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

Published in The Music Network

 

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.”


BEST EARS IN THE BIZ

Universal Music Australia

•• Mercury Records Australia ••
Peter Karpin and Christine Diefenbach

Short Stack / Washington / Vanessa Amorosi / Men At Work / Tina Arena

•• Universal Music label ••
Jess Beston

Gyroscope / Children Collide / The Naked and Famous

•• Island Records Australia ••
Michael Taylor and Josh Kellett

Boy & Bear / Clare Bowditch / Hilltop Hoods / Marvin Priest / The McClymonts

•• Ministry Of Sound ••
Tim McGee, Aden Mullens and Jeff Drake

The Ashton Shuffle / Sam La More / Tonight Only / Hook N Sling

•• Modular ••
Steve Pav, Glen Goetze and Chris Rigney

Tame Impala / The Presets / Cut Copy / The Avalanches / Ladyhawke / Wolfmother

•• Dew Process ••
John Mullen

Mumford and Sons/ Bernard Fanning/ Sarah Blasko/ The Panics/ The Grates/ Bluejuice/ Jebediah

Universal Music Publishing Group
Heath Johns

Children Collide / Dead Letter Circus / Bernard Fanning/ Jet / Daniel Merriweather / The Living End / Jessica Mauboy / Paulmac / The Potbelleez / Powderfinger / Guy Sebastian / Wolfmother

Sony Music
Jay Dee Springbett, Courtney Hard, Ross Fraser, Paul Harris, Pat Handlin, Will Larnach-Jones

Amy Meredith / Jessica Mauboy / Stan Walker / David Campbell / Pete Murray / John Farnham / Guy Sebastian / The Vines /Justice Crew / Zowie / Mark Vincent / Human Nature/ Kate Miller-Heidke/ Tonight Alive/ Wes Carr

Sony ATV Publishing
Damian Trotter and Craig Hawker

Architecture in Helsinki / Augie March / Delta Goodrem / Empire of the Sun / Gurrumul / Hilltop Hoods / Midnight Oil / Paul Kelly / Silverchair / Operator Please / Dappled Cities / Hoodoo Gurus / Pete Murray / You Am I

EMI Australia
Scott Horscroft and Glenn Dickie

Birds of Tokyo / Oh Mercy / Miami Horror / Faker / Papa Vs Pretty / Gold Fields / The Luke Steele Project

EMI Publishing

Maree Hamblion

The Presets / Ladyhawk / The Veronicas / Jimmy Barnes / Kids Of 88, DNA / Shannon Noll / Mark Sholtez / Stan Walker / Tonight Alive /Gold Fields

Warner Music Australia
Heath Bradby, previously managed:

Drapht / Downsyde / Karnivool / Jebediah / Bob Evans

Kobalt Publishing
Simon Moor (previously Sony ATV, previously A&R EMI Australia)

Angus + Julia / Luke Steele / The Sleepy Jackson / Tame Impala / Lisa Mitchell / Jet / Art vs Science.

Mushroom Group

•• Liberation ••
Damian Slevison

The Temper Trap / Little Red / The Holidays / Adalita / Liam Finn

•• Illusive ••
Matt Gudinski amd Adam Jankie

Bliss n Eso / Paris Wells / Lowrider

•• MG Publishing ••
Linda Bosidis

Adalita / The Drones / Eskimo Joe / The Panics / Dan Sultan / Birds Of Tokyo / Eddy Current Suppression Ring / Gyroscope / Little Red / The Holidays

•• Ivy League ••
Martin Doyle

Cloud Control / Sparkadia / Josh Pyke / The Mess Hall /Cabins / Youth Group

•• Liberator ••
Nick Dunshea

Beady Eye / Dizzee Rascal / Kaiser Chiefs / Tiesto / Sleigh Bells / Benny Benassi

Alberts Music
Philip Mortlock and Michael Szumowski

INXS / Washington / The Basics / Not Drowning Waving / Diana Anaid / Richard Clapton / Paul Grabowsky / Seabellies / Kahn Brothers

Parisi Management
Michael Parisi

Daniel Merriweather / Ladyhawke / Regurgitator / Gabriella Cilmi / Owl Eyes

 

Essential Music Conferences for A&R

South By Southwest (SxSW)

When: March 11- March 20

Where: Austin, Texas (USA)

Why: An epic music-fest. Provided a US launch-pad for the likes of Duffy, Norah Jones and the Darkness.

The Lowdown: The big daddy of music festivals, SxSW resembles a human zoo; but the A&Rs come, and they visit in droves. The event’s numbers are mind- boggling – 13,000 attendees and 2,000 participating bands spread across 90 venues. The Australasian contingent to SxSW has never been greater. The likes of Bliss N Eso, Hungry Kids of Hungary, The Jezabels and Little Red were among the 60 Australasian bands who made the trek from Down Under for the 25th annual show, which wrapped up earlier this month.

Musexpo

When: May 1-4 Where: Hollywood, California (USA)

Why: Well-organised, well- attended and well-respected by the industry people that matter.

The Lowdown: Billing itself as the “United Nations Of Music & Media,” Musexpo has become the A&R community’s West Coast meeting point. Katy Perry, Jessie J and The Temper Trap have all graced the stages of Musexpo, which this year celebrates its seventh anniversary. Musexpo A&R deals are commonplace, explains Steve Schnur, Worldwide Head of Music & Marketing, EA Games and President of Artwerk Music Publishing. “Back in 2007, I’d flipped over the recordings I’d heard for a Swedish artist’s new album and finally convinced her to fly in to LA to be part of my panel,” Schnur tells TMN. “The morning of the presentation, she met (former Island Records UK President) Nick Gatfield, who quickly signed Robyn to a global deal with Universal.” Attendees this year include legendary Sire Records co-founder Seymour Stein and Martin Kierszenbaum, President of A&R for Pop & Rock at Interscope Records.

The Great Escape

When: May 12-14

Where: Brighton, East Sussex (England) Why: 3,000 industry delegates, 300 bands

The Lowdown: Now in its sixth year, The Great Escape has emerged as South-East England’s No. 1 A&R destination. Organisers boast 3,000 industry delegates, many of whom make the 70 km journey down the
A23 from London. Glastonbury Festival Booking Agent Martin Elbourne pulls the strings of the Great Escape, and programs its 300-band bill. Homegrown acts making the trip this time include Cloud Control, Deep Sea Arcade and New Zealand buzz-band The Naked and Famous.

Bigsound

When: Sept. 7-9

Where: Brisbane, Queensland (Australia)

Why: An intimate daytime format; a power-packed music program.

The Lowdown: In its tenth year, Bigsound has established itself as an essential A&R hunting ground. More than 60 acts played last year, including crammed-shows by Washington, The Jezabels, The Naked and Famous and Kyü. Many of Australia’s A&R-elite were in the crowd, including EMI A&R manager Glenn Dickie, former Warner Music Australia A&R President Michael Parisi, Liberation A&R and Label Manager Damian Slevison, and his boss, Mushroom Group chairman Michael Gudinski. The likes of American Recordings A&R Manager Rod Kukla and Domino Records & Publishing US A&R Manager Morgan Lebus made the trip.


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