Hip-hop was built on self-sufficiency. Since its inception, artists have had to force their way into the hearts and homes of millions for the genre to have a real shot at longevity. That self-sufficiency has translated into a billion-dollar influence on pop culture as hip-hop and R&B have grown to become the number one genre in terms of consumption, according to Forbes. On the road to earning that number one spot, we've seen the game twist and turn as new technology put more power in the hands of unsigned artists to create their own buzz and build their own audiences.
Social media and streaming services enabled otherwise unknown rappers, singers, and musicians to reach the masses at the push of a button. In 2017 alone, the top six companies by global market capitalization (Google, Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Tencent, and Alibaba) have a combined market value of over $3 trillion, and they're all aggressively making investments in music. That doesn't even include giants like Tidal, Pandora, and Spotify, which on its own accounts for 20% of recorded music revenue worldwide. On top of that, overall recorded music revenue grew by 11% in 2016 after 16 years of an annual 4% decline. Needless to say, the industry has taken notice of the shift. As a culture, we've arrived at a point where artists have become so empowered that everyone started questioning the need for labels and A&Rs. After all, what artist needs a label or an A&R if they can push their music directly through streaming services? Why have an A&R when you have social media?
Tasked with the responsibility of scouting and signing new artists, an A&R's presence used to mean everything. Decades ago, they were the only link people had to the record industry. When they showed up to any city, it was a huge deal. Ultimately, impressing them could become an aspiring artist's key to stardom. Now, or so it seems, people have lost faith in the importance of what was once a renowned position. While a handful of rising artists have made use of new tools to streamline their success, it doesn't negate the fact that it can come with a price.
Winning independently is great, but without the proper mentorship and industry prowess, new artists run the risk of reaching fame without the added vision to expand their potential market share. Simply put, this means that the threat of plateauing looms over each new internet superstar if their heads aren't on straight. The art of A&R is a cocktail of mentorship, cultural investment, and creative strategy. Most new artists who reach fame are in their late teens or early twenties, when millions of eyes are on them. For that reason alone, the role of an A&R is more important than ever.
The Duty of Mentorship
When it comes to the importance of mentorship, we must look no further than Orlando Brown. He's the VP of A&R at Atlantic Records responsible for signing Fetty Wap, A Boogie, Kodak Black, PnB Rock, and more after just two and a half years in the business. It's no secret that a few of his artists have dealt with growing pains as they've ascended to stardom. Were it not for the guidance of Orlando, we may not have seen each one of these guys reach the heights their talent warranted. In a conversation with REVOLT, Orlando shed light on what he feels is his most important obligation as an A&R.
"I provide structure and I mentor them, so they can be great people," Brown said. "They're already great artists. Nowadays you can sit in your house, make a song and get lucky. But how many times are you going to get lucky? You still need structure to understand how to make an album and market yourself."
Beyond the point of mentorship, even a veteran artist requires an A&R. Once you've got a few albums under your belt, you still need someone to hunt down beats and opportunities for you. At different stages, you need different things.
"Before I sign someone, I have to see who you are as a person," Brown said. "What are your morals? If you don't have strong morals, then I can't f--k with you."
It's a simple statement, yet one that lends to a larger point about the importance of intention with regard to the role of an A&R. The ones who aren't necessary are those who see new artists as nothing more than a potential bag of cash. To truly be effective, there must be a genuine love for the culture. A&Rs are the bridge between kids with dreams, and the industry that can launch them into realizing those dreams.
Do It for The Love
That love for the culture is reflected in Randy Rodriguez, formerly of Roc Nation. He's now the Head of A&R at Jamla Records after spearheading the partnership between Jamla and Roc Nation. He's more dedicated to hip-hop than a simple job title. However, he understands the power he has to push the culture forward through his position. Sitting inside Lenny S' infamous Gold Room at Roc Nation, Randy reflected with REVOLT on the golden era of hip-hop when A&Rs had to be active.
"This is not a for-the-moment thing, this is a lifestyle," Rodriguez said. "People need to know that and understand that. This is over 30 years in the making of who you are, how you dress, and where you're from. You define that as an artist."
Contrary to popular belief, not much has changed since then. People tend to make the argument that the internet breaks artists, unlike 15 to 20 years ago when A&Rs had to have their ears to the street and travel to different cities to find talent. It's still that way today. The variables have changed, but being a physical participant in the community is still a must.
"There are still a lot of A&Rs who sit on the computer and use that to find who they think is dope," said Rodriguez. "I take it upon myself to go outside of the internet. I use it as a source, but at the same time I like to go find out for myself. The internet can be deceiving, artists can have hundred million views online, but empty shows. It's also about how you carry yourself. Is there a look about you that stands out? Can you really have a conversation? I like to watch interviews to see if I was younger, would I see this artist as a role model?"
Rodriguez operates from a place of pure appreciation of his opportunity to provide a platform for growth. He wants to see the culture pushed forward in artists like Rapsody and up-and-comers like Dot Demo, who bring intelligence to the game paired with sheer talent on the microphone. Rodriguez's intentions are as good as can be and he's successfully used his resources to ensure that quality music is given a chance.
Blending Creativity with Industry Expertise
In an interview with 24/7 Hip Hop, Tuo Clark, Def Jam's SVP of A&R, gave his take on the need for creativity in a position like his.
"I'm a creative before I'm an A&R," said Clark. "A lot of A&Rs are agenda-driven. Agenda-driven means looking at the black-and-white, and saying this is the plan we have to execute. I do believe that there has to be a plan, but it's about the creativity. If you don't have true creativity with these records that make people feel a certain way, then you're losing."
There are instances where numbers are used to dictate whether or not an artist should be signed, or if they should receive that major push. Data is important, but it should only be used to guide the decision making process. An effective A&R is just as dedicated to the creative process of a project as the artists themselves. From idea generation to roll-outs, there must be a commitment to building a complete body of work that will impact the audience in an everlasting way.
"You've got the label side where we can grow an artist and break an artist through traditional avenues, and the audience grows from there," Clark said. "Then there's the reverse where everything is kind of underground, but they're making more money on the road than the more commercial acts. It's an interesting time."
The music industry is going through one hell of a growth period, as the business model continues to morph into a new standard for the next decade. Plenty of changes are on the horizon, but one thing is for certain. A&Rs are absolutely necessary. No one comes into the music industry and knows exactly how to navigate it. Everyone needs mentorship, guidance, and creative contribution to building momentum as they graduate to new phases of their career. For that reason, A&Rs are here to stay.