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THE MORPHING MEANING OF A&R

As streaming has reached its critical mass, black music has overtaken rock as music’s biggest genre. But the DIY culture of the internet has created a challenging new atmosphere for the A&R execs on the front lines, who are responsible for sourcing and developing a new generation of musical talent. In this roundtable discussion, Michelle Santosuosso asks five of the top players in the field about the radically changing A&R process and how they’ve adapted to the ever-shifting landscape, what they’ve learned and why on earth they were willing to talk to someone from this lame excuse for a trade rag.

How has traditional A&R work evolved or changed in the last three to five years?
Shawn “Tubby” Holiday: A&R always stood for artists and repertoire, but now I feel like it stands for artist research. Back in the days of Biggie, Tupac or Lil Wayne, there was no research—you’d just go with your gut feeling and the feel of the music to sign an artist. Now, there’s so much analytics out there, stop signs that tell us, “Should we go for it or not?” Sometimes you’re chasing songs; I don’t really know if you’re chasing stars with this new A&R resource.

Steven Victor: It’s changed a couple ways. Everything is so fast to market, and the development process happens in real time in front of their fans and the public. I feel like back in the day, you would sign someone, develop them and start putting music out. Now, you sign someone and they start putting out music immediately, even if it’s not the best version of the song or themselves.

Tina Davis: In the past, we were all about gut. That is something you fine-tune as you go through experiences with artists. But in the last three to five years particularly, it’s so easy for artists to be able to get on TuneCore to distribute their music; whether mixed properly or not, it doesn’t really matter. That’s made it very difficult for A&R people to be able to pick through when it comes to just looking online. We look at SoundCloud, YouTube, Instagram. The analytics story is important. To me, a real A&R person today has the balance of the two. You have your instincts, your gut, and you look at the analytics [to determine] what to put up for the project.

Derek Aroh: In 2012-2013, when I started as an assistant, the major labels were determining what fans liked for the most part. But in the last five years, the artist creates so much energy on their own that, by the time it gets to the label’s standpoint, we’re more following their lead rather than trying to change something up or overdo something to feed it back to the fans. You always used to hear these horror stories about artists going to labels and labels making them change their sound, but you don’t hear those stories much anymore, because the artist is already doing what’s working.

Tim Glover: Ideally, the base job of an A&R is to help develop an artist, make sure they have big records. That overall goal is still the same, but now it’s more of a development process, and it’s changed in terms of how we connect. Artists now are so much different in terms of the way that they think about major labels. Our overall goal is the same, but A&R’s approach has changed.

Specifically, how does sourcing new talent work in such a data-driven label culture?
Glover: The A&R game has become more data-driven, but the data is nice to have. We all love to see the numbers jump before we sign anything, but that’s not something I’m really into. I pay attention to the numbers and am definitely aware, but I go off of what I love. You don’t necessarily have to have numbers to get a record deal, or for me to even pay attention. I don’t think that’s a way to operate. I prefer to go off of what I hear in the music. If I love it, then we’ll push it through.

Davis: The thing about analytics is there’s so many ways you can buy followings and buy listeners, set it up to look like you’re something great, and you’re not. [As A&R] you have to be able to go through it with a fine-toothed comb for who are the real stars and who are fake. There are a lot of people who can sing, people on Instagram look like they have something special because they know how to filter and do all these different things on social media that make you say, ‘Wow.’ Say they have 350,000 followers and post something, and only 300 people like it. You have no fan engagement. But someone with say, 50,000 and every time they post something 20k like it, they’re looking for that person. At the end of the day, you got the gut/the instinct and then you have the analytics. The analytics are important for us on what we should be giving as an advance and for a deal. And it helps me have questions to ask when I sit down and talk to them.

Holiday: I think labels are finally doing a better job of it. Instead of having one-hit wonders, when you get the data, you already know some of the information, since artists can manipulate. When Post Malone had “White Iverson,” I think the streams and numbers were manipulated, but guess what? He ended up being a real artist. So you check the data and the analytics, but then you’ve also got to go with your core belief that this artist could have a future. Post Malone is one of the most recent artists whose success shows that he was able to rise above that.

