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Saturday
May022009

Is A&R Still Necessary In Today's Music Industry?

Written By: Jim Markunas
Photo Credit: Ryan McVay

In the olden days, A&R was king in the music industry. Young, hip guys in street clothes found the latest “big thing” in music. The A&R rep romanced said band, persuaded them to sign an exclusive contract (which still exists today), hand-picked tracks for placement on albums released by said band, and more importantly selected which tracks from the album were to be the “singles.”

Said band’s “singles” went on to get major radio play, the radio play led to press coverage and both the press coverage and radio play led to said band’s albums selling off the shelves. It was a GREAT thing to have competent A&R reps with a “good ear” back in the hay days of the music biz when music was an art form above all else.

Then… CD burners happened… Then… Napster happened… Then… CD Baby happened. Nowadays, any band in existence can get their own high-level distribution deal for a mere $30. That’s right, for $30, any band with songs committed to record can have their tracks and albums available everywhere from iTunes to Wal-Mart.com. In addition, consumers can get any song in existence for free on the internet.

The above set of phenomenon has led to the over-saturation and overt over-commercialism of music. Music, although still an art form is now more than ever a commodity; much like burnable DVDs and tulips.

This begs the question, “Is A&R still necessary in today’s music industry?”

Before answering this dire rhetorical question, take into account the following factors:

1. A&R used to be about finding a great artist and picking great singles to drive record sales. Nowadays, records don’t sell; it’s now possible to have a No. 1 radio hit and a corresponding LP that sells a mere 35,000 copies. (Somewhere around 500,000 units is usually the break-even point for most standard recording agreements.)

2. Quality of songs were king and were the driving force behind record sales. Today, quantity of songs are king in the minds of consumers.

3. There were no shortage of bands chomping at the bit to be signed to a major label to be used as necessary. Here and now, bands like Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and Arcade Fire can sell out arenas and pressings of albums without the help of a major label. There’s a famous industry anecdote in which CYHSY had meetings with several major labels and flatly refused to sign their contracts as the band felt the majors couldn’t do anything for them that they hadn’t already done for themselves - Prior to 2004 this was unheard of!

4. A&R reps were gate-keepers and taste-makers who filtered out the crap. Nowadays, consumers perform that very function on their own via Pirate Bay, Limewire and Myspace.

5. Quality of indie bands have increased, and industry standard sound quality of recorded music has decreased. Back in the day, not many bands could afford to spend $1,000 an hour on studio time, and no one had even heard of the iPod. Today, bands can record their own songs on Pro-Tools in their basements, and the iTunes generation is used to poor sound quality. (The MP3 is not nearly as rich as CD audio or even Vinyl, but kids and adults alike LOVE their iPods that contain low-quality MP4 files from the iTunes store.)

In the future, will labels be as willing to pay high A&R and artist advances? I can’t say for sure. But… I can say that marketing and new media will always be necessary. In the near future, A&R as a whole may take a back seat as “eye-balls” and volumes of demographic information become the new king of the music industry.

Jim Markunas is a music industry futurist and editor-in-chief of Chicks With Guns Magazine. Jim has a decade of new media and music industry experience, he’s run highly successful new media campaigns and has worked with James Brown, Miles Davis, The Walt Disney Company, Truckee Brothers, Mick Fleetwood, and Minty Fresh Records. Currently Jim’s focus is monetization strategies for record labels and digital business development.

Find Jim Online: Twitter - Linkedin - Facebook - Website - E-mail Jim

Reader Comments (22)

A+R is still very crucial, in fact more important than ever with so many artists putting out so much music. Artists are releasing music that a sensitive outside ear might be able to help them develop - looking for ways to encourage and nurture the creative process. Songwriting, lyric writing and arranging at the highest level can take many years to develop in an artist. A+R can often help budding writers and even established superstars re-approach song concepts, chord changes, point of view, instrumentation etc., in a way that a band member might not be able to. A+R is a sophisticated art form in itself that is often
greatly misunderstood by even industry insiders.

I agree with what Chris said above. A&R is still needed and very important. I think A&R, management, and production has consolidated. There has always been a significant amount of overlap within these jobs, and with the changes that you mention in this post, this overlap consolidates even more.

A&R men and women, managers, and producers have always been a part of the team that helps artists develop their identity and vision. I think we will see this trajectory continue and narrow. The scouting part of A&R might not be as much of a focus as it once was, but the song selection aspect of it is still very much relevant. Just like a book author needs an objective set of eyes to edit the book, performing and recording artists need an objective set of ears to help them "edit" their music.

