How To: Become An A&R Rep

Can you spot a Summer anthem in March? Can you hear a hit a mile away? Do you know the ingredients needed to make a star? Then a career in A&R could be perfect for you!

We had a chat with A&R rep and head of Artist Development at Global Talent, Aaron Buckingham, about getting into A&R and the skills you need to land your dream job.

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Talk us through the role of A&R.

I’m sure every A&R person is different in how they approach the role: but essentially it’s our job to find and develop new artists. You can do that in a variety of ways. I like to combine getting out to plenty of gigs and spending time online looking through various websites and social media outlets. Some are better for different genres. I find that Soundcloud is really good for dance orientated music, so I’d go there when I’m looking for music producers or more dance orientated acts for example. Youtube is obviously great too.

Regardless of the genre, you always want to see a potential act play a live show. So whether it’s a meeting with other A&R people or managers to hear about a new act that’s up and coming, to spotting something online that you like the look of, you always want to see them perform live. It can be difficult with emerging artists sometimes because they mightn’t always have any gigs lined up. Especially if you are not from London, if you’re playing to two people in a pub in Bradford then it’s probably unlikely that a person from a label will happen to be wondering by. That’s why getting music up online is so important.

You also focus on Artist Development. How does that fit into your role?

My role at Global is to find things very early and to develop them. The act might still be in school or only have one song, but it’s my job to spot the potential of that artist or band and help them to build and develop. Pretty much the first thing we do is help to develop their songwriting skills and you do that by setting them up writing sessions or linking them with producers. Often A&R’s look for around 3 or 4 songs before signing them to a label but my job is a little different in the sense that I’m often looking at signing things before they even get to that stage.

How did you get into A&R?

From a young age, I used to put bands together with my mates and did a lot of gigging around the country. Then I had a career as an artist myself, and made a lot of connections. The music industry is quite a small place, everyone knows everyone, so if you are friendly to everyone you meet they’ll remember you. Then four years ago, I saw a band called Lawson in Brighton and I loved the show. I asked them did they have a manager and they didn’t, so I said I’d get them in touch with some of my contacts in the industry. I emailed the Head of Global and said “you have to sign this band”. He’d actually already heard of them and loved them and said he’d sign them if I came along with them. So it was ultimately great timing, a lot of luck and it helped that I really loved and was so passionate about the band.

Are there any tips you’d give someone hoping to get into A&R?

I used to go knocking around doors at labels and tell them I wanted to be an A&R person and they nearly always said “If you want to be an A&R person, go be an A&R person, go out, find bands, send them to us”. It’s difficult but you have to work for free for a while to get a full time job. A lot of aspiring A&R people set up their own blogs, where they post something every day – different singers they’ve discovered or new bands that they like – and that’s great to take to an interview with a prospective employer to showcase your talent scouting skills.

What skills would you say are necessary for an A&R role?

You need to be a bit of a music geek. You need to have an encyclopedia of music knowledge. You need to know where the best gigs are. The best blogs to look at. How to find that talent. I used to be obsessed with reading the inside of CDs and finding out all the producers and writers involved on a record. That’s useful because when you sign an artist you’ll need to set up sessions with those producers and writers.

Be understanding. You need to understand and sympathise with what the artist is going through. I know what it’s like. I’ve been the process of getting signed, releasing a single, getting dropped etc. So having that time for the artist when they’re worried or stressed about something is important.

You need to have a good ear. A&R’s should be able to hear the potential of a song even if it’s not finished. I know some artists who are incredibly talented but may not necessarily be great producers themselves. You have to be able to hear the melody or lyric in a really rough demo and hear it’s potential. Ultimately you need to be the biggest music fan and have the ability to follow your gut.

What’s the best thing about working in A&R?

Everyone who works in the music industry is essentially a fan. So the best thing is when a new song comes into in your inbox and you’re excited about it and you almost feel privileged to be the first person to hear it. If you have thoughts and ideas you can discuss them with the artist but sometimes it’s also about knowing when NOT to offer an opinion. After all, there’s no point making changes to a song or mix just for the sake of it. When making a record it is good to give the artist and the producer creative freedom, so I rarely go down to the studio early on in the process really.

What’s the worst thing about working in A&R?

It can be quite a pressurized job at time. The company is relying on you to bring in new acts and sometimes signing the best acts can be quite a competitive process. It’s frustrating that there’s a culture of caution in the music industry at the moment. Everyone obviously wants to sign a successful artist, but they also don’t want to sign something which stiffs so A&R’s will approach new acts with an air of caution and usually wait to see how they progress. The down side of that is that the more you wait, the more artist becomes more and more popular and then other labels will become interested and then all of a sudden you have a bit of a catfight to sign the artist and bidding war starts. I’m not a fan of situations like that!

What is your career highlight so far?

Definitely working with Lawson. From seeing them in a little bar in Brighton 4 years ago to now performing at sold out venues around the world, it’s been amazing to be able to see what they’ve achieved and how they’ve touched people with their music. There’s still a way to go with them – particularly internationally – but they’re hugely ambitious and I think there’s a great deal more to come from them.

Check out what happened when we interviewed Lawson about the music industry and touring. For more industry insight, here’s an interview with an artist development intern and tips on building an artist’s brand.