The record company A&R man is your enemy, right? After all, it's only him that stands between you and a record deal. But technology has changed his job and your relationship with him.
SPARE A THOUGHT for the A&R man. He's much maligned within musicians' circles, often held responsible for the state of the pop charts and the failure of bands to get the recognition and support they deserve. Basically he gets (and usually deserves) a bloody hard time. Then again he's just a man with an office and an expense account, and a very difficult job to do.
For anyone not properly in the picture, A&R - Artists and Repertoire - is the title given to the department of a record company that scouts around for new talent. This involves listening to vast numbers of demo tapes, attending gigs almost every night of the week and spending hours in wine bars with rival record companies' A&R men keeping up to date with the latest gossip. A&R men rarely make decisions on their own, instead they hold weekly meetings at which any promising acts are discussed, tapes listened to and joint decisions procrastinated over. But just what is the A&R man faced with? How does he hope to "spot" talent?
Although very few acts are signed on the strength of a demo tape alone, this is still the main avenue of approach to a record company. Result: a regular delivery of demos that builds day by day into an untidy pile of tapes (to paraphrase an old rockers' music magazine). Assuming we're lucky enough to get a little "airtime" on the A&R office stereo, what is our discerning scout going to hear? Ten or more years ago he'd have been listening to four or five people in a local four- or eight-track studio doing their best to stop the snares on an old Premier snare drum resonating with the bass guitar, and make a Hohner Pianet T sound like a Fender Rhodes. Today he's likely to hear a couple of people in a bedroom full of electronic gadgetry trying to tidy up a sample of James Brown's snare and get the right gated reverb on the vocal. More than anything else, the technological revolution has brought standards of production to amateur musicians that were only previously available in professional studios with racks of expensive outboard gear. To our A&R man, the differences between a "professional' band and a bunch of young hopefuls eager to break into music have been drastically reduced. No longer can he rely on the sounds of a properly recorded drum kit and "real" instruments to help him tell the difference between serious musos and school kids. All he's got left is the music.
Equally, the demos of yesterday contained songs free from any decent level of production. There was no studio trickery to distract the A&R man's ear from the main issue - the ability of the musicians to write songs and play them. In contrast, almost anyone today can put together music that sounds - on the surface - as if it's come out of Sarm West. It doesn't need a tune, or even an inventive rhythm, if the reverbs are right.
It's all technology's fault. Where optimistic drummers spent hours in semi-pro studios trying to sound like Bill Bruford or Carl Palmer, drum machines have stepped in with pre-produced drum sounds that would make a '70s engineer cry. Samples and smart new methods of synthesis have made highly-polished sounds the rule rather than the exception. And breathtaking reverb effects have become freely available courtesy of digital electronics. Another reason for the resurgence of analogue technology in an almost perfect digital world?
Back to the A&R office. Robbed of some of the tricks that have stood him in good stead for years, just what is the late-'80s A&R man to do? And how do you play the demo production game? The first conclusion to draw is that you can't go backwards: it's no good submitting a demo containing great music but no production because it'll go straight into the bin. The moral of the story is that any production values should be incorporated into your music. The A&R man needs to hear "production" - give it to him. But give it to him in moderation where it counts. That way you'll not only be using technology to enhance your music, you'll make it stand apart from the demos drowned in reverb. And you'll prove you can handle the gear as well as the music.
Editorial by Tim Goodyer
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