The dream of every aspiring musician is to land that dream deal with a major label, go viral on social media and gain millions of followers, and play their music in front of adoring fans. A big part of that dream is to gain recognition, to get noticed and appreciated for your work. But it’s not as easy as it sounds.
You know those Hollywood movies where an artist plays a song on stage in a tiny dark club, and it just so happens that there’s a bigshot agent in the audience somewhere, ready to offer them a record deal at the end of their set? Yeah, that doesn’t happen very often in real life, unfortunately, and even less so in the digital age we’re living in.
But that doesn’t mean that A&R is dead, or that you shouldn’t keep trying to land that dream deal. Here’s how A&R works nowadays, what role it plays in the music business, and what you should keep in mind when talking to an A&R professional.
What is A&R, exactly?
Let’s start with the basics first. A&R stands for ‘artists and repertoire,’ and it basically describes the role of an A&R representative in the music industry. A&R is usually a division or a record label or a music publishing company that handles talent scouting and supports artists’ professional and artistic development. An A&R pro is a bit like a buffer, a liaison between the label and the artist, overseeing all the activity that takes place from the initial offer to the release and promotion of an album.
The Roles of A&R
So, what do A&R professionals do? Well, their roles are manifold, as they’re involved not only in the scouting and talent discovery process, but they also work with the artist and the label during the recording and album release process. They’re basically part of everything, from going to events, concerts, clubs to find promising talent, to making an offer to an artist, to participating in the recording and creative process, to marketing and promoting the resulting release.
Discovering And Signing Talent
The main role of an A&R pro is to find new talent and bring them in to sign a deal with their record label. Representatives commonly participate in live events, going to clubs, pubs, festivals, and other venues to watch artists perform live and determine if they have potential to make it big. An A&R pro is well-versed on the state of the music industry, and they’re always in tune with what’s trending and what audiences are looking for.
But besides that, A&R pros are also authorized by their label to make offers in the shape of a deal memo. The actual contract negotiations will be handled by legal representatives of the label and the artist’s manager or publisher afterwards, but the first step is the deal offered by the A&R professional.
Overseeing Recording And Artist Development
A&R reps at a record label are heavily involved in an emerging artist’s development, guiding them throughout the creative process, negotiating and liaising on behalf of the label, and essentially making sure that the terms of the contract are followed. The A&R pro assists the artist and the label by scheduling time in the recording studio, arranging meetings, and advising the artist during the album-making process.
If the artist does not write their own songs, the A&R professional will help the artist connect with the right songwriters or composers, and they will book session musicians, if needed. The A&R department will also work closely with the artist to help them select the songs to go on the album, suggest rearranging the songs, adding or removing certain songs, and helping them pick a single.
Assisting In Marketing And Promotion
The job of an A&R professional or department does not end once the album is recorded and ready for release. These professionals continue to work with the artist to craft the best marketing strategy for the album and promote it on relevant channels, based on the budget established in the initial contract with the label. The A&R will make best use of their industry connections and the label to heavily promote the new album and make sure it’s in constant rotation.
The Future of A&R
The emergence of digital music platforms like Spotify, Apple Music, and social media channels like Instagram or TikTok has changed the role of A&R in the music industry quite a bit. Decades ago, the only way for an emerging artist to get noticed and get a foot in the door of the music business was to get spotted by an A&R rep. Nowadays, that’s not necessarily a requirement anymore, as artists can go viral on TikTok, they can submit their own music to be featured in Spotify playlists, and more - basically, digital channels and social media have taken over the role of A&R in some ways.
However, for artists looking for a long-term career in the industry, who want to create full-length albums and follow the ‘traditional’ path to success, getting the attention of an A&R representative is still the best route. Labels are also more inclined to sign promising artists and bands and have them release music exclusively through them, and this in turn gives artists full access to the label’s resources and connections.
Why is A&R important?
Without A&R, we would not know many of the artists we now deem as legendary. For instance, Bob Dylan and Aretha Franklin were discovered by A&R man John Hammond, who recognized their talent and potential and convinced his label to sign them. Gary Gersh knew he had struck gold when he first saw Nirvana play, and he worked hard to convince David Geffen’s DGC Records to sign them, even though alternative rock and grunge were not at all popular at the time.
