R.I.P. A&R: What Happened to Talent Scouting in the Music Industry?
Photo: Macklemore, an artist not signed to any major record label, performing at Yale Spring Fling in 2013.
In the past decade, we’ve seen the world change in ways that no one could have ever predicted, and at a pace that has never been paralleled in history. Much of this change is technology-based: we transitioned from kilobytes to gigabytes in five years; a fifth of third graders now have cell phones. And interesting to this progression of technology and globalization is the place of music. Music isn’t separate from technological culture, but fatefully embedded in it.
The industry has had to adapt to the fast-paced market, and in the process, talent scouts have had to suffer. The Artists & Repertoire (A&R) division of a record label was once responsible for the discovery and development of many a musical career. But what was long hailed as the up-and-coming artist’s key to success has since been abandoned, as record labels and fans alike look for the complete moneymaking package, leaving the diamond-in-the-rough musician to his or her own devices.
Record labels’ need for revenue, coupled with the self-publicity of many artists through social media outlets like YouTube and Reddit, makes the A&R executive less useful. At one time you may have seen him at festivals schmoozing away—the rich-looking thirtysomething in a sea of young adults, with free drinks in tow. Nowadays, he’s bumming it out—that is, if an unpaid college intern hasn’t taken his place—name-dropping his label and the artists he discovered in the past to musicians that could probably get more buzz from a track uploaded to Soundcloud.
To fully understand the bleakness of this image, it might be helpful to get a bit of the history of A&R. American record producer John H. Hammond has long been viewed as the pioneer of the industry. Hammond grew up in a traditional, privileged household, but finally turned his back on Yale and the political lives of his parents in the ‘20s after fully coming to terms with his love of music. Besides writing for UK music weekly Melody Maker (in 2000, the magazine merged with its rival NME), the great Hammond thrived on the streets of Harlem. In many ways, John Hammond was responsible for the desegregation of mainstream music with his discovery of artists like Billie Holiday and Aretha Franklin, in addition to Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan. And since then, A&R execs have largely been responsible for mainstream music, as they most often find acts that have the potential to be profitable and popular.
But those were the days of pen and paper, and not the Internet. Musicians can now garner popularity and attention with the click of a button, no middleman needed, and most importantly, at no cost to record labels. The age of Internet sensation runs supreme.
Look at Karmin. The cutesy pop duo made a name for themselves when singer Amy Hiedemann leaped through Busta Rhymes’ verse in Chris Brown’s hip-hop comeback, “Look at Me Now,” with her fiancé Nick Noonan. 82 million views later, and now the soon-to-be-married couple enjoys performances at New Year’s Rocking Eve, not to mention the number 1 spot on the Billboard charts. L.A. Reid’s Epic Records managed to snag Karmin, after having dueled it out with a number of other big names.
This theme of self-promotion is most evident in a lot of the new musicians coming forward now, artists like Kendrick Lamar, A$AP Rocky, Justin Bieber, and MySpace veteran Colbie Caillat. All of them used various media like YouTube, Bandcamp, and for A$AP—the creation of his own label—to make names for themselves in the industry. A&R execs, while responsible for talent, fail to ensure the success of their signees. The new age of technology and artistic independence has rendered them useless, and while this may be a good thing, one can’t help but consider the implications.
In essence, the A&R department has become obsolete; labels can find new artists by surfing YouTube for “likes” rather than wading through a sea of open mic shows. In addition, there’s a growing appreciation among new artists for independent labels, if not the “unsigned” status. Macklemore recently accomplished a feat that labels never wanted artists to think possible: he snagged the #1 spot on the Billboard charts. For him to do this by himself, while maintaining his credibility as an artist, makes him both evidence of and a player in the new wave in music: the power balance is shifting from the labels to the musicians.
Call it illegal downloading or Spotify, but much of this change stems from tales of mismanagement—like that of Lupe Fiasco after the release of Lasers or Kid Cudi and his album WZRD—for which both A&R and label executives are responsible. With the focus having shifted from making music to making a profit, musicians at large labels either find themselves repackaged for the “betterment of their careers” or used for tracks on laundry commercials, if not ignored. Regardless, until they reach Beyoncé status, their vision is not the supreme one.
The A&R department is just one of many areas in which labels have made drastic cuts. Coupled with this is the power of emerging artists, who are seemingly more inclined to utilize the virality of the Internet than to hand over their rights to a major label. Indie labels are now in vogue, and with Macklemore around, one might wonder if a label is even necessary, so long as you have fans.