So, you want a record deal? Why is it so hard to get an A&R person to listen to your music, let alone sign you? In the not-to-distant past, A&R folks would actively seek out music that “spoke to them” as fresh and marketable and “the next big thing.” However, 99 times out of 100, a prospective artist was likely to be told by the A&R “I don’t hear a hit,” which for an artist pretty much has the same emotional impact as being told you’re terminally ill. The arduous process of attempting to entice an A&R to sign an artist was fraught with uncertainty because the taste and perspective of the individual A&R person is highly subjective, and influenced by their own ego and insecurities.
My favorite A&R joke is “how many A&R guys does it take to screw in a light bulb?” … “I don’t know, what do YOU think?” To get the joke you have to understand the prevailing A&R mentality. Nobody in A&R wants to miss out on an artist that is going to skyrocket to success. But they also don’t want to stake their career and reputation on an artist and have them fail miserably. The problem is that, while some A&R people have consistently done well in choosing talent and are lauded as having “golden ears,” it is equally likely that they have just been really lucky (although a select few really do have golden ears). It is almost impossible to predict the success of an artist based solely on their music and their live performance, which before the Internet was about all an A&R person had to go on. This uncertainty breeds insecurity in A&R people. I have literally seen an A&R guy pass on an act and then turn around and fight like crazy to sign them as soon as they found out two other labels were interested (hence the punchline of the joke above). Nobody’s interested until somebody’s interested and then everybody’s interested.
A&R people operate from a position of fear. It’s far easier for them to say “no” than “yes.” When they say “no” they risk nothing. But when they say “yes” they put their reputation on the line with the label for whom they work, and that’s scary. Even more so because even when the A&R says “yes” it doesn’t mean you’re getting signed. Most of the time that is just the beginning, and the A&R has to go to bat for the artist and convince the label to let them sign the artist. A few failures and they lose their job, which is why most A&R departments have a revolving door. And think of the pressure on the A&R people. You can’t say “no” forever while you’re collecting a salary from the label. Eventually you have to sign someone, and it better turn out well.
The digital age changed A&R forever. The barriers to entry to the music business were removed and now any kid with some skills and a Pro Tools rig can make state-of-the-art music in his bedroom. With a few clicks, that music can be distributed to Spotify, Pandora, iTunes, YouTube, etc., and marketed on every social media platform. And there are a million music business resources available to artists. A savvy artist can buy a directory of music blogs and pitch their music to the appropriate bloggers, and if a prominent blogger reviews an artist’s music, it can lead to having their song added to a major playlist, driving up the popularity of the song.
In all of this is a ton of data. Once the A&R population figured out that they could objectively measure an unsigned artist’s popularity by looking at their social media and Spotify metrics and use it as a proxy for their likelihood of success, they didn’t have to rely entirely on their ears or their gut. So now it’s less a question of whether the A&R person likes what they hear and more a question of how many streams an artist has on YouTube and Spotify.
Does this mean the human element has been diminished in determining what artists get offered major label deals? Is it just about numbers and not true curation of music by the labels via-a-vis their tastemakers in the A&R department? Well … yes and no. The A&R system has for the most part been turned on its head. Consumers are now the ones collectively performing the A&R function by organically raising certain artists to the level where the A&R people at the labels take notice of their numbers. Artists are proving their ability to be successful before getting signed (which begs the question of whether they even want or need a major label – but that’s for another article). A&R people are now relegated to the role of researchers, looking not for great music, but for great numbers. Unfortunately, as HL Mencken said, "nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public.” When A&R people who love, appreciate and understand music determine what people hear it elevates society’s collective musical taste. When society collectively determines what labels release and promote it drags musical taste down to the lowest common denominator. Granted, there are still some excellent A&R people who really have an ear for talent and who listen first and look at the numbers second, but I fear they are a dying breed.