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The Gatekeepers

Everything you wanted to know about A&R men - but only MT dared to ask.

Picture this: I'm sitting in the plush office of a record company A&R Director. He swings in his executive leather chair, fingering the keys to his new BMW. On his desk, a portable phone and an A4 Filofax; to his right a hi-fi system resembling a Richard Rogers building: to his left, a waste disposal unit... for demo tapes.

His secretary calls on an internal phone. A young artist is waiting in reception, claiming he has an appointment. "Tell him to come back this afternoon, or tomorrow - or next week... or something. I'm busy being interviewed by a journalist," the A&R man snorts dismissively. He resumes his inventory of all the hit acts he's signed and the propositions he's declined from budding Madonnas wanting to sleep their way to the top. I bring up the subject of music. "Music?" his eyes glitter with delight. "Fuck music, let's make money." He falls off his chair in paroxysms of laughter, pointing to the gallery of gold discs that adorn his office wall.

Fact or fiction? Probably a bit of both. But it's a fitting caricature of the way A&R departments are perceived by most aspiring musicians. Indeed, from the outside there can be few aspects of the music business surrounded by such an aura of myth. It's not difficult to see why. The A&R man is the point of entry to a world of fame and riches. Once the ink has dried on the contract, the whole music business machinery moves into gear, thrusting the artist into the public eye. Consequently, the world inhabited by these gate-keepers abounds with stories of promises made and broken, dreams fulfilled and shattered.

Once inside this world, past the corporate façade and the CIA-trained secretaries, A&R looks a little different. As a profession it's as precarious as politics, with reputations lost just as quickly as they're won. As a business it's as circumscribed as any other, with A&R departments answerable to what Jeff Young describes as, 'men in grey suits' shouting, "Bottom line! bottom line!"

Young is the recently appointed A&R Director of MCA Records. It's an unmentionably early hour of the morning and we're sitting in his Soho office, feasting on take-away toast and cappuccino. Dressed in American-style sweatshirt and jeans, Young chomps and chats with great enthusiasm. His days as a Radio 1 DJ are now firmly behind him, but he still likes to trade in extravagant language. "Coalminers wives get paid danger money," he explains, "I get paid grief money." What kind of money are we talking about? "Well that depends on who you are," he generalises, "Scouts can earn between ten or 15 grand, with a company car thrown in. A good A&R Manager can earn 60 or 70 grand, whilst successful A&R Directors can earn upwards of 100 grand and considerably more if they've been doing it for a while."

Young continues his 'Beginners' Guide to A&R... "the normal structure of an A&R department is Director, Manager, Scout. The Scouts scout, the Managers each have their own bunch of artists and the Director runs the team. At MCA, like elsewhere, there's a weekly A&R meeting where we discuss the progress of acts we've signed, we play new tapes and also screen what other companies are looking at." 'Screen?' - sounds like industrial espionage. "There's nothing underhand about it; it's just a question of having the chance to say no. There's nothing worse than learning that an act has been signed somewhere else and you never even got a chance to hear them. That's when the fur really flies," he explains, his hands mimicking flying fur.

Annie Roseberry claims not to worry about what other companies are up to. She's Vice-President of A&R at the American company, Elektra, and heads their A&R operations in this country. "I'm pretty laid back," she explains, slumbering in her chair. Her angular face evinces an occasional smile. "A lot of people get really worried about what other people are doing. I don't care. They can do whatever they want." It takes a while to decide whether this is hubris on her part or simply self-assurance. Probably the latter. After all, hubris doesn't pay the bills.

She runs a smaller outfit than Jeff Young, with a modest roster of artists, so the system is a little different to that of the bigger record companies. She works closely with a single A&R Manager and writes weekly reports on everything she sees and hears - which includes the few dozen tapes arriving at Elektra's offices every week. "They all get listened to," she insists. "They're logged into a book just in case someone calls up."

