bosses and the cycle continues.
Talent managers like me are trained to work very hard, while always putting the artist, writer, or producer first. Some days we are the CEOs – some days we are the janitors. We do 300 tangible things in a day, building real value, and we don’t always get a lot of credit. So forgive me if I become confused when record label A&Rs do get the credit, despite (some of them) doing very little.
I also have the humility to admit I’m not entirely sure what a hit record is. Yes, I said it. After having quite a few No.1 and Top 10 records with my clients, all I can offer is my well-informed, but still very subjective opinion.
After all, this is 2019: when the audience tells you what the hits are, not the other way around. Yet some major label A&Rs apparently know exactly what a hit sounds like – or at least, that’s what they claim.
And then there’s the back-and-forth. Very few people in A&R follow through (and I’ve come to appreciate the ones that do). “That record’s a smash, email it to me,” – from a label executive never to be heard from again; this happens daily.
“After all, this is 2019: when the audience tells you what the hits are, not the other way around. Yet some major label A&Rs apparently know exactly what a hit sounds like – or at least, that’s what they claim.”
There are a lot of good people in the label system that aren’t like this – but that list sometimes feels like it’s getting shorter by the day. The contradictory behavior and dialogue is complete comedy: “We’d like it to sound like the last hit, but different.”
Even more perplexing is the amount of “failing upward” that I’ve seen. Simply stated, people that get promoted because they were in the room, or were are able to take credit for the hit some other way.
We all love those press releases: “Jane Doe has been promoted from Senior Director of A&R to Senior VP Director of A&R West Coast…” What do these job titles really mean?!
The role of A&R remains very nebulous and requires a lot of luck… as well as being at the right place at the right time. My favorite A&R people know and acknowledge this.
Yet I still spend many days as the beneficiary of emails like these ones (all anonymized, but genuine, examples):
- (i) “I’ve been listening to a lot of Post Malone drums, do that. Also looking for this record to sound more Spotify than the last single.”
- (ii) “I like this song, but it doesn’t sound like a 300 million stream record.”
- (iii) “This one sounds like a SMASH! Huge record! But not right for us at this time. Thanks for sending.”
Rest assured, we can all brace ourselves for the rest of 2019 hearing: “We just signed her, she’s our Billie Eilish.” Or, and this one is already creeping into reality: “Think Billie Eilish meets Lil Nax X, but more organic.”
For years, I’ve enjoyed replacing all metadata on my pitch mp3s with the words “From Keller”. That way, the record is judged on the merits of the actual song, not who produced or wrote it.
I always get the classic “who wrote this?” query before I receive any feedback on the record. I reply: “I’m not telling you until you tell me what you actually think.”
Now-a-days, I love to tell A&R guys, “Your artist is going to kill you when they hear this record, and you didn’t send it to them.” Sometimes it works, and they send it on for insurance purposes.
This, I admit, is me shamelessly taking advantage of ‘fear culture’ – where everyone is afraid to sign something that doesn’t work, but also terrified of missing out on those songs that do become hits.
As a result, many A&R execs today sit in a perpetual state of ‘analysis paralysis’, where they need to see a certain metric before they sign a deal. When I witness this, when it’s about the numbers and not the art, I think: Here Lies Artist Development. RIP.
I’ll never really understand that inability to just make a decision – whether you want something or not. Sometimes, the best way to get a label A&R to care about a new potential signing is to tell them that two other people – specified by name – in competitive positions are trying to sign it.
Now, there are a few people out there in record label A&R that do still sign things based on their gut and instinct – my favorites. We truly need to keep that culture alive. More typically, though, I’ve found the signing process to be binary at this point; it’s either someone taking a meeting with me for our relationship’s sake, who’s never going to sign the act, or someone who’s all over me, asking what number it will take to get the deal done.
Label culture has largely shifted to data-driven moneyball A&R about “shopping my project” or “let’s do label meetings in NY and play people my music” I’m going to get sick; that’s just not how it works anymore. It’s a numbers game now.
“Don’t even get me started on the amount of ‘influencers’ – clearly not real artists – who major labels are signing simply because of their social media audience.”
Don’t even get me started on the amount of ‘influencers’ – clearly not real artists – who major labels are signing simply because of their social media audience.
Sometimes it feels like gone are the days where you’re going to find your young David Geffen-type, with tenacity and great taste, and the willpower to break an act they believe in.
The messaging is simply a bit off inside some record labels today: in the room, folks say “we’re looking for real artists”, but the majority of the company budget is then spent on signing quick hits and ‘research artists’. Puzzling.
I’ve always had respect for the relationship between creators and facilitators, so I’ll tell you this for free: most people I represent don’t enjoy those facilitators sitting in the back of the studio making comments. In the major label A&R world, this is incredibly common. Stop it! We need to keep studios sacred.
I recall one day sitting with the President of a major label in New York, and when I asked about a specific artist, he said: “Yeah, we were letting him go, but then he got this huge synch, and now we’re very, very excited about him – he is a top priority for us right now.”
After I’d dosed myself with more Tylenol, this reminded me of one of my all-time favorite concepts for labels and management: “It’s not who you represent; it’s the years you represent them.”
“There are, of course, still A&R mavericks in labels out there who bring real value… But, to be honest, I can count them on two hands.”
After a major label success, you can count on pretty much every A&R person at every record company reminding you they “heard the artist first” or “took a meeting and always believed” as if that’s any type of relevant currency.
All that being said… as a manager of nearly 40 clients in the writer/producer space, I’m open to admitting I wouldn’t have a business without our ‘friends’ in A&R.
There are, of course, still A&R mavericks in labels out there who bring real value. I really cherish my relationships with those A&Rs – the honest ones, the ones with great taste, the do-ers, and the people who really roll their sleeves up and break artists. But, to be honest, I can count them on two hands.
On a closing note, in the spirit of helping our friends in A&R do some work and get back to the office, I’d like to call upon Soho House to finally ban laptops.
But really, I love you all, as shameless as some of you are. I’ve had big hits with many of you, and I can’t deny, I very much enjoy the characters. Thanks for the memories.