What Does an A&R Actually Do?

A&R is one of the most misunderstood roles in the music industry, so we talked to A&Rs at majors, independent labels, and publishers to clear up the confusion.

andr 2020
P&P Original

Image by Sho Hanafusa

andr 2020

One of the most misunderstood roles in the music industry is the A&R. The term seems to mean different things to different people, in recent years becoming a catch all term on social media and beyond for anything or anyone involving music curation and discovery.

“Being an A&R is much more than signing talent. You’re not the person in the movies with sunglasses on and plaques on the wall in the studio,” Ashley Calhoun, SVP/head of creative at Pulse Music Group. “It really is a 24/7 commitment and job and you really have to be passionate about your artist, the company or label you work for, and all of those things.”

The responsibility of an A&R (short for artist and repertoire) is to be involved from start to finish—beginning with talent discovery and signing, through the creation of the music, to the marketing and promotion. Specific tasks can include bringing talent to a record label, arranging recording sessions, and serving as a conduit between artists, producers, and other creatives. As technological advances have continued in the past decade, changing the way people consume and discover music, the industry has been forced to enter its digital era at last. The Internet has shown us time and time again that any artist can be propelled into virality through social media platforms like TikTok and Twitter.

Consequently, the role of the A&R has changed too, as data and analytics have become another tool to help find tomorrow's next breakout artist. Artists now have the ability to connect with fans and promote music without the help of a label or marketing team, bringing into question the role of labels in 2020 (a conversation for another day).

Ultimately, the roles and responsibilities of an A&R can’t be confined to a singular opinion. So, we spoke to the people who are doing the work every day in the music industry’s most misunderstood role, including A&Rs at majors, independent labels, and publishers. Collectively, they help give a better idea of what being an A&R entails and answer questions like: How has the age of the Internet changed A&R? What do you look for when signing talent? Can anyone be an A&R? How hard can it be? Read on for the answers.

"You become a part-time manager, therapist, life coach, financial officer, and friend. Because when you take on an artist, you take on their whole life." - Julissa “Trophy” Bartholomew

It’s much more than scouting talent.

"To me, the A&R is the person who serves as the liaison between the artist and the consumer. The job is to be able to see an artist who’s not at their full potential but has star power. A&Rs are visionaries, musically. A lot of us sign acts before they blow up because we see they have star power or maybe their music relates to a certain audience. I feel like an A&R should be able to help an artist put forth their best music. They should be helping them pick the right beats, structure, and build those connections." - Onyi Kokelu, Artist Development @ CMG Records

“I’m very traditional, I’m somebody who just goes by my gut. Some of us really don’t find artists from analytics. I have to feel and be inspired by the music. I have to feel an emotion for the music. Many of us will sign an artist with not a lot of followers because we love the music 

"It’s a whole bunch of things beyond scouting talent. There’s a lot of going through music, having meetings with producers and songwriters, and spending time with your artists. It’s studio sessions and countless hours of interactions with the music world, from publishers to managers to lawyers. Then it goes as far as rolling out a project with your marketing and PR team. Every day is different and that’s the dope thing about being an A&R. It doesn’t feel stagnant.” - Dallas Martin, SVP of A&R @ Atlantic Records

Everything that glitters isn’t gold.

“A lot of people think that being in the studio and chasing down artists to clear something for a side-artist agreement, or directing an artist that might not have any direction is this super fun process that we all love. The reason that we celebrate when we put a project out is because it takes a lot. Sometimes you might run into an artist and hypothetically speaking, they might have a bit of stubbornness and don't want to give you what you need from them. They might say, “I’ll do this how I want to do this and nobody’s going to tell me what to do,” and at the same time, you’re trying to put yourself in a position to deliver the best project.

"There’s a lot of back and forth that goes on in that side. While an A&R position might look glamorous and really dope, it’s really tough. In more recent years, I salute the women that have been doing A&R and killing it because it’s tough for men so I can only imagine what it is for women.” - Wayne “Wayno” Clark, VP, A&R @ Asylum Records

“Outside of the fun and celebratory parts of being an A&R, there is this saying that A&R stands for ‘Anxiety and Regret’ that I will never forget. This usually begins after the courting process where you now have to introduce the artist to the rest of the label making sure they also view them as the next best thing and a priority act while everyone is working on a million other releases. The process of setting up a campaign varies from making sure the artist is happy with the final audio, visuals, release timeline to very mundane things like sorting out all of the agreements, invoices, label copy, producer credits, and splits, amongst other things. 

"We spend countless nights wide awake having this internal conversation of ‘why isn’t this bigger’ or ‘how can we be better at pushing this incredible music.’” - Briana Cheng, A&R at 4AD / Founder of b4 Sounds

Numbers aren’t the only thing that matter.

“I think that numbers matter. You want to see some type of numbers to back up what you think you’re hearing. Sometimes you might want to sign someone and they sound amazing to you, but their song or project only has so many plays. And in that case, it may only sound good to you.

