Whether you’re an aspiring A&R rep, manager, marketer, or rockstar it can be helpful to have an idea of what exactly those elusive A&R representatives (short for Artist and Repertoire) are looking for when it comes to signing a new artist. The trouble is there really is no decisive formula and, even if there were, it would certainly vary by company and with industry trends. There’s no exact path to tell you to follow if you want a record deal, but there are a few things a record label is likely to consider that will help you stand out from the crowd and prove yourself.
By Rudolf Ammann from Tsu-shi, Japan (Flickr) [CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Understanding What an A&R Rep Needs
To figure out what an A&R rep wants in an artist you need to first forget about the things like image, and YouTube hits, and all the stuff we’re going to talk about to look at what makes a A&R person successful. Ideally, they all love music and are in it to find and share great music. Still, you need to understand that an A&R rep’s career and livelihood depend on finding and signing successful acts. In a way, the A&R rep is sort of like the venture capitalists you see on the show Shark Tank: they are looking to find something that can become successful while taking on as little risk as possible. Of course, the definition of success changes (for example, an artist who sells 10,000 records might be a big success to a small indie label and a dismal failure to a major). Either way, the person responsible for finding new talent is essentially betting the company’s money, time, and reputation on the fact that their artist will be a success. If they are wrong, it could mean their job is on the line and it is often said that an A&R rep is only as good as the last artist they signed. So, ultimately, an A&R representative is looking for signs that point to success and show that a band has a following or the potential to build one and is willing to do whatever is takes to succeed.
The music is the most important thing, for obvious reasons. It’s hard to say what exactly makes the music appealing, but you can probably tell it when you hear it. Some labels are looking for already completed music, some will work with the artist who shows potential to develop great music, and some just want to see the potential for the artist to sound good while singing songs written by professionals. Either way, something still has to be musically or sonically appealing.
In the days of social media, most record labels expect to see artists that are interacting with fans online and have some sort of established following. It may sound strange to measure the potential success of a musicians by counting their YouTube views, Twitter followers, Facebook friends, etc., but is one of the few metrics that can be applied to measure a musician’s success and ideally high social interaction will correlate to good sales numbers.
What type of following of do you have on the road and where are you playing shows? This kind of experience not only shows that people are interested in seeing you live, but it can also help demonstrate your willingness to work hard and do whatever it takes to succeed because touring and booking shows as an independent musician isn’t always easy. When you are on the road, are you working hard to meet new people, interact with fans, and spread the word about your music? Again, a label wants to see this kind of dedication and determination.
Image and Stage Presence
What is your brand as a musician and how do you look when you actually perform on stage? Do people want to watch you or do you awkwardly stare at the floor (then again if you’re a shoe-gazer that might be appropriate). Stage presence can’t have a precise definition, because what works and makes someone’s performance captivating is different for every musicians and you need to find what that means for yourself based on your music and personality. However, it is important that something about you and your performance be interesting and capture attention in a positive way. There are plenty of rockstars who started out awkwardly shuffling around the stage before they became comfortable and self-assured, but their careers tended to fair better once they found that confidence (sometimes with the help of some coaching and movement lessons). If they have the resources, a record label may be able to help you develop these things after the deal is signed, but it is generally easier to find success if you know who you are as an artist and feel comfortable on the stage. If you’re not sure, start by asking a friend or mentor who will be honest with you and whose opinion you trust.
This really ties in with everything else, but it is worth mentioning again. An A&R rep is looking for someone who has been fairly successful on their own through releasing their own albums, or videos, or touring, or crowd funding, or whatever else because, again, this shows both an established fan base and the fact that you are willing to put 100% into it. Becoming successful as a musician is hard and relentless work and it doesn’t get any easier just because you got a record deal. They need to know that you are capable of handling the work and dedication that will be expected of you.
Publishing is a great source of income these days and if the record label also owns a publishing company this can be an important factor for consideration. Even if the company doesn’t have a publishing company of their own, publishing success can lead to record sales so it can be fairly helpful there too. So what exactly makes a song good for publishing? Unfortunately, that’s hard to pinpoint as well, but it means that a song would do well in movies, film, video games, commercials etc. The best way to figure that out might be to observe it yourself by beginning to pay attention to the types of songs that were made popular or used frequently in those mediums. Some examples of artists who have had a lot of or a few influential music placements include The Fray, Tegan and Sara, Christina Perri, Florence and the Machine, Phillip Phillips, One Republic, and The Ting Tings.
This is by far the hardest quality to identify, but there is a certain charisma and “star power” that someone looking to develop a major star will be looking for. It’s usually said you can tell when someone enters a room but you can also see it in the way stars like Justin Bieber, Katy Perry, Beyonce, and Lady Gaga attract such passionate followers.