When I was but a wide eyed young whippersnapper, A&R men – and it was always men – got so much stick. The stories of blank cheque books, unlimited expense accounts, with cash on tap for vast quantities of cocaine, we’ve all heard them. Some of us may even have experienced them first hand.
Then there were all the jokes.
Question: How many A&R men does it take to change a light bulb?
Answer: (while doing a silly dance in your chair) I’ll get back to you on that one, OK?
Now it’s all Traffic Wardens and Estate Agents that get the hate. That’s OK with me. I feel they are far more deserving.
Artist & Repertoire departments have been cut back and back and back further, to the bone, amidst the turmoil and constant flux that has been the music business PI (Post Internet).
They were, and maybe still are, a much maligned group, but I have to say I’m rather missing them. Don’t get me wrong, I hate cocaine with a passion, but it’s the subtle skill of the artistic buffer between band and label that I miss. More and more records are being made at home, and finished before the label has any say. Sometimes this can be great, but the majority of artists need someone who’s not so close, to listen with fresh ears and offer advice, tweaks and ideas to improve. Of course, every rule has its exception.
There are a few band producers that have the skill, self-awareness and subjectivity to be great at A&Ring themselves, and there are bands with great A&Rs in them. UNKLE is a case in point, with James Lavelle one of the best ever.
Some producers are such perfectionists that every detail comes under heavy self-scrutiny. Alex Metric is a great example, his vast production talent is matched by his phenomenal perfectionism. That boy could crack walnuts using only his bumcheeks. Still, I bet even someone like Alex would appreciate an impartial set of ears around what he does, as most of us work better by rebounding ideas of someone else.
Obviously, the traditional A&R guy would have an agenda, to sell records for his paymaster, so I’m not sure how impartial he would be, and I know, as well as you do, that a good many records have been ruined by bad A&R. But I’ve heard a lot of records in the last few years, made by friends and colleagues, even heroes, that didn’t feel like they’d had the beneficial touch of a third party.
And some of these records felt like they were screaming to be “A&Red”. I heard one that was SO FAR away from what I saw the same artist do live that it was as if his album had been made by a completely different person.
Often the producers and musicians making these kinds of records will be surrounded by people with so much to gain, or so much to lose, that all they’ll hear is “Yes, you’re great, it’s great, nothing to worry about”, when what they should have been told – and a few were told, often too late, when they asked me – is “this isn’t good enough – I know you’re capable of better than this”, and then be given some constructive ideas on how to improve.
A&R can’t be an easy job. I know, first hand, how you can be bitten, hurt by it, how it can even ruin a perfectly good relationship.
My own A&R involvement with artists, always unofficial and with no strings attached, has had wildly mixed results. On the one hand I’ve helped catalyse some artists to rethink their entire approach to a record, and been thanked with smiles and love. Other times, my feedback has caused a massive fallout, where the opposite happened and we’ve ended up not talking as a result. I’ve found out the hard way that some artists, and the low calibre people that often surround them, only want to hear somebody say “it’s great”. It’s very sad, but quite understandable, I suppose.
Nowadays it’s become so easy to start your own label, that many of the good A&Rs have just stepped out of the bosom of the behemoth and now find themselves both MD and Head of A&R, which as long as they don’t get stuck in that dreaded endless meeting, and maintain a strong relationship with their bands, must be a good thing.
I do love the labels that are an extension of a person, usually a great A&R guy, an architect with a vision combined with a big heart. The amazing Mark Jones, who embodies Wall Of Sound, or in behemoth-world, Jim Chancellor, who’s steered the excellent Fiction Records through these turbulent times, both come to mind as someone to aspire to.
Korda Marshall, who was instrumental in the signing of so many interesting acts to Warner, is also a hero of mine in that world. I got such a kick out of meeting him, and I’d love to meet some more of the characters I’ve noticed in the background of some remarkable records, the James Endeacotts (Rough Trade and 1965 – The Libertines to Toddla T) or the Dave Boyds (Hut Records – The Verve, Placebo, Gomez, Embrace etc) and talk to them about how those records came into being.
What a fascinating way to make a living! I suppose I’ve always been quite envious of them. To effectively earn your daily crust as the fifth member of a four-piece band, a not-so-silent partner, the hand on the tiller, steering them this way or that, is something I’d have really loved to do, had my life not taken the unexpected turn into broadcasting.
The cult of the A&R guy was so woven into the fabric of music that bands used to write songs about these characters (remember ‘Seymour Stein’ by Belle And Sebastian?) Hopefully it still is. The other day, to my utter delight, I discovered a band called Korda Marshall. How brilliant.
I hope the music business can sustain itself enough to keep A&R departments functioning effectively, and I hope the new breed of more-business-than-creative-minded MDs have the gumption to seek out and support these types of artistic lubricators, these wielders of the subtle knife. We’ll always have artists, and, it seems, we’ll always have accountants, but I hope we don’t lose this breed of courtesans, whose artfulness only serves to make the music we listen to, just that bit better, and that little ‘bit’ could be the difference between a good record and a great one.
A&Rs – the good ones – I salute you.