Ask the… A&R
Regular readers will be aware that a few posts ago I asked you to send me in any questions you’ve ever wanted to ask the A&R of the major label world as I had three plucky volunteers who were willing to bare all (albeit anonymously) to help you in your quest to make a living from music.
Two major label A&R Scouts and one Publishing major A&R scout were kind enough to take part so thank you to the gentlemen in question who I’ve no doubt shall glance at this post when it’s uploaded.
I offered the scouts anonymity as I wanted their answers to be as honest as possible. A few of their statements may well and truly annoy the core readership of this blog, but alas poor Yoric, sometimes the truth hurts and the sooner you can take their advice on board the sooner you might be living that ever more elusive dream of yours: a house in Beverley Hills, the signature Gibson Les Paul, the on/off relationship with a miscellaneous girl group member and of course, a whole melange of crippling addictions.
So here are the questions, followed by the answers and a couple of humble musings from myself. (Please note, very little editing has been applied to their answers; just the odd spelling and grammatical bits and bobs)
Numbers: 1 = Major Label A&R, 2 = Major Publisher A&R, 3= Major Label A&R, 4 = Me.
• What do you look for in a demo?
1. This is an interesting question. Most of the demos I get are ones I’ve asked the artist to send; therefore at least I already like something about the act. In terms of unsolicited material, in all honesty it’s very rare that it will even reach us, and if it does it will most probably go un-listened. A large percentage of my week is taken up listening to things I’ve found through reliable sources around the country, therefore ‘getting in’ with good people in your local area is much more valuable than sending a s**t load of jiffy bags to record labels!
2. Something exceptional, or with the potential to be exceptional. When you’re signing an artist you want them to be exceptional in every way or have the potential to be, but a demo could be a great vocal, song or sound. From that point you can then see a gig or meet them to see what else they’ve got.
3. Big fat hooks. Songs are the only thing that really matter. Without commercial songs, then there’s no reason for a major label to get involved.
4. Some interesting answers here – our first chap took a different angle to the question than I initially intended but never the less gave some extremely good advice. How often have you sent demos to labels (either Indie of Major), publishers (again, Indie or Major), management companies, booking agents, promoters etc to never receive a reply in return? If you sent out a hundred; how many replies would you perceive as a ‘success’? 10? 5? 1?! I’d argue that every single one of them CD’s should have been given to someone who actually wanted to listen to them. Fans at shows, friends on myspace, followers on Twitter etc. Tips fly around the industry daily and 99% of the time they originate from a grassroots level; studio workers, local promoters, local music bloggers/press etc. Be bloody nice to these people as they’re the ones in contact with A&R and they’re the ones most likely to give you a nod the next time they’re asked for a tip.
The second answer is to be expected: of course they’re looking for something exceptional as no one is going to take a punt on something average. I pretty much guarantee that every artist reading this will have commented (either aloud or in their thoughts) on an artist in the charts; “How did they get signed? My music’s much better!” and although that may be true in certain aspects, have another look at the artist you’ve just criticised because they have something about their music which has spurned someone to throw cash at them. When you can start seeing something exceptional in every popular artist then you can begin to look at your music in a far more objective manner.
The third answer is rather honest; if you can’t imagine your music on Radio 1 or Radio 2’s playlist then arguably a major isn’t for you. They want hits and a niche act isn’t going to sell hundreds of thousands of units.
• Does the quality of my recording matter?
1. A shit recording is a shit recording, but at the end of the day if it’s a good song it will shine through. The quality of the recording shouldn’t really matter, although a better recording would be preferred (though I wouldn’t say essential). More developed ideas and a detailed look at the ‘production’ would also be nice. Arrangement is always something to look at I.E 8 minute tunes are a bit of a turn off… unless it’s f*****’ mint!
2. It obviously needs to show you off as best as possible. at the very least the song and quality of voice, but if the demo isn’t of a great quality production wise you’d hope the artist has an idea on the production and sound of the album they want to make.
3. On the whole it should be the best it can be. The best you can make it with the resources available to you. You want to make a good impression. Of course if it’s a production led project than it’s more important than for an indie band for example.
4. Ergo – it doesn’t really matter that much. They’re looking for ideas, for structure and for potential. If they like your songs they’ll find you, watch you live and if they’re impressed by that probably have a chat with you about production and various other things.
• Do you still want CD demos or are MP3s better?
1. Both have advantages and disadvantages, I’m indifferent really. An MP3 is better for ease, although it can clog up your inbox resulting in it either bouncing back or getting deleted to free up space. A simple MySpace link is sometimes better than both!
2. Any – Mp3s, CDs, MySpace links.
3. CD’s addressed to me. MP3s just sent at random to me clog my inbox. 4. In my experience most A&R aren’t fussed about how they come across music. As MP3’s can by quite space heavy then a link to a site where they can download a song may be a good idea as well as a link to where they can stream it. If they love the track they’ll no doubt get in touch for a copy.
