There’s a common story told about the rise of Vanilla Ice and his breakout single “Ice Ice Baby” — that, in 1990, a DJ at a radio station in Mississippi flipped over the 45 of an unknown Dallas MC’s version of “Play That Funky Music” and stumbled onto a hit. For Pete Ganbarg, then a young A&R at SBK Records whose boss picked up the single for national distribution after talking to the station’s program director, the episode was illustrative of how the job of label A&R was done.
“Back then, A&R research was, ‘There’s a radio station somewhere that’s playing an unsigned artist and the phones are going nuts,’ or, ‘There’s a record store somewhere that’s selling a cassette or album or CD on consignment and they can’t keep it in stock,’” says Ganbarg, now president of A&R at Atlantic Records. “It was basically scouting, going to clubs a lot, talking to people in different cities, a lot of phone calls.”
Over the past 30 years, however, the mechanics of how an A&R rep does their job — if not the ultimate goal of the role itself — have fundamentally changed due to the advances of technology and communication in an increasingly immediate and globalized world. “Now, your job is more about, ‘Somebody uploaded something somewhere and people are reacting to it,’” Ganbarg says. “But the one thing that doesn’t change is the actual core of A&R: Is this an amazing artist, and is this a hit song? You can find somebody on TikTok, but that doesn’t mean they’re an artist in the tradition of the Streisand’s and Springsteen’s and Aretha’s.”
In the past decade, as the recorded music business has shifted from one of its lowest points into yet another period of growth and strength, record labels have changed rapidly to stay on top of that change and maintain their value for a new generation of artists. But in many ways, A&R still is the lifeblood of a record label: without artists and their repertoire, there is little point to the rest of the enterprise.
“If the A&R doesn’t bring the talent in the building, no one else has anything to work,” says Tim Glover, senior vp A&R at Interscope Geffen A&M. “Labels lean heavily on A&Rs to bring talent in, help others to see that vision and to make sure everyone in the building understands the type of music that they’re creating and the audience that they’re targeting.”
In a new series examining how record labels are changing, Billboard spoke to A&Rs from eight different labels about how they do their job, what it takes and how things have shifted, both in the recent past and moving into the future. “A&R, like music, continues to evolve,” says Warner Records executive vp A&R Jeff Sosnow. “As soon as you think you know something there’s something new around the corner. And you need to be flexible and malleable and adjust.”
Due to the amorphous nature of the job — not to mention that everyone who has ever heard of a band before their friends thinks they can do it — the actual role of an A&R person and all that goes into it isn’t very clearly understood. Yes, it is about finding new artists and helping them complete their records — as Glover puts it, “keeping an ear out for new artists, finding new talent, helping to develop the talent that you have” — but it encompasses much more than that.
“Prior to being an A&R, I thought it was a lot of being in the studio and one-on-one conversations with artists and centered exclusively around the creation of music,” says Sara Knabe, vp A&R at BBR Music Group. “But you’re really intersecting with every department, dealing with managers a lot and there is a lot of back-end paperwork and business side to it, which is really important with credits and making sure people are paid correctly.”
That cross-department interaction can take many forms. “I really like to weigh in on photoshoots, video treatments, directors, the launch of records, the setup of records; I spend a lot of time looking at all that stuff,” Sosnow says. But it also extends to getting each of those departments on board for a project that many of them may not know much about in the beginning. “Getting everybody excited about a new signing internally is a talent and a skill in and of itself,” says Jon Coombs, vp A&R for Secretly Group. “Being able to whip a room and get people really motivated and in line with the mission [is important].”
Just as often, however, being an A&R person is about relationships with the artist and their team as well as within the label itself. “Most new artists come in thinking they are one break from superstardom,” says Def Jam executive vp A&R Noah Preston. “It’s our job to educate them about the process, establish a work ethic, help them become professionals, manage their expectations while helping them achieve their dreams. It’s a balancing act.”
“I’m here to connect the real artistic vision with where it needs to go and I’m here to care about the person who makes that,” adds Katie Vinten, newly-named senior vp A&R at Columbia Records. “If someone’s trusting you with their career, never treat them as some sort of commodity or flash in the pan — you are a part of the team that’s helping to put their dreams into motion, and everybody you work with is somebody’s kid.”
What that takes, according to everybody interviewed, is a particular set of skills: the ability to build a network, both to discover new talent and to connect artists, producers and songwriters with one another; an open ear to be listening to just about everything and anything that’s released; and the ability to trust yourself, occasionally at the expense of all else.
“It is really important to trust your gut and your taste and trust that if you love this great music that other people would love great music,” says Dan Chertoff, vp A&R at RCA Records. “You’re trying to find a needle in a haystack, and that entails a lot of determination and digging.”
As Ganbarg puts it, “The minute you stop trusting your own ears, you’re done.”
How It’s Changing
Still, the ubiquity of streaming and social media — its speed, potential for virality and the enormous amount of data which it can yield — has done more to change A&R than any other shift in the past few decades. And particularly in the pandemic, when the traditional eye test and old-school data points of live performance and ticket sales have largely disappeared, data — how a song is performing, the engagement level of fans and everything else — has ballooned in importance.
