What Does It Take to Break in the Digital Age?


     Sam Riback

The industry is coming out of a financial fallow period, and there’s more money to invest in A&R. But along with the perennial challenges of breaking an act, there’s an overwhelming amount of white noise to cut through. Having the “it factor” has become more important than ever.

“The hardest part for an A&R person these days is discerning what an artist actually is when you hear a song,” says Interscope’s Sam Riback. “I think now in the streaming-platform world, you never really know what you’re getting until you get under the hood and have conversations about what they’re making and how they’re making it, if it’s going to translate on a larger level and not just sound good on a playlist.”

“There are so many influencers now,” Epic’s Joey Arbagey cautions. “A social-media star with music can’t always become an artist who matters. A musically inclined influencer might have a song with a lot of streams on it, but can it move them to the next level? Seeing through that is difficult.”

“The difference is like being in front of Avril for the first time,” he continues. “Same thing with Bieber. Even though he was kind of a social-media star, he was so talented and he had that thing. There’s a vibration you feel when you walk into a room with them that lets you know that person is special. I want to know them and I want them to leave me feeling starstruck.”

     Joey Arbagey

As Motown’s Ezekiel Lewis notes, “Everyone has access to social media and blog aggregates, so while it may be easier to discover an artist, the environment has been made more competitive by virtue of everyone having access.” If all execs have access to the same tools, how important is research? And can oh-so-manipulatable social media be trusted when it comes to recognizing real star power?

“Social media numbers can be misleading,” adds Warner Bros.Jeff Fenster. “Someone can have a persona that resonates online, especially with a younger audience, without that audience being ready to invest in that person’s artist career on a long-term basis. Blog attention is also not always the best indicator of long-term success, because blogs cover so much music, and they’re subjective and often fickle.”

Touching on the changing way in which the listener consumes, Republic’s Ben Adelson points out that “Instead of fighting for a one-time purchase, we are now fighting for people's time. Since you can only listen to one song at a time, the competition has never been fiercer.”

So how does one find the acts up for that challenge?

“The best thing to do is to find an artist who’s self-contained—someone who’s made music or has stuff ready,” argues Arbagey. “You’re really looking for that unique talent that knows who they are and knows what their sound is, and either knows how to make their own music or is open to working with the people that will bring them to the next level without a bunch of issues.”

     Ezekiel Lewis

Funnily enough, an excess of analytics—and numbers that can be contrived, as people get more and more digitally savvy—is causing talent-seekers to stray from the data and go back to the basics. The return of the gut is here, and having the full package, as well as authenticity, has never been more important. “The appetite for new signings is alive and well. And I believe it’s important for A&R to embrace the information available, but ultimately, it comes down to following your instincts,” confirms Lewis.

“The public has embraced artists in Pop and Urban who are older or look less ‘perfect’ than was previously thought to be viable,” Fenster asserts. “This has encouraged people with genuine talent, including some songwriters and producers, to pursue artist careers they might otherwise have thought to be impossible.” 

And naturally, strong songs are more important than ever. “Although much has changed, I still look primarily for talent and artistic vision, and most of the time I look for great songwriting ability,” adds Fenster, while Adelson remarks, “Nothing is more valuable than having an artist who can write their own material. The best song always wins.”

Let’s say you want an act. How do you convince them to sign? Young wannabe-stars now have access to production tools. They can download Ableton and Logic onto their laptops, and they can build vocal booths in their closets for less money than has been historically possible. Thanks to streaming and the digital marketplace (and artist-friendly distribution services like TuneCore), the doors to the pipes are open and they have direct-to-consumer marketing options.

     Jeff Fenster & Bebe Rexha

So, do new acts even need major labels nowadays?

“There have always been these anomalies like Chance the Rapper that every artist looks to and says, “I can be Chance the Rapper,” but the reality is that Chance is a superstar,” answers Riback. “He’s the exception, not the rule.”

“In an ideal scenario, the label is there to not only fund, but to add value to an artist's career,” adds Lewis. “Passion and know-how go a long way. Great teams add value.”

Fenster emphasizes that “major label promotion teams are still the best for breaking songs at radio… In addition, majors provide the best framework for a coordinated worldwide push with everyone on the same page.”

“Even with an extremely talented artist, we can add the marketing and promotional support that helps take them to the next level,” mentions Arbagey. “We can offer an entire team of trained executives.”

     Ben Adelson & James Bay

“Artists who lean toward the independent route often do so at least in part because they want to retain creative control,” Fenster expands. “That said, artists with vision can retain creative control via a major now; in fact, those are the artists we want. Because artists can do so much on their own, labels have gotten much better at supporting—rather than dictating—the artist’s vision, providing resources and opportunities, while letting the artist and the artist’s team take the lead.”

“We can now take more chances on artists and be a little more left of center,” Riback points out. We can challenge the marketplace more. We can cultivate something a little more out of the ordinary. For so long, every decision was scrutinized: ‘Is this going to work?’ There was a time when money was so tight that you had to be right all the time. You would hedge your bets as much as possible. Now, I feel like we can take some chances and try some things, see where they go and be more creative.”

The digital space has even caused the live show’s once-integral role in the signing process to shift. “The live performance is usually one of those things you can get a lot better at. It’s not one of those things you either have or don’t,” says Riback. “You’re either a star and charismatic or you’re not. To me, the show is still very important, because it ends up being the final piece of the puzzle, as opposed to the initial piece.”

Everyone wants to be a star in the age of social media, and a sea of pretty, charming faces is pushing the A&R to look for the multifaceted, self-sufficient and left-of-center creatives who can write and produce their own songs. There’s more digging to do, and the glorification of immediacy and access has spawned a singles-driven marketplace. It’s harder to grab attentions, but with revenue being generated from ad-supported and subscription-based streaming, a fire has returned to a corner of the industry that had been hit hard at the start of the 21st century.

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