The Changing Role of A&R and ‘The Dark Arts of Record Making’ at New Music Seminar

Posted: August 10, 2013 in Artist Corner


It’s no secret that the music industry is in a state of upheaval, and one of the key tenets of this year’s New Music Seminar was tracking how exactly the industry has changed in the past ten to twelve years, with panels focusing on the new roles of managers, label owners, booking agents and, yesterday, A&R, taking center stage.

The panel began, however, with a fascinating look back at each artist & repertoire mean (there were notably no women on the panel) looking back at the music that most inspired them and the projects they were most proud of.
Avery Lipman of Universal Republic Records cited an early Cheap Trick album as a major inspiration. His proudest signing was surprisingly the Bloodhound Gang. The group, which he described as a combination of Howard Stern and the Jerky Boys, he credited with single handedly saving his career at a time when he had “maxed out his credit cards.”

Jagjaguar’s Darius Van Arman recalled working at an assisted living facility in Charlottesville, VA during a rare snowstorm that allowed him to earn triple time and thereby fund his first release by a band called Curious Digit. His inspirations, he said, came from indie labels like Drag City, Touch & Go, Kill Rock Stars, K Records and Matador.

Downtown’s Josh Deutsch’s career began when he interned at New York City’s famed Power Station studio which led to many different jobs both behind and in front of the soundboard and at various labels. The artist he was most proud of signing was Gnarls Barkley which helped establish his label.

RCA’s Peter Edge said his older sister’s soul music collection had an enormous impact on him. He cited three artists — Alicia Keys, Slick Rick and Michelle Ndegeocello as his proudest signings.

For Atlantic’s Craig Kallman, it began with DJing at legendary downtown NYC clubs like Danceteria, the Tunnel, the World, Area and the Palladium. He formed his own Big Beat label which was bought by Atlantic Records after four years. The record he was most proud of was a single by Kraze called “The Party” that sold over 300,000 copies and which he recalled selling out of the back of his trunk.

S-Curve’s Steve Greenberg had two albums he was most proud of: Hanson’s “Mmn-Bop” (“Middle of Nowhere”) and Joss Stone’s “Soul Sessions.”

Finally came Monte Lipman, who added more context to his brother’s favorite album: It turns out the Lipmans’ TV broke when they were kids and their father refused to replace it and the Cheap Trick album was the only record they owned at the time He also named “Baker Street” by Gerry Rafferty which he heard on the radio as one of his early influences.

“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.

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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.

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“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.

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‘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.

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“At a major, there’s a lot of downward pressure to deliver, a lot of pollutants, which is why you go for the artist with the lines around the block,” he said. “On the indie side, if there isn’t a line around the block, we work to make sure there is one.”

For Atlantic, Kallman indicated that they are trying to do more for fewer artists. “We want to have a more immersive relationship with our acts where we can bring all of their assets to life,” accessing multiple available revenue streams rather than just record sales. And the panel agreed that the role of labels — and thusly, the goal of A&R — has shifted as diverse revenue streams become more and more important.

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“The record industry is in crisis; the music industry is thriving,” said Monte Lipman, echoing another theme that has become ubiquitous at the seminar, before adding on a side note, “Adele gives us all hope that extraordinary music will always prevail.”

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