A&R Today (An Aussie Overview)

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Twist and Scout: A&R, Shake It Up, Baby

by Lars Brandle 03/29/11The MusicNetwork.com

Who would be an A&R? It’s the paratrooper-club of the music business; late nights and big risks. A great record doesn’t guarantee success or future employment. A&R isn’t a gig for the faint-hearted.

Times have changed since the A&R was lumped with the nickname “Umm and Ahhh”; when the job description fitted a music man with a sizeable chequebook, who could trawl Myspace and sometimes pick a hit at a distance.

The goal posts have been moved. Today’s A&R must operate with some serious business acumen and a strong grasp of digital marketing, and within the restraints of a tighter budget. An A&R’s vision for an act should extend past five years.

British broadsheet The Guardian recently questioned the role of an A&R. “Is A&R dead?” was the bleak, three-word introduction. The prognosis is, well, no, not exactly. But the face of A&R is changing at a rapid pace. “Today’s A&R are expected to be entrepreneurs, producers, salesmen, marketers, babysitters, tech-wizzes, and hit-makers,” notes Michael Taylor GM, A&R and Head of Island Records Australia. These days, “good ears” alone won’t cut it.

How did we come to this? Technology and market forces are playing a critical part. As the record industry contracts, the A&R job specs have expanded and their chances of landing the big money-spinning hits have lessened. And with the rise of TV talent shows, anyone with a remote control, a cell phone or a broadband connection has become a talent-scout. The Guardian argued that the Pop Idol effect had helped strip the soul away from the process of finding and launching new artists. “These days,” the article claims, “major labels increasingly demand that artists already have a ‘momentum’ going before they get involved.”

On balance, there’s always a good-luck story to pursue. None come any grander than the extraordinary rise of Adele, the British songstress who emerged from Richard Russell’s independent XL label to create chart history this year when she simultaneously landed two records in the UK singles and albums charts, a feat last achieved in the ‘60s by a band called The Beatles. Perhaps the story of Angus & Julia Stone draws favourable comparison to the South Londoner, but no-one from these parts is threatening to break the Fab Four’s achievements.

The role of A&R has been forced to change, and recent developments Down Under drive home the point. Late last year, Scott Horscroft joined EMI Music Australia, succeeding Craig Hawker as VP of A&R; earlier in 2011, Heath Bradby joined Warner Music Australia as head of A&R, in what CEO Tony Harlow declared as a “new era” for the company. With these new appointments, the A&R departments of two of the four major music companies Down Under are now helmed by execs from outside the traditional A&R sphere. Horscroft built his formidable reputation as a producer and engineer, while Bradby has advanced the careers of Karnivool, Drapht, Jebediah and others from the perspective of artist management.

“That’s a really smart move for both companies,” notes Michael Parisi, the former President of A&R at Warner Music Australasia who is now running his own music company, Michael Parisi Management. “Horscroft is an award winning producer. He’s a crazy but loveable son-of-a-bitch and his views on music would greatly differ from those of us who don’t twiddle knobs. Heath comes from a successful management background so he’s obviously going to be able to provide a whole new holistic view to the game.”

Parisi wants to see even more change in the game. “We should be encouraging more girls into A&R,” he notes. “They see things differently. They aren’t bulls in a paddock and, in my experience, they tend to be more objective and less bitchy.” Essentially, the A&R – or Artist and Repertoire in longhand – is the executive that operates in the space between the artist and the label. With a budget and vision of label’s artistic needs, the A&R is tasked with identifying the talent, and overseeing their development. “Generally in A&R, we tend to second guess the market,” quips Parisi. “And every now and then, we luck out.” In light of a precipitous drop in the Australian record market (nearly 14% wiped away in the value of the business in 2010, according to ARIA) today’s A&R will need all the luck they can get.

With the hurt ongoing within the record business, the scope for artist development has diminished. Many A&Rs are typically more cautious during this down-cycle – certainly within the major label organisations – and they’re taking less risks. The days of an artist breaking with their third album are long gone. “The current trend I’m seeing with many A&Rs is to rely more on the acquisition route rather than development style of signings,” explains Taylor. “We’ll continue to see that trend dominate during this recorded music sales decline. When the business finds its feet again, we’ll see A&R go back to a more even balance of both acquiring and developing.”

Non-traditional A&R hires are nothing new. Jerry Wexler, a former Billboard journalist who produced Aretha Franklin to Bob Dylan, was a legendary A&R at Atlantic where he signed Led Zeppelin. Today, Rob Cavallo, who has produced Green Day to My Chemical Romance, runs Warner Bros. And former Sony Music CEO Tommy Mottola was first a manager for Hall & Oates.

On the recruitment of Horscroft and Bradby, Taylor remarks, “It’s not about an injection of new blood, rather, it’s about talented and skilled blood. Both are proven talent-spotters, who know how to develop artists and guide hit records.”

The pair’s respective challenges will be “figuring out how to do what they do best, but now within the structure of a major label, where the markers of success are vastly different. That takes time and has a learning curve.”

Ask an A&R their thoughts on the direction of popular taste, and you’ll get a different answer each time. “I see the wonderful music of Africa blending and bleeding in to the Western World more and more,” reckons Daniel Glass, founder of NY-based Glassnote Records, the US label home to The Temper Trap and Phoenix. Analysis of the UK sales charts over the past year would suggest the British record buying public has turned its back on rock music, while urban music is calling the shots and dubstep is all the rage. “Dutch house and a little dubstep will infiltrate everything urban and pop over here,” says Craig Hawker, now Head of A&R for Sony/ATV Music Australia.

“But people will get tired by what is happening in that space. We’ll see more of a return to anthemic rock music influenced by the sounds of Springsteen, Nirvana, and The Clash. Don’t be surprised to hear a new form of ‘70s inspired disco either.” Australia’s appetite for homegrown music remains intact, a statement backed up by the 48 local works which appeared in the most recent Triple J Hottest 100.

No, the era of the A&R isn’t over. Not just yet, anyway. “Creativity is rife at the moment. This is not in question or in doubt,” says Parisi. “From adversity comes new ideas. Don’t write the industry off just yet. We just all need to re- align our thinking and the way we in which we fit into this new world music order.”

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