How record labels scout artists?

Abhigyan Singh
Apr 2, 2017 · 4 min read

Music production is a cut throat business & record labels keep striving to sign the best new talent as early as possible in their careers. Artist & Repertoire (A&R) is the department responsible for signing new artists by understanding the current tastes in the industry & predicting commercial viability of an artist.

They are also called ‘gatekeepers’ of the record company. It is not possible for an artist to sign up without being discovered by A&R department. A&R is considered the most glamorous part of the work in a record label. Allison Klein of How Stuff Work says:

This is because A&R is in charge of discovering new talent. A&R people work very hands-on with the artists that they “sign.” They do everything from assisting with song selection to choosing the people that will produce the album to deciding where the album will be recorded.

Importance of Signing Artists Early

Record labels compete to sign good talent as it directly boosts their revenue. The importance of signing the next Michael Jackson or the next Kurt Cobain, is way too high for a record label in terms of staying relevant in the market.

Examples of successful early signings

· John Hammond from Columbia records discovered Bob Dylan & Bruce Springsteen when they were unknown names. But his trust on his instincts helped made Columbia records a lot of money, as both of them went on to sell over 100 million records.

· Gary Gersh from Geffen Records’ signed Nirvana when Alternative Rock had a very small fan following & wasn’t a commercially successful genre. In hindsight, the decision proved to be a masterstroke.

Factors which influence A&R in signing an artist

Following are few parameters that help an A&R executive make decisions:

· Understanding the market void in terms of genre

· Consistency in producing good quality material

· Unique individualised message an artist is portraying

· Chances of commercial viability

· Current sales (if any)

· Current fan base & influence

· Passion

· X factor

Organisational structure of A&R department

Following are the roles that an A&R department has & activities they perform:

A&R Director: They run the department responsible for finding & signing new music talent & oversee following responsibilities:

Budget of the department

— Hiring & managing staff

— Acting as managers for big artists

A&R Manager: They are the ones with sound business skills & they understand what sells. Their responsibilities include:

Picking artists to work with after they get signed by labels

— Nurturing the act

— Find right producers & songwriters for the artist

A&R Scout: Their responsibilities are:

Scouting new bands & artists

— Oversee the recording process

— Artist Development

General Trends in artist scouting

Scouting departments tend to follow certain trends while signing new artists for them. One of the major influences in signing artists is the currently trending genres in Music Industry. This in past has led to waves of few genres ruling the industry for a certain period of time.

Alternative Rock (1993–1996) — Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Linkin Park, The Cranberries, etc., are few of the major names that succeeded to achieve mainstream success during this period of alternative rock boom.

Glam Metal (1986–1991) — Bon Jovi, Guns N’ Roses, etc., were the biggest commercial successes of this period.

Trend following by scouts can be counter-productive too, as reported in multiple cases. As soon as the boom of a particular genre slows down or ends, it causes a huge loss for record labels as they have already grown their concerned artist list substantially.

Technology in A&R

There has been a huge shift in the way A&R operates in recent years & it has been down to the penetration of internet. Artists are now able to make & market their songs themselves to a certain extent resulting in decreased relevance of A&R in the scouting role.

Record labels now prioritize signing those artists, who have already gained some momentum in the market.

But with increased penetration has come increased noise as there are too many artists & the competition to get noticed is at an all-time high. This is where A&R come into picture as they help emerging artists get better opportunities to break in mainstream space. So, even though technology has majorly changed the way A&R used to work in the past but they go hand in hand!

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