The Lost Art of Artist Development

When did you last look at the music charts? I don’t think the average music fan does. It is now the domain of managers, labels and agents checking to see if their investment has paid off. Strange how as an industry we are still grappling with an old system which used to be a clear indication of success (financial and otherwise). It’s crazy and one of my biggest frustrations with the industry.

The Lost Art of Artist Development

People listen to music differently now, we all know that. Genres are blurry. One can listen to dance as well as indie and hip hop and jazz if one fancies. With instant access to any music, it’s less about top 40 and more about what song comes to mind. I love this liberation of music! Listeners are no longer restricted to a shortlist of predefined tracks. It’s exciting and a healthy development in the world of music. For the artists it has been both a blessing and a curse. It’s tougher to break through the huge amount of music that now exists, but the opportunities to directly connect with listeners are innumerable and a song can spread globally in amazing ways.

In this music landscape, there’s one thing that doesn’t make sense to me. What happened to music development? You know when an A&R man finds a cool act no one has heard of, signs them to a reasonable deal and spends time helping to build their sound and their confidence. No? Sadly this scenario doesn’t seem to exist, even the majority of large indies don’t go out on a limb any more.

To me it seems the main reason for this is distorted expectations…

Labels are all going after the same acts (as you wouldn’t dare sign an act four other A&R guys aren’t also after) and driving the price of the deals up. There is even competition within the same label which is just a bit mad.

On the artist side, managers and lawyers are pushing for high advances and not looking at long-term deals. Why? The majority of managers want their commission as high and as soon as possible. It’s a shame, as a long-term approach with a focus on royalty rates (especially the digital/streaming ones) and deductions as well as overall support from the label/publisher would be more beneficial to the artist. It’s not just managers though, many artists themselves see the advance as an indication of their worth. A huge advance must mean the label really loves you! Wrong, it means they bowed to silly pressures to get the deal. If the label or publisher truly values the artist, there are many other ways to show their commitment. If the business has spent a fortune and the first single doesn’t work the artist is toast…no one is messing around, they just cut their losses.

Also, nowadays nobody signs an artist that doesn’t have a ‘story’ (as a manager it’s the word I hear bandied about the most these days). You need a few thousand Facebook fans at least and a Twitter following and don’t forget some love on YouTube, Snapchat and Instagram. The artist needs to have done some development before they even garner the interest of the industry. Isn’t it strange that the exact function of the business, to help build the artist’s profile and distribute music, has to be done by the artist first.

Once the ink is dry, the first single (which probably went through 2 or 3 versions and some serious over production) is rushed out the door to radio…yes radio. If it doesn’t make it here then the act simply doesn’t make it. In this day and age I wish the industry would spend as much time selling music to consumers as it does to the industry itself. The press, the radio, the bloggers, the TV stations…the industry spends considerable time and money trying to get these peoples attention. Don’t get me wrong, a well-placed TV spot or an article in The Times goes a long way (and they shouldn’t be ignored), but there are other ways to get music fans to hear your music. One could even try talking to them directly in creative ways. If it doesn’t work at radio, an artist’s career shouldn’t be over before it’s begun.

Everyone involved in the process has high hopes but let’s not forget, we aren’t trying to sell shampoo. This is music, the product of a person, which is essentially an emotional connection with a fan. If a shampoo product doesn’t do well on the shelves it negatively affects the bottom line, but it’s not someone’s life, feelings or future on the line. What we mustn’t forget is that if you sign an artist or writer or producer, you are signing a human being and that’s a big responsibility that should be taken on with as much thought for the financials as their future.

This is where some of the old music industry ideas could work in the new. This isn’t about The X Factor and the Kardashians, where fame is too easily obtained and vanishes in the blink of an eye. It’s about actually developing an artist. The passing of David Bowie reminded me of how crucial to artists, and the industry as a whole, long-term support is. David’s first three solo albums failed to make an impact and it wasn’t until ‘The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust’ and ‘The Spiders from Mars’ that saw his career take off. He had the chance to experiment, develop his sound and mature as a performer. Queen’s first album also wasn’t an immediate success, but they grew bigger with each subsequent release. Looking at more current artists, Sia is an example where her first offerings didn’t break sales records but is now one of the most in demand song writers as well as a successful, creative performer in her own right. Amy Winehouse’s first album was a cool jazz infused collection of tracks that did well, but none of the singles even reached the top 50. Who would have thought that when Adele, Lorde or Ed Sheeran where signed, they would become the global super stars they are today. Even Taylor Swift’s success has been an upward development with each release.

What the above examples illustrate is that allowing artists to grow and experiment can lead to incredible success. Also signing musicians that are a little left field can be just what the music listening public is yearning for. Good A&R is key! Its not just about sitting on SoundCloud or YouTube looking for the next big thing, but rather getting the best out of your artists, nurturing their ideas, partnering them with complimentary writers or producers and encouraging them to perform. Many artists suffer from insecurities so finding ways to build their confidence and feel positive about their sound is just as important as the concept of their music video. This isn’t a role to be filled solely by the labels and publishers, managers are just as key here. Trust is so important, and if the labels in particular are to be seen as more than just glorified banks, we have to start working towards clear common goals.

My hope for the industry is that it gets to a place of common sense. Let’s not sign hundreds of expensive deals in the expectation that a few of them stick. Sign less and sign for the right reasons. I want to see more interesting artists in the charts and hope that we help develop the superstars of the future. It will make for better business and a much better sonic landscape.