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Record Company Q & A

Q. I write my music from the heart. I don't know what style it is, and I don't try to fit a formula. Why does everything have to be categorized?!

A. Because you don't hear Country radio stations playing Metallica. Radio is strictly formatted and the record companies must deal with radio when promoting their artists. Music that is not primarily radio-oriented (i.e., Jazz, New Age, Reggae, Folk, etc.) is even more strictly categorized. Become familiar with radio formats by listening to the different stations in your area and noting the artists and types of music that they play. Pay attention to which artists and stations sound closest to your style of music. Read the airplay charts in Billboard, Radio & Records, HITS, and other industry trade magazines. If you were writing books, you wouldn't send your manuscript to a publisher with a note saying "I'm not sure if this book is science fiction or a romance novel. Please figure it out for me." The industry isn't going to figure it out for you. You will need to do your homework. Your challenge is to stay true to your art while working within industry standards. It can be done.

Q. Why is there so much garbage on the radio? My songs are better than lots of that crap and my band can actually play their instruments! What do those bands have that we don't have?

A. Connections, probably. It could be that artist has the same manager or attorney or producer as the label's biggest act, and they got signed as a way to keep that powerful manager/attorney/producer happy. Maybe there was a bidding war between several labels for that artist, and believe me, some really stupid things can happen when a bidding war is in full swing. There are a hundred diferent reasons why so much "garbage" ends up on the radio. None of those reasons should concern you. It's never a good idea to compare yourself to the worst of what is out there. You should instead measure yourself against the best--that's what the A&R people are going to do. Don't forget--for a song to actually make it to the radio, a whole lot of people, including A&R people, radio programmers, and record buyers, have decided that it isn't "garbage." So maybe it is and maybe it isn't, but why waste your time and energy focusing on the negatives? Instead, concentrate on mastering your own craft and vision.

Q. What does A&R stand for?

A. The dictionary definition is "artists and repertoire." The A&R guys say it stands for "airplanes and restaurants." But we know musicians who say it's "attitude and rejection."

These are the people at record companies who are responsible for finding new talent and then for overseeing the making of the records.

Although you spend countless hours in smoky bars and nightclubs looking for the Next Big Thing, you actually spend far less time listening to tapes than most people might think.

Still, you receive tapes from every manager, attorney, publisher, artist on the label, field rep, co-worker, friend, friend-of-a