Photo: Daniel Prakopcyk
Why A&R Matters In The Streaming Era: 7 Women Share Their Experiences
As we continue to celebrate 20-year anniversaries of great albums from 1999, one can't help but reflect how different the music industry is today.
For instance, instead of purchasing a physical copy of an album from your go-to music chain, nowadays audiences primarily consume music via streaming services like Spotify or Apple Music. And if they want to hear something new, they simply turn to computer-generated algorithms that can recommend what you might like based on what you've already listened to. Artists, meanwhile, can simply upload their music straight to streaming services, effectively cutting out industry gatekeepers and middlemen who once offered exclusive access to distribution.
But just because it's easier to hear and share music with the world in 2019, that doesn't mean it's become simpler to write a great song or keep people's attention.
That's where A&R—which stands for "artists and repertoire"—is still highly relevant. An A&R team's goal is to not only bring in the talent to a label or publisher, but to also help the artist develop their sound, find new collaborators and make sure they have all the tools and support they need to continue to succeed.
We spoke with seven women working in A&R-related roles across labels and other music organizations to learn about what A&R looks like in 2019, creating safe, fairer spaces for women in the music industry, helping artists capture audiences' ever-waning attention, and why, even with streaming dominating the industry, their jobs are more important than ever.
Artists Matter, And A&R Does Too
One thing is clear: With an abundance of choice comes the danger of oversaturation. When A&R professionals step in, they help artists navigate details of the industry and make sure their voices cut through the noise.
As Latoya Lee, VP of Creative Services at Atlas Music Publishing (which has offices in the musical hotspots of New York, Los Angeles, Nashville and Atlanta) puts it: "More so than ever the market is very oversaturated, and I think we're in this space where everyone thinks they're well equipped for everyone's job and that's not the case… most of the time it's the team behind that person that really helps you stand out."
Meanwhile, Taylor Lindsey, VP of A&R at Sony Music Nashville, explains how the shift in country music, where more now performers are also songwriters, has moved the focus of their work to encourage more creative collabs. "I think that where before A&R was really just about finding songs and giving them to artists now it's more of an opportunity for us to help go 'okay, here's a writer that you haven't thought to write with yet. We need to get you in a room with them,'" she said.
Stephanie Wright, who also works in country music as the VP of A&R at Universal Music Group Nashville, made the same point about the shifts in country. She added that A&R "is a different process for a new artist or one that is three or four albums in, then it's more about how they're staying relevant."
Gelareh Rouzbehani, CEO of Rouz Group, an A&R and artist management company she founded in Los Angeles after her time working on the label side, speaks to the vital role of A&R within the greater structure of a label. "I think A&R is the nucleus of the record label; without the right song, the right music, you don't really have a product to push, and other departments can't do their work. I think it always starts with the music... and then from there we build on."
Allison Jones, SVP of A&R at Big Machine Label Group, another major Nashville label, echoed this. "A&R is the funnel through which music gets sent whether it be to a record label or a publishing company or to an artist directly. The term artist and repertoire means the artist and the repertoire of songs that they sing. So as long as there's music there has to be someone that is going to make sure it gets funneled to the right place."
She continued, highlighting that even as the digital music era makes music discovery easier, it is still important to have an A&R team focused on finding the gold. "I think now more than ever it's really key to have that front line of A&R that's scouring all those [music and social media] platforms, in addition to the good old fashion meetings and the good old fashion going to shows and showcases," Jones added.
Data Helps, But It Can Only Reveal So Much
Speaking of the digital music age, sometimes when an artist's streaming accolades are shared, it can sound like someone reading random numbers off a spreadsheet. But with some context, streaming numbers and other data can show us a lot and help an artist and their team test out what resonates with listeners and what doesn't. As several women pointed out, streaming numbers come from real people listening to your music, which is, of course, important to pay attention to.
Everyone seems to agree that while looking at various data points available across streaming and social platforms can help an artist and their team make more informed decisions, it is important to take it with grain of salt and balance it with the irreplaceable gut instinct. Barbara Sealy, who is the Managing Partner at SB Music Management in Los Angeles, pointed to exactly that.
"Data is hugely helpful but it could also be a hindrance. Data can tell you what's popular now, but not necessarily tell you what's good and that's where you have to have go along on gut instincts. I have to really take that data and know how to break it down, but also know how to balance it," Sealy says.
