Note: Ethan Willse, the founder of TextChampion, is the author of this article. You can find it published here.
An A&R is either an individual or a group of individuals that scout and develop talent for a record label. With technological advances and the explosive growth of social media, A&R is redefining itself. This music industry profession is becoming much more complex with the use of big data and mining software. Gone are the days of merely finding talent busking on the street or performing at local concerts.
The Traditional Role of an A&R
Those not familiar with the music industry likely haven’t heard of the term ‘A&R.’ Even industry veterans misinterpret the true rule of A&R professionals. ‘A&R’ stands for artist and repertoire – a role within a record label or music publishing company that seeks out new talent.
An A&R for a record company might scan the web to search for the hottest new talent. In recent years, YouTube has been a hotspot for discovering the next big stars. Pop singers Justin Bieber, Shawn Mendes, and Alessia Cara were all found on the video-sharing website.
A&R Before the Digital Revolution
Now, let’s take a step back to the 80s and 90s. There was no YouTube, Instagram, or Tik Tok. How did A&Rs find the talent that sang some of the most recognized beats of the 20th century? Back in the day, it was really about “who you knew” or sheer luck with a bit of hard work.
The legendary Prince is a prime example of what it took to get discovered in the pre-internet world. Growing up in Minneapolis, Prince was thousands of miles away from the music hubs of Los Angeles and New York. As a teenager, Prince joined a family band called 94 East. Little did he know, he was on the path to stardom.
Soon after joining the band, Prince went on to meet a local producer named Chris Moon. Prince recorded his first demo tape with Moon – the man who would then pitch the young singer to businessman Owen Husney. After hearing Prince, the Minneapolis businessman was so impressed that he signed Prince onto a management contract, allowing Prince the opportunity to record another demo.
After recording the second demo with the help of Husney, Prince captured the attention of some of the nation’s biggest record companies – A&M Records, Columbia Records, and Warner Brothers. Prince eventually signed on with Warner Brothers and became one of the most endowed signers of the 80s.
The Discovery of Prince: An A&R Practice Lost in the Past?
The story of Prince illustrates the old-age practice of A&R. You needed personal connections or to be in the right place at the right time to land a record deal. Does that still hold today? In some cases, yes. Taylor Swift, for example, was discovered by a Big Machine Records executive after giving an impressive performance at The Bluebird Café in Nashville. However, the A&R role has drastically evolved since the discovery of Prince and even Taylor Swift, becoming much more digital.
What Does it Take to Become an A&R?
Unlike becoming an audio engineer or marketing rep for a record label, there’s no clear path to entry for aspiring A&R professionals. It could take years of verifiable industry experience. Often years of low-paying gig and contract work until you land that seemingly perfect ‘A&R Coordinator’ role with a record label.
But if an industry novice were to embark on the goal of securing an A&R role, what steps should they take?
A college degree isn’t a must-have. However, it will give you a one-up if you have a bachelor’s degree in music business, music technology, or even audio engineering. Once you’re ready to start working your way up to an A&R role, you have to start small.
One overlooked path is to start with a booking role at nightclubs and music festivals. Getting into these roles not only gives you exposure to the industry but also helps you develop connections.
If the club or festival revolves around a particular genre, such as EDM or country, there’s a way to tell if you have a good ear: the venue’s success. When shows sell out, and guests routinely come back to the venue, it shows that you know what the listeners want to hear. You know how to cater to your target market.
Will this pay the bills? Probably not. Most of these jobs are part-time or seasonal, but they’re a great way to gain experience and connections within the industry.
Connections with Local Talent
By visiting venues where local artists perform, you can ‘play pretend,’ so to speak. Pretend that you’re an A&R coordinator and short-list the talented bands in your local market. You can even go as far as creating a small local label.
Once you’ve identified the best local talent, scout them and help them succeed. Offer to find gigs for them, collaborate with other artists, and even help them record demos.
Suppose one of your artists records a hit and gets recognized by leading record labels. In that case, you will (hopefully) get credit as the A&R. If the artist signs with a more prominent record label, the label may try to bring you onboard. However, don’t get your hopes up. It might take a few ‘hit’ artists before you get your break.
An Entry-Level Role at a Record Label
Even entry-level roles at record labels are competitive, mainly if you apply at Universal Music Group, Sony Music, and Warner Music Group. You may have an easier time getting a foot in the door at a smaller label.
From working in the mailroom to doing data entry, any role at a record label could help you ultimately get an A&R position. No matter the role, do your best to excel and create connections. If you looked at the resumes of A&R managers, you would see that many of them started in entry-level, low-paying roles and worked their way up.
Many A&R professionals had to make significant commitments to get to where they are today—often uprooting their families and moving cities where they can find jobs.
Competing for the Roles at Record Labels
The competition for an A&R role is fierce, both at small and large record labels. It isn’t uncommon for one position to receive hundreds of applications across multiple job search platforms.
To illustrate how competitive the industry is, take a look at a Music A&R Talent Management Intern role posted on LinkedIn. Keep in mind that this is a small talent management agency based out of Los Angeles.
There were over 200 applicants, and that’s just on LinkedIn alone. If Sonar Projects posted this internship job advertisement on various sites, they could likely have received over 1,000 applicants or more.
