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What Will Be the Role of A&R in Tomorrow’s Music Business? (Guest Column)

Veteran executive Kayode Badmus-Wellington has a message for fellow A&Rs: "You and the consumer are one in the same."

The music business has entered one of the most extraordinary eras of potential that we’ve ever seen, and a philosophical examination of A&R, at its essence, is required. This doesn’t mean we’ve gotten it wrong; in fact, recent hires and chatter amongst the business show that we’ve started to remember the much-debated significance of A&R and should take a closer look at what this means.

How many of us wake up each day with a sense of confidence about the quality of the artists and music we service? The goal is, and always will be, to ensure we’re pushing the best artists and music forward. Too many have tried to dismiss A&R as an arbitrary skill set as “consumers now dictate the marketplace.” They’ve said that data yields the surest results or — my favorite — artificial intelligence will render the role obsolete.

My initial response to these claims was one of reproach; “these people are completely missing the entire point of A&R,” I thought; although it inspired me to carefully ponder the role A&R plays in tomorrow’s music business. Is there value in identifying a shared ethos of A&R to guide us through the new era of the music business? I believe I’ve found its essence.

Do we really believe that the consumer knows best? A&R is as much about your own self-expression as it is the consumer; you and the consumer are one in the same. Do you still believe that the consumer knows best? A large number of us have declared we’re in a consumer-driven marketplace where the consumer dictates which artists and music we place our focus on. If you’re already annoyed by the amount of times I refer to “the consumer,” keep reading!

Speaking from experience, I see this as a fear response that cushions the disappointment (or repercussions) when our expectations have been challenged by the market. This has become a cop out for mediocrity, and our egos have separated its possibility from our expression of it. Advances in technology have democratized the music business, resulting in an inundation of content. Song lengths have shortened, and the knee-jerk instinct is to blame it on diminished attention spans; however, let me introduce another perspective — what if the consumer has gotten smarter? The consumer reaches for the best, but man… is the consumer overwhelmed.

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What if the consumer has arrived at such a distrust of the music business to deliver on their standards of quality, to the point where they’ve allowed music to fall into the background — simply giving up on music as their primary method of entertainment? Perhaps this could also explain why sync (including short-form content like Tik Tok) has assumed a greater importance in breaking songs, old or new. Think carefully about the types of artists and songs that initially sparked your love for music. Recall that feeling — that feeling you sought to spend your life chasing… that feeling that led to a burning passion to participate… that feeling that solidified your deepest connection to humanity.

Humanity has been struggling the past few years, and music must assume a greater importance in shaping its future. Music is supposed to set the direction for humanity, and as A&Rs we are musical shepherds. People are craving the artists and music that reaffirm their love and stamina for life, and we cannot expect to deliver on this when we’ve disarmed ourselves of our own expression. We are the ultimate consumers of music; what music are we going to show our kids?

Let’s reconcile with a disheartening truth here: The leading intention for most sustainable businesses is to maximize profits, regardless of its purpose, and the music business is by no means an exception. This leaves many of us at a crossroads of a path of success or passion. We can blame this for our deference to data to dictate our decisions, although I believe a closer attention to quality will ignite our passion and produce results that exceed the very expectations we feel binded by. And the writing is on the wall: the No. 1 song on the Hot 100 this week is, again, Steve Lacy‘s breakout smash “Bad Habit.” The song that “Bad Habit” replaced on the chart, Harry Styles‘ “As It Was,” spent a record (for a British act) 15 weeks at the summit. Then there’s Bad Bunny’s Billboard 200 chart behemoth Un Verano Sin Ti, which continues to drive revenue while shattering boundaries for the global market. Remember a time where you could walk into a record company at any given moment and damn near bust your eardrums ‘cause the music was so loud? With respect to our hearing, that’s the energy.

And finally… It’s inevitable that technology, including artificial intelligence (AI), will continue to reimagine the music business and aspects of the A&R process; however — how will an AI-generated artist capture the authenticity and rigor of human emotion? I understand you could have humans write the songs, but how would it capture that very emotion and personal expression of creative consciousness that drives the connection with the listener? What’s even the point of this when there are thousands of gifted artists across the world longing to discover their fans?

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Perhaps this largely depends on one’s intention; is music just a meaningless vessel casting the sail toward other commercial pursuits? I suppose one with a more comprehensive understanding of AI might argue that this could be addressed through an algorithm, and I’m certain someone will eventually find a way to connect dots on some novelty records from this space. But time after time we’re faced with an identity crisis and proven that high quality and relatability reigns supreme in the eye of the consumer.

There’s never been a more exciting time to participate in the music business, and A&R has a refreshed significance. Musical potential has reached a new summit as humanity requires a new direction — a direction in which music is at the leading edge of all creation and consumer expectations are exceeded. A&R, at its essence, is a confident alignment of our self expression with a thoughtful attention to quality. What music do you want to hear? We are fortunate; we get to discover, develop, and deliver the stories of some of the most gifted humans to exist. But to do so it’s important, rather instrumental, that we remember one thing: we are the consumer.

Kayode Badmus-Wellington is an A&R executive and artist manager whose resume includes experience at Epic, Pulse, Warner, and Electric Feel. He’s signed or worked closely on multi-platinum releases for artists including Rich The Kid, 24kGoldn, Fifth Harmony, French Montana and others.