Victor: I don’t even have Indiefly or different software and apps that record labels use, where they pay companies to give them data. I don’t subscribe to it, I don’t use it at all. I’m doing it the old fashioned way: If I find somebody and think that they’re a superstar and I think they’re talented, I sign them and hope for the best. I don’t really look for the numbers, because the numbers could be deceiving—shit moves so fast these days. Somebody could be poppin’ today, and then six months later they do the wrong thing or something happens; the fans are on to the new. If you’re basing it on data, you can get bit. If you’re signing a superstar who’s crazy-talented and they have numbers, all the better. The data might help me support someone in a better deal, but I’m not giving a deal just because they have numbers to support it.

Aroh: At the end of the day, it’s still gut. It’s still about what you feel in your gut when you hear an artist, see an artist. The thing about data is to reinforce what I’m thinking. When I see an artist, I’m examining if they’re a star and great rappers or singers. The stats that I see on it, whether the streams, sales or even something like tickets, support instinct. I’m a big, big, big person on ticket sales, because if you have no hit record and you have a thousand-cap roof—that’s a real audience. They’re never going to leave. If you’re doing a thousand caps in every city and you have no hit record, imagine when you have a hit record. That means you have people that care. I think data is important, but I don’t think data should decide.If you have only data for an artist, you can see numbers, but you can’t see culture. Without seeing culture, you won’t be able to know what to do with it if you’re not living it, smelling it, tasting it. If you’re not part of it, you don’t know what the hell to do with it. You could see the numbers are booming but what happens when the record doesn’t work? Or the artist does something stupid and people aren’t fucking with them anymore? That’s why data is important—but it’s not final.

What are some of the skills that you had to pick up in order to stay on pace with the times?
Holiday: One of the big skills is to be connected to the youth. They don’t have the attention span anymore. If you talk to the kids and see who they’re following, the social media, whose show they’re going to see, that gives us an idea—that’s the culture. They have their finger on the pulse and there’s a lot of those internet kids, and new stuff that pops up every day. We’ve got to laser-focus on those signs. Outside of the higher-up execs, I’m more excited with dealing with the youth and being attached to what they’ve got going on.

Victor: One of the skills, I would say, is learning how to work inside of a corporation. Corporations and record labels don’t move at the same pace as an independent or a manager. If you’re managing someone and make decisions right now, it goes into effect right now with an independent. The major label structure is corporate, so there’s different channels you have to go through to get things done. Especially when it involves money. Things don’t happen as fast. With the Internet, it all moves so fast. Learning how to navigate that is a skill. Signings can literally happen overnight. You could meet somebody today at three o’clock and you’re like, “I love this artist.” By the time you speak to business affairs, they might have signed to somebody else.

Glover: A&Rs need to have relationships. That’s extremely important. Joie [Manda] was seeing how I was connecting with the artists on a personal level from the things that I would be setting up. I learned how I could transfer that artist relationship and turn it into more of a music tool in a creative aspect. I didn’t really come from an A&R background. I always loved music and would be in the studio with our artists from time to time, but mostly, I had good relationships.

Davis: Reading data and studying exactly what that means. Knowing that Apple is about $6,500 per million streams, that is something I had to learn. I had to get that knowledge. Or figure out when someone has a bot and when they’re hiring someone in India to keep liking their photos or adding to their followers, and then read through those followers to see if they are really legitimate. There’s so many different things you have to find out. I had to figure out what platform or where I should look to find a new talent in a different territory and online. Not just a lawyer calling you, saying, “Hey, I have an incredible artist.” A lot of times, the lawyers don’t have the star until the star is already talking to a major or talking to an indie.

Aroh: I think it’s understanding data. It’s important to know what it means when streams are at a breaking point on Shazam, SoundCloud, YouTube, Instagram. But for me, it begins and ends with the skill of taste. When one has taste, they know exactly what they like and if they trust what they like, and they’re right whether the artist signs or not. They’ll be able to choose correctly most of the time. That’s what I’ve gained on my journey, the skill of taste. I’ve always had good taste, but it got refined.

