A hopeful young musician at their first A&R lunch
Being a fat, one-hit wonder, I often get emails asking for my advice on the music biz. I find this strange – why ask someone who hasnt even been signed since 1997? Would you ask a nun the going rate for half-and-half?
But hell, I’ve never let unfitness bar me from commenting on anything else before so here’s some important advice. It’s a short guide to the tricks those naughty A&R peeps play, set in the form of some likely scenarios, what usually happens and what you should do. But first, what is A&R?
A&Rs (which stands for Artists & Repertoire) are the interface between the people who create music and the people who want to exploit that music commercially. As such, they have to pretend to be both business-savvy and cool. Which is impossible, of course.
Most often they’re adept bullshitters who know neither commerce nor art. They are paid to know about contemporary music but, if questioned, most of them don’t even know what’s in the charts, knowledge the average teenager takes for granted.
Ostensibly, their job is to spot talent, either songwriting or performance and fine-tune it to a release-worthy level. They’re meant to guide artists gently in certain directions, perhaps setting up collaborations or finding appropriate producers. In reality, they’re like eight-year-olds on PCP, slashing canvases in the Louvre so they’ll fit more easily into their fetid, ugly satchels.
They are mostly failed musicians who’ve decided that joining the Dark Side of the Force (record companies) will get them more money and drugs than their own microscopic talents ever will. There’s also the added bonus that because of the power they wield, a lot of musicians will be queuing-up to kiss their arses. Or any other part that may get them signed
Oh, and I use he/him throughout this because you can count the number of female A&Rs on the knuckles of one finger. That’s probably because women generally have more self-respect than men.
And now, onto some possible scenarios:
1. You’re an unknown, unsigned band.
You meet a Camden-trendy looking lad at one of your gigs who says he’s an A&R scout. You stare cos youve never seen a pierced eyeball before. It seems to be seeping. He claims that you’re gonna be bigger than Radiohead and promises to rush your demo straight to the head of A&R.
Encouraged by this, you brag to other local bands that you knew you were far better than them all along. Then, on your girlfriend’s credit card, you buy yourself that signature Toy Dolls Les Paul you always wanted. Hell, you’ll soon be rich, won’t you?
Scout is another word for teaboy. Your precious CDR will become another lunchtime Frisbee, hurled at the fat arse of the MD’s niece/mistress/pusher. Remember, scouts are people who actually aspire to being A&R people. That’s like working your way up to being a confidence trickster. What you should have done is got him to buy you loads of drinks then told him to fuck off.
2. You’re still unsigned but starting to make local waves.
Let’s say, for the sake of it, that you come from, say, Derby. You receive a call from an A&R. He’s desperate to hear your demo. He wants to know if you can courier it to him. He has to have it! You send him your demo. Six months later and you’ve still not heard back from him. Why? Cos he gave it a thorough listen (the first ten seconds) and then binned it.
You see, he’d heard there was a new “Derby Scene” building so he had to make sure he could say to his boss that he had his finger on the pulse (man). But when he hears your 43 minute homage to Can, it doesn’t fit in with his current roster which comprises solely of three bands of stage-school kids who aren’t any cop at songwriting but look just great in latex hotpants. What you should have done is told him to fuck off and hung up on him. He’d be on your doorstep the next morning, completely your bitch.
3. You’re unsigned and now playing gigs in London
…which you sensibly pack with coachloads of your mates who want a cheap shopping day in the smoke. Perhaps temporarily blinded by a vicious cokestorm, a novice A&R mistakes these drunken freeloaders for actual fans. He’s impressed. You’re sexy, you’re obviously going places. So he sidles up to you.
Hi, I’m Barnley Yardstick, from Prostate Records!
(They always have names like this. Fuck knows why.)
Oh, uh, hi
That was some set, dude. You were kicking the shit off Ma’s rock cakes!
(The A&R is now using prime Camden Slang, tedious enough from goateed teen morons but even worse from thirtysomething mutton.)
Um yeah..well (at pissed roadie) OI! Watch my guitar you fucking twat! Jesus! Oh, sorry about that. Um, thanks
Y’know, you remind me of when I signed Iggy…
(Waits watches your eyes widen)
Wow you mean you signed Iggy Pop!?
Well I don’t like to brag about it…
(Yeah, he doesnt like to brag about it, cos it’s not fucking true. He’s thirtysomething – where did he sign the contract, in his bloody cot?)
I love I mean, we, we all love Iggy!
(Yeah, like he didnt guess seeing as your entire set was a thinly disguised re-interpretation of Raw Power, even down to the shite sound)
Would you like to meet Iggy? I’ll give him a call if you like.
Fucking hell yeah, hold on.. OI! Lads! This bloke’s gonna introduce us to Iggy bastard Pop!