She points to different ways you can look at data, like comparing streaming numbers for songs before and after an artist tours and to dig into website data to see where people are listening to their music, as they should be touring there.
Quality Always Matters
While the current musical landscape may make it easier for artists to share music and potentially snag a blip of listeners' attention with a viral moment, as Wright points to, they still need to be ready for this moment, and to have what it takes to keep their attention. "Attention comes quicker; streaming gets your music out and exposure can come fast, but they may not have been prepared for it."
She added that as someone working in A&R, "With the vast amount of music that is out there now, I think it's going to become important, as far as A&R goes, to really suss out what things are authentic and have that true artistry about them, that will have lasting power."
Wright continued, "You want to invest in the long haul…[to ask yourself] how do you get the consumer the authentic things that they're going to want to follow and to continue stay engaged with?"
Rouzbehani underscored the power of quality music. "I think music is cyclical, and it comes in waves. I'm a firm believer that great artists and quality products will always win in the end. I hope that we continue to work toward elevating those that are actually putting out amazing bodies of work," she said.
Sealy echoed this as she talked about the difficulty she has seen some of her artists face that don't fit neatly into genre boxes. Even though it may take time, she firmly believes that in the end, quality music will always see its time of day. "When good music comes out, everybody will absolutely support it. And we've seen that time and time again," she said.
A&R Is Still About Opening Doors...
Ashley Calhoun, VP of A&R at Pulse Media in Los Angeles, spoke to the importance of opening the door for others to help continue to create a more equal playing field across the music industry.
"I think everyone who's in a position and who has the ear to the executives and consultants that make those decisions should speak up. I think that's super important because if we don't say anything about it, nothing's going to change," Calhoun explained.
She continued, emphasizing the importance of practicing what you preach. "We just really have to have each other's backs because if we don't, we can't expect men or someone else to. Even though there's a lot of great men that really support this vision, we have to just be proactive."
…To Keep Moving The Music Industry To Be More Inclusive & Fair
Lindsey said that while she is proud of the many female artists on Sony Nashville, she and her colleagues recognize that representation in country music is an issue. "It's definitely something that we're paying attention to and we are pushing harder and we are pushing back at because there are female artists in town that deserve to be here."
She added to this point; "I would really love to see more diversity especially in country music…There are so many great artists out there that really kind of don't necessarily fall into a genre. They have country sensibilities or they might have some pop melodies, or they have pop sensibilities and country lyrics…So because of those things I think that it would be really great just to see country open up a little bit more and have more diversification."
Lindsey also stressed the importance of the music industry as a whole coming to a decision as to "what the fair and just compensation needs to be for songwriters and artists across the board," an important point which came up in all of the conversations.
Lee shared her biggest hope for the industry is to see "more black women in positions to make decisions." She continued, underscoring what she sees as her role to help make this happen.
"And A&R more so than anything, because we have lots of women in marketing and lots of women in promotions and radio, and we have lot of women in publicity and those positions, but we don't have enough black women in A&R. That is very important to me, because that's going to be the defining moment in my career, being able to say that I molded the next generation of young women music executives, but also young black women executives."
Like Lee, each woman we spoke with clearly saw a key part of their role in A&R as not only opening doors for the artists they work with, but for other women looking to get their foot in the door on the other side of the music industry. They all spoke of who helped champion them to get their start in the industry, with several pointing out they didn't have female mentors to work with or look up to on their teams. This is why they see female to female mentorship as another important part of their career.
The Importance Of Female Mentorship
Sealy emphasized the importance of making the time for other women, even if it's just a few minutes to answer a few questions. "We all need to be talking to each other…And mentoring is really, really important…We really need, as women, to stop and make a little bit of time for that next girl coming up. Even if we've kind of got to the top of where we are, we need to ensure opportunities are there for others, and especially create an opportunity to be that woman mentor."
Each of the women echoed the importance of mentorship and dialogue in some way during our conversations. Rouzbehani eloquently summarized the importance of empowerment and encouragement.
"I think it's so powerful when women come together," she said. "We've seen it happen time and time again in history, and in the industry now we're seeing more of it, and it's really making an impact. Younger girls, whether they're on social media or they see if from afar, they're a part of this, I think are influenced and inspired by that."