It was a room packed nearly to capacity with people filling up a majority of the seats and lining up along two walls. The heavily debated topic of the future of A&R was moderated by Fuse TV’s Allison Hagendorf and featured a panel of four A&R executives; Isaac Heymann (Leverage), Drew Thurlow (Nonesuch), Ryan Whalley (Warner Bros.) and Harinder Rana (Lava/Universal Republic).
The panel kicked off with an introduction of the guest sans Rana, who was running late. Hagendorf touched on her start in the industry as an A&R for Sony for eight years before transitioning into a media personality. Heymann shared that his life career goal was to work with Rick Rubin and how he found himself in his dream job doing just that; Whalley explained how his passion for music led to him starting his own small label before joining the major leagues, and Thurlow described what it was like going from being an artist himself to helping mold and shape the careers of other artists. By the time the introductions had finished the audience members had their respective devices (pen, pad, iPad) out and were ready to take notes.
One of the first questions to be presented asked what exactly an A&R was looking for in relation to the artist he or she choose to sign. All of the panelists put talent on the top of the list and caving into signing horrible artists with media buzz on the bottom. A lot of people seemed to know what an A&R was but questioned the relevance of the position today. The resounding answer to the A&R phaseout situation was that the A&R is not dead. As helpful as social media and a MacBook Pro are, these tools are not the ones developing artists. Protools did not hone Lady Gaga’s stage image and curate her talent into iconic proportions—an A&R did, a record label did, not Twitter.
These were the points that were constantly reiterated throughout the conversation. A conversation that focused more on how A&Rs relate to and work with musicians than how the next generation of A&Rs will actually get a job. At one point during the discussion this question was asked and met with DIY answers. Thurlow related back to Whalley’s approach and suggested that if a recent graduate wants a job as an A&R that he or she start a record label and wait for the powers that be to notice them and offer them a position. Heymann, who truly feels that hard work does not go unnoticed, believed that the unpaid A&R interns who are full-time students and part-time fast food employees will eventually get the assistant position they crave if they prove themselves worthy. By this time Rana had arrived and said simply “grind it out.” He even shared his own personal story of basically being a “servant” (his words not mine) to Jay-Z and Dame Dash in the early years of his career where for one year he was on call 24/7 for whatever was needed of him—for free. He eventually was able to take that persistence and flip it into a job with a label and work his way up the ranks.
If the attendees took away nothing else from this panel of experts they understood that they had to do it themselves and not wait to be signed to a label to market and push their music and to remain determined while doing it. As Rana put it A&Rs “used to be taste-makers, but now it’s more like customer service.” And where do the ladies fall in the future of A&R? Hagendorf spoke to the music industry still being very much a boys club that is difficult for even the most ambitious women to break into—but that’s for another panel.