Label A&R People: Four Commandments (and Why They’re Still Important)

Half a century ago, record label A&R representatives had their heyday. A rich history of names like John Hammond (signed and produced Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen), George Martin (the Beatles), and Chris Blackwell (founded Island Records and created a market for the Wailers and reggae) shows the historical importance of A&Rs. A post on Music Business Worldwide from former A&R Ben Wardle examines the importance of A&R in the current music industry in an essay called “What’s the point of A&R?”.

With major labels getting rid of positions because sales and downloads are losing to streaming, it might appear like A&Rs are becoming redundant. Even with major label UK A&R departments increasing their spending to £178 million in 2014, only three debut albums became certified gold. Still, Wardle fully believes in and supports the role that A&Rs play in the industry. He came up with four A&R commandments.

Commandment 1: Thou Shalt Scout and Sign

In his essay, Wardle points out that with sites like SoundCloud anyone can see what mp3s have gained popularity. He responds to this argument that:

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

Commandment 2: Thou Shalt Make Recordings On Time, On Budget and as Commercial as Possible

There are many producers out there who are incredibly talented, and it is true that a radio station is more likely to play an unknown artist that was produced by a known producer, Wardle argues 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”.

And in today’s climate with the artists often being their own producers, Wardle says that it is even more important for A&Rs to be involved.

“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

This is incredibly important, though it might seem silly on the surface. The artist has been signed so the label presumably loves them. Why would they need anyone to be a cheerleader for them? Wardle answer makes a lot of sense: “record companies change fast: staff leave, staff join; many of them are young and excited by the new and the novel.

“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”.

Commandment 4: Thou Shalt be Lucky

No, this isn’t a joke. Wardle admits that the downside of being an A&R is that they often take all the blame. If an act doesn’t break, the fault lands on the A&R for signing them. If something goes wrong, the artist can blame the A&R for choosing the wrong singles. “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, 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”

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