A&R: Out With The Old, In With The New?

There is not a single day that goes by without me listening to music of one kind or another; consequently I’m always on the lookout for new and interesting music sites to see what’s happening in the business and one site that I check every morning is LA Weekly’s music section. While it may be a bit locale-specific to the Southern California area, I find it to be an excellent industry-related resource and last week, the Weekly posted an interesting article on the vanishing A&R executive – once upon a time, a much sought-after position in the music business but lately, the A&R reps are fast becoming a dying breed.

During their heyday throughout the 80’s and well into the 90’s, the A&R man was responsible for myriad duties: finding new acts, signing them to contracts, supervising their artistic development – they were the bands “go-to” guy. They were also charged with finding the right producers and studios for the recording process as well as helping with decision-making process with regards to which songs would be put to vinyl as well as which of those songs would become the next single. They were the liaison between the artists and the label itself. Needless to say it was a very important and highly sought after position. Depending on a given rep’s success rate, an A&R executive, in the eyes of myriad bands slugging it out looking to make big, held sway over the world itself.

Fast forward almost 30 years later and things have changed drastically. Since the beginning of the decade, over 5000 industry-related positions vanished. This was a result of the mergers and acquisitions that were taking place on almost a daily basis and when the dust settled, what is now known as “The Big Four” (EMI, Sony, BMG, Universal Music Group) remained.

The once ‘God-like’ position of the ‘A&R’ executive fared little better. According to The A&R Register, in 2007 alone close to 130 A&R execs chose to either leave voluntarily or were let go outright. And it didn’t matter the amount of success a rep had – Interscope Records’ Mark Williams, ranked the top A&R rep according to HitQuarter.com’s World Top 100 A&R Chart 2005, an annual list of the best A&R reps in the industry, was among those leaving. This is not to say that they all left the industry; quite a few of them went on to other positions, becoming managers, consultants, or producers, but very few ever got another A&R position again.

Those who were lucky enough to retain their positions no longer do business as they once did, nor are they enjoying the same freedom either. Whereas the A&R rep used to spend their nights in the clubs and venues around the Sunset Strip and across Hollywood, checking out the various bands and/or artists, picking a couple and signing them, developing their sound and producing an album that sold 100,000 plus copies, all was good and everyone was happy.

Now, that same rep has to run everything through upper management first, and only then will that band be signed. Due to the financial instability of the industry, that band now has to put out an album that will at least sell half a million copies or they, and more often than not, the A&R rep who signed them, are soon dropped.

This has led to a major change in the way the A&R executive operates. Those same A&R reps are now more likely found behind a computer, but instead of just focusing on finding a promising band or artist, they now focus instead on the audiences, searching instead for the latest trends. This amounts to reps searching for a “ready-made” act, and, depending on which market that label is looking to exploit, plugging that act in to that label’s ‘pre-set formula’ (based on prior vinyl sales, of course), thus virtually taking all the guess-work out of the equation. No longer are the A&R executives willing to put their jobs on the line for a band that may or may not sell out record stores as well as arenas.

The advent of the digital age has allowed the musician to be far more proactive and as such, self-promotion has become easier than ever before. Thanks to <em>Myspace</em>, what started out as a social-networking site used for communicating with current friends, as well as making new ones, the site has since become the “new” A&R business model. Almost overnight, thousands of ‘up-and-coming’ bands paying their dues in and bars, clubs and even garages from coast-to-coast, could now put their music in front of millions of people instead of a couple of hundred. It’s far easier for the “indie” band to put out their music in whichever form they so chose.

Due to strict contractual agreements concerning the “rights” to a musicians work, once a band is signed to a major contract, they, for all intents and purposes lose almost all control over their own content. This means that they instead defer to the record company which song will be released as a single; which video will be released and in which format – television; internet; mobile, etc.) as well. No longer can a fan of (insert band/musician name here) upload “copywritten” material, more often than not for no other reason than to pay homage to their favorite act as well as sharing their love with other fans. Once that fan has had a chance to hear/see that content, they will then go out and purchase one form or another of that product, usually purchasing more than just one compact disc/DVD.

This series of events is repeated around the world, hundreds of thousands of times a day and yet the record companies inexplicably demonize those people – who are their own customers – by labeling them as “pirates”; as people who are “taking content with no compensation”, this despite the fact that they are in fact making a lot of money and from what amounts to free advertising, no less!

At this point, while it appears that the long-standing impasse between fan and record company will remain steadfast as ever, the recent use of the internet in place of the record label “middleman” has proven very successful as well as lucrative, as both Radiohead and Trent Reznor/NIN has proven. In each instance, fans were directed to a special website where they had the choice of either the “pay whatever is fair/free” download; the standard physical CD (usually combined with a download of the album so the purchaser needn’t wait to receive it in the mail before hearing it) as well as one or two “deluxe edition” packages of some combination of CD/DVD/Download/Booklet. While I have no idea as to the exact numbers involved in terms of amount of product sold (the “Deluxe Edition” of the NIN album was selling for $300), I suspect that those “deluxe” packages sold very well indeed.

In light of how successful – and profitable – selling one’s album online can be, it is safe to say that the record companies stood up and took notice. Only time will tell if the industry can utilize the internet in a way that everyone – from the young, uber-fan in Des Moines to the CEO at EMI – can be happy, but if their previous track record is and can be any indication, I’m not holding my breath.

“And the recording industry still can’t figure out why they’re going bankrupt…” — me


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