EMI was recently bought out by Terra Firma, a private equity group led by the delightfully named Guy Hands, who is not surprisingly perplexed by the encrustation of parasites (aka talent scouts, “creative types”, or A&R people) who seem to contribute nothing measurable to the bottom line. These cultural medicine men are customarily romanticized by their own ranks as having some mystical power to intuit what will sell (in other words, who has “talent”) and because it is basically a crap shoot determining what will tap the pop culture zeitgeist, past performance in the A&R world does function as a guarantee of future success. Just read this crazy article from the NYT Magazine about Rick Rubin to see how spiritual the discussion about the transcendent powers of the almighty A&R guru can become.
I tend to root against the culture connoisseurs who commercialize their own alleged creativity in this way; I prefer my creative types to be humble craftspeople who actually make interesting things, not ersatz sages with a gift for sophistry and self-promotion. But when you market yourself as someone with special access to something as mercurial and inherently unsystematic as creativity, you are setting yourself up for a well-deserved fall. Guy Hands agrees with me:
Mr Hands told the SuperReturn private equity conference in Munich: “The power and the decision has sat with the A&R man, who is someone who gets up late in the day, listens to lots of music, goes to clubs, spends his time with artists and has a knack of knowing what would sell. They were committing money with no sign-off, no nothing. What we are doing is taking the power away from the A&R guys and putting it with the suits - the guys who have to work out how to sell music. Trying to persuade 260 people to give up their power has been hard. We had labels at EMI that were spending five times as much on marketing as their gross revenues. We told them you could stick a £50 note on the cover of a CD and have the same effect, and we also wouldn’t have to pay them. Those sorts of comments don’t go down too well.”
John Gapper, in his FT column, offers a token defense of A&R practices, allowing that suits would be no better at them and would likely to bureaucratize the talent-search process and make it even worse. But A&R people need not be replaced with suits, they can be replaced with the masses themselves, who A&R people once presumed to speak for. On his blog, Gapper makes the more persuasive point that A&R people have been made moribund by the low-overhead music-discovery opportunities on the internet. He explains: “Given the straits of the industry, it seems fair enough to question whether they have the special powers that they claim, or whether they are simply rent-seekers who have inserted themselves between bands and investors and soaked up a lot of money.
This seems to me one of the most interesting issues facing the industry. You could mount a good argument that the internet and digital distribution has undermined the rationale for the bloated A&R overhead. When new artists can be discovered on MySpace, it surely brings into question whether quite so many highly paid talent-spotters are necessary.”
It doesn’t just bring it into question; it answers it with a resounding no. The easy manufacture of cultural product makes editors more necessary than ever, but the ability of the internet to aggregate the “wisdom of crowds” and perform massive feats of analysis mechanically works to pick up the slack. Hence, something like the website Pandora could be processing an influx of raw, unjudged music and spitting it out in pieces to those it determines will like it. Then that data could be aggregated to determine where record labels, if they still exist, should make big bets. And niche indie labels will fill in any gaps and allow for culture not mathematically derived from the lowest common denominator of public taste.
Bands, according to Gapper, defend the “rent-seeking” A&R gurus, but that’s because they are the ones telling the bands they have special talent—the musicians’ special gifts them confirm those of the A&R people, creating a death spiral of narcissism and self-congratulation. Lets hope the Guy Hands of the world put an end to it.