He’s now got you. He’ll probably keep you dangling on that vague promise for however long it takes him to convince you that Iggy himself would want the band to sound more like Travis. Eventually, he wont even have to invent any anecdotes, he’ll just say “Iggy” meaningfully. And then he’ll reduce that to just “Ih.”
However cool and different you think your music is, to even a comatose, post-lunch A&R, its a glaring collage of obvious influences. If you’re punk, he’ll claim to have been Glen Matlock’s flatmate. If you’re synthpop, he’ll have cycled with Kraftwerk. If you’re rap-rock, he’ll have personally taught Limp Bizkit how to gurn like constipated orangs.
Whatever your weak point, an A&R will find it and lunge for it like a barracuda at a drowning baby. Once he’s got your trust, you’ll think he’s your mate. Then he’ll fuck you over cos, after all, it’s nothing personal, only business.
Now, this is how the conversation should have gone:
Hi, I’m Barnley Yardstick, from Prostate Records…
Fucking hell they’re shit!
(Always gain immediate control. If you’re nasty to A&Rs, they just assume the arrogance must be produced by prodigious genius. This is now known technically as The Oasis Factor.)
Ummm…yesss… well.. I know Ig-
Oi, lads! This poor sod works for fucking Prostate Records!
(Distant hoots of derision)
Um y’know Iggy would have lo-
(Wait for A&R to blanch)
What do you mean, Iggy who?? Iggy Pop!
What! Iggy fucking Pop! We hate Iggy fucking Pop!
But your set…it was…
(Looks confused. And old)
Are you trying to say we sound like Iggy Pop? Cos if you are, mate, you’re gonna leave this pub without a fucking head!
Um… no…well…who are you into, man? Who papers your goat?
(Tries to reassert authority with brazen Camden Slang)
Who…papers your er.. I mean what bands do you like?
Its bloody obvious, the only band worth talking about is Krill Hatchet!
(You’ve just made up this band)
I’ve not er…
Fucking hell! Oi, lads! This wanker’s not even heard of Krill Hatchet!
(Distant laughter. Someone shouts to ask him if he knows who the Beatles are)
I, er, of course I know em. Diamond muppets! Blew Iggy completely away! I mean, they shone a bone larkey all down the west whippet of Robirch gully. We go way back!
(Beams at you. Wants your love and comradeship)
(You look at him like a piece of dogshit on a vicar’s bib)
You twat. I just made them up. I love Iggy Pop. Now fuck off!
4. You’re now signed to a major label.
Suddenly, the A&R that signed you can’t be reached by phone. His mobile’s also mysteriously dead.
You go to his office to find an unknown, desperately combat-trousered goatee-monger with his feet on the desk.
(He looks at you like you’ve just pissed on his chips)
Yeah? What do you want?
(This is the normal, aggressive voice everyone in the London music biz uses. They only use the friendly voice once they think you’re of some importance)
Um, I’m looking for Barnley. I’m John from The Barn Skeletons
Oh, hi! Sorry about that, I thought you were the new I.T. bloke! Im Hornby, Hornby Gammon!
(Does a Black Power salute and then attempts to knock fists with you. Looks peeved when you limply shake his fist instead)
Um, yeah, well Barnley?
Oh, he’s gone. Just between you and me, he was a naughty boy. Caught with his hand in the till, if you know what I mean. Don’t spread that around he’s a great bloke really, one of my best mates.
(This is actually true. But thats because the only people who can bear to know A&Rs are other A&Rs. Their odious duties isolate them socially. Its like being a copper.)
Listen, I’m well into what youre doing with the Darn Skeletons, I love deep house!
(Looks at you, manically grimacing in what you assume is meant to be an friendly smile)
Er, yeah, well we’re more Basildon trance, really, although the new stuff Jez is working on is more Gaia-Slacker
New stuff!? Great, fucking brilliant, I love new stuff. When can I come up and hear it?
Well, it’s not done yet but…
No, I need to know now, when!?
(This is another A&R favourite. By feigning keenness on visiting you in your grotty home town, they hope to con you into thinking they actually give a shit. They don’t. Meeting after meeting will be cancelled at the last minute and they’ll never set foot out of London)
Ummm..How about next week?
Fucking ace! Sorted!
(Yep, another illusory appointment booked into his invisible diary)
So you’ve taken over completely from Barnley?
Oh god, no, I could never replace Barnley I like having a nose too much! Ha! No, only kidding!
(Unconsciously dusts off his nostrils)
Just think of me as a caretaker A&R, to make sure The Barn Ellingtons get in the Top 10, where you belong!
The Barn Skeletons…
Yeah, whatever. Hey – d’you fancy a line?
Within a week your mooted national support slot on the next Pantera tour is replaced by an acoustic residency at the pub down the road from the record company office.