May 1 | Unregistered Commenterstinson

Great Article! Internal A&R at labels is becoming more relevant, but management and producers are becoming less and less. The whole set up is too heavy at the top. If artist can't make a living doing it, how do we expect managers and producers too. Positions have to be eliminated. The label taking on more management responisbility and the artist taking on more producing responsibility seems to be a good balance in some ways. Or the artist could just contract people and do it all themselves. As far as artist advances and paying outside A&R, why would a label continue to do it?

May 1 | Unregistered CommenterJosh

2. Sounds like it is a good point for you that quantity comes first !! Are we talking about music or hamburgers ?

5.I Agree and don't agree at the same time. It is true that you do not hear anymore disastrous demos nowadays, and this is great benefit for all. But then, is it still possible to record a great album if you do not have money to pay a good sound engineer, to rent a good & comfortable studio with enough time for musicians to make their ideas come true ?
I mean, of course the quality of the songs comes first, but what about the environment of the artist that brings quality ?

I am sure that a lot a major artists would have not been able to achieve major albums without the help of A&R.

May 2 | Unregistered CommenterMatthieu

Chris J. - that's a very musical and interesting definition of A&R. At a practical level, then, isn't that role you're describing get fulfilled by a talented producer as well? You make the two sound interchangeable.

Of course, in hip hop the line has been blurred to the point where kids who make beats with a computer call themselves "producers" when they can't engineer a session, mix a project, master an album, etc. (Then again, the bloat of the rock industry created a lot of "producers" who did nothing but pay bills and make phone calls.)

Maybe we just need to discard overlapping, antiquated labels, no? All artists need an A

&R/Producer/Manager/Executive Visionary.

hi, 1st timer...

wasn't the A&R concept created to bring together all the non-writing performers with song writers?

so, yes and no to the post's Q

most performers now-a-days write their own material, but for those who don't there's A&R (like the "idols". LOL)

I don't agree with the post entirely, and although i think you will have a point perhaps in 2025, we're a long way from this yet, plus there's a few glaring inaccuracies here.
First and foremost, the one that made me sit up was the idea that 500,000 records is the break even point for most recording artists. This is total nonsense. For example, for most artists on the beggars group (an indie, with major power) 20,000 is break even point. So in otherwords, about twenty times less than you've said. And seeing as the beggars group includes radiohead, beck, white stripes, dizee rascal, arcade fire, vampire weekend etc. etc. you're point is factually inaccurate.
This is expecially the case considering you're referencing indie bands on this. In the UK where i'm from, recording contracts for over £100k are very rare now and thus that break even point is way lower than ever. 500,000 is probably still the case for a few pop acts, but pop acts still need radio / mtv etc. so it's a totally different world. Beyonce could never have existed with cd baby, tunecore and myspace, and the function a major label a & r department provides there is still really useful. If only in providing the telephone number of timbaland, and the cheque book for marketing.
You are describing a future of music undoubtedly, and the way music is heading perhaps, but it's nowhere near there. Years and years away infact. And i think you need to perhaps re research your stats on what's going on today in the music industry...

May 4 | Unregistered Commentermark

I think Jim brings up some interesting points about A&R and it's future. A&R still has a role in turning good artists into something greater. The industry is in a interesting time where consumers have more power in deciding what they want to hear and how. I do wonder how labels are structuring themselves in this changing climate and how tradition music jobs will evolve.

May 4 | Unregistered CommenterVictoria

Jim's article made me realize how much the music business has become like the writing business. The successful writer or musician is going to be the one who can find an agent/manager who can think outside the traditional boxes and find new ways to promote. Creating something good isn;t enough in the new marketplace. The times are changing fast, and artists need a rep who's ahead of the curve and not still thinking abut what's worked in the past.

May 4 | Unregistered CommenterGarry

Great article. Aprecitate the logic behind it.

May 4 | Unregistered CommenterJerome

Quite interesting edge but I have a feeling that this article speak more about talent scouts, studio owners and radio programmer than A&Rs.

A good label A&R used to be involved in various actions such as:
-Buy/Sell music catalog
-Assist an artist to produce content and help him to reach his vision
-Produce/manage an act from good to great or from band to brand
-Brand strategy
and so on ...

