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A&R

Article from One Two Testing, September 1984

what the record companies think they want


... the ears that listen and the men who sign. Jon Lewin sheds light. Paul Spencer dark rooms.


"Have you heard that story about Steely Dan? Well, it seems that they weren't too pleased with their record company – lack of promotion, general apathy and so on – so the band decided to show them just how out of touch the company was. They taped their current LP (it was in the chart, too), roughed up the recording quality till it sounded like a demo, then sent it off to the A&R department. You know what happened? Yeah – the bozos sent it back saying it wasn't suited to current musical tastes. Typical."

Who, or what, are these "bozos"? One Two Testing's roving investigative typewriter was despatched to seek out the truth in the record company A&R departments, leaving no potted palm or promotional T-shirt unturned in the... Hunt For The Bozo.

Preliminary research into the nature of the 'bozo' led me into the company of a bitter and cynical collection of people, known as Artists (or The-Future-Of-Rock-'n'-Roll), all of whom lacked the much-coveted Recording Contract. They had all met bozos, and could swear to their malevolent nature and hideous appearance. From their descriptions I was able to piece together an Identikit bozo: he (there are very few female bozos) is normally seen at gigs, clutching a Pils (no glass) to his satin-tour-jacket-clad beer belly. He appears tall, but this is an optical illusion created by cowboy boots and the tightness of his stretch jeans. He is usually heard (but not seen) to be sniffing, and rubbing his nose.

My informants also told me the true function of the bozo: as a member of an A&R department, he is responsible for keeping good music out of the charts. He does this by offering recording deals (this is his job) to untalented and unimaginative acts, who are then hyped on to the radio and into the charts, with the expenditure of vast sums of money.

Further investigation revealed a second, happier, more affluent group of people. These were the acts who had already secured record deals, so they presumably must have come into contact with the unpleasant sounding bozo. But at the very mention of the term, the musicians would laugh and deny that the creature still existed. Certainly, in the past, all A&R men had been bozos, but nowadays they were almost certainly extinct in this country. Anyway, they said, the A&R men who had signed them had all been bright, intelligent young men, each and every one with his finger on the pulse of modern popular music.

Noting the discrepancy between these opinions, I decided to pursue the almost mythical bozo into his lair: the record companies themselves.

Phonogram



Through the efforts of a friend, I wheedled my way into the office of Phonogram's talent scout for an afternoon's observation of A&R in action. No bozos apparent here: Nick Angel is 24, and had been working for the label for just four months, which could account for his enthusiasm for the job. He agreed with the satin tour jacket syndrome: "Most people in the record business are out of touch and out of time – cokeheads, a lot of them, too."

During the three hours I spent with Nick, he went through the motions of a typical day in the office, including two appointments with bands, listening to demo tapes, and a trip down to Phonogram's basement studio to check on a group he had booked in for recording time. He was also subjected to One Two Testing's secret "Spot The Bozo" questionnaire, a set of queries specifically designed to expose reactionary attitudes.

"As the talent scout, I get to hear all the tapes that aren't addressed personally to any of the four A&R men. Groups can also gain access to us by phone – if they just ring up, it's usually quite easy to make an appointment to see me, and bring a tape in.

"I do have the power to demo bands; but when I'm not sure, I always ask around for other opinions. I hear about 50 new bands a week on tape alone, go to three or four gigs, not to mention the appointments like that. It all adds up, but you've got to try and remember all the sweat that's gone into their music; after all, it's only my opinion. Just because I don't like it doesn't mean no-one will."

This wasn't what I expected at all. This affable cockney was painfully honest, almost to the point of naivety. I pressed on with my questions, in the hope of eliciting at least one disparaging comment.

"What attracts me to a band is songs, and quality. If I think 'I'd buy that', or 'That would give me pleasure to know I was involved in it', then I'll pursue the group further. I get a real kick out of being able to say about a record 'I helped that to get released'.

"There's a lot of satisfaction to be derived from involvement in good music. Like, we know Friends Again aren't going to make us much money, but we're pleased to have them on the label as they make good music. Acts like Marilyn and Dire Straits can carry the others, because we think they're worth the trouble. The stereotype image of the rip-off record companies is out-dated; we work with artists, in their interests, which means they're happy to work with us – which is in our interests."

Brimming with enthusiasm for the future of the music business, Nick and I leafed through the day's cassettes.

"We get around 120 a week, between the five of us. And they all get listened to. It's best if there are only two or three songs on each tape, and perhaps a photo to give some idea of what they look like. I don't look for image, just people who look like they know what they're doing. Y'see, if they don't wear the clothes, there's nothing we can do to change them – they'd just look divs, even in £200 of Demob gear. Style should be something you're not conscious of."

