Subject: Manage for Success: A&R (Newsletter #17, September 2002)

There's no function more critical for a record label than its A&R, which of course stands for Artists and Repertoire. Quality of artists and their music will ultimately determine the success of any label.

Sales of recorded music have been declining for the last few years not solely due to the illegal downloading of music from the web, but primarily, I think, because so much of the music released is really not very good. There are over 30,000 new albums released each year. How many of those do you think are really worth plunking down $15 to $19 for? Consider this, and the competition you'll be up against when you think about signing new talent.

I was recently asked how you go about finding talent.

First, spend a lot of time in clubs and music venues in your home town and adjacent areas. Listen to as much live music as you can. There's nothing quite like seeing a musician or group perform in front of an audience. Assess the abilities of artists who you think you'd like to work with and who you think may be worthy of a larger public. See any artists you're interested in perform many times before you seriously consider signing them.

When a live performance interests you, close your eyes to simulate what the artist might sound like on disk in your home, or on the radio. If performers are particularly exciting on stage, listening without looking will help you determine how good they might be without the visual aid of a great live performance.

And speaking of live performance, I think it's vital that you only consider signing artists who perform frequently in front of audiences. For without benefit of a touring artist, the selling and marketing of music becomes considerably more difficult.

Another way of finding artists is through the referral of a trusted associate in the music business. It might be an attorney, accountant (yes -- some have good ears,) manager, agent, colleague, or friend who's well-connected. They may hand you a tape or CD-R, or just tell you about an act they've recently seen.

Some labels have "stringers" located in different major cities who regularly frequent clubs and venues seeking new talent. They let the label know when they find someone they think possible. Their compensation is usually a very modest monthly fee plus a comfortable finder's fee if the label signs an artist they've recommended.

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Although I've signed a fair share of artists in my time, I don't consider myself to be among the A&R "golden ears" group. However, Solutions Unlimited and I have aided many clients by setting up specially designed and constructed systems and procedures for their A&R administration, accounting, budgeting, business affairs, marketing, production and other departments that have helped them manage for success.

I've had many decades of experience planning, budgeting, and fixing record industry management problems. Don't hesitate to call me to discuss your particular situation to see how I might come up with a unique solution for your label.

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Another way to find talent is through receipt of unsolicited demo tapes. This is perhaps the least efficient method, but once in a blue moon you might hear someone really good who stands out from the crowd.

Many labels don't accept demos, usually because they take too much time to listen to. Most of the majors don't accept unsolicited demos due to concerns of potential legal problems. But if you're a small label and want to enlarge your artist roster, you just might get lucky listening to1such submissions.

I don't suggest you spend lots of time doing this, for you'll usually know in the first minute or two if an artist has talent and if a demo warrants you spending additional effort on. Frequently a demo doesn't fit the musical genre which your label espouses. For example, a label that specializes in singer-songwriters won't want to spend time listening to hip-hop or jazz artists. So those demos can be put aside.

Occasionally the way a demo is presented may make you decide to place it at the top of the listening pile. Either the artist might be very good looking (not in itself any reason to sign an artist) or the accompanying material is so professional and well-presented it appears that the person submitting the tape is serious about his work and has put effort into creating a favorable impression.

Every so often you may find an artist on a demo who piques your curiosity. You'll then want to see him perform live in front of an audience. Ask the artist when and where he can be seen in a nearby venue. If he has nothing booked you may be able to get him into an appropriate club early in the evening. He, and you, should invite your friends so there's a good "house."

If an artist or group that interests you lives too far away, ask them to send you a video tape of a live performance. The tape needn't be professional -- it's just so you can seen how they perform, and how the audience responds. If you remain interested, a trip to see them in front of an audience in their home town might be in order.

If you've seen a live performance, but still aren't sure about the material, or the artist's capability of making a really fine CD, then consider taking the artist into the studio and recording a demo.

In this case, make a simple demo or development deal. In the agreement you'll state that the artist should record an agreed-upon number of songs which are paid for by the label up to an agreed-upon cost. The signing of the demo agreement by both parties will grant the label a first right of refusal to sign the artist to an extended agreement.

If you like what you hear in the demo, then within a certain amount of time -- usually about sixty days -- you will have a right to sign the artist under mutually acceptable terms. This locks out competitive labels from signing the artist before you can make a more comprehensive agreement.

But in all cases where you're seriously considering signing an artist, you must be able to respond favorably to the following questions. Does the artist reach you or touch you? Can you relate to them and their songs? Especially -- is there something unique or different about them and their music? Do they have something different to say, or a new sound? In short, are they special? Also, and not insignificantly, is this a nice person or group? In other words, are they good people who you'll be willing to spend a lot of time with, because if you sign them, you will be. And most important, is this an artist you're willing to risk a lot of your valuable time and financial resources on?

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Copyright 2002 by Keith Holzman, Solutions Unlimited. All rights reserved.