A&R Think Tank:New Realities of Finding New Recording Artists

Sat Bisla, Jeff Blue, Ritch Esra and Perry Watts-Russell have worked with and/or signed artists such as Radiohead, Meredith Brooks, Secret Machines, The Thompson Twins, Linkin Park, Macy Gray, Korn, Dido, Damien Rice and The Chemical Brothers, and they have a lot to say about the current state of the record industry and the art of finding new talent.

By The G-Man
A Bitchin' Entertainment Contributor

If a record company does not find artists to bring to market, it will die. If a record company does not successfully develop its artists to reach enough people in the market, the artists will die (or be dropped). If an A&R executive supports artists who fail in the market, the executive's career will die.

This puts tremendous pressure on the entire field of A&R. Adding to the pressure are the shocking number of layoffs reported by Ritch Esra, formerly an A&R exec with Arista Records and now publisher of the A&R Registry which, reflecting the volatile nature of the business, comes out every 8 weeks.

(Quick aside to industry newcomers: A&R stands for Artists & Repertoire; A&R executives find, sign and guide talent, match artists with songs, bring artists together with producers, and oversee many aspects of artists' careers, often including marketing and distribution decisions.)

In a free-wheeling panel discussion led by NARIP president Tess Taylor, Sat Bisla, Jeff Blue, Esra and Perry Watts-Russell revealed some truths about their sometimes secret-shrouded business.

The event kicked off with Esra delivering a marvelous mini-lecture that could have been called "20 Years of A&R History in 10 Minutes."

In shorthand, it went something like this:

Early 80s: Pop… video… sound + image gained importance; Mid-80s: Rock resurgence; End-of-80s: Indie labels sold out to majors; Early-90s: E-mail and Internet… A&R research… label-free artists (Ani Defranco, Collective Soul, etc.); ‘90s: Interscope, TVT, LaFace, Aftermath… Big 6 becomes Big 5 (PolyGram acquired by Universal)… P2P (peer-to-peer filesharing); 2000s: Big 5 becomes Big 4 (merger of Sony and BMG)… shrinking job market at the major labels, with hundreds fewer A&R positions.

Tess Taylor: Each of those events signaled a change in the record industry as well as a change in the manner in which A&R is conducted. What do you see coming next?

Ritch Esra: We'll see the Big 3. But we'll also see many more smaller firms selling smaller numbers of records each for an increase in total sales. And the Supreme Court is going to rule on P2P (MGM vs. Grokster case currently pending).

Taylor: In light of the contraction of the job market for A&R executives, what steps are each of you taking for self preservation?

Jeff Blue: I'm producing, writing and publishing songs. This also helps in communicating with artists when I'm working from an A&R standpoint.

Sat Bisla: It's a shame that the art of A&R has diminished in recent years. Fewer A&R people know a great deal about producing, marketing, songwriting, song selection, performance, or radio. By practicing your craft in each of these areas, you are able to offer the true nature of A&R to artists who work with you. This is more than just self-preservation; this is extending the art into the marketplace.

Perry Watts-Russell: I don't think about self preservation. For me, it always comes back to recognizing music that makes people respond. I always seem to like music that defies categorization, so the problem becomes how to reach people with these new sounds. It's a new challenge each time.

Taylor: How has A&R improved or changed at the major labels?

Esra: There are fewer signings, but the labels are more committed to the artists they sign. They make certain they have enough staff to handle all functions. Ironically, this has opened the door to thousands of independent artists and indie labels.

Blue: The focus is on the bands you sign. I'm always concerned with this: is the artist amazing? That's when you can commit to working with them.

Bisla: Major labels have seen it doesn’t work to just throw money at artists. The best methodology lies in structuring partnership agreements, with thresholds for payment at each level of achievement. By working together, each side of the partnership stands to gain more.

Watts-Russell: I think the most important thing is to sign better artists.

Taylor: Let's move on to emerging talent acquisition. What are the trends: raiding the indies, using them as an incubator, partnerships, development deals?

Bisla: The landscape has changed in so many ways. Finding new talent is, in many ways, easier now because there are a lot of avenues for music to be heard. College radio, Internet distribution, satellite radio, and the iPod are all becoming more important. It is exciting to be able to take part in this on not just at a regional level, but at a national and even global level.

Watts-Russell: There is an audience for all that is not homogenized, formularized and corporate. There are many listeners who are interested in the truthfulness of the art.

Esra: That's true. There are new artist breakthroughs even without most people hearing of them. Each of us can name several bands and artists who have sold significant numbers of albums, and even gone gold and platinum, but whose names are not generally recognized except by the segment of the market that responds to their music. And future successes in this business may not look anything like what we have known in the past. One thing that is very important: the major labels must end their compulsion to take any success and suck every last penny out of it as fast as they can. It's obscene. And while it may increase short-term income, it's at the expense of [creating] a long-term career.

Bisla: The trend at the moment is for foreign artists to be signed. The pipeline is full overseas with real creativity, not just in music, but also in TV and fashion. In the USA, things are often more of a cookie-cutter, trend-following nature rather than trendsetting.

Taylor: What are your thoughts on radio today?

Bisla: There is so much diversity in satellite and Internet radio, which is not suffocated like the terrestrial radio channels. The independent stations, free from the corporate mentality, are all about a sense of community, listener response and fan interaction. They have not been formatted to death.