"You have to take other things into consideration. Like does this person have an image? Are they believable? Do people want to be this person? You can’t say ‘this sounds good, I want to sign them,’ no, you have to take other things into account.” - Julissa “Trophy” Bartholomew, A&R @ Cinematic Music Group

“It’s not just about finding an artist that has a hot song right now. At a point, the Internet makes it easy. If you follow enough pages on Instagram or Twitter, or any tastemaker channels for that fact, you’ll see a song as it’s getting hot. Really, anyone can find it but it's more so recognizing a talent before it gets hot and seeing the vision with it all the way through. It’s not about a hit. I think it’s about capitalizing on a moment and building something sustainable off of that.” - Dilan “Hef” Ames, Director of A&R @ 10K Projects

Quality over quantity.

“I feel like consistency is key but you want to be consistently good. You don’t want your artist to keep putting out bullshit just to be putting it out or signing artists that you don’t think will last long. It depends on what place you’re at in your career. In the beginning, I believe that A&Rs should encourage their artist to put out as much music as they can. They have this saying where you miss every shot you don’t take. The only way for artists to get better is to be constantly recording and putting out music. However, at a certain point you do need to slow up and make sure that it’s quality over quantity.” - Onyi Kokelu, Artist Development @ CMG Records

Not everyone can be an A&R.

“I don’t think everyone can be an A&R. Of course, it requires someone who is patient and passionate about the job. As an A&R, it’s not just these business relationships. A lot of the time, you’re really acting as a therapist for clients and sometimes you take on the role of a big brother or sister. You play so many roles, so I don’t think it’s a job for just anybody. I think people on the Internet tend to see it as a much easier task than it really is. Being an A&R is much more than signing talent. You’re not the person in the movies with sunglasses on and plaques on the wall in the studio. It really is a 24/7 commitment and job and you really have to be passionate about your artist, the company or label you work for, and all of those things.

"It definitely takes ear, talent, determination, and just passion. Otherwise, it’s just not the job for you. People’s livelihood will depend on you. Your artist’s career will be in your hands, essentially, so unless you have all of those, then no A&R is not for everyone.” - Ashley Calhoun, SVP @ Pulse Music Group

“There are a lot of people on Twitter claiming to be A&Rs and these people have not the slightest clue. However, I don’t believe you have to work at a label to be an A&R. You can work with an artist or you can own a studio and help A&R projects. I have friends run a studio who work with different artists and producers and they’re in there helping them making records. They’re going to bring in this rapper, this producer, and so forth. I feel like if you’re in that sort of position where you’re calling plays, helping hands-on to put together a project, and bringing stuff in, I feel that’s an A&R.

"That’s a part of A&R. There’s many different parts to A&R, it’s not just research, putting together records; it’s putting everything together. So yeah, I think people that don’t necessarily work at labels can be A&Rs, but I do think that term has been used too loosely.” - Dilan “Hef” Ames, Director of A&R @ 10K Projects

An A&R is not a manager.

“In a lot of ways they're similar depending on who the A&R is. I tend to approach A&R from a management perspective, but for a manager, it’s really a 24/7 job for real. You’re really in the trenches, thinking about the future beyond the label, and all sorts of things. Typically, you’re really centered in on your artists. I feel like as an A&R though, you might be constantly looking for more talent and you’re not as tunnel vision as a manager would be. With that being said, a lot of the same roles are being covered by both sides.

My personal opinion is a label or publishing A&R should never be outworking a manager. I feel like both sides should be working equally as hard or for a manager, slightly even harder. When I see the reverse, it doesn’t really work out.” - Ashley Calhoun, A&R @ Pulse Music Group

“Even though that misconception is wrong, it’s even more wrong just because of how most of us take on twenty hats. You become a part-time manager, therapist, life coach, financial officer, and friend. Because when you take on an artist, you take on their whole life. It becomes more than just the music, their hunger intertwines with yours.” - Julissa “Trophy” Bartholomew, A&R @ Cinematic Music Group

A&R is alive and well.

“Without us, the artist wouldn’t keep track of what they’re doing in the studio. Artists upload type beats from YouTube all day and it’s up to us to track down the producers and negotiate good deals and create good relationships between artists and producers

"I feel like there would be a lot of music with no structure without A&Rs. There would be nobody there to actually help them to the next level. Sometimes you need people that have experience and relationships with people in order to help you elevate.” - Julissa “Trophy” Bartholomew, A&R @ Cinematic Music Group

“I think that the only thing that’s constant in this world we live in is change. So the form and the way people traditionally A&R is a lot different then it was back in the day. A lot of the time, labels don’t have the ability to build artists how they used to. That’s because they come and they shoot out of nowhere and all of a sudden you have an artist who’s never practiced performing but they’re already doing arenas. So A&R is definitely not dead, it’s just changed. I still believe it’s important because you definitely need someone that has that strong vision to help your artist to get where you want them to be.” - Onyi Kokelu, Artist Development @ CMG Records

"Being an A&R is much more than signing talent. You’re not the person in the movies with sunglasses on and plaques on the wall in the studio. It really is a 24/7 commitment." - Ashley Calhoun