At CBS, where she worked for eight years, she remembers up to 100 tapes pouring into the office each week. "In most record companies, it's the junior members of staff who listen to the tapes and then refer them upwards. It's the same here, but they do all get listened to and they get a reply. One or two are followed up, but 99% are just not good enough."

Jeff Young agrees. "I've never signed a band on the basis of an unsolicited tape." And EMI's senior A&R Manager, Dave Ambrose, adds his voice to the chorus. His department receives "loads of unsolicited tapes, but they are generally very poor. You know, the kid who's played it to his best friend who tells him it's great". Norman Jay, at Phonogram's Talkin' Loud, is adamant that sending tapes willy-nilly is a loser's game. "Sometimes, I might follow up a tape with a phone call. But in the end, it's usually not what I'm looking for."

This, of course, is little comfort to the many thousands of aspiring musicians for whom sending in tapes seems like the only way to alert record companies to their music. But Jay has some pearls of wisdom to offer. "If some mad rock 'n' roll kid sends me a tape, he's got it all wrong." 'Rock 'n' roll', in case you had any doubts, is not Jay's bag. "I tell kids to do some research, find the label that's doing the stuff you to do, a label that's sympathetic. Don't just come to us because we can put your record out. That's what knobs off the A&R man and makes him say, 'I don't want to know'." He pauses, screws up his face and scratches his chin. "You know, I really think the direct approach is just wrong. You need to engineer a situation where the A&R man comes to you. Create a noise, and they'll come to you, they'll want to give you money." Jay returns to the 'knob' theme... "If you go cap in hand, they'll want to knob you off."

Garrulous and expansive, Mick Clarke is firmly ensconced in a modest terraced house in West London where he is A&R Director of Virgin's 10 Records. "I remember the days," he says with an air of maturity which seems strangely at odds with his T-shirt and shorts, "I remember the days at Virgin when we had to see three people in the morning and three people in the afternoon, straight off the street. They'd bring their tapes or their guitars and every day I'd have to sit and listen to music I didn't understand, music I hated, which is crazy. I found myself in the ludicrous position of having to judge music I wasn't in a position to judge. So I'd tell people that I shouldn't really be listening to them, and they'd get quite upset... I was abused and almost attacked once."

So we can take it that Mick is none too keen on an open door policy at 10 Records? "It's not that," he replies in descending tones. "I understand that people have high hopes for their tapes and I do try to see people who really believe in their stuff and who try to convince me it's something I will want to hear. But A&R is not just about sitting round listening to tapes. Signing a band is just the start of it; you then have to develop the artists, decide on studios, producers, what track to release and what strategy to pursue."

You might expect Ashley Newton to agree with Clarke. After all, they are both on the same side. Newton is head of A&R and joint MD at Circa Records which has recently assumed responsibility for all of Virgin's subsidiary labels. Newton's office looks like something straight out of the Conran shop. And Newton himself exudes the confidence of someone who has just had a shave and put on a fresh shirt. "When I was at Island we had open days consisting of a succession of 40 minute meetings. It's important to make your company accessible. But an open door policy is simply not cost-effective - to have two or three staff spending all their time in meetings with bands, most of whom will not be appropriate."

Like the rest of his peers, Newton's signings have come through his own personal network. "You simply can't ignore people you know who are tuned into what you want. It's a pre-existing filtering process."

So where does that leave the up and coming artist? Dave Ambrose waxes philosophical. "There is no easy way. It's a bitch, but that's the way it is. Even so, if a band is good they will be signed." Do you you really think so? "Yes, if they play the right clubs, they will be heard. A&R people are sharper and more aggressive than they used to be. They are out there."

Jeff Young is also confident that not too many acts slip through the net cast by his department. "What tends to happen," he explains, "is that bands which are good have also got a bit more wit and charm than the regular outfit. Sometimes you may miss one but anyone who writes good songs will eventually come across someone who can help them - like a lawyer, a DJ or a producer. Alternatively, they create a stir at a local level. It's not easy to keep secrets. We have a network of contacts across the country, and if we don't find the bands, we'll follow up on someone who has."