Esra: I think that traditional radio channels have been researched to the point of extinction.

Bisla: Yes, the indies don't use traditional research. They go by the emotional response to the music.

Taylor: What are your thoughts on A&R research?

Watts-Russell: You really need a gut feeling for what the artist is doing and saying. That's my A&R research.

Taylor: Many young artists don't want long-term deals or large label deals. Would you comment on this?

Watts-Russell: I shouldn't admit this, but they have a point. If you've got a song you can slam on the radio, we're better at that than anybody in the world, but when it comes to building something from the ground up, we're not very good at it. I think it's changing, but we have a way to go.

Esra: What everyone has to keep in mind is that a signing, at any level, is a relationship. And a relationship has to be valuable and viable for both partners. Today, so many young artists are not seeing the value in being in a serious relationship with a major label. And even when they do, many are taking care to handle their careers carefully, to try to get the best a large distributor can offer with some of the approach of an indie.

Prior to their closing statements, Taylor threw the discussion open for audience questions.

Michael McCarty, President of EMI Music Publishing (Canada), inquired about the fact that chart-topping records have been increasingly urban-influenced for the past several years, and wondered, "Is rock becoming a marginal genre?" Esra's reply was short and to the point: "Chart rankings reflect radio play. Rock fans don't listen to the radio and urban music fans do."

Personal artist manager Bill Siddons (Jerry Cantrell, The Doors) noted that major label deals are antiquated in their financial arrangements, using the pay structure for digital downloads as just one example. "I can't justify to my artists the signing of a contract that takes a digital download and only pays 15% of 75% because the label is subtracting for things like packaging and free goods." Many in the audience applauded. The panel members agreed that contracts must be restructured to fit the new economic realities of today.

Chris Boardman raised the issue of major labels integrating with social networking, and the panel acknowledged the impact of sites such as MySpace.com, where more and more artists on every size label are debuting works, sometimes even entire albums.

Taylor: With all the social, political and economic challenges faced by the record industry as well as the A&R sector of it, what are your final thoughts for the future?

Esra: I think we're headed for a tremendous future! Attitudes and structures are changing for the better. I think we're going to see 2,500 companies selling music. And artists are going to be more accountable for their careers.

Blue: The future will be great. There is so much more access to every genre of music, so many more ways to get and hear music. People are going to be influenced by types of music they never thought they'd get to hear.

Watts-Russell: The future looks fantastic.

Esra: The revolution is already underway.

(Note: the event was recorded and CDs will be available for sale from NARIP. Please inquire by emailing info@narip.com or calling 818-769-7007.)

ABOUT SAT BISLA Sat Bisla, Jim McKeon and Steve Smith are partners in A&R Worldwide, a firm that communicates with nearly 8,000 music industry professionals as well as producing the syndicated radio program, "Passport Approved," showcasing the best new emerging and breakthrough artists from around the globe. The firm is also behind MUSEXPO, an annual event bringing together professionals from the worlds of radio, A&R, publishing and artist management. Bisla was involved in the U.S. development of such artists as Dido, Sixpence None the Richer, H-Blocks, Rammstein, Fatboy Slim, and The Chemical Brothers.

ABOUT JEFF BLUE As VP of A&R at Warner Bros. Records, Jeff Blue signed and executive produced Linkin Park. At Zomba Music Publishing, he signed, developed and wrote with Macy Gray and signed Limp Bizkit and Korn. He is currently VP of A&R at RCA Records. As a journalist, his work has appeared in Billboard, HITS, Crossroads, Entertainment Weekly, and others.

ABOUT RITCH ESRA Beginning his career at A&M Records in radio promotion, Ritch Esra moved into A&R at Arista Records, where he signed the Thompson Twins and worked with Aretha Franklin, Dionne Warwick and Whitney Houston. Since forming the Music Business Registry in the early 90s, he publishes directories (A&R, Publishers, Attorneys, Producers/Engineers, and Film/TV Music) that are widely regarded as the best, most up-to-date and accurate in the record industry.

ABOUT PERRY WATTS-RUSSELL Beginning as an artist manager, he worked with Berlin, Toni Childs and Marc Cohn, among others, and then became Sr. VP of A&R at Capitol Records, where he signed or helped develop Radiohead, Everclear, The Dandy Warhols, Meredith Brooks, and Amy Correia. Currently Sr. VP of A&R at Warner Bros. Records, he signed Damien Rice, Muse, Secret Machines, among others.

ABOUT TESS TAYLOR Tess Taylor is founder and president of the Los Angeles Music Network (LAMN) and the National Association of Record Industry Professionals (NARIP). Based in Los Angeles, NARIP has branch operations in New York, Las Vegas and London. A frequently quoted analyst of industry developments, she is also an instructor, music business lecturer and speaker at international industry conferences and institutions ranging from the Harvard Business School to UCLA, as well as author of numerous articles and interviews with top record executives. As a consultant, her clients have included InsideSessions, a joint venture between the Universal Music Group and Penguin Putnam, Inc., as well as independent labels and Internet start-ups.

Scott G owns G-Man Music & Radical Radio (www.gmanmusic.com) where he makes radio commercials for Verizon Wireless, Goodrich, Micron, National Steel, the Auto Club, and many others. He also is recording artist The G-Man, with 4 albums on iTunes and Delvian Records.

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