A&R professionals are crucial to the music industry, because they’re in tune with what’s actually going on in the local music scene. They’re constantly going to gigs and pubs and obscure festivals to get a feel for what’s brewing, for what works with audiences, and they can spot a trend before it’s even happening. They’re able to find the needle in the haystack, and see potential in artists or bands that labels otherwise would never think of signing.
Joey Arbagey, former Executive Vice President of A&R at Epic Records, who has worked with some titans of the music world, including Whitney Houston, Mary J. Blige, or Erykah Badu, relies on his years of experience and his instincts when looking for talent. He told Xposure Music that “It was always about how I was feeling about songs to know if they were hits or not. I would just use my gut and goosebumps.”
A&Rs have an eye for talent, but they can also differentiate between a one-hit wonder and an artist that has potential for long-term commercial success. Essentially, A&R reps are not looking for a hit song or a hit album; they’re looking for a ‘hit artist,’ namely an artist that has what it takes to have a longstanding, successful career in the industry. This is why they’re seen as the people to impress; they wield a lot of power and have a say in who record labels sign deals with. So, even though the internet has diminished the role and the power of A&R divisions, getting spotted and offered a deal by an A&R rep still remains a sort of ‘holy grail’ for emerging artists.
Useful traits of good A&Rs
We’ve now seen the crucial role that A&R departments play in the evolution of the music industry. But what does it take to be a successful professional in A&R?
First, being an A&R rep requires various professional skills, including a deep knowledge of music trends, styles, genres, and the history of music. Then, you need to have a great ear for music and recognize quality and talent when you hear it. Communication and networking skills are also essential, as are persuasion skills when negotiating offers with artists or convincing labels to sign a certain artist.
An A&R pro also needs to have certain interpersonal skills, like critical thinking, flexibility, empathy, and excellent time-management. Because an A&R pro is constantly attending gigs, concerts, festivals, they often have a hectic schedule and a lot on their plate. Maintaining a work-life balance is crucial here, as is the ability to be highly organized and manage time effectively. While going to gigs, pubs, clubs, and being in the recording studio with talented musicians sounds fun, it’s also time-consuming, stressful, and often overwhelming.
Frequently Asked Questions about A&R
How do A&Rs get paid?
A&Rs typically get paid through a combination of salary, commission, and bonuses.
Salaries for A&Rs can vary widely depending on the company they work for, their level of experience, and the specific responsibilities of their role. Some A&Rs may be paid a flat salary, while others may receive a base salary plus commissions and bonuses.
Do artists pay A&R?
No, artists do not typically pay A&R professionals directly. A&R professionals are typically employees of record labels or music publishers, and their salaries and commissions are paid by the companies they work for.
Do A&Rs get royalties?
A&Rs do not typically receive royalties directly from the sale or streaming of an artist's music. However, they may receive a percentage of the artist's royalties as part of their commission or bonus structure.
How do you get noticed by A&R?
There are several things you can do to get the attention of an A&R professional:
- Build a strong online presence - create profiles on Facebook, Instagram, or TikTok, and constantly post videos and music that showcase your talent;
- Play live shows - A&Rs often attend live gigs, so reach out to local venues and promoters to book shows and build your fanbase;
- Network with industry professionals - attend music industry events, conferences, workshops, where you can meet A&R pros and build relationships;
- Submit your music to A&R executives - most record labels and music publishers have portals where you can upload your music directly to A&R professionals, so research the labels that fit your style and genre and submit your best work.
- Collaborate with other artists and producers - collabs can help you build a following, create buzz around your music, and increase your chances of getting noticed by A&R executives.
Want to learn more about how to get noticed by an A&R professional, and what they’re looking for when scouting for talent?
Join Xposure Music and gain access to some of the best music industry professionals in the U.S. Top experts from Sony, Columbia, Def Jam, or Universal have already joined our platform, and they’re ready to give invaluable, on-point feedback on your work, which can help you land that dream record deal or publishing deal you’ve been working towards. Sign up now and reap the rewards.