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Artist Development

"How To Get A Record Deal"

What you need to know about A&R Departments
By Paul Irvine

Once upon a time, or maybe twice, there lived a group of musicians who believed themselves ready for world domination of the musical sort. Keenly unaware of their massive egos, they set forth from their dingy rehearsal space ready to connect with destiny. They had walked for quite some time when Frank the guitarist said, “Hey guys, we need a plan. I’m getting hungry and my rent is almost due.” They all agreed. But what to do and where to go? “Let’s talk to my friend Gwen,” said Jimmy the drummer, “she works in a record store, she’ll know what to do.”

When they arrived at Gwen’s record store, they found her staring into a glowing crystal ball. She had a mystical air about her. The guys were very impressed. Gwen told them that, “to achieve world domination of the musical sort, you must first get the attention and commitment of the A&R person at a record company.” “But how do we do that,” asked Billy the bassist. “It’s easy,” said Gwen, “just write the kind of undeniable hit songs that instantly capture the public’s imagination, record a killer demo or indie album, sell a few truckloads of your indie CD, tour like crazy selling out every club that you play, engage a brilliant manager and sit back and wait; the A&R rep will be knocking at your door.” “But we don’t have time for that, we want to be famous right now,” Johnny the singer exclaimed. “Well, why didn’t you say so,” said Gwen. “In that case, just close your eyes, click your heels together three times and repeat after me, there’s no place like the top-of-the-charts, there’s no place like the top-of-the-charts, there’s no place…”

A&R people. Who are they? Where do they come from and what do they really want? To the newly signed recording artist, still aglow from doing the deal, the A&R person is a mythical deity that will scribe their name in stars across the night sky and guide them through a career that transcends space and time. To the unsigned recording artist who just received his 10th record company rejection form letter (he now has enough to paper one wall of his bedroom) the A&R person is an inconsiderate, pompous shmuck who never returns calls or emails and knows nothing about “real” music. But ask an A&R person who they are and they will most likely tell you, they’re just normal people who love music and are trying to do a job, as best they can.

A&R stands for Artists and Repertoire. Generally speaking, the record company A&R person will find and develop new talent (i.e., recording artists) for their company. They will assess the commercial potential of the recording artist on behalf of their company. They will offer advice and direction to the artist with regard to song selection, record and video production, promotion and touring.

To shed some light on the role of this mysterious gate-keeper, I spoke to Allan Reid, Sr. VP, A&R, Universal Music Canada, and Parkside Mike, Executive VP, A&R, Aquarius Records in Montreal, two of Canada’s hardest working A&R reps.

PI: Would you agree that a record company lives and dies by its A&R decisions?

Allan Reid: “Well, yes and no; I think the difference in Canada is that the multi-nationals are very much repertoire sources but, even more so, they’re marketing and distribution companies for international repertoire. Obviously, artists like Shania Twain, Eminem, U2 and hundreds of others are hugely important to us as far as our business goes, but, I think what really defines a record company is a company that can attract and find talent, develop talent and ultimately break it either on a regional or national level, then hopefully on an international level. It’s satisfying to have a multi-platinum Eminem record but it’s way more satisfying to have a “gold” Sarah Harmer record.”

Parkside Mike: “Completely. The good thing at Aquarius is, I’ll spearhead a project but we really do a consensus thing ‘cause we’re such a small group. Anyone can bring something to the table and we’ll go over the pros and cons of each project and then figure out if it’s right for Aquarius.”

PI: How does a potential new signing finds its way into your hands?

Allan Reid: “There’s a lot of different ways. We at Universal do accept unsolicited material, meaning that we’ll take any demos that come in off the street. It’s a long, labourious process going through the thousands of demos we get. We’ve got four guys in our department who are filtering material all the time. But more often than not, the artists that end up getting signed come through a contact. Usually they have already done something themselves in the sense that they have developed their songwriting; they’re not in a rush to get to the record company. I find that the really great artists just do what they do and eventually we find out about them. Probably more than anything else we find out through other artists. People who are out touring will say, “Hey, I had this band open up for me in Vancouver, they were great.” I think other artists are one of our best A&R sources. Managers, agents, club promoters, lawyers; they come from all different areas.”

