Popping the Question: Does the music industry still need A&R?

I wanted to work in A&R even before I knew what it was. I’d just turned 13 when the TV series Popstars began, and my dream of being the editor of Smash Hits (which by then was going rapidly downhill anyway) was straight out the window. What could be more exciting than discovering new talent and guiding them on their way to success? A year later Pop Idol brought us Simon Cowell, and after reading about his day job, I knew exactly what I wanted to do. Only I wouldn’t be encouraging any children’s TV-presenting puppets to launch pop careers.

Wikipedia describes A&R as “the division of a record label that is responsible for talent scouting and overseeing the artistic development of recording artists.” These people find talent and convince the record label they work for to bet a significant amount of money on them being a success.  In the past this has meant travelling to dingy bars in random towns to find the hot new band or the superstar of the future. This still does happen, but nowadays there are two other ways in which most pop success stories begin: 1) On a TV talent show and 2) Right here on the Internet.

Many people have drawn the conclusion from these phenomena that the public have taken over the role of A&R from the record labels. And yes, the labels do sign acts who have proven public support – they’d be stupid not to! As nice as it is to believe that A&R is all about giving deserving talent a chance, the reality is that signing an act who comes with a ready-made fanbase is a dream come true for a label, especially now that most labels simply can’t afford to take a risk. It’s not all easy from there though, as only the most carefully calculated decisions will make your act the next JLS or Arctic Monkeys. Make one mistake and you’ll be lumbered with a Leon Jackson or a Sandi Thom. And that’s one reason why A&Rs still exist and still play a vital part in the career path of all your faves.

Another reason why I think A&R is still important is this: Imagine what would happen if artists got to choose their own musical direction. Or just look at Kelly Clarkson. It was all going along fine when she took her label’s advice – her music was good, her chart positions were high. But she mistook the public’s appreciation of a timely pop song for unconditional love, and she was soon hanging around at number 110. She said at the time “I’ve sold more than 15 million records worldwide, and still nobody listens to what I have to say.” But Kelly, it wasn’t just you who was responsible for those 15 million sales. In fact, if it hadn’t been for the person who got songwriters such as Max Martin on board for her previous album, I have a strong suspicion that the only people who would have bought it would have been moderators on her fan forum. Maybe some family members.

There are of course some artists who are capable of understanding their own audience and providing them with the music they want, but it’s a rare talent to be able to be so objective about your own work. There are also fans out there who would prefer their favourite artists to create the music they love, irrespective of its potential for success. There are plenty of artists who say they make music for themselves and if people like it that’s a bonus. But I think that shows a real lack of respect for the fans who have given them the opportunity to make a living from music, and the Kelly Clarksons of the world prove that attitude gets you nowhere. A successful artist is one who makes music which connects with the public en masse, and this will only be achieved by artists who care about what the public want and take the advice of those whose job it is to know.

The existence of the internet has enabled people to make a name for themselves and their music who might not have normally had the opportunity. It’s definitely possible to use websites such as YouTube, MySpace and Twitter to build up a fanbase without any help from a record label, but once that audience is attracted the only way to make sure they keep buying the music, gig tickets, merch etc is to keep making the music they want to hear. Whoever it is that decides which new song will be posted online next and which musical direction the artist will take is playing the role of A&R, even if that person is not a record label employee.

At the moment, the level of success it is possible to achieve exclusively through promoting an artist online is limited by the number of people who look to the Internet to discover their next big fave. More traditional media such as radio and TV are still the primary method of discovering new music for the majority of the public, but this era is undoubtedly in its last throes. YouTube provides a fascinating glimpse into what the future might look like. Anyone can post music and use the functionality of the site (such as commenting and friending other users) to get attention for their work, but this is still far from democracy. If you’re wondering how that new major label artist no-one really cares about still gets more views than the incredibly talented teenager singing genius reinterpretations of current hits… it’s called advertising.

Unless you’re extremely good at promoting your music online, posting songs on YouTube will get you no closer to success than playing at an open mic gig or sending around a demo CD. If you look at some of the artists who have built up huge followings online, you will see that being a YouTube sensation doesn’t automatically lead to mainstream success. Anyone seen Joe Brooks or Mike Hough in the charts lately? Their YouTube popularity demonstrates how easily the site can be manipulated. Post the right cover version at the right time and you’ll get all the hits from people searching for the latest big song. Reply to all the comments on your video and you’ll soon have a legion of fans who all believe they’re friends with someone famous – well, internet famous anyway, but any celeb will do when you’re 13 and living in Inverness.

If the future is going to be like YouTube, then we are definitely going to need A&R. Whether that comes from the managers and small labels who you tend to find attached to anyone with talent and ambition, or from bloggers like me who get such a thrill from discovering a hidden gem that they will scour the pages of YouTube endlessly to find the next big thing, or from record label talent scouts who’ve simply swapped their nights down the Barfly for a night wading through MySpace. It could be any or all of them, but I’m really hoping it will be at least one. If not, Mike Hough will be at number one. And we really don’t want that.


  1. I like this website and I try to follow it as much as I can, I agree. the record business still needs people who work as A&R. We still need labels, managers, promoters, publicists, critics. It all goes hand in hand. Thanks / KAJ http://www.melodic.net (Sweden)

  2. The sorry tale of Sandi Thom is a reminder to the artists themselves, as well as record companies, that even if they have some talent they will be punished for trying to hoodwink the public. Thom will forever be associated with her duplicity in taking part in the outright lies that were put out by the PR companies she employed. She could make the greatest album of the decade but within the business the scam is what she is known for. Other than her famous other half of course who is responsible for keeping her career afloat and must now realise he has lumbered himself with a stalker girlfriend as she will NEVER let him go because she knows without him its all over.

  3. Your article is so on point, As an Independent Artist I find all of what you say to be true with the exception that if you're not fortunate enough to have the finances available to hire an A&R person, go to the internet and do your due diligence to learn what is necessary for self promotion and then go WYAF = (Work Your Ass Off) that's gonna require some blood sweat and tears but it is so worth your Dream right? RIGHT?
    Who am I? The “Silver conductor” on facebook and:
    Remember:”Always know who loves you”
    The ” Silver Conductor”

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