A&R departments habitually shadow each other according to John Giacobbi, former BMG lawyer and now head of Entertainment Law Associates. "A&R departments are very narrow-minded," he opines. "They're more worried about job security than anything else, so they won't take risks. They follow each other with a lemming-like fervour. But those who do take the risks often reap the rewards." He cites the example of The Gipsy Kings. "Nobody would take their first album. Nobody wanted to stick their neck out."

Other artists, like Terence Trent D'arby, also come to mind. Giacobbi's observations certainly apply to the bigger record companies where corporate paranoia is rife and it can be difficult to get something new or different through the system. Smaller companies, however, often succeed because they are novel or distinctive. Their reflexes also tend to be quicker, with decision-making resting in the hands of one person. So it's the smaller independent companies who are now the crown jewels in many a major label's portfolio. The majors have swept up the independents in licensing deals, or in Norman Jay's case, have started to employ a new breed of A&R man... DJs with their ears to the ground.

"The majors were like lumbering giants," Jay explains. "They wanted a part of the thriving cottage industry.. That's why I was head-hunted - in the hope I could do the same for them." This cottage industry, according to Jay, originated because kids (as he calls them) were alienated from the corporations. "Now you can't say that talent is being suffocated any more. Many of the kids who are out there making music don't necessarily want a record deal. They can press up their own records and sell them through local shops and radio. They have less overheads, more knowledge of their local market and can achieve sales in the thousands."

Nevertheless, these kids still approach the major record companies in search of greater fame and fortune than they could ever hope to achieve by themselves. And it's the same kids who are complaining that the A&R system is not working for them; that A&R men don't understand." Jay concedes the point. "I know. I viewed A&R men the same way and when I met them I realised that they knew even less than I thought they knew. But..." Jay teeters on the brink of a revelation, "the A&R man doesn't have to know about your music, he has to know how the system works, how to get your material through the system. You don't know that - he does. He knows what budget he has got, when the record will be released and how... It's got little to do with art."

Jay comes from a different end of the spectrum to Dave Ambrose, but the two both like to talk nuts and bolts. "A good A&R man," Ambrose argues, "should not be a 'muso' because that leads to musical snobbery. A musical snob can miss the fact that people may actually want to buy a certain kind of thing." You mean miss out on the money? "Yes, that too."

Thus speaks a man who has made his reputation in the pop genre. But many of the A&R moguls interviewed here would be quick to disagree. Mick Clarke, for instance, identifies two types of A&R. "The first," he explains, "sign acts that other people will like. And the second, which includes me, sign acts they like. I was, and still am, a musical snob." There is almost a temptation to accept Clarke's distinction. But life is not that simple. Sure, there are some A&R departments who seem to look at the money making potential first and last, and others with more artistic temperaments. But A&R people do not stay A&R people for very long if they don't have an eye on both money and art simultaneously. With the characteristic shrewdness of a former student of Chris Blackwell at Island, Ashley Newton finds a maxim to resolve the dilemma: "There is no necessary contradiction between commercialism and quality."

Norman Jay is looking to discover "the fine line between putting out records I like and hoping they're what the public want". Even so, Jeff Young's men in grey suits screaming, "bottom line!" are never far from view. "That's why I talk straight to aspiring artists," Jay reveals "I can explain what resources I've got and what I can do with those resources - which includes looking after the bands I already have on board." If that does not suffice, he offers some unconventional advice... "I say to kids, go down to the high street bank, see the bank manager and find out whether he'll lend you the fifty grand you need to make this record. If he won't, then why the hell should we? We only have so much money."

According to Paul Morgan, "that happens more with the smaller labels. Within reason," he explains, "I can sign as I please. Decisions obviously have to go through the A&R Director, but I don't have accountants breathing down my neck."

Accountants aside, what criteria does Ambrose apply when considering whether to sign an artist? His response is really quite scientific. Or is it? "The first criteria I look for is whether they can sing. Though it doesn't matter so much here, it's important in the USA because they take their music much more seriously. The second is songwriting - although sometimes the odd band are not natural songwriters ( U2), but they still sound fantastic. Thirdly, attitude. I like a bit of subversion - something that makes waves - although artists always smooth out in the end."