Of the nine tapes I heard, two were appalling, three were dull, two sounded like other artists (perhaps that's what happened to Steely Dan's tape), and the other two Nick had chosen to demonstrate the type of music he was pursuing. My heart went out to all A&R persons, even the bozoid ones, when I understood how much atrociously dull music they have to listen to.

"I don't think my job depends on my success rate; so long as I'm aware of what's happening, what bands are going around, then I'm doing my job. It's useful that I'm the same age as all the bands, because they'll talk to me, and keep me informed."

Aware that Nick had let me down in my hunt for the bozo, I asked him my last despairing question. "The next big thing? Well, Country's really popular at the moment, and I think at least a couple of the bands will stick around – the Boothill Foot Tappers, and maybe the Pogues. Soul music is coming up again, which is good for an 'old' soul boy like me; also coming are groups that have started using black music – not electro, but a funk influence. Watch out for that."

Aware that Nick's comparatively recent entry into Artist & Repertoire had left him (as yet) unsullied by the horrors of bozo-dom, I left him. I was still uncertain what qualities I should be looking for, beyond actual physical appearance. It turned out that A&R men have almost the same problem.

CBS



Colin Barlow, the lowly talent scout at CBS, is 17. A former fanzine editor, he got his job by applying to various record companies out of the blue; he had four job offers. Too young to be a bozo?

"Groups send in around 100-150 demos a week. But the best method of getting to me is by telephone – just call and make an appointment – I see about seven groups every day. In the last four months, we've been getting lots more video demos, which can be very useful, though we usually still like to see a band live before making any decisions. One of our most recent bands, the Roaring Boys, got picked up just on live performance – I saw them at the Ad Lib and they were just fantastic. We had to have them."

Impressed with his efficiency, I slipped him a few tricky questions.

"I'm normally attracted by originality, by songs with potential to be hits as well. The image is secondary to that, though some packaging of the tape is nice – it shows they're involved in all levels of the work. But the music should sell itself."

What about the independent labels?

"They used to build bands to the point where the majors could pick them up, but not any more – most of them lack the financial back-up. They just supply a different market nowadays, though we sometimes get records sent in, as demos. The process is – if we like the songs, of course – to hear some more, if necessary by putting the group into our own studios, go and see the live show, and if we still like it, start talking contracts. There's no hard-and-fast process, though; we just signed Scream on the strength of a four-song demo."

How do your personal preferences affect your work?

"I like anything really – U2, Simple Minds, Echo & The Bunnymen... I've got wide tastes. But what I have to listen for in new groups has nothing to do with that. Just songs, and that something special. At the moment, music's about that rock/disco beat with its strong guitar sound... club music's going to be big. I think we're going to hear the re-emergence of guitars, and pop/rock bands like the Armoury Show on EMI, and Scream and the Roaring Boys on CBS. But it's difficult to tell – with just one hit, the cowpunk thing could take off, or rockabilly, that could be the next big thing."

With the vague idea that Colin still had plenty of time to make up his mind, and a sneaking suspicion that I had met a man possessed by the spirit of Rockism, I stole away to WEA.

WEA



Again, I had been diverted from the scent of the bozo by judicious planning on the part of record company secretaries: another youngster, Gerard Farnham, shook my by now-sagging hand, and attempted to explain the WEA ethos.

"Two mornings every week are set aside for appointments with bands who have called up. The rest of the time, I'm looking after acts we've already signed – I was in the studio today overseeing an edit on a forthcoming single – or else listening to tapes, and talking to people on the telephone. There are only three of us specifically involved in A&R, so there's a lot of work involved getting through the 15-30 tapes we get each day. Most of our interest, however, comes through the business, from managers or publishers that we know, and whose opinions we respect.

"It's the songs that are important. Packaging for demos is just a nuisance — I'm interested solely in the music, so I don't want videos, photographs, whatever, to start with. As long as they're not complete spastics, and can sing, it doesn't matter about anything else. 24-track demos are a waste of money for everyone concerned, as record companies don't care about recording quality at the demo stage. That's our responsibility later on."

But Gerard, what do you want from these songs?

"The first thing we look for is 'hits'. Not necessarily Top 75, but stuff that is good enough to get a band noticed over two, maybe three records; then we worry about chart action. If we don't get it, if over two years I've signed three flops, then there's a distinct probability I'll find myself being a panel beater, and not an A&R man. The next big thing? I'm not sure – I've no conclusions I'd like to mention."

Mind you, it was the end of a long day...

Virgin



I had a rather brusque interview with Andy Woodford at Virgin, which served to compound the overall impression I was beginning to form of the life of these young A&R types: arrive in the morning around ten, drink tea, listen to a few tapes sent in by managers/publishers/other known people, and take phone calls from groups sensible enough to have rung to make an appointment.

