• Jia "Miss Ikonic" McMillan-Shipley

A&R's a Dying Species: Indie Artists The New Predators

The advent of technology plays a vital role in the huge shift of talent acquisitions in the music industry. We live in an era of social media followers, views and streaming analytics. The music industry will forever be a multi-billion dollar business but 40 years ago it wasn’t the overpopulated suburb its turned into today. The modern generation of music appears to be more about the dollar than the talent, more about the profit than the artist development and education, more about politics than the art. It’s because of this that the Artist and Repertoire division of labels suffers. A&R’s aren’t trying to find DMX type talent on the street corners in Yonkers, NY but majority are instead only sifting through artists with a high social media following, tons of views and public figure like status. It’s imperative to note that an artist can make money from their craft before you sign them but that shouldn’t be the only qualifying notation. Subsisting in the times of mumble rappers, substance lacking tunes, instant fame seekers and over night success stories causes the method in which one believes they can succeed to shift. Good music although still cultivated by many doesn’t get you noticed by labels as fast as a large following will. What message is the industry sending to thriving musicians, furthermore, where does this leave A&R’s in the scheme of things?

The Role of an A&R, Then and Now

In the golden years, A&R’s, scouted talent, attended shows, listened to demos and actively read industry press on new talent, to name a few of their tasks. After the A&R rep selected an artist or band of interest they would take their findings to the proper label heads for a potential record deal or management negotiation. The internet removes some of the grunt work of the 90’style A&R. Decades ago A&R’s put their feet to the pavement to scout new talent, now they wouldn’t even have to leave the comfort of their beds. Many labels have cut the budget for the A&R department or have diminished that sector of the label all together. From 2000 to present day, thousands of A&R’s have been let go. Some remained in the music business acting as music managers, music advisors etc. and some removed themselves entirely from the industry.

In the modern era, technically their duties haven’t changed but their role in true artist development has shifted from, “Let’s make this person a star” to “How many followers and Youtube subscribers do they have?” The first statement, of making someone a star, means that the A&R rep will mold their potential, educate them on the industry, get them a vocal coach if necessary, bring in a couple songwriters etc. instead of merely focusing on their mass appeal that they’ve already attained without a label. Now let’s be clear, having a strong following and making money for yourself as an artist without a label gifts you more negotiating power, however, it doesn’t mean that you’re actually talented. There are plenty of fly-by-night musicians creating momentary viral sensations and getting signed for it, what message does that send to the industry at large? The music industry is a money business, no doubt, but good music can and should sell as well. Every talented musician doesn’t have all the currency in the world or all the connections but they may have the fight to continue on and the tough skin to handle the ruthlessness of the music industry. Some true gems of are generation haven’t amassed millions of views but they create quality content. A&R’s should seek out those diamonds and apply the proper pressure. However, you now can just scour Youtube, social media hashtags or music blogs. Some say that music blogs attributed to endangering the A&R species. Blogs and music websites can now make or break an artist. We no longer are waiting until the morning to listen to a DJ premier a record on the radio. Now music is released and consumed 24 hours a day, seven days a week and whomever is the fastest on that coverage seems to reign supreme. Top music websites such as Pitchfork, HotNewHipHop, TheFader and NPR, to name a few, have tens of writers that are constantly waiting for new music to drop. Those sites garner millions of views a week. The radio reaches millions of listeners as well but the 6am radio segment would be six hours late on the release of a song that dropped at midnight that day.

Technology – Inevitable but Stifling

Technology doesn’t just affect the A&R but that A&R’s right-hand men and women. Now A&R’s need to be just as plugged in with bloggers as they are with DJ’s, press and radio personality’s. The issue with the dying off of A&R’s is the trickle down effect as well. A&R’s not truly being A&R’s anymore doesn’t just hurt independent artists but it hurts DJ’s, Radio Stations, music publishers and more. Legendary A&R’s like Paul Harris, Lenny Santiago, Nate Albert, Jeremy Vuernick and Chris Anokute have discovered the likes of Katy Perry, Halsey, Vic Mensa and The Weekend to name a few thereby embodying the true essence of the talent acquisition craft. The music industry is comprised of several sectors just to ensure the success of its artists but it starts with the A&R. The process of making an artist successful begins with finding an artist worth making successful. Worth, in this case, relates to monetary worth but also the worthiness of time spent contacting songwriters, coordinating studio sessions, press, visuals, professional photo-shoots, public relations and the list goes on.

The technological shift in the music industry, although inevitable, still plagues the question: would some of today’s artists have survived 30 years ago? A&R’s, back in the day, were such a vital piece of the music artist selection process. Just “anybody” couldn’t become an artist and sign to Def Jam or Universal; they had to have something special. The Internet introduced the influx of musicians and also increased resourcefulness. More importantly, it presented a global method of exposure only previously found on television and news stations. Now Instagram and Youtube videos can amass millions of views when, once upon a time, your video would have had to appeared on national television to receive that level of clout. Soulja Boy is regarded as one of the first artists to be discovered on the Internet, Youtube in particular, then Sean Kingston and so on. The Internet provides a superb method of reaching a new audience but also helped mold the concrete for the rise of the independent artist.

The Rise of the Indie Artist

This is the DIY generation, the generation of Youtube sensations, music streams and overnight entrepreneurs. This generation truly values their independence and can simply Google how to achieve it thus giving birth to the rise in independent musicians. Some creative’s wish to no longer be anchored by the financial hold and artistic direction of record labels, which creates yet another lull for the once revered A&R sector of the music business. Artists are creating their own labels, making their own connections, creating their own budgets and proudly taking the independent route. We know that labels can control your content, your image, your album release dates and more. A good label that represents your best interest at heart won’t stifle your creative palate and vision but that’s a rarity these days. Artists such as the late great Nipsey Hussle, for example, took true pride in ownership and owned all of his masters. Cardi B, who started off independently with her label-like group K.S.R, yes eventually signed a multi-million dollar deal with Atlantic Records but that was after she garnered a huge following on her own which thus gave her the ability to negotiate such a grand deal that clearly hasn’t shifted her personality or content. However, deals like Cardi’s are one in a hundred thousand and she’s clearly worth it. She could have, however, remained an independent artist like thousands of others. The indie route is appealing because of the creative freedom but still lacks the financial gusto. Being an independent artist is no cheap gig. It requires a lot of money to come out before you ever see any money in return. You have to build your team, your fan-base, shoot your visuals, present quality photos, hire PR and network like your life depends on it. This era doesn’t crave 360 deals and excessive control but freedom. However, this freedom, although admirable, does bless the market with quality digestible content but also pollutes the market with a superfluity of substance-lacking tunes amid illiterate artists in the realm of the actual music business itself and it’s because of that, that the A&R still remains a relevant caretaker.

Why are A&R’s Still Vital?

This industry, now more than ever, needs the assistance of A&R professionals trained to find authentic, timeless, credible talent. An A&R possesses something money can’t buy – a good ear. Good A&R’s know talent when they hear it which takes years of training and of course the successful breaking of various artists. A&R’s roll their sleeves up and deal with the daily plights of discovering legendary musicians. A&R’s take the hit if that artist doesn’t turn out to be a star. A&R’s parent their artists into working music industry adults; they are the moms and dads of new talent. They have died off in unforeseen numbers and as technology advances they may cease to exist all together. In the event that, that extinction occurs it would be a detrimental blow to one of the most profitable and esteemed industries of the world but only time will tell.