Whilst I can readily see the subversion in a band like the Sex Pistols (whom Ambrose signed to EMI Publishing), but Sigue Sigue Sputnik? There was a fast buck if ever I saw one... Ambrose replies in their defence. "They promised change, something new. They were also one of the first bands to sample." Faced with the same question, Jay offers a physical analogy - or three. "If someone approaches me with a song, it's gotta hit me in the face. It's gotta make me jump up and down and make me want to knock walls down to secure a deal." Jay, however, is less forthcoming when it comes to defining exactly what it is he and his colleagues at Talkin' Loud are looking for. "We know it when we see it." Mick Clarke's criteria are quite straightforward... "I sign stuff that I think is great and I don't give a shit what anybody else thinks." Even so, Clarke concedes that every A&R man would probably give that image of himself.

Songs are the starting point for Jeff Young. "A good song means something with a good hook and a good melody that you can remember. Like it or not, 'I Should Be So Lucky' was a fucking great song. Even seven-year-olds remembered it. And if you like the songs, you may go see the band, unless it's a club thing or a one-off single. Sometimes you might sign someone off a vibe - like Thousand Yard Stare. They were a ball of energy, no tunes but a great vibey little turn." Vibey little turn? You can tell he used to be a Radio 1 DJ. He continues... "Occasionally, however, you have to do your job, which is to provide the company with hits. And that may sometimes involve signing someone you don't necessarily like. But that's part of A&R - recognising that a group are going to be huge, biting the bullet and saying, 'Hey-ho... this is hits!'"

In the main, however, Young sees his job as finding "good" acts. Roughly translated, this means acts which have good attributes for their area of the market. "Take Marc Almond, for example. He was never going to be Pavarotti, but there was something about him that made him great." Young has other criteria too. "Money isn't everything," he suggests. "Sometimes you might want to sign an act for chart profile or just credibility."

Annie Roseberry lists her criteria with characteristic conviction. "I look for artists of exceptional talent, artists who are totally unique, irrespective of genre - and that's always been my A&R policy. It's also important that you get on with people - that they're like-minded. Basically, the things I've been involved in have always been different and I've been lucky. But I think I have an ear for talent." Roseberry's musical background might go some way to explaining her 'good ear' as well as her sympathy for musicians trying to catch the attention of A&R departments. "I feel very sorry for musicians," she pauses, "depending on my mood. You have to have tact. It's hard to tell people not to give up their day jobs - but a lot of the time that's exactly what you mean."

Mick Clarke is not a musician... "I'm the world's worst pub singer," he concedes, but he shares Roseberry's compassion. "A&R men get a lot of stick and quite rightly. It's the entertainment business and they have a lot of power which they can, and do, abuse."

"An open door policy is simply not cost-effective - to have two or three staff spending all their time in meetings with bands, most of whom will not be appropriate"

Clarke's harsh words will no doubt have resonance for many aspiring musicians to whom A&R is a common term of abuse, synonymous with unanswered telephone calls, unkept appointments and broken promises. There surely are some people in A&R who wouldn't recognise talent if it hit them squarely between the eyes and others inebriated on their own power. Equally, there are those who conduct their affairs with imagination and equanimity. As Ashley Newton suggests, "You just can't generalise about A&R men. There are all sorts of individuals with different styles and temperaments."

All the same, it remains a business shrouded in misconceptions. From the musicians point of view, the misconception often derives from an over-idealised vision. A vision that A&R exists simply to recognise and reward talent. In reality, few art forms are immune from the twin forces of politics and finance, and music certainly is not one of them. In Norman Jay's words, "The record business is like any other business, it's there to sell product and make money..."

