“A&R is the dark arts of record making — there’s no rule book, no formula, just experience,” offered Ron Fair of Ron Fair Music/Frontline Management during Tuesday’s Music X-Ray panel. With the industry in flux, the panel brought together label owners and executives from both sides of the major-indie fence to discuss the changing role of A&R, how new revenue streams and business models are changing the way labels go about finding, signing and promoting bands, and the differences between the viewpoints of major and independent labels now and in the future.
These days, artists need to “stop trying to get a record deal,” said Universal Republic co-president Avery Lipman, who runs the company with his brother and co-panelist Monte Lipman. “They need to try to get popular, and try to create passion,” which may manifest itself in social media presence or, more concretely, having a line around the block for a show at a club. That line, Lipman explained, was part of what led him to sign Godsmack to a record deal in the 1990s, after a club in Worcestor, MA was so overwhelmed by ticket demand that he couldn’t even get in to the show. As fans helped target A&R then, their role has, if anything, increased in the intervening years.
“In a lot of ways, A&R is more crowd-sourced now,” said Darius Van Arman, co-owner of indie triumvirate Dead Oceans/JagJaguwar/Secretly Canadian, which counts Bon Iver and Sharon van Etten amongst its success stories. “Artists are building their own audiences, so sometimes it’s okay to have the fans find an artist for you.”
But having a massive following, especially across social media platforms or on a service like YouTube, is not the only indicator of future success. “Just because somebody is talented and on YouTube, that doesn’t mean they can sell records,” said RCA president/CEO Peter Edge, while Avery Lipman agreed that making the leap from YouTube success to “legitimate” success was pretty rare.
“Ultimately, you need an original song that resonates,” he said.
‘Unique’ was also a word that came up often amongst the panelists. “There was an old baseball player — Wee Willie Keeler — who used to say, ‘I hit ’em where they ain’t,'” said S-Curve founder/CEO Steve Greenberg, whose A&R credentials include signing Hanson, Joss Stone and the Jonas Brothers. “We think, ‘what would people like that they haven’t heard yet?'”
“For us, it starts with whether we enjoy what we’re hearing, is it compelling, does it make a good story,” said Van Arman, who stressed the concepts of curation, cultural contribution, and artist relationships over moving records and making fistfuls of dollars. Downtown Records’ Josh Deutsch, who had previously spent a significant amount of time at Atlantic Records with co-panelist Crag Kallman before leaving to go the independent route five years ago, was able to break down much of the difference between indie and major label A&R.
Continue reading the rest of the story on Billboard