Who are your mentors, and what did you learn from them?
Davis: The majority of mentors I’ve had in my career have been men. One of the best was Chris Lighty, rest in peace. I’ve learned a lot from everyone. I’ll tell you, the person who taught and helped me the most was Russell Simmons. Russell was the key. He was so gracious to share information and tell me how to get money out of his own company. I couldn’t even believe it. But it was a dream of mine since age 13 to work for Russell and for Def Jam.

Glover: The one who has been the closest to me is Joie, a real mentor to me in this game. He was really the only one who gave me an opportunity, and I took it and ran with it. Naturally, he became my mentor and friend, because I’m able to talk to him about anything, and I feel confident he’s going to give me a real answer. It took a long time to get to this point, and I’m still working every day to make sure I’m continuing to grow and get better.

Holiday: Jody Gerson, L.A. Reid and now Irving Azoff. Jody used to be my boss as a publisher, so I still talk to her about ideas. Even though we’re competitors now and go up against each other on deals—some I win, some I lose to her—we’ve still got mutual respect where I can call her for advice. Irving is a legend; he’s probably the best doing it now. We work on Travis Scott together, and he can make any call, anytime. What I like about Irving is he leads by example—there’s not one call or email that doesn’t get returned. I think that in business, if you want to be a great executive, that’s what you should be doing. People shouldn’t say, “I can’t get this person on the phone. He doesn’t return emails or calls.” Because the execs who are doing that are going to be out of the game quickly. Now, more than ever, you have to have a good follow-through and treat everybody the same. There’s no room for ego.

Victor: Sonny Draper—he started Slaughterhouse. Early on, the information he was giving me was based on independent-businessman philosophy. Understanding the value of a dollar. And keep moving. That’s my thing. If it’s not going to be timeless, don’t waste your time.

Aroh: Trevor Jerideau. I was his assistant for three and a half years and before that, his intern. Without him I wouldn’t be here. Obviously, Peter Edge and Keith Naftaly—I owe everything to those guys. Mark Pitts as well as Walter Jones from UMPG; they’ve been very important for every step of my growth. Outside the building, Big Jon [Platt]. He’s somebody that I love because he’s given me a lot of great advice. Katie Vinten at Warner/Chappell, same thing. There’s a lot of others, but those are people who I owe so much of my career to.

Let’s talk about some great new music you are excited about.
Davis: Jade Nova. She has control, she knows what she wants, writes her behind off and I’m just enamored with her. There’s another young lady who is Mexican and Columbian, a little firecracker who’s a sweetheart, Sierra Ramirez. We did some incredible records on her. Another artist who is one step away from commercial success and already one of the best rappers out is Mozzy.

Aroh: GoldLink’s new project. He’s forming a lot of new sounds he’d never tried before. BROCKHAMPTON—this album is going to be really dope. They have a really strong, rabid core fanbase that’s going to explode. I love Childish Gambino’s album. This kid from Boston, Cousin Stizz. And I’m a huge fan of this kid from Atlanta, Young Nooty.

Victor: This kid YKO Osiris from Florida—he’s fire. We’ve also got Bernard Jazz and this other kid named Ashton Travis I just signed.

Glover: I’m extremely excited about 6LACK’s new album. I work closely with J. Cole and A&R everything on his Dreamville label. Bas and Ari Lennox have new music coming, and J.I.D. has a project that sounds amazing. Excited about Boogie, who is with Love RenaissanceEminem had heard his music, loved it and wanted to be involved, so we did a situation with him and Shady. Totally organic. Summer Walker, also with Love Renaissance. LVRN is an extremely talented group of guys who are in the culture, in the know and understand how to position and market things correctly, along with having good ears.

MARTY'S NOTE TO
THE TROOPS
A 12-year run is coming to an end. (9/18a)
MEMO FROM JON
Platt heading to Sony/ATV. (9/17a)
THE MORPHING MEANING OF A&R
Tina, Tubby, Steven, Derrick and Tim weigh in. (9/17a)
CHART STORY: ONE NATION UNDER STATION
McCartney's first #1 debut. (9/17a)
NEW RELEASES,
CARRIED FORWARD
Sitting "Pretty." (9/18a)
RAINMAKERS
The ones making history now.
WHO'S NEXT?
Who will be the next big pub and label players?
THOUGHTS ON LUNCH?
Like, will it ever get here?
THE KIDS
They're leaning on the button.
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