The A&R process and is it lost in translation?

By Hans Ebert
@hanseberthk

There’s been a great deal of chatter recently about this term known as “A&R” (Artists and Repertoire), its importance, especially to a major music company, and the rise and influence of the A&R person, who, in many ways, has become the Rock Star executive within the often dated structure of a music company.

Sitting back and reading all this emphasis placed these days on the A&R process, A&R hits and misses, and the A&R stars, it all comes across as more clutter being stirred and half-baked into a business that only has itself to blame for losing the way to Grandma’s house and is now in the woods making mooing sounds along with everything drowning in the streaming quagmire.

A&R isn’t the exacting science some try to make it out to be, nor is it flying by the seat of your pants and throwing everything against the wall hoping something sticks. It’s to do with equal parts intuition, inspiration, marketing, and simply knowing who has real talent, what will be a hit record, and nurturing and building careers.

Bands like the Beatles, the Stones, The Who, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, the Kinks, Cream, Led Zeppelin, Doors etc- huge bands, iconic bands with huge hits, never had “A&R” people telling them what to record, because they had the courage of their convictions plus a small support group comprising a producer and engineer- for the Beatles, there was always George Martin- and, perhaps, their manager and the head of the record label- music guys like Chris Blackwell, Jac Holzman, Berry Gordy Jr, Ahmet Ertegun, Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss, David Geffen etc. But it were always the musicians who wrote the songs and played the music who decided what would appear on their records and worked with and depended on their managers to build their careers.

Does one think manager Peter Grant, let’s face it, a gangster, would have allowed an A&R person to have any say at all in his plans for his band Led Zeppelin?

Who created the image for them that asked the question, “Will you let your daughter date a Rolling Stone?” Their manager during those early years- Andrew Loog Oldham, a very much underrated figure in Rock music.

In Wikipedia, John H Hammond is described as the “A&R” person who signed Billie Holliday, Aretha Franklin. Benny Goodman, Springsteen and Dylan to Columbia Records. John Hammond was a record producer, fierce civil rights activist and passionate music man who ran Columbia Records. The term “A&R” didn’t even exist in those days and, no doubt, for a purpose: It was unnecessary. The icing on the cake didn’t need another layer.

It wasn’t something so contrived, and as creatively stifling and constipated as it is today, where one feels that there is a marketing army over-thinking the release of records to death- at least in the major music companies.

Gawd knows when, but you’re doing it again, and Gawd knows when the A&R person came into being and elevated into Rock Star status, but the guess is that this happened and continues to happen because those running music companies today, need some form of reassurance to make up for their inability to understand music and hits and musicians as much as they understand numbers and bottom lines.

It’s also why there was this urgent overnight need for every major music company to bring digital armies comprising former staff with Yahoo, MySpace etc in a lost effort to play catch-up with the Digital Revolution they refused to admit had taken over when Napster first appeared.

Though this love affair with these “digital teams” with their tedious “Digital Days”- like music conferences, another excuse to fly around the world on company expense- was a short-lived flirtation that ended in tears when these new hires discovered they were never needed, the A&R person has been allowed to become an irreplaceable beast.

It’s really tough to imagine Phil Spector, or any of the Beatles or Mick and Keith or Jimmy Page needing an “A&R” person to guide them away from the temptation to create what was inside their heads, and, instead, record what often are committee decisions. It’s why music has become so bloody X Factor bland with one-off hits- if that.

Not to sound like some music purist when we are talking about a business that needs everyone to share in the financial rewards- and which is not happening in a democratic manner as this business has the Haves and the Have Nots- the music industry lacks a soul and there’s something fake about, well, everything.

Yes, Berry Gordy knew a hit when he heard it, but was also a shrewd businessman who might have screwed over a number of session musicians for the work they produced, but these were during the early days of Tamla Motown and when his label gave the world “The Sound Of Young America”, and brought a white audience to black artists.

Berry Gordy, Chris Blackwell etc., were founders of music companies with the chutzpah and vision to see and hear a future in the reggae music of Bob Marley and the Wailers, and the commercial soul of the Supremes, the Four Tops, the Temptations, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye etc., etc.

Again, A&R, or that God-given gift of being able to predict a hit and create a musical future for artists was because of these visionaries and the teams they built around them. Small was beautiful and small has created the greatest music. Ever. There was no need for promotional armies and committees and data and legalese and, well, “A&R” as some separate and elitist job in a music company.

Can anyone seriously believe Bob Dylan ever relied on an A&R person at Columbia Records to approve what he recorded? Please. So, where does an A&R person fit into the grand scheme of things today? Well, they decide on which act should be signed, and because of this vested interest, have a strong say in what they should record. But is this right- and does this mean that artists today need babysitting because they’re not very good or clueless, or does it mean that signing up with a major is as career-restricting as signing up for a short shot of fame on a television singing competition?

When first arriving at EMI Music from UMG, we were presented with a new record by a Danish band I had never heard of, but was told they were hugely popular in the region. To cut a long story short, the record was warmed-over Eagles sung in “Danglish”. It didn’t exactly knock me out, and the only proviso for a release was that they record a Mandarin song in English- or “Danglish”- that was a huge hit for a Chinese artist. They recorded the track, it became their biggest seller ever, they’re still touring on the back of it, and the question is this: Did this make me an “A&R” person?

Am I an “A&R” person today if I suggest handclaps be added to a track or backing vocals or suggest brushes instead of sticks and getting rid of everything except the bass and bass drum?

Many of us are in the music business because of the music. We love everything about it. Music is our best friend, wife, lover and our life. We are ALL “A&R” people in all its many guises and disguises. We just don’t have the portfolio or “back catalogue” of hits (and misses) to be in these exalted positions of power with the majors that gives us the opportunity to be seen and heard and to be quoted pontificating about numbers, data, quarterly figures and everyone who passed on signing up Ed Sheeran. On that subject, let’s never forget the poor sods at Decca Records who turned down the Beatles as “guitar bands were on the way out” and signed Brian Poole and the Tremeloes instead.

The problem is that the music business has done a remarkable job of complicating things so much that it’s painted itself into a corner and is unable to move because of the clutter that surrounds it. Add A&R to this ice bucket challenge of clutter along with all those junior executives who asked for and were given “Vice President” titles. Music companies are extremely generous when feeding their own internal forty thousand.

Despite finance guys aka bean counters running many of the majors, the division of cash flow seems to veer away from the artists, ironically, the talent that keeps the music business in business and pays for the exorbitant packages paid to those many know to be totally ineffective. Yet, there they are, year after year, keeping their heads down and waiting for their golden parachutes to open so they can bail.

The music business today is about keeping up false pretences, and where mediocrity is rewarded and elevated to obscene levels of importance by a fawning music media often showing signs of being ageing groupies too intimidated or in awe to ask the tough questions and return music to those who create and own it. Way too often, the tail is wagging the dog- and the dog is often a mutt with no direction of home and very little to do with music and musicians calling the shots.

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