A&R Men/Women

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A&R Men/Women

Artist and Repertoire (A&R) representatives count among the great, unseen heroes of the recording industry. During the early decades of the recording industry, A&R men (there were very few women) were responsible for many stages in the production of recorded music. Since the 1960s though, A&R has become increasingly synonymous with "talent scouting." A&R is one of the most coveted positions in the recording industry, but it may also be the most difficult. The ability to recognize which acts will be successful is critical to the survival of all record companies, but it is a rare talent. Those with "good ears" are likely to be promoted to a leadership position in the industry. Several notable record company executives, especially Sun's Sam Phillips and Atlantic's Ahmet Ertegun, established their professional reputations as A&R men. A few of the more legendary A&R men have become famous in their own right, joining the ranks of rock n' roll's most exclusive social cliques.

The great A&R men of the pre-rock era were multitalented. First, the A&R man would scout the clubs, bars, and juke joints of the country to find new talent for his record company. After signing acts to contracts, A&R men accompanied musicians into the studio, helping them to craft a record. A&R men also occasionally functioned as promoters, helping with the "grooming" of acts for the stage or broadcast performances.

Some of the most astounding A&R work was done before World War II. A significant early figure in the history of A&R was Ralph Peer. Peer was the first record company man to recognize, albeit by sheer luck, the economic value of Southern and Appalachian music. While looking to make field recordings of gospel in the South, Peer reluctantly recorded "Fiddlin"' John Carson, whose record yielded a surprise hit in 1927. Subsequent field recording expeditions into the South were immediately organized and among the artists soon signed to Peer's Southern Music Company were Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family, the twin foundational pillars of country music. Peer's A&R strategies were emulated by other A&R men like Frank Walker and Art Satherly, both of whom would eventually play significant roles in the development of country and western music. John Hammond, who worked many years for Columbia Records, likewise had an impressive string of successes. He is credited with crafting the early careers of Billie Holiday, Benny Goodman, and Count Basie in the 1930s. In the post war years, Hammond discovered among others Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and Stevie Ray Vaughn.

In the 1950s, many new record companies emerged with aggressive and visionary A&R strategies. Until the early 1960s, top executives at record companies substantially controlled day-to-day A&R functions. In most instances, the chief executives' personal biases and tastes conditioned company A&R strategies. These biases, which often hinged on old-fashioned notions of race, class, and region, permitted upstart companies to exploit the growing teen market for R&B and rock n' roll. Several of the noteworthy independent record companies of the 1950s were headed by astute A&R men, like Ahmet Ertegun (Atlantic); Leonard Chess (Chess); and Sam Phillips (Sun), who eagerly sought talent among blacks and the Southern whites. Phillips' discoveries alone read like a "who's who" list of early R&B and rock. Among the legends he found are B.B. King, Howlin' Wolf, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, and Jerry Lee Lewis. Major labels eventually realized that their conservative A&R practices were eroding their market share. Major labels began using the independent labels to do A&R work, purchasing artist contracts from small labels (e.g., RCA's purchase of Presley's contract from Sun). The payola scandal of the late 1950s was in many ways a means of compensating for A&R deficiencies at the majors.

In the early 1960s, the major labels continued to display conservative tendencies in their A&R practices. Several famous A&R gaffes were made during this era. Columbia Record's head, Mitch Miller, refused to recognize the staying power of rock n' roll, and tried to promote folk revival acts instead. Dick Rowe, head of A&R at Decca, became the infamous goat who rejected the Beatles. Four other labels passed on the Beatles before London picked them up. When the Beatles became a sensation, A&R representatives flocked to Liverpool in hopes of finding the "next Beatles." In the later 1960s, adjustments were made to overcome the scouting deficiencies displayed by the majors. Major labels increasingly turned to free-lance A&R persons, called "independent producers," who specialized in studio production, but who were also responsible for discovering new talent. Phil Spector and his "wall of sound" emerged as the most famous of all the independent producers in the 1960s.

In the later 1960s, younger and more "street savvy" music executives began replacing older executives at the major labels. Several stunning successes were recorded. Capitol's A&R machine brought them the Beach Boys. At Columbia, Mitch Miller was replaced by Clive Davis, who along with several other major label executives in attendance at the Monterrey Pop festival signed several popular San Francisco-based psychedelic acts. In an effort to increase both their street credibility and their street savvy, some labels even resorted to hiring "house hippies," longhaired youths who acted as A&R representatives. Still the major labels' scouting machines overlooked L.A.'s folk rock scene and London's blues revival subculture. The ever-vigilant Ahmet Ertegun at Atlantic led a scouting expedition to England that won them both Cream and Led Zeppelin. In the 1970s and 1980s, major label A&R departments became larger and more sophisticated, which helped them beat back the challenge posed by independent label A&R. Some labels even tried hiring rock critics as A&R representatives.

A&R remains a challenging job. The "copy-catting" behavior displayed in Liverpool in the mid 1960s repeats itself on a regular basis. The grunge rock craze of the early 1990s revealed that a herding mentality still conditions A&R strategies. Visionary A&R representatives still stand to benefit greatly. Shortly after Gary Gersh brought Nirvana to Geffen Records he was named head of Capitol Records. Few A&R persons maintain a consistent record of finding marketable talent and consequently few people remain in A&R long. Those who do consistently bring top talent to their bosses, wield enormous power within the corporate structure and are likely to be promoted.

—Steve Graves

Further Reading:

Chapple, Steve, and Reebee Garofalo. Rock and Roll Is Here to Pay. Chicago, Nelson Hall, 1977.

Dannen, Fredric. Hit Men. New York, Times Books, 1990.

Denisoff, R. Serge. Solid Gold: The Popular Record Industry. New Brunswick, New Jersey, Transaction Books, 1975.

Escott, Colin, and Martin Haskins. Good Rockin' Tonight: Sun Records and the Birth of Rock n' Roll. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1991.

Farr, Jory. Moguls and Madmen: The Pursuit of Power in Popular Music. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1994.