• Is it true that you guys won’t listen to a track if it hasn’t got your attention after 30 seconds?
1. I wouldn’t say it’s entirely true, but you can usually tell after about 30 seconds where a song is showing any promise, or whether it’s gonna stay along those ‘steaming pile of s**t’ lines…
2. No, but there’s only so many hours in the day so if there’s nothing exciting in the first 30 seconds of a song then you might ask questions about arrangement.
3. Try and think of a great pop song that didn’t get your attention within 30 seconds. You’re ultimately trying to get people to buy your music; A&R guys are just trying to put themselves in the shoes of the public. If it does nothing within 30 seconds, what impression is it going to make coming out of a radio in the background of someone’s morning, or behind someone’s conversation?
4. I think it’s pretty safe to say I’d save the lengthy intros for the album.
• How much do trends effect your decision in signing artists?
1. You do have to keep in mind what is commercial, and what is right for the market place, but once you start looking to jump on a trend is when you’ve already missed it… New, innovative and interesting bands/artists/music is always much more inspiring for me!
2. You need to be aware of what trends media are focused on but a genuinely incredible artist will work regardless of what trends are occurring.
3. Probably more than most A&R guys will admit to, but then again artists with a ‘current’ sound have been the cornerstone of major label signings since the industry began. It’s just the way fashion dictates commerce of any kind. I’m not going to sign someone who sounds like Louis Prima today, but in 1955 it would have been a decent decision.
4. I partly agree with the statement number 1 gives regarding “once you start looking to jump on a trend is when you’ve already missed it” but that sounds like an A&R man who wants to be the forefront of a movement. Four years ago it would have been lovely to sign the Arctic Monkeys, but someone still signed Little Man Tate afterwards. Copycat artists are abundant in the industry and are to be expected whenever a truly inspiring band is broken (I should say that although I refer to these acts as ‘copycat’ I’m not accusing them of plagiarism in the slightest as often they may have been around longer than the act that breaks the genre, it’s just the term that is used). Answer number three is honest and rightly so; trends do indeed dictate commerce and the music business is just that – a business.
• Do artists ever get signed from sending in demo’s? Or will the A&R always find the artist via their own means?
1. I can’t say that this has never happened, but it would be very, very, very rare for this to happen now. I’d always prefer to find something by my own means, although if we didn’t get any demos sent into the office we probably wouldn’t have anything to laugh about!
2. It does happen occasionally, but usually it’s via your own means.
3. I believe that talent bubbles up and rises to the surface wherever it exists. Whether it’s a music teacher, or a booker at the local pub, or a mate etc there tends to be someone who can pass on the word of a good artist. Steve Winwood was a 15 year old in Birmingham when he began in Spencer Davis Group, but word started to get out about this kid with an amazing voice and people started taking notice. The likelihood that a great artist is first heard by an A&R guy from a demo tape before they’ve already passed in front of some other 3rd party is slim, so while it’s not unfeasible that someone could be signed from a unsolicited demo its far more productive for me to be in touch with someone who can aggregate artists in early development, whether that’s a regional scout, promoter, music college rep, or just a punter commenting on a blogs.
4. All three answers echo my comments on the first question, it’s the people within your local music scene that are the ones you should be buying beers for. Are you that group who never Kit Shares? That guitarist who never brings his own amp because it’s ‘vintage’? That 4 piece who never do any gig promotion ‘because that’s the promoter’s job’? Then welcome to mediocrity my friends. Just play nice eh?
• How important are playing industry showcases like In The City and The Great Escape?
1. I would say they’re becoming less and less important. The Great Escape is different; I feel it’s much more geared and aimed towards the punter rather than A&R. In The City for example, has now become a festival for the buzz bands rather than an opportunity to discover great new bands. I won’t advise people to play them, even if you are great and unknown; you’re a very small fish in what is generally a massive pool of utter shit! Don’t ever pay to play a slot at a festival like this!!! The demise in festivals like this is only a result in the way the industry is moving. Bands are generally being discovered a lot earlier!
2. It’s not essential to play them by any means but If you’re an exceptional artist, ready to get signed and with a bit of buzz (whether industry, media or from live gigs) then they can be a great opportunity. But if you’re not ready and play a bad gig it can be a bit of a setback. I think Great Escape is good for overseas bands who have usually spent more time developing/gigging and get to play a few shows to labels and media.
3. They’re a good opportunity for A&R to tick a large number of acts off in a short space of time and catch up with each other. In terms of finding brand new things they’re not great. Playing them can be a great way to get in front of a large crowd of industry; but that can be both a blessing and a curse.