PI: Do you prefer finding the artist as opposed to the artist sending you demos and calling you?

Parkside Mike: “Yes totally, 100 percent. Although I’m relatively new to the A&R community, I’ve never heard of someone just putting an unsolicited demo in the mail and getting signed. I would suggest that if a band wants a record company, if they don’t know someone, whether it be a booking agent, a club promoter, a studio manager, if they don’t know someone that knows the A&R community, then they’re probably not ready yet for a record company. That’s a generalization, and there’s obviously exceptions to every rule, but most of the people that we work with come from some kind of contact. A&R has contacts everywhere: the publishing world, the studios, law firms, managers, booking agents, or even friends who go to shows and say, “Oh, I saw this great band you’ve got to check them out”. Rather than getting a package, I much prefer getting an email with a link to a website with MP3s or streaming and some live footage. You can tell a lot about a band from their website. I prefer to communicate via email - it’s not as stressful as getting a lot of calls in one day.”

PI: The prospective signing is on your radar screen - you like their demo. What’s the balance between their ability to cut it on record and their ability to deliver a strong live show - or is it a bit of everything?

Allan Reid: “I think it’s a bit of everything. I know for me personally, I’m a big fan of an artist who can come up and sing their songs. Whether that’s acoustic guitar or piano – just sitting there translating their music or if it’s full-blown show. For me and I think for most A&R guys the first thing is the song. It’s finding a great song. Then it’s the vehicle that delivers that song – the voice. Is it a unique voice, is there a character to it and is there a character to the music as a whole. And then it starts coming down to charisma and what we call the “it” quality - is that person a star? You know, that’s easier said than done. You see that person when they walk into a room - you can tell they have something.”

PI: Given how A&R has over the years moved toward artists that write their own material, is it still a function of your department to source new songs to be recorded by your artists?

Allan Reid: “Yes, absolutely. I find that the majority of the artists that we work with nowadays prefer to cut their own material and that can be a bad thing as well as a good thing. I think most of us prefer to have artists that can pen their material ‘cause it’s tough finding great songs. It’s very hard to go to a publisher and say, “Hey, we’re looking for one of your best hit writers to give us a track”, when there’s a number of other artists internationally also competing for those kind of songs. So you look to find artists who have a team either with them, within a band; or it’s one sole person in the group that can write. But it’s definitely important. It’s not mandatory, but it certainly helps when you’re trying to find material.”

Parkside Mike: “Not really with the type of bands that we work with ‘cause we’re doing mainly rock stuff. We have some joint venture labels that are venturing into different kinds of music. A&R would be done by the other side of the joint venture. The bands that I tend to work with, normally they should have great songs to begin with – I see myself more as a facilitator of situations where I get a band and I try and find the right situation for them. Because we’re a small company, I tend to product manage my bands afterwards as well. I try to think five steps down the road as opposed to just making a great record. I try and think of making a great record but then, you know, what are we going to do for a video, who are they going to tour with, what opportunities are coming up over the next year, what bands are on the rise that fit similarly with them and can we make contact with them early to trade off on tour dates.”

PI: Parkside, what was your initial A&R involvement with Serial Joe?
Parkside Mike: “Their record was halfway done when I started working on the project. They recorded the first album over March break and I went out to Vancouver with Kim Clarke-Champness, who was one of their managers, to mix. But, my first real thing was we got them on Edgefest. I went to Toronto where they were rehearsing and I had these visions that Edgefest was going to be a tough crowd for them. So we came up with this plan to try and win over the crowd at Edgefest and at least not get pelted by bottles and stuff. I ended up donning a Mexican wrestler’s mask for the tour and jumping around on stage to divert the bottles away from the band so they could play. Every show I would come out with a video camera and I would egg the crowd on. I have tattoos and I was wearing this muscle-shirt and shorts so I looked like this tough guy and it sort of gave them this air of credibility for that tour. We wound up selling the most records on the tour ‘cause our single was peaking at the right time. We had the longest line-ups at the autograph tent and I don’t think it was because I was wearing a Mexican wrestler’s mask, but at least the guys weren’t bloodied from people throwing stuff at them when they went to sign their autographs.”

