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Friday, 21 March 2014 10:14

Post-SXSW Panel Recap: The New Era of A&R

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SXSW 2014The general theme of panels at this year’s conference seemed to be ancillary revenue streams, which is appropriate in an age where the music industry is still struggling to define a new normal, so to speak. Over the last five years industry professionals have watched the breakdown of their proven traditional value structures, and the industry has undeniably imploded and then exploded with hundreds of new ideas, value structures, and motives.

Furthermore, with the aid of extreme advancements in technology in this digital age, virtually everyone has become a content creator in some form or another. This shift drove the entire industry, especially marketing, back to grassroots seems the most important concept for a band to understand these days is direct-to-fan marketing (D2F)--everything has become D-I-Y.

With the value of major artist/writer contracts in question, and with an industry-wide reversion to indie and licensing deals, the issue is now, of course, that the professional markets are over-saturated with music and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to wade through all the mud to find diamonds, or even worse to find rough diamonds that, with a little polishing, could be stunning. SXSW Music

While you might think these issues predominantly affect artist managers and label execs, we beg to differ, as it is clear that, in this country at least, the value of sync licensing has not only changed for the better, but has become imperative to an artist’s success. Additionally, as we have discussed before, the “new” A&R is arguably only in licensing to ancillaries, and mainly sync licensing because of its ease (product/brand licensing can only work for some artists, mechanicals are a big grey area, and performance licenses aren’t nearly as lucrative).

With that in mind, we encourage you to think about sync as A&R, and of music supervisors as A&R agents, and we’d like to intro our SX panel coverage with a summary of a SoundCloud moderated panel. The panel, entitled, “The New Era of A&R” featured Virgin EMI UK’s President of Music, Mike Smith (the other panelists limited their input to label specific advice and are thus not included in this summary).

Smith, who is responsible for signing some of the biggest acts in music like the Arctic Monkeys, Arcade Fire, and the White Stripes, and who works primarily with Virgin’s A&R department--yes, it still exists--focused mainly on the ideas of ambition and drive from the artist’s side, and on devotion and genuine interest from the label’s side. He said that “In a time of collapsing business models in our industry, [being able to] work with an artist to build a catalog that will carry their legacy is what I look for.”

“The challenge,” he adds, “is how to pick something that’s hot now and will be hot 35 years from now--” a concept that applies not only to labels, but also to supervisors. He spoke about how industry changes have caused massive shifts in how artists get signed noting that, “It’s a lot easier to get dropped than it is to get signed, once you get signed you’ve got to work a lot harder. The biggest mistake is when an artist gets signed they think ‘ah, now we’ve got people doing shit for us,’ you’ve got to work, sure you’ve got people at the label who will help you, but its just not that way anymore, there’s not as many people working at labels anymore -- you’ve got to be full of ideas. You want to be working with people who are super ambitious, who have the next 5 years of their lives planned out.”

He also pointed out that labels unfortunately no longer have as much risk allowance as they once did, just as music supervisors have to take calculated risks when pitching. So it matters, sincerely, that a band or an artist be driven, passionate, and great from the get-go “you’ve got to have that eye of the tiger,” he said.

“The most important quality to have,” Smith says, “is ambition. The ability to get up every day and go out and do whatever you need to do with your music. Someone could have great music and a great show, but if you don’t have ambition, if you don’t believe you can sell platinum, then it will go horribly wrong.”Mike Smith

“If you look at Chris Martin and Noel Gallagher, they have to make music, they have to keep pushing, and they keep working. Where it goes horribly wrong is when you think you’ve got that kind of person and then they can’t get out of bed. It’s more disheartening and disappointing to work with an artist for two years and then the week the album comes out it’s a failure, than it is to miss a great act.”

Smith’s comments were later mirrored in a panel of music supervisors who noted that, as supervisors they become an extension of a brand and of an image. Because of that position, the artists they represent also become an extension of a brand and it is imperative that an artist have their career sorted. Supervisors, like labels, will look at an artist’s social media presence and quality of posts, and most importantly whether or not they tour.

Smith additionally stressed the importance of being easy to work with, because if not, the act is likely to be passed over on personality alone. Supervisors and label execs alike want artists who are genuine, and easy to work with. “If you’re an ass,” says Smith, there’s no love-loss as “you’ll probably f*** it up somewhere along the line anyway.”

Where traditional A&R and Music Supervision differ however, is in the luxury of time. Smith noted that “One of the most important things in A&R is to--once you’ve listened to something and passed on it--to have the gaul to go back and listen again. Because A&R people often discover someone so early in their careers that maybe a band is really bad, but if they’re good they’ll improve.” However, music supervisors rarely get the opportunity to reconsider something that wasn’t excellent from the beginning.

Finally, Smith closed his lecture with the rather unorthodox statement, “Honesty is sometimes not the best policy,” why? “Because if you’re too honest with a manager up front like, ‘Oh we really love their sound but they need to change, x,y,z’ then that person will move on, change all those things and sign to someone who just kept saying ‘You’re great, you’re great’ all along.” If it were music supervision, you could potentially be passing up a perfect placement, which could stain your reputation (in a world of mostly freelance, that’s crucial).

In conclusion, while it is important for artists to be gracious, humble, and ambitious, the same can be said for music supervisors who often need to be easier to work with, as it is their job to successfully build the bridge and then navigate the relationship between musicians and content creators.