Confessions of an occasional A&R

Confessions of an occasional A&R

Although I spend a lot of time sending out music demos and tracks to people, I also occasionally have to sit at my desk and receive them. Over the years, I have acted as an occasional A&R person for different projects ranging from Playstation games to niche labels and singers. My latest stint for a small label in Europe prompted me to write down some of the things that strike about listening to other people’s music.

  • There’s a lot of it out there!

It really is a buyer’s market in many respects. If A&R people are not careful they can be overwhelmed by submissions. In fact, the label I was working for in this case has more or less decided that it is not a very productive use of time to check demos that are sent in and will be switching to a panel that makes personal recommendations soon. Lesson: get to know (and be liked by) people that count, such as radio programmers, concert promoters, influential journalists, etc.

  • Stick to the brief

If it’s a song pitch, don’t send dance tracks to someone looking for country. If it’s a deep house label, your Eurodance is probably going to irritate them more than anything else. They won’t be so overwhelmed that they will change their own style, believe me, and they won’t sit down and give you career advice about what to do with songs that are in their eyes irrelevant. Lesson: focus, focus, focus.

  • Sameness means instant death

What am I looking for when checking song demos? Basically, something that stands out. No matter what the genre, you want something that demonstrates some distinctiveness, that will be recognised on the radio. The voice is absolutely essential for this, followed by the instrumentation and groove. Lyrics will be checked as a way of separating the great from the good in the second run. But remember, there are thousands of bands and producers churning out stuff in your genre. How distinctive are you within that genre?

Along the same lines, if you have 12 tracks in the same tempo you are inviting people to skip onto the next track and then the one after that. Variety is the spice of society.

One exception to this is when you are pitching song demos. The demo singer hopefully is close to that of the one being pitched to, but it’s not an absolute necessity. In this case melody and lyrics are the two keys points, as everything else can be re-arranged.

  • An awful lot of music should be re-written

It’s very frequent to come across a song that has “something”. It could be a vibe, or a good singer or some quirky arrangement. But too few people keep re-writing the songs until they are really good and have all the elements in place. That means playing with structure, tempo and instrumentation until you have milked every good idea. This is another way of breaking out of the sameness mode. Yeah, it takes time. Lesson: look at the various versions of “Torn” to see what a difference a great arrangement can make. Aspire to that.

  • You don’t have much time to catch my attention

I’d say that 20 seconds is the max for knowing if a track is worth listening to. If that sounds cruel, it’s not. It comes from listening to lots of music out of the blue. If a song hasn’t grabbed you after 20 seconds or the first chorus at most, it rarely does after the third verse. Lesson: focus on that first verse and chorus as if they are all people will ever hear. In many cases, this is true.

  • Some writers are not sure what they want

Think carefully about who you are sending stuff to, and why. Are you looking for a label deal or a licence? Are you pitching a song to a singer? Is the publishing available? Are you open to co-writes? Have your answers before you send stuff. This also helps you craft a clear letter.

  • Graphics/visuals are nice, but…

Some submissions come with complete artwork, which is always nice. But just make sure that all the info is readily available. Don’t hide the woods behind the trees. Lesson: always remember that it’s the music that will clinch the deal, not the envelope it came in.

I hope that helps, and doesn’t put you off sending in stuff. If you have any tips you think could be useful, drop them below as a message.


One thought on “Confessions of an occasional A&R

  1. UPDATE: In case you’re wondering, I had 20 tracks to listen to this time, which is manageable. Of the 6 artists, one stood out quite clearly. The 5 others either sounded way too old (ie, out of date but not enough to be billed as revival) or suffered from a complete lack of melody. Two of his tracks are promising, the third is a dud. So he’ll have to send in more stuff before a decision is taken. At least, he’ll get a second chance. But something tells me that if these are his three best tracks it’s not going to happen. Please, man, surprise me.

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