NAME: Mick Clark
POSITION: A&R Director, 10 Records.
PREVIOUS SIGNINGS: Soul II Soul, Maxi Priest, Loose Ends.
FIRST CONTACT: Soul II Soul via friend who later became their manager. Maxi Priest through a smaller label to which they were already signed. Loose Ends on a Walkman in a West End pub.
RECENT SIGNINGS: Temper Temper, Bass Cut.
FIRST CONTACT: Unsolicited call from Temper Temper's manager. Bass Cut through Virgin in New York.

NAME: Ashley Newton
POSITION: Joint Deputy MD of Virgin Records (with responsibility for A&R).
PREVIOUS SIGNINGS: Massive Attack, Neneh Cherry, Julia Fordham, Hue & Cry, Sydney Youngblood.
FIRST CONTACT: Massive Attack demo played on a car stereo in a Scottish Airport. Neneh was a friend. Julia Fordham through a publisher. Hue & Cry through a release on a Scottish independent label. Youngblood via an A&R manager who had just lost his job at MCA.
RECENT SIGNINGS: Fluke, Gary Clark (Vocalist with Danny Wilson), Ronin.
FIRST CONTACT: Read about Fluke after the release of a mini-album on Creation. Gary Clark from his work with Danny Wilson. Ronin via Neneh Cherry.

NAME: Annie Roseberry
POSITION: Senior Vice-President of A&R. Elektra Records.
PREVIOUS SIGNINGS: Sade, Beverly Craven, Matt Johnson and 'partly' responsible for U2.
FIRST CONTACT: Sade through her work as a backing singer. Beverly Craven through a studio engineer. Matt Johnson 'grabbed' mid-way through concluding a deal with another company. U2, though already signed to CBS in Ireland, were recommenced by the press office at Island.
RECENT SIGNINGS: Ola, Ephraim Lewis, Doves (formerly the Thrashing Doves).
FIRST CONTACT: An Elektra Scout heard Ola in a club ('Singers' in Tottenham Court Road) and a demo had also been sent. Ephraim through a contact with his producer. The Doves were already signed to another label.

NAME: Dave Ambrose
POSITION: Senior A&R Manager, EMI Records.
PREVIOUS SIGNINGS: Sex Pistols (Publishing Only), Dexys Midnight Runners, Sigue Sigue Sputnik, Pet Shop Boys, Duran Duran.
FIRST CONTACT: Sex Pistols at the 100 Club. Dexys via an agent and after seeing them live. Sigue Sigue via a journalist friend and through the video they released. Pet Shop Boys via Manager Tom Watkins. Duran via their Manager who called unsolicited, though they also had a deal with A&M on the table, so it was a fight to sign them.
RECENT SIGNINGS: Groove Technology
FIRST CONTACT: Through a friend who had their video.

NAME: Norman Jay
POSITION: A&R Manager, Phonogram (Talkin' Loud and Global Village).
PREVIOUS SIGNINGS: "Relatively new to the game" but signed Omar and had a hand in pairing Jocelyn Brown with Incognito for the hit, 'Always There'.
FIRST CONTACT: Heard him on a remix, but didn't find out who he was until a friend got hold of a tape.

NAME: Jeff Young
POSITION: A&R Director, MCA Records.
PREVIOUS SIGNINGS: Lance Ellington, Hipsway, Texas.
FIRST CONTACT: Ellington through publisher (but his co-writer had been pestering for a couple of years). Hipsway through a management company. Texas as a spin-off from Hipsway.
RECENT SIGNINGS: GMT (God Made Trouble), Beijing Spring, Oui 3, Power of 3.
FIRST CONTACT: GMT through a publisher. Beijing Spring and Power of 3 via their management. Oui 3 through a combination of contacts with their publisher and management.

Previous Article in this issue

Delaying Tactics

Next article in this issue

In Clarke's Shoes

Music Technology - Copyright: Music Maker Publications (UK), Future Publishing.


Music Technology - Aug 1992

Donated by: Mike Gorman, Chris Moore

Scanned by: Mike Gorman

Feature by Marc Nohr

Previous article in this issue:

> Delaying Tactics

Next article in this issue:

> In Clarke's Shoes

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