PI: How important is the “team”? If an artist you’re considering doesn’t have management or a lawyer or an agent, would that dissuade you or lessen your interest in that artist?

Allan Reid: “It won’t dissuade us or lessen our interest, but what we all realize is that before a record comes out, that team is essential. The manager is going to be the most important relationship an artist ever has in their career. That person will touch every aspect of that artist’s business relationships and often even personal relationships; they’ll be very, very close to the artist - more than anybody else. So that’s probably the most important decision an artist could ever make. And equally then come lawyers, record companies, publishers and agents; there’s all different people who are going to have different relationships with that artist and before any record comes out and launches into the public, those relationships should somewhat be formed or at least introduced because (as an artist) you’re going to need different members of each one of those teams to help you be successful. The A&R person is only one piece of the puzzle that the artist will need to be successful. You can have a successful career without an agent, without a manager, without a lawyer, or without a record company - it can be done. Ani Defranco has done very well on her own, but that’s the exception to the rule. The more prepared you are as an artist the better - reading things about the music business and understanding the business is essential to being successful. Be prepared. That way you don’t get ripped off or burned along the way.”

PI: What is the quality of demos that you receive? Is it high quality or is it a lo-fi home recording or is it all across the board?

Allan Reid: “With the advent of computers and home recording abilities, demo quality has soared. It really has gotten far, far better. We’re basically getting finished masters more often than we are getting demos. It just eliminates some of the guesswork for the A&R guys. What you have to understand as an artist is if you’re sending your music in to an A&R person, lawyers, agents, managers, whatever, they’ve got boxes and boxes of demos and tapes sitting there and if you’ve got the ability to make a really good sounding demo, when they put that demo on next to the one they just listened to, they’ll weigh that decision. It’s a hard thing not to; you listen to a singer/songwriter with just an acoustic guitar on a cassette, then you drop on someone’s CD that’s got full production behind it, the songs will sound better; sonically they’ll sound better. The song may not be any better but the sonics are. It just takes a bit more of the guesswork out. As an A&R person you can always imagine things sounding any certain way - oh we can do this kind of arrangement or we can bring this producer in.”

PI: How do you deal with the “Unreachable / Ivory Tower” stigma attached to A&R reps?

Allan Reid: “You know, there’s a misconception out there, at least I think there is, that A&R people are hard to approach. I don’t believe that at all. Maybe it applies in some other companies. I know at Universal, we’re normal everyday people who love music and we’re very busy ‘cause yes, there’s a lot of people trying to get to us and get a hold of us and we get a lot of packages, but, it’s as easy as running into us at a club downtown. You know, it’s a small business and once you’re in the circle of working musicians and working artists and getting to know who’s out there, it’s as easy as just asking. Go and hang at the Horseshoe (Toronto) on Tuesday night and you’ll meet all the A&R people; they’re all there. The job of an A&R person is to filter through the best of it and get to what they’re looking for as quick as they can. They’re not there to provide a critique service to artists; they’re there to find music for their company”.

PI: So unless you see a diamond in the rough, you really can’t spend time…

Allan Reid:
“Well it’s hard as you get about two thousand submissions in a year, but the opportunity to sit and give feed-back is there, with artists you might want to keep getting material from. But you can’t spend an hour on the phone with a lot of artists who put a demo in that you just don’t see as right for your company. That’s one of the hardest things to explain to an artist when you’re passing on their music - it’s not to say we’re the be-all-end-alls, and if we say your music’s not right for us doesn’t mean it’s not good, it’s not that at all. At that point in time it could simply be it’s not right for our company; we’re heading in this certain direction; we’re looking for these kinds of signings; you need more time. There’s lots of things that could be causing us to say no. It doesn’t mean that the actual quality of the music or the songwriting is bad, but, sometimes it is.”