4. Mixed feelings towards industry showcases then – the one bit of advice you should take for gospel is in answer one; NEVER pay for a slot. It’s ridiculous they even get away with it in my opinion. Another good bit of advice can be found in answer two; if you’re not ready then don’t accept a slot. I know it’s exciting and all that but a bad gig can set you back a number of years rather than refusing one year, getting a hell of a lot tighter and then playing the next year where you’ll actually turn heads.
• Do you feel your job is becoming slowly redundant due to changing technology and whatnot?
1. I hope not… I don’t think so. I’d like to think they’ll always be a need for people to A&R records. A good A&R person is just as valuable as any artists! And in a very crude sense provide quality control to the music that is put out there. Then again it depends what technology you mean?
2. I hope not! People still want to hear great music, technology has changed the industry but if you’re doing your job well it’s more the distribution and way the public discover music that’s changed. I think there’s still a need for people who can help support and develop artists.
3. If there’s money still to be made out of music, people will still want to invest in it, and while they do there will always be a role for the talent scout and developer of talent.
4. I’d suggest answer three sums this up rather fantastically and answer two I agree with in terms of its more then way people discover music that has been affected by new technology.
• If you were an artist; would you sign to a major label?
1. Depending on the artist, and what we’d be looking to achieve, Yes! It also would depend on which major label… Someone else in the industry once said to me “A lot of A&R people are very apologetic about being/working at major labels. They should just think “f**k it, we’re the biggest label in the world, and we can do this, this and this for you…” It’s true, major labels might not be able to provide the same sense of delicacy to a release that a twee indie can, but they can still break records for fun if the raw product is there! And with the right A&R could easily release ‘indie’ records eg Fleet Foxes. They’re just not really geared towards doing the hard, slog/ground work that leads to low level sales.
2. If it’s the right people involved and they share the artist’s vision then major labels can still be very effective.
3. No one spends money chasing a success like a major record company. If you think you are an artist with true mainstream potential, then I don’t think there is a better place to be. If you’re niche, then stick to a friendlier deal at an indie.
4. All fair answers here in my opinion. Depending on genre, market, if you ‘get on’ with the people who would be shifting your material and various other variables then there is no ‘right or wrong’ in terms of if you should be go with an indie or a major, or indeed go it alone.
• Have there been any immediate effects on you due to the current economic climate?
1. Not really. It just makes finding good, new stuff all the more important.
2. Not yet, but I’m sure it’ll impact in the next 12months
3. Sales are down, so our remit has been squeezed a bit. A left field act that might have sold 100k in the UK at the start of the millennium and wiped its own face financially is now selling a fraction of that and not worth being in business with. Majors naturally have to look more at the mainstream, which I think will ultimately lead to us missing out more and more on the freak one off act that starts leftfield and moves mainstream to smash.
4. One says no, one says not yet and one says yes. There is nothing like consistency eh? From my experience the old recession appears to be taking its toll on advances and majors being less keen on taking a punt on new acts. They’d rather hold on for that extra six months till the band proves itself by attaining a stronger fanbase and then pay them a bigger advance. Granted they’re narrowing the risk but they’re also potentially missing out on those leftfield acts that answer three mentions that when they go huge, they make most money on.
• Any other general advice?
1. Be in a band because you love playing in a band with your mates, not to be famous. If you get focused on the end goal you can easily lose sight on what’s important, and that is writing great songs! If this get’s lost you’ll just turn into a bitter c**t!
2. The most important thing is the songs and quality of the artist. After that it’s about surrounding yourself with a team of good people that you trust, working hard and getting a bit of luck along the way.
3. Work hard on the music, everything else is peripheral.
4. I’ve lost count the number of blogs I’ve posted which after numerous thousands of words of advice end with “but all that doesn’t really matter as long as you write good songs”. This blog, and indeed all the other bits of advice I’ve written throughout the years are only to help get you noticed amongst the sea of other artists out there: Write, write and write some more. And once you’ve done that practice, practice and practice some more. Then maybe write a bit more after that. But be sure to practice what you’ve written. You get the idea.
So the three main bits of advice to be taken from this?
i) Conquer your home town – it’s the locals that will tell the A&R about your music so make sure you play your local area (and I don’t just mean your village/city, I mean an area like ‘The North West’) often, be nice and treat everyone with respect regardless if they’re a muppet or if they support your rival football team. It goes a long way.
ii) Supply to demand – Anyone who you think of sending an unsolicited demo to probably doesn’t want it so distribute your music to those who actually do until those you originally wanted to hear it come to you.
iii) Do it for the music – As someone-that-a-Google-search-couldn’t-find rightly said; “if you want to be famous, kill a celebrity”. Write music because you love music. Sounds almost insultingly simple to say but it’s good to remind ourselves of the basics now and again…
What I’m reading This Week: Black Swan Green by David Mitchell (not the Peep Show guy, the author)