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.