In with the A&R Crowd

I have one rule for buying records: Nothing over $10. This not only saves me some cash, but also helps to narrow down my choices in the bins at the local flea market and various shops around New England. I’ve had to pass up some gems along the way, and pick lower-priced greatest hits collections (usually a pet peeve), but it adds an extra layer of intrigue to any shopping trips.

It’s also how I ended up grabbing Billie Holiday’s The Golden Years for $8.99 on a birthday trip to Stereo Jack’s in Cambridge a couple months back. The three-volume set is full of some great renditions, like “Georgia On My Mind” and “Your Mother’s Son-In-Law” (on my copy, the “Your” is crossed out, with “My” added in its place) but one of the most interesting things, to me, is “The Inner Sleeve”, a newspaper-style sleeve promoting other Columbia artists and releases. Among the promos for Boz Scaggs (“He relates and points and ties together the state of mind that floats out of San Francisco”) and the return of “No, No, Nanette” to Broadway, I found an ad for Columbia/Epic’s “Playback” program, which allowed listeners to become “A&R advisors” and help to identify potential stars by listening to samplers sent to them throughout the year – all for just $3.

The Playback experiment ended after just a few years, in 1974, but while it lasted, it did expose a few new artists like Bruce Springsteen, Aerosmith, John Hiatt and Mott the Hoople to a broader audience. It also foreshadowed what the music industry would look like 40 years down the road, when improved recording technology and expanded distribution platforms would empower both artists and consumers more, changing talent discovery and promotion and threatening to cut labels, and their A&R managers, out of the picture.

There are four main categories of services that have helped to shape, and exploit, this new digital landscape.

Discovery Sites

These are the first tools people usually mention when talking about how the game has changed – the platforms that make it easy for artists to get music out to the masses without the help of a label. YouTube and MySpace (the old and the new) have probably made the biggest impact, while streaming services like Spotify, Rdio and Pandora help artists get their music in front of a broader audience (whether they make any money from the deal is another matter). BandPage and Soundcloud follow more of the MySpace model, with the ability to upload tracks and manage a presence. And that’s not even getting into the more illicit options, like the Pirate Bay, which if nothing else do make new music easier to access.

Sales Services

Discovery only goes so far. Eventually, you want to get paid (and again, streaming services aren’t where that’s really going to happen). Once an artist has built up an online reputation, he or she can start making cash through ticket and merchandise sales. But online sales still matter, and for that there are the big marketplaces like iTunes and Amazon, and services like CD Baby and TuneCore that’ll help artists get represented on those and more (CD Baby also offers in-store and direct online sales options). BandCamp functions more like a social network, enabling community members not only to buy, but to publicly show their support for specific artists and create customizable pages that showcase their taste.

Crowdfunding Platforms

Why just sell a few tracks when you can use the crowd to launch your career? This next tier is about giving supporters a real stake in an artist’s success. Kickstarter is the obvious, now occasionally controversial example, but it’s not the only one. IndieGogo, for instance, allows a broader range of campaigns and allows some flexibility to the all-or-nothing approach.

For more music and less Zach Braff, there’sSellaBand; since 2006, the service has offered fans the ability to fund recording sessions for up-and-coming acts. As on Kickstarter, SellaBand campaigns typically offer incentives to supporters (free albums, etc.), but artists are not beholden to fans and can go on to sign with any label or publisher that might like what comes out of the session (labels can also use the service to fund their own projects). It seems to have caught on — over $4 million has been invested so far.

If those fans had contributed to a project on MyMajorCompany instead, they’d actually see a return on that investment. In this case, fans act as shareholders for an artist’s campaign, reaping part of the profits on music sales, merchandise and tours if things go well. MyMajorCompany, which originally started in France in 2008, does the talent scouting first, making sure there’s a certain level of quality. You know, like A&R managers.

The Label-Fueled Crowd

And now we’ve reached the other end of the spectrum, where the labels themselves get involved in the act, leveraging the power of the crowd to find the acts they might not otherwise. This involvement can be direct, as with SignMeTo, Roadrunner Records’ now-shuttered social network which offered unsigned bands the opportunity to showcase their work, to be rated by ‘scouts’ (fans). Australian black-metal act Make Them Suffer was the first to get high-enough ratings and sign with the label.”

Two more recent projects encourage more of a detached approach, with labels using third-party services to do their talent-finding dirty work.

Chartburst, launched in January 2013, hosts ten genre-specific communities where artists can upload their music (for a monthly fee) – each backed by a real-life record label. Chartburst users can then vote on the songs, and those that make it to the top of the list get forwarded, every two weeks, to the A&R department of the label. Partners include Sony, Interscope, Warner and Columbia; they won’t guarantee any kind of deal, but they do promise feedback, which could help get the bands over the hump the next time around.

SoundOut, a project of UK-based Slicethepie, is a service aimed at artists and labels who want to test out songs prior to release. Upload a song and you can have it rated anonymously by the site’s users, with a report that helps you assess its viability in the market. Crowd Review, launched in June, pairs the rating service with ReverbNation’s three million-plus users. It’s essentially Playback with a larger audience and better technology.

So what did we learn here? That we haven’t actually come very far in the last 40 years? Yup. That any new, interesting technology will eventually be co-opted by the suits? Always. But maybe we also learned that, despite the advances that have shaken up the industry, there’s still a place for the old guard. At the same time, labels are even more ready to acknowledge that maybe they don’t know everything after all.

It’s tempting to send the A&R professional – the guy who used to make or break artists with a snap of his fingers, or at least that’s how it seemed – an invite to the “dying jobs” party with the restaurant critics, book publishers and terrestrial radio DJs. Surely that has happened to many, and will to many more, but those who find ways to reinvent their roles will find there’s still a place for their expertise – presuming it extends beyond talent scouting. As many have pointed out, a good A&R rep’s job doesn’t end once the artist is found. There’s still the matter of development (editing and song selection) that help the artists reach their full potential and stand out from the crowd.

“Today, more than ever, industry knowledge, a reliable team and an excellent network of contacts is crucial when it comes to aspects like the internationalization of an act, the coordination of a multitude of industry players or the addressing of a truly global audience,” writes Robert Klembas in “A&R management in the digital paradigm shift”, a recent paper presented at the International Association of Music Business Research’s Young Scholars Workshop.

As Klembas points out, the same advanced technologies that have put some A&Rs out of jobs has also been leveraged by those smart enough to see the opportunities. Crowdfunding and crowdsourcing platforms reduce the typical financial risks for labels, and reduce uncertainty by hinting at market potential before anyone gets too far down the road. The mass of data now available through services like SoundOut enables savvy A&R managers to more easily identify target markets for a given artist.

For those who can’t think that creatively, I’d advise them to draw some inspiration from those Playback samplers of the early ’70s, when a little ingenuity helped to launch some pretty special careers. They’re still available from some rare record dealers these days – though you might have to pay a little more than $10.