Working in A&R

Mark Bounds gives advice on how to make it as an A&R in the Music Industry and tips for Artist development

Mark Bounds has worked for years in in A&R and Artist development. He started out at Sony UK in the 90s, working with tonnes of great artists such as Roger Sanchez, The Crystal Method, Satoshi Tomiie and Puretone. Later on, Mark set up an A&R consultancy working with Sony Europe, Sony Japan, BMG Australia, The Voice UK and lots more!

Mark has a passion for learning the lessons of performance development from other industries, especially sport, and translating those lessons for the music industry to ensure that the future of performance development in music is recognized as the vital aspect it deserves to be.

With all this experience, we had to have a chat with Mark before his Big Master Class! 

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How did you go about becoming an A&R? What was your journey into the role like?

I had worked in record retail with HMV and then got a job as a sales rep for Telstar and then moved to Sony sales in 1991. At this time I was calling on 40 independent shops a week, many of which were great dance music shops. I was buying a lot of imports and white labels and constantly bombarding the various Sony A&Rs with cassettes – yep, that long ago! – of tracks that I thought Sony should sign. I think in the end they thought it would be easier just to give me a job to shut me up!

What advice would you give to somebody starting out and looking to become an A&R?

Initially, you have to know more than your competition, ie the other people that want to be A&Rs. You have to not only know about the great artists or tracks earlier than your competition, you also have to make sure that other people know you knew first, so you’re going to have to build an extensive network of people who are close to the creation of the art and then also a network of people whose role it is to develop and promote that art and monetise it for the artist. Then you become the bridge between the two networks.

What does your role within artist development consist of?

It is essentially about performance development and trying to help people to achieve their potential and to realise their ambitions and goals. That takes a number of guises depending on the individual or band, some want help with the creation of their art, others want help in strategising the promotion of their art. Every campaign is unique to the artist so you have to develop a bespoke development programme to help them achieve their goals.

What are the first 3 things you look at in an artist to identify if they have the potential you’re looking for?

My first managing director was the A&R guru that is Muff Winwood at Sony and you couldn’t help but learn from just observing how he worked with artists. For me, the key elements are the voice ( if it is a vocal artist ), the song ( or track, if it’s an electronic track ), which combine to bring an emotional response, and, as importantly in this day and age, the absolute drive,determination and resilience ( it might be 3 words but it adds up to the same thing!) that the artist is going to need to ensure a lifelong career in music, which I guess is what everyone wants when they start out in this industry. The first 2 are about being able to move people in a way that they will want to engage with the artist and the latter is to ensure that the artist is prepared to stick at it when success is not as instant as they had hoped.

What is your favourite thing about each role?

The voice – a voice that can make the hairs on your arm stand up on end when you hear it.

The song – the delivery of a lyric that encapsulates an emotion that you know is going to stay with you for the next 40 years.

The drive – the determination that assures you that the artist will not give up in pursuit of their goals despite any initial knock backs.

What is the most challenging aspect of being an A&R?

I guess currently the greatest challenge is the limited access to funding to allow an artist to develop to a stage where they can then make a profit from their work. The financial pressures on all areas of the industry mean that less and less is there the luxury of investing in an artist over a long period to ensure that they have the time and space to reach their potential.

What has been your nightmare story from working in the music industry?

Ha! I have to be perfectly honest and say that I don’t think I have had it yet! Something to look forward to though….

What has been your biggest personal achievement?

I’d say the fact that, fortunately, I’m still earning a living from being involved in helping people create and make their music. When I decided that the best use of an Economics degree was to apply for a job as a Xmas temp in HMV Portsmouth I think if someone had told me I’d still be working in music in 25 years time I’d have bitten their hand off.

You draw a comparison between the sports industry and music industry in terms of performance development, what do you think the main similarity in the lessons that can be learned are?

Oh, Lord! How long have you got? I warn you I can ramble on for hours about this!
It essentially boils down to maximising the performance of the performer, whether it be on a sporting stage, a musical stage, the business environment or the studio.

Our role as coach or performance developer is to ensure that the performer optimises their performance. What sport is very effective at doing is investing in performance development programmes and coaching it’s coaches to deliver these programmes of development, constantly striving to improve those performances.

I believe we can translate the programmes of high performance leadership and coaching in sport in to executive development in the music industry with the subsequent impact on performers. Sport invests heavily in ensuring that it’s coaches, the equivalent of our music executives, are given all the training and the knowledge of how psychology, physiology, communication and environment impact on performance in order to maximise incremental benefits.

I believe we can learn a lot from this in the ways that, as an industry, we should ensure the optimum conditions for both the coach and the performer to ensure longevity for both parties. Increasingly music companies are having to manage the ‘team’ that surrounds the performer and I believe that this knowledge of team performance management is an inherent skill for all future artist developers.

I’d better stop now or I’ll be here all week…

What is your favourite thing to do outside of music?

Talk, probably! And travel. I love to look at how we can learn lessons from other industries and other countries, borrowing ideas as I go. And if I can combine this with my current obsession with the craft ale industry, all the better.

Want to hear more from Mark? You can stream his Big Master Class live on October 12th at 6pm on our Facebook or Twitter!