PI: Do you only sign music that you personally like or do you remove your personal preferences in sourcing talent for your company?

Allan Reid:
“Absolutely (I only sign music that I like). If you’re signing with a record company and the A&R person is signing you because what you do is trendy and doesn’t really love it and doesn’t have a true vision for it, if there’s bump in the road somewhere along the way in your career, you’ll know it, and it’ll be hard for you because there won’t be that core belief of someone going, “I don’t care what anyone else says, I love this artist”. You need that inside your own record company because when you bring an artist in, the job only begins. You now have to go convince the rest of the company. You have to go make a great record with the artist and then you have to go work it through the marketing and promo departments and publicity and sales departments.”

PI: How important is radio in exposing your artists?

Allan Reid: “Radio is still, I think, by far the most important factor in exposing artists to the mass populace. And it’s a great revenue source for the artist in their performance (royalty) income. Having the exposure on radio, having a hit single at radio, makes a huge difference.”

Parkside Mike: “If it’s a rock or pop band, then yes, obviously radio is important. But, if it’s someone like our new signing, Antoine (not from Sky), it’s not as important. We just have to figure out how to get it to people and hopefully radio will jump on. Canadian radio is increasingly harder to break an act on – to satisfy Canadian Content, they can play Nickelback and Sum 41 forever and that’s all you hear, but there are other artists trying to come up and make some waves at radio as well.”

PI: Any suggestions / guidance for the unsigned artist trying to connect with an A&R rep?

Parkside Mike:
1- “Consider playing shows with bands that are well-known and established. I have a lot of friends who work in clubs and I’ll usually hear about this band or that band through them.”
2- “Get into festivals such as North by Northeast or Canadian Music Week.”

Allan Reid:
1- “Take your time, develop your music, take it as far as you possibly can, and if you can develop a live following, go do that before even approaching a record company. The bands that go out there and create a buzz on their own, we don’t wait for their demos to arrive, we’ll go looking for them. We’ll hear about them. If you’re putting 500 people in a club in London, we’ll hear about that. It’s a lot more exciting to record company A&R guys to be searching music out than being sent music. It’s a better position for the band to be in, having someone call and say, “Hey, I’m trying to get a hold of your music,” than it is you sending it in and waiting eight months to get a response.”
2- “Make sure you’ve got great songs. Not just because your best friend or your parents tell you it’s good, but maybe you’ve already taken it to the local radio station and got it on the air and had it compete directly against all the other great repertoire that’s out there.”
3- “Do your ground work, get educated. Understand the business. It’s a business. Yes, it’s great to go and play music and do your thing, but, if you’re going to go out and enter the world of record companies and managers and agents and lawyers and promoters - understand the business. You’ll be far more successful if you do.”

So there you have it. Many thanks to Allan and Parkside for taking the time to speak with me. Given the space limitations of this article, I could only provide you with a fraction of their wisdom and insights. In closing, I offer a word of caution from an ancient prophecy that reads, “He who sows the wind shall reap the whirlwind.” In other words, if you’re knocking on A&R’s door and the door opens, you’d better be ready! Alternatively, you could wait for A&R to come knocking on your door. And if that doesn’t work, just close your eyes, click your heels together three times and repeat after me, there’s no place like the top-of-the-charts, there’s no place like the top-of-the-charts, there’s no place…

© Paul Irvine 2002

Paul Irvine is an entertainment paralegal with the law firm of Sanderson Taylor in Toronto. He can be reached at: paulirvine@sandersontaylor.com paulirvine@sandersontaylor.com
The general information contained in this article is not intended as a substitute for skilled legal advice on specific contractual matters.



     Another great page on what do look for in a record label


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