Hornby thinks this will help refine your set, tighten your musical sinews. You argue politely and cogently that since your entire act consists of guitar feedback and samples of pigs being castrated, doing an acoustic gig won’t improve your performance. Hornby understands and respects your musical vision. He decides to help you on your path to realising it by dropping you the week before Christmas.
You go back to your home town. The other local bands, previously jealous of your success, are now smugly supportive, slagging off major labels in the same breath as asking for a contacts list. Others are perhaps more honest in their pointing, smirking and giggling.
You have to sell the Georgian folly you moved into with your heavily pregnant girlfriend. Then you sell everything else, the plasma-screen telly, your unique collection of Diamonique miniature guitars, the seven laptops you bought so you could have different desktop wallpaper every day.
Finally, crying snot down your video-shoot designer-wear, you shoot and barbecue Jeff, your Vietnamese pot-bellied pig. As you choke on the tough, wiry hairs attached to the crackling, you notice that there’s blood coming out of your nose. Rock’n’roll has left you skint, uncool and with only one, very large, nostril.
Now, this is how the conversation should have gone:
(Bam! You slam the door open to Barnleys office)
Where the FUCK is Barnley?
(A&R clone looks up, startled and aroused by your Fauvist ferocity)
He’s gone, uh, who are you?
Never mind who I am, who the fuck are you? Are you his replacement?
Oh god, no, I could never replace Barnley I like having a nose too much! Ha! No, only kidding!
(Dont laugh, dont even smile. Politeness to A&R buffoonery is regarded as weakness on your part by everyone, especially A&Rs)
Is that meant to be a fucking joke? I’m straight-edge, you drug-monkey-whore-fucker!
(You’re not straight-edge. In fact, this morning, you sprinkled crack on your Frosties. But one of the greatest pleasures in a musician’s life is fucking A&R around. Don’t let the truth rob you of this simple fun)
What? You are? But your last album….?
Look, we’ve got a fucking key man clause in our contract, mate. If Barnley’s gone, we’re gone. WE own the masters, WE publish the songs and we’ve already got another label ready to put our shit out.
(The key person clause specifies a particular person being associated with an artist as part of a deal. If that person leaves, so can the artist. It may sound strange, but once in a blue moon an artist may meet an A&R they like and want to work with exclusively. Usually, this means the A&R has access to superlative drugs/groupies/cash)
Ah, now, er, don’t be hasty. I’d like to hear your stuff. Tell you what, I’ll come up and do a visit?
We don’t let cunts into our studio. Besides, we’ve got a blind contract, you either pick up the option now or we’re fucking off!
(A blind contract means that the company hasn’t got the right to audition the new material before deciding whether to renew an option. The likelihood of getting this kind of deal varies between countries and between record companies/publishers)
Umm… look have a seat, I’ll get you a coffee and go and see if the MD’s busy.
(Leaps off, firework well lit under his lazy, corporate arse)
Your option is renewed. Surprisingly, your new album of Cole Porter classics covered on glockenspiel and toy piano doesnt go down well with your predominantly metalhead fanbase.
Still, what do you care? With the advances, you’ve bought your own photographic studio and can now be in that position that every rock musician aspires to: you can actually make your own pornography. Yep, you’ve finally become independent! Congratulations!
So, those are some likely scenarios. You can distill most of the above down to:
The Musician’s Guide To A&R
After all, they will.
·Never deliver before or on a deadline.
They’ll just think you’ve got too much time on your hands.
·Never buy or pay for anything.
That’s their job.
·Always demand first-class tickets for any mode of transport.
If anyone queries this, fly into an amazing strop and accuse the questioner of being a pig-fucking cheapskate.
·Never appear impressed.
Whatever name they drop, look like you couldn’t care less. This will make them insecure and, hence, less contemptuous of you.
·Always disagree with everything they say.
Reinforce that you are the artist and that their opinions are worthless.
·Never play them demos.
It’s pointless, they’re deaf anyway. Anything you play to them should be finished. Lie and say it is even if it isn’t. If you leave them any room for input, they’ll inevitably try and make it sound like a pale imitation of whatever’s currently selling.
·Never be intimidated.
A&R drop names as if merely being associated with real musicians somehow makes them talented. It doesn’t. They are the pubic lice in the spunky, matted merkin of rock.
·Always shout and be bad.
It’s the squeaky wheel that gets the oil. And the advances/groupies/drugs.
·Be absolutely convinced of your genius.
If you don’t believe it, why should an A&R? They might as well sign someone else who thinks they’re good.
So there you go, a few helpful hints. Although perhaps a tad exaggerated, there’s a lot of truth (and personal experience) in the above rambling. Only the names have been changed to protect the guilty,
love and kisses,