The return of the record label A&R department
Of course, they never really went away. Even over the last few years, when it seemed as if major record labels were simply emulating Real Madrid’s galactico policy when it came to signing acts (ie sign acts who had already …
Of course, they never really went away. Even over the last few years, when it seemed as if major record labels were simply emulating Real Madrid’s galactico policy when it came to signing acts (ie sign acts who had already done all the development heavy lifting on their own or with indie labels) or just watching the telly and signing the acts who appeared on Saturday and Sunday night light entertainment shows, the A&R departments were still chugging away. Still keeping an eye on the game, still making enquiries, still following every other A&R man around like Lar Corbett after Tommy Walsh in Croker, still telling acts that they needed another six months.
But in recent months, it’s noticable that the A&R men – and it’s still nearly always men, for some reason – are back in force. The chatter is louder than it has been for ages and the financial offers being thrown at those acts who on their radar, particularly a couple of Irish acts, are truly staggering. As The Strypes and Soak have discovered in recent times (and the Bleeding Heart Pigeons are currently finding out), the A&R departments are back and they mean business.
As someone who cut his music business teeth as an A&R scout for a bunch of labels and publishers, it’s bizarre to see some of the characters from my past on the hunt for bands again. At the Great Escape in Brighton back in May, I ran into several lads I remember from fabled record label chases of old. Same old guff, same old swagger, same old talk and, sadly, the same old process as they hopped around the city after the same acts as everyone else. Leaving one venue, I came across a clatter of them queueing to get in to see Haim, one of the hot acts at the fesival. It’s reassuring – if a little sad – to see that some things never change.
Neither, weirdly, does the mad money on offer when everyone decides that a certain act are The One and goes loopy chasing them. Even at a time when major labels are supposed to be on their knees with a lack of cash from a lack of sles, the telephone number offers (not including the Cavan area code) are back like never before. There may be one less major in the game since Universal took over EMI but that doesn’t appear to have quelled things all that much. If anything, sussed managers are probably wondering if they want to have all their eggs in the Universal basket, especially when the deals are all-encompassing ones.
Beyond the chasing, wooing and seducing of new acts, however, what about the A&R department’s other roles? This is where it gets interesting. Major labels have, traditionally, not been great at developing and breaking acts. You’ll still hear horror stories about acts who were signed to majors and spent years hanging around waiting for stuff to happen or a chance to release a record as things were continually put on the long finger.
But the decision to commit to a release is a big one which requires all the label’s departments to swing together. It’s the job of the A&R department to manage and oversee that and it’s a task which many are woefully unable to do. Once an act has got traction, it’s easy enough to do, but getting that traction going in the first place is something which has bedevilled labels again and again. No wonder more nimble indie labels like Domino and XL have become so popular and successful. Yet, that said, they’ve also had their weak signings (for instance, XL didn’t have much luck with Azealia Banks and the wait for that overdue Jai Paul album goes on). The A&R game is one where the rules are never quite what they seem.