Artists and repertoire representatives (A&Rs) are the wildcatters of the music business, spotting new acts, signing them and guiding their artistic development. The essence of what they do hasn’t fundamentally changed in over a century – but the way they do it has shifted significantly.
Joe Kentish is president of Warner Records UK, and has signed acts such as Dua Lipa and Griff. He says his early days in A&R took place in “an analogue world” where he might be tipped off at 4pm “to see an act in Preston tonight” that he had never heard of, scrambling to arrive in time lest his competitors swoop first.
Today, he says, the same networks of managers, lawyers, venue owners and other artists provide solid leads, but there are more resources at hand, from SoundCloud to social media, to help A&R reps discover new music. The core skills of A&R remain, he says, but “we have way more data points”.
In a business dominated by streaming and social media, turnover of music is fast and furious. There is far more of it to sift through in search of gold. On the video-sharing platform TikTok, tracks and sounds bubble up constantly, and can cause an A&R stampede if they are generating views and shares – but 30 seconds of virality does not make a career.
“The industry can get very excited about something going viral, but it’s not necessarily the sound that’s going viral, it’s the content, and the music is secondary,” says Dipesh Parmar, president of Sony subsidiary Ministry of Sound Records. “That’s where you’ve got to use your gut and listen to the music. That’s where A&R is key.”
Virality has ephemerality baked in; what is trending today can tarnish tomorrow. Take Nathan Evans, who was signed by Polydor Records, part of Universal Music Group, in January 2021 based on a social media sea shanty trend. Within a month, his song Wellerman was No 1 in the UK. Since then, however, he hasn’t troubled the charts. This stands as a moral for the TikTok age: chasing trends can just lead to dead ends.
Parmar gives examples of the different ways Ministry has discovered hit acts or tracks recently: Paul Woolford’s Looking for Me came via the long-established demo route, he was signed “on a gut feeling” then fed to traditional media and streaming before the song gained a life of its own on TikTok; Secrets, a 2020 collaboration between Regard and Raye that has been streamed nearly 350m times, was built from a 30-second clip that Raye made.
Sometimes, though, discovery for A&Rs can still be surprisingly analogue. “We signed Ewan McVicar’s Tell Me Something Good last year because we heard it on the dancefloor, rather than on [social media or SoundCloud],” says Parmar of the 2021 hit. “Because we heard a track on the dancefloor, he was able to quit his job in a factory and is now a full-time artist.”
Competition between A&Rs to sign acts is ferocious, but relying too heavily on data is a doomed enterprise. “It’s easier to find the artists, but then it is so much more competitive because everyone’s looking at the same data,” says Parmar.
Jeff Bell is international general manager at Partisan Records, home to Idles and Fontaines DC. He says things are moving at hyperspeed today, which creates new challenges for the industry. “Culture moves quicker than any business model can keep up with,” he says. “But it’s certainly not algorithmic in the work we do.”
Acts today are signed primarily for their music but often with an eye on how social-media literate they are and how adroitly they market themselves. As such, there is mounting suspicion around just how “organic” viral effects are, with suggestions that some acts, from huge pop stars to indie acts that aim to project credibility, are gaming the algorithms by using microinfluencers to boost their profiles.
A&Rs will, publicly at least, argue that short-term successes just set bombs under long-term prospects. Yet there remains a culture of omertà here, where every successful A&R seems to want to keep their cards close to the chest. For example, the team behind PinkPantheress, an artist who deftly used TikTok to build an audience and land a deal with Parlophone, part of Warner Music Group, is not keen to talk about its process.
Today, the divide between A&R departments and marketing departments has diminished. “Part of the signing process is being able to identify audiences and potential audiences,” says Bell. “That is a core function of the marketing team here as well. It’s not just that the lines are blurred; they are essentially part of the same team.”
Kentish says acts typically put out an album’s worth of music on singles and EPs before they get to their debut album proper, their A&R strategy effectively playing out in public and in real time. “It feels like they are making their difficult second record, but it’s their first record because they’ve put out so many pieces of music that document that first period of their artistry,” he says. “That traditionally would have been their first album. It is really tough on young artists. There’s much more pressure on developing artists now than there ever has been.”
A&R is inherently about the shock of the new, but the true alchemy here is trying to ensure the buzz translates into long-term success. Budgets can be extended and nerves can be held, but only for so long before bowing to the inevitable and dropping an act that simply is not working. “How do you cut through the noise?” asks Parmar. “It’s about building a fanbase, but that takes time when there’s so much noise out there.”
Kentish says that it took Dua Lipa eight releases – until 2017’s New Rules – before she broke internationally, with streaming symbolising a split from the old world of CD and download sales. “That was really late in the traditional world,” he notes, “but it was signalling something that was on its way.”
Bell says that, at their best, A&Rs anticipate what the market can handle rather than cater to what the market already likes: “It’s not about tailoring artists to fit the mainstream; it’s about working with artists that can drag the mainstream to them and change culture.”