It’s pretty apparent now that landing that A&R role is not a walk in the park. But how many A&R roles are available at a given time? A quick search on Indeed for ‘A&R Coordinator’ returns only 68 positions:
The biggest Competition Comes from Those on the Inside
Of the 68 companies with A&R coordinator roles, there may only be a small handful that does not already have internal applicants. Remember, the music industry is all about who you know. The industry is smaller than you think, and many hiring managers offer roles to connections within their network.
As mentioned, those internal candidates could have been the ones who started in the mailroom or filing paperwork for the label’s accountants. Unless an external candidate has an extensive track record and an impressive resume, the chances of getting hired for an A&R coordinator role right off the street are slim.
Contract, Temporary, and Part-Time Work
Many A&R roles are either temporary, part-time, or on contract to add the cherry on top. These types of roles often mean no benefits – no health insurance, vacation time, or 401(k).
Why Do Record Labels Avoid Hiring A&R Professionals into Full-Time Roles?
It’s more common to see full-time roles for large labels, but smaller labels might not have the funds or the need to hire a full-time A&R professional.
Furthermore, some labels still view A&R as a short-term endeavor to find new talent. Once the label has met its current talent capacity, it no longer needs or wants to pay an A&R professional. The label may also use a consultant to train its in-house employees to identify and attract talent.
Many labels do not view A&R as a long-term, continuous need. Instead, they view it as a fragment of business: find and sign talent, record music, reap the earnings, grow business, and repeat. Labels, especially smaller ones, tend to only use an A&R during the ‘find and sign talent’ stage.
The Evolution of the A&R Role
It should be no surprise that the role of A&R has evolved immensely since the era of Prince. Finding hidden gems performing on the streets or at small cafes is still in practice, but not the norm. Instead, record labels are using social media and even data analytics to find talent and gauge the popularity of music.
Below are the responsibilities for a job posting for a Sr. Director A&R, Pop/Alternative at Warner Music Group (one of the biggest record labels in the United States).
In a director A&R role, the individual wears many hats. The director oversees the process of signing new artists and coordinates with lawyers and other A&R representatives. As the job description states, the director would attend concerts and clubs (so again, this is still a way of identifying new talent).
Even though the job listing does not explicitly say “use social media to identify new artists,” it mentions using the internet to find writers and artists. You can be sure that this means using YouTube, Tik Tok, Instagram, Facebook, and other social media platforms to find undiscovered talent.
A&R and Data Analytics: An Emerging Trend
The use of data analytics is booming in the industry. Most record labels have music insight analysts who work in conjunction with A&R. Analyst roles are more technical, but an A&R professional could fill the shoes of such a role.
Below is an example of an Analyst, Music Insight & Analytics at Sony Music Entertainment in New York City:
At first glance, you would not expect the average A&R to have the skills needed for an analyst role (SQL proficiency, front-end web development, and technical background in an area such as data mining and engineering).
The typical A&R position is more of a ‘front-end’ role—direct communication with talent, closing deals, attending shows and festivals to find the next big stars. Indeed, most A&Rs do not have these technical skills, at least traditionally. They have robust music industry knowledge and are well-versed in the talent acquisition process.
On the other hand, an analyst is a ‘back-end’ or ‘back-office’ role. The analyst assists the A&R by using data analytics techniques and computer software to help aid artist discovery. Analysts don’t necessarily need to be well-versed in the music industry. Still, it could certainly help them secure a role at a major record label.
Common Misconceptions of the A&R Profession in the Music Industry
A common misconception is that A&Rs find new talent – no more and no less. As you can see in the job advertisement at Warner Music Group, an A&R does much more. A&Rs act as the liaison between the attorneys, analysts, artists, and other A&R representatives.
Another misconception, especially for those new to the industry, is that you can walk into an A&R role. That’s certainly not the case, especially at large record labels. Securing an A&R position can take decades of experience. You often need a well-established network of connections in the music industry.
Why A&R Matters
Without a competent A&R department, record labels lose out on great talent. The A&R is the individual who makes the first impression, and the impression could impact whether an artist signs on with a label.
The increasing scope of A&R now means that A&R professionals have a more substantial impact on the profitability of the record label. Working in tandem with analysts, A&Rs must identify the likability of music (both music produced by the label and music that the label seeks to acquire). Both roles also help develop promotion strategies that impact that label’s bottom line.
What’s in Store for the Future?
The role of an A&R has already changed drastically from the days of the 80s and 90s. With the emergence and explosion of social media, record labels have had to shapeshift their talent acquisition techniques.
Record labels also have a lot of powerful technology at their hands – most of which uses data mining and big data. This new technology has helped birth the analyst role, a role that works closely with A&Rs.
There’s a strong possibility that the A&R and analyst role will fuse, especially at smaller firms that can’t afford to hire both. The fusion of functions means that A&R professionals used to scouting talent at concerts and clubs will need new technical skills, including Python, SQL, Java, and HTML coding. Suppose A&R professionals do indeed obtain technical skills. In that case, traditional analysts will need to gain a deeper understanding of the music industry.
The need for A&R will not go away, but it will continue to evolve. Innovative technology and new social media platforms will continue to change the way that record labels find talent.