Ear-blindness, caused by listening to too many tapes and attending too many gigs, can be a problem, so the A&R man must make an effort to keep his critical faculties at a peak. This occasionally means that unsolicited demo tapes receive slightly less attention than perhaps they merit. This is an attitude that might have been thought typical of the bozo, but it seems simply a matter of time and expediency.

"Packaging might draw your eye to a tape, if it looks interesting. You always hope what's inside will match up to the cover... if I like a tape, I call the band, see them live, take my bosses along, talk some more, then if everyone still likes them, we talk contracts, and money. Their image is only important in as far as its an expression of them as artists: you can get around it with the art department, but obviously that's not the best way."

Virgin's attitudes to demos seemed equally familiar: "We're looking for songs, arrangements... something that's different that will gain your interest."

My jaded palate came alive with the taste of a new word – "different". I hurried over to Rough Trade's new premises in North London.

Rough Trade



If there was ever a record label to whom the word "different" belonged, it was Rough Trade. Largest of the truly independent labels, their A&R activities, whilst obviously under certain financial constraints, do not work within the straitjacket mentality of "hits", as do the immensely more wealthy major labels. Needless to say, there were definitely no bozos at Rough Trade, only the tall gangly figure of Geoff Travis, the boss. I no longer suffered the sense that I was being kept away from the older employees.

"We very rarely sign anyone from tapes. As part of the Cartel, we have access to an excellent regional grapevine system – the Smiths I was told about by friends in Manchester. We get 50-60 demos per week, and 99% are awful. It becomes a sparetime activity to listen to them, as we don't have an A&R department, unless I'm it. You see, I make all the decisions as to what we release, subject to the approval of the rest of the board. Although we run this place as an absolute collective. I'm quite dictatorial in my field, which is the music side."

Shrugging off an inkling of hippy idealism, I asked Geoff about his label's motivation, considering they are the leading independent.

"Of course, we want to be very successful, but we don't have the resources to make artists as popular as they could be. It takes three factors to make a star – time, and talent, which we have, and money.

"We're interested in innovation... having an abstract idea of what you want to do, and being able to translate it through the music. It's something to do with people who've been politicised by living in Britain in the last 20 years... who have some idea or experience of feminism, ideology, non-Conservative life, some idea of their role outside of the context of simple fame/fortune."

But surely Rough Trade have some commercial considerations, I probed, unable to believe my ideologically sound ears?

"It's possible to put out things you love, and put out things you love that are successful as well. There's no reason the two strands of left-field and mainstream shouldn't be united, certainly more so than with Virgin's token art bands, and their supposed credibility."

Nick Stuart


Island



Nick Stuart runs A&R at Island, alongside Stiff Records' Dave Robinson. Although not an obvious bozo, Nick was considerably older than anyone else I had yet spoken to (with the possible exception of G Travis); he was also much more of a business man.

"Our first contact with a band is usually through the grapevine: either managers, publishers, musicians on the label. We cast a wide net, which includes all the tapes we get through the post. We don't get many video demos, though they would be useful – the market-place is into good-looking musicians. After I hear a tape, I see the band live. It's very important for a group to establish and maintain a serious following to back up their publicity; the power of Radio One to break a record has diminished considerably in the last six or seven months, so you need that presence on the ground. Many groups who don't have it often have a problem transferring interest into sales."

In keeping with this fiercely calculating battle-plan, Nick delineated what attracted him in the first place.

"Good commercial pop songs are my interest – as blatant as Galaxy, or as interesting as Frankie, they must be saleable to a wide market. If I hear one good song, I'm interested; two, and they could be a one-hit wonder; three, and we start thinking about an album. As long as a band is musically good, then image isn't important. When I signed U2, they had no image to speak of, just four very talented Irish musicians with a certain fervour. From that I sold them into Island as being the Led Zeppelin of the Eighties. That's what this band will be become – history repeats itself."

So, no obvious bozos came to light; just a collection of mildly frightened (job security is a wonderful thing) individuals, all of basically conservative temperament. Their almost single-minded obsession with songs can be taken as an indication of wariness of new forms and genres with which they are unfamiliar.

If you're still planning to post off 100 jiffy-bags full of your latest magnum opus in the hope that the EMIs and CBSs of the world are going to beat a path to your door, don't hold your breath waiting for a reply. As Nick Stuart said, "Class will out." But in this business it chooses remarkably circuitous routes; too often, it seems to be a case of who you know, rather than how good you are. Unsolicited tapes sent to companies have very little chance of grabbing success.

This is depressing news for lots of bands, I'm sure, but with well over 1000 tapes doing the rounds each week, is there any other way? Me, I'm off to the cleaners to pick up my tour jacket.


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Publisher: One Two Testing - IPC Magazines Ltd, Northern & Shell Ltd.

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One Two Testing - Sep 1984

Feature by Jon Lewin

Previous article in this issue:

> The List

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