What’s the point of A&R?


The following MBW blog comes from Ben Wardle (pictured inset), a writer and presenter. In a previous life, Wardle was an A&R at the likes of BMG, V2 and Turtleneck Records – working with artists including Sleeper, Lethal Bizzle, The Rakes, Alex James, Elastica, The Wannadies, Stephen Duffy, Pop Will Eat Itself, Ride and many more. He has been hired by Damien Hirst – and fired by Joe Strummer.

Have you seen Kill Your Friends yet?

Those who’ve witnessed the movie, based on John Niven’s novel about his former profession – a record label A&R – will know that it does not paint a pretty picture of the job’s practitioners.

I too was an A&R man during the period in which Kill Your Friends is set.

I often compared my job to that of a traffic warden or an estate agent: telling most hopefuls No, whilst coaxing and seducing others to sign a dubious contract.

Of course, there is a rich history of gifted A&R people: John Hammond, who signed and produced Bob Dylan and went on to sign Bruce Springsteen; George Martin in terms of what he did with the Fabs; and of course Chris Blackwell, who founded Island Records by importing Jamaican 45s then crucially did a bit of creative A&R on The Wailers’ Catch a Fire by adding rock guitar and creating an album market for reggae.

But things have changed in the 50 odd years since the heyday of these guys.

Crucially, sales have virtually halved since 2009, downloads are losing to streaming and majors are slimming down headcount.

So what of A&Rs? Are there less of them?

Well if you’ve been reading MBW you’ll know that major label UK A&R departments in the UK actually increased spend by 19% to £178 million in 2014.

That’s a quarter of each label’s annual income just spent on A&R.

Yet at the end of 2015, the number of debut albums getting certified Gold in the UK totaled just three: James Bay’s The Chaos & The Calm, Jess Glynne’s I Cry When I Laugh, and Years & Years’ Communion.

So, what is the point of A&R?

I recently gave a lecture to some first year university students on this very topic.

I planned to play devil’s advocate: questioning the validity of A&R until hopefully the students would be utterly convinced of its pointlessness, before surprising them with my vehement support of the role.

Because, despite the statistics above, I do truly believe in the importance of A&R.

But how was I going to justify it in the face of the above?

I started noting down all the things that I had valued in the job when I did it, combining those with comments made by those still brave enough to call it their occupation.

I eventually came up with the following trio of A&R Commandments, which I delivered to the students like some bald Moses in Levis:

Commandment 1: Thou shalt scout and sign

Why do you need A&R deciding what you should hear when you can find all the new music you need on SoundCloud?

Anyone with a computer can go on a blog aggregator and see what mp3s are commanding interest. As an A&R person, I could sit in my office eating crisps and sign bands.

I used to call it ‘A&Rmchair’, and named my blog after it.

Of course anyone can go online and find new talent, but it takes a genuine fan of music, doing it all the time to find anything that is unique and interesting.

Anyone watching a TV talent show is encouraged to think they can do A&R. Depressingly, this also includes everyone at record labels not in the A&R department.

“Anyone watching a TV talent show is encouraged to think they can do A&R. Depressingly, this includes everyone at a record label.”

Great labels are driven by A&R’s taste and direction – it’s a benign dictatorship.

Someone has to lead a record company; better it’s a Richard Russell, an Alan Mcgee or a Geoff Travis than a bunch of promotions people who happen to know a tastemaker at Radio 1.

Plus, it should be about someone’s opinion! All great art needs curators and editors.

And what about the actual signing? Navigating the contract.

Surely, knowing about music and knowing about royalty splits are two completely different skill sets? A&R is led by the heart, not by the head. Won’t an A&R end up losing the company money?

Well, maybe, but that doesn’t mean A&R people don’t have to have great financial chops.

If you love and value music then you know your market; you’re best placed to understand the complexities of the deal.

Yes, you might get swept along by emotion, but hey, this is the entertainment business! It deserves to be led by people who make an emotional connection with the content.

Commandment 2: Thou shalt make recordings on time, on budget and as commercial as possible.

There’s a scene in Kill Your Friends where the protagonist Stephen Stellfox is advising his hapless colleague Roger Waters (played by the ever-reliable James Corden) on record producers.

A&R vagueness in understanding what a producer does is perfectly drawn as Waters burbles something about Gil Norton making everything sound “a bit tinny”.

Anyone could choose a producer, I suppose. All you have to do is look at the charts in Music Week and there, next to the writer credits, are the production credits.

“Who produced Shake It Off? Great! Let’s get them to do the new Clitoris Allsorts track.”

It’s a fair point and it does happen – after all, radio producers will be more inclined to play an unknown if they’re produced by a known.

“An artist can very quickly get lost in a sea of familiarity during the recording process.”

But you’ll have to take my word, as someone who was there, that A&R production decisions can help make much better recordings.

As for the producer contract, for the same reason as Commandment 1, if an A&R person knows the market, they can gauge the right deal with the producer’s manager and monitor a recording’s progress with an expertise beyond anyone else in the company.

These days of course, the chances are the artist is the producer and does it on their own. In this case, A&R involvement is even more vital: an artist can very quickly get lost in a sea of familiarity during the recording process.

Listen to any piece of music 20 times in a row – or worse, a small segment of it – and very quickly an arse will resemble an elbow.

An A&R person is a willing and understanding pair of fresh ears.

Commandment 3: Thou shalt be a cheerleader for your artists.

Once an act is signed and the first recording is ready for release, A&R has to champion that artist within the record company.

You may well ask why an artist needs a representative rallying for them within a company, which has already signed them and presumably loves them.

This is quite possibly the most important part of the job: record companies change fast: staff leave, staff join; many of them are young and excited by the new and the novel.

“You may ask why an artist needs an A&R rep rallying for them in a record label. It’s possibly the most important part of the job.”

Once an artist has been around for a while they are not as sexy to work on as the newer acts.

The A&R person is batting for the artist – his or her loyalties are always divided between what’s right for the label and what’s right for the artist, but ultimately there has to be someone who can see it from both sides.

And unlike the artist’s manager, the A&R person can be in the office every day making sure the campaign is focused.

At this point, I finished the lecture and took in the students’ blank faces staring back at me.

Then it struck me: there is actually one extra commandment, the most important one of all, to which every A&R person must adhere…

Commandment 4: Thou shalt be lucky.

It might sound like a joke but it’s psychologically very important for everyone in a record company to have somebody to blame if an act doesn’t break; it’s no one’s fault but the A&R for signing them.

The artist needs someone to blame too, and what better person than A&R for choosing the wrong singles, wrong mixes and not motivating the company enough?

Of course, if the artist is successful, everyone who’s had even the remotest contact with them will claim the glory. It’s human nature: success has many fathers…

The upside for A&R is that you’ll win because you signed it.

“Ultimately, that’s all the music business is: artists and repertoire.”

Ultimately, it’s all the music business is: artists and repertoire.

Everything is contained within the role: musical taste, production and arrangement, financial management, negotiation skills, selling, perseverance, chutzpah and bloody mindedness.

But above all, A&R is about one thing: being lucky.

And sadly, luck is one thing you can’t learn at University.Music Business Worldwide

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