A&R positions were probably the first jobs cut-off the industry made 6-7 years ago. but the need for those skills is still there. And its something you can't outsource in india and can't duplicate.
Proof is you can already find A&R people today, working directly with artist and management, brands agencies, online music companie, running great indie labels etc ...

-

May 4 | Unregistered CommenterOlivier

I was just reading Forbes' list of The 10 Top-Earning Country Music Stars and I'm thinking they all have pretty substantial A&R budgets! (even if smaller than they were 7 years ago.)

May 4 | Unregistered CommenterSuperfly

Since the 80s, the job of A&Rs has been to stay in touch with local music stores and identify local artists that would sell 30K+ CDs. The myth of the talent scout signing a local singer after seeing them perform in a bar is long time gone. So now that CD sales are falling and that there are less music stores still in business (not to mention local music stores), A&Rs have no choice but to turn to the web to discover new talents (youtube for music videos, myspace for music in general, goldmic for hip hop, etc...). The scouting part of A&R has just moved from brick and mortar to online, yet there is still a need for seasoned music execs who have a good ear and can identify trends.

May 6 | Unregistered CommenterXavier

A&R is still relevant, its a skill that cant be taught. A&Rs cultivate talent, someone needs to be the cool guy in the room with great taste.

But there are two issues that have totally screwed the game up:

1. Commerce cannot control creativity. Creativity isn't spawned out of a "bottom line", the bean counters only want certain acts because they believe thats where the money is. Wrong!!

2. Many A&R people aren't qualified for their positions. These guys cant pick worthy talent, they pass on so many great acts to sign total trash.

The consumer no longer trusts the music brands/ labels hence the break down of the system. Give people substance they'll pay for it, give them 10 - 12 reasons to buy. A&Rs can make this dream come true.


CAS

May 8 | Unregistered CommenterCAS

To an extent I agree they handle lots of functions within labels, the job can be combined with other jobs at the label. Some of the comments have spoke about there being a lack of talent; which is untrue talent is what is in the eye of the beholder I could call something you thinks is a masterpiece utterly complete s**t so there is not a lack of talent its just that there is no talent to your liking.

May 8 | Unregistered CommenterQue

I take issue with a few of the arguments made here, but one thing is clear - A&R won't be what it has been in the future. My producer clients are doing more and more A&R - finding and developing talent, and they are often the best suited to do so because they create hits.

Let's not kid ourselves - quality of music and content is absolutely still of paramount importance. In fact, this quality is what rises above the noise (e.g., the OK Go treadmill video that, without a label's push, drove the band to success). I don't care about how many songs I have on my iPod, I only care about how many GOOD songs I have, and I think many consumers are the same. For that reason, people crave artists that have found their "unique genius" and have something quality to offer.

May 9 | Registered CommenterEric Galen

Like the elderly guitarist pictured, there is little chance that any A&R rep would have considered me for a record deal. Still, with changes to the music industry I can get my music heard. MySpace and other websites provide a way for musicians to become known without having a record company's marketing budget behind them. I may never earn a living from music, but if my music can have meaning for someone through then internet, that is better than just playing locally.

September 4 | Unregistered CommenterPaul McFarland

This is great article.The label taking on more management responsibility and the artist taking on more producing responsibility seems to be a good balance in some ways

May 28 | Unregistered Commentergrow taller

A very well written post about need of A&R in modern music. This will really helpful for musicians and music Recording Companies....
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October 16 | Registered CommenterDavid D

No mater what the music industry goes through in changes, as an artist, you might have only two important things to focus on. That is to touch someone with your music and/or communicate something very socially profound. Anyone standing in the way must be excused. That would include gatekeepers, corporation or industry workers not subordinate exclusively to the artist at will. Artists get your priorities strait. You choose your team mates. Not the other way around.

There are too many people calling themselves "artists", "producers", "engineers" and "A&R" who have no business calling themselves that. These are times of great opportunity for the Artist. Where there's opportunity for the Artist, there will be opportunity for support rolls.

Thanks for the reality check.

August 1 | Unregistered CommenterPeter

Any writer or performer that doesn't know someone in the business is out of luck---without IPods, UTubes etc. A&Rs are hard to find anymore in small town USA. Only in the big cities!! I might have the biggest hit ever for the whole country to love and not have it heard by anyone---except my family and friends. I think A&R isn't a dying profession, but one that maybe---should have a new name!!
J.A.K

January 13 | Unregistered CommenterJAK

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