“When going to shows slowed down with the pandemic, as an A&R person, I think you became more reliant on data, how an artist uses social media and all of their platforms to engage and grow their audience, rather than the traditional version of data, which was ticket sales,” says Chertoff. “It’s gone from traditional gut calls based on the music to a combination of believing in the music and the artistry and seeing a path forward for a great career, but also marrying that with aspects of data that we look at every day. You have to do both.”
Which isn’t to say that data has replaced the gut call of believing in an artist’s vision without millions of TikTok followers — most call it another tool in a sea of indicators that can be used to help identify talent. But data, and the streaming era in general, has had a knock-on effect on other aspects of the job, too.
“Without a doubt, [streaming] has made our job much more competitive; things just move much quicker now so you have to be much more aware,” Preston says. But he also notes that the global purview of services like Spotify, Apple Music and social media have broadened the scope of where artists can be found, as well as how. “It’s become a more global, genreless and ageless profession,” he says. “Ten years ago it was a lot easier to put your head in the sand, stick to your strengths and ignore new trends. But with the emergence of things like TikTok and the metaverse, we have to consciously be aware of what’s changing in the world today.”
That speed has also created a world of constant content and an insatiable demand for what’s new. “You’re rarely finished with a project — the rollout is continuous to feed a fan base that’s gotten used to having music come out more frequently,” Knabe says. “So there’s never really that moment of being done with a project and moving on to the next one; everybody’s constantly creating.”
Another shift: as the barrier for entry into the music business has been lowered, there can be less of a need for those A&R networks and connective relationships, as artists come into the game with entire creative collectives and self-contained crews, as well as fully-formed visions, turning the job into one of facilitation rather than creation where artist development is sometimes not needed, or wanted. But perhaps more than anything, it’s shattered the traditional way that artists have been brought into the broader business ecosystem — for better and for worse.
“A lot of the criteria and rules that informed a signing in previous years have simply been thrown out the window,” says Sosnow. “I’ve signed artists now that have never played shows before, artists that have been broken up and got back together based on a song going viral — it’s just very different. It’s democratized production, writing and artistry. It’s a new world where one really has to be mindful of data.”
As the streaming era matures and data increasingly becomes more actionable, A&R will inevitably follow down the path of more information backing gut intuition. To what extent it becomes necessary, however, will continue to change the profession.
“Everything is all about research, whether it’s how well a song is doing, whether it’s finding talent, looking at engagement on social platforms,” Glover says. “I do understand that you need to go and see if your song is connecting, but if I love a song, I’m gonna go hard for it either way. But now I feel like the game has changed so much that you’re not going to radio unless you’re seeing that song doing well on socials.”
But it will also continue to expand the talent pool available to A&Rs in the business, which could benefit artists and scenes in a variety of ways.
“The more global music influences us here in the States, the more we have to be aware of what’s happening internationally at earlier stages,” Preston says. “Ex-U.S. artists are impacting our music more than we impact theirs at this point, but as an industry we have to do a better job of not milking other territories and cultures, but working with them to develop new things.”
Even as technological shifts continue to alter how the world functions, there are some elements of A&R that may not fundamentally change. Ganbarg points to the Hamilton cast recording, for which he signed the deal with Atlantic, as a throwback to his childhood in the 1970s, when cast recordings were much more popular. “Times change, but if there’s a great Broadway cast recording, people will listen to it,” he says. “The A and R comes down to the great artist performing the amazing copyright. Adele’s ‘Easy On Me’ is a great singer singing a great song. Sometimes you forget that that’s what the audience wants.”
What Are You Looking for When Signing an Artist?
Dan Chertoff: “I always listen to two things. One is the song — that’s always most important. The second thing to me is a distinct vocal.”
Jon Coombs: “At the center of it all it’s still just making sure that we’re partnering with the artists who are making the music that we want to hear. It’s as simple as that. That’s been a guiding principle since day one at Secretly — it’s ingrained in us all.”
Pete Ganbarg: “It’s not about what I think. My opinion doesn’t really matter. The only opinion, ultimately, that matters is the people who choose to listen or not listen to a song. So it’s my job to try to connect the dots between where the artist is and where the people are.”
Tim Glover: “Passion and direction. I want the artist to have that passion and love for music, but I also want the artist’s team to have the passion to win. In this day and age, that’s almost just as important as the artist.”
Sara Knabe: “Originality in sound, brand, vision, what they’re trying to say, knowing who they are, how they differentiate from someone else. You can have influences, but they need to create their own sound.”
Noah Preston: “Dope personality, different story, just something real that complements the music. It’s so easy for fans nowadays to spot something inauthentic, so if I can’t clearly define who you are as an artist and a person, then I can’t assume the world will.”
Jeff Sosnow: “With contemporary signings of late, it’s having heard a song and seeing a remarkable voice and musicality, innate talent and musicality. There’s something unusual about that that triggers your sixth sense, you know?”
Katie Vinten: “I’m just looking for the kind of artist that reminds me of why I started in music, of how I felt when I first heard ‘No Such Thing’ by John Mayer before he blew up. Those kind of lyrics and crafting and vision — that, to me, is a high standard.”