Is Today's A&R Based on Data or Gut Instinct? Reps From Atlantic, Kobalt & More Weigh In at SXSW

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Island Records associate director of A&R Alyssa Castiglia's biggest pet peeve is when people say the internet will mark the death of her field. "It’s such a multifaceted role and I don’t think people give it enough credit for that," she said.   

The label division dedicated to talent scouting and development might not be going away any time soon. But it is rapidly changing.   

With the rise of streaming, many labels have begun using music data analytics services like Sodatone and Next Big Sound to guide decision-making. Today, many labels have their own in-house data platforms. Even so, as those services proliferate -- giving everyone access to the same information -- some believe A&R will revert back to being a field based on gut feeling.    

Carrie West, an A&R representative at Atlantic Records who has worked with Kelly Clarkson and Why Don't We, sums up the shift well. "[A&R research] used to be a kid like me who drank six Red Bulls a day and was obsessively refreshing my feed," she said. "And then it became people who make algorithms and make software." At a pair of SXSW panels this week titled "A&R 2019: Gut Instinct vs. Data" and "Modern Adventures In A&R," both sides were at play.   

Castiglia, who specializes in A&R research at Island, said that she tracks artists' streaming and sales data daily. She also recently began turning to short-form video app TikTok for insight, recognizing its popularity among Gen Z-ers. Then, she'll use those data points as the "receipts" to back up her opinion about an artist. "Knowing those trends of where music is going and where people are consusing music is important, because you need to know that there’s a channel to the consumer," Castiglia said.

She also sees DSPs as a testing room to gauge fans' interest in different versions of the same song, pointing to Israeli musician Dennis Lloyd's 2017 hit "Nevermind" as an example. The mellow, acoustic original earned Lloyd a sizeable fanbase, but it was a self-made remix that brought the song international recognition. "He remixed his own song and that version -- the alternative remix -- became the main version," she said. "Data told us that that was the version that people wanted."

In other cases, streaming data can help artists and labels select which album tracks to push as singles. Drake's More Life track "Passionfruit" wasn't originally billed as a single, but when it blew up on the internet, the rapper made it one. A similar  process happened with Scorpion's "In My Feelings" -- and the single earned Drake a record-breaking Hot 100 No. 1. 

But Castiglia and others also warn against the dangers of relying on data. Knowing that many aspiring artists buy likes and followers to appear more popular, Castiglia is especially wary of social media data and looks for fan engagement (are listeners adding the song to their own library?) rather than sheer volume of streams.

Interscope Records A&R executive Carlos Cancela -- who likes to refer to the data-based strategy as "A&R by the numbers" -- doesn't buy the argument that streams equal hits, either. "Sometimes, the numbers can be deceptive," he said. "You can think, this has hit all these thresholds, and you feel like it’s guaranteed to be a hit. It’s never guaranteed." Passion and patience seem to be working best for him: Earlier this week, Cancela signed buzzy Latinx singer-songwriter Cuco after a two-year courtship involving a bidding war. 

And even as some labels appear to pounce on artists with viral hits, West said she won't be sold on an artist until she's seen them work in person. 

"It comes down to your work ethic, and can you command an army of people to work for you?" West said. "There are cases where people have crazy streaming numbers, but they come in a room and are quiet and sullen. And that’s a red flag."

Others still claim they go for feeling above all. "I sign from the gut," said Amanda Samii, senior director of creative at Kobalt Music. "If I love it and I have to have it, it’s something I need to work on." It's an approach she used recently to sign the producer and Frank Ocean collaborator Vegyn. And Rhyme & Reason Records indie label co-founder Emmy Black used her own metric to pursue folk-punk band The Front Bottoms: "All their fans were getting tattoos of them -- that’s just love that you can’t find."

If there's one thing everyone seems to agree on, it's that all bets are off when it comes to which songs will hit it big in 2019. As even tracks like Travis Scott's five-minute, beat-switch-heavy odyssey "Sicko Mode" top the Hot 100, it seems that there are fewer limits than ever to what makes a hit. Fans -- and their streaming habits -- are becoming the new gatekeepers, and for Castiglia, that's just fine.

"We talk about data like it’s some cold, hard thing, but it’s actually just people listening to your music. And isn’t that what we want?" she said. "It’s more democratic than ever, and I think that’s what’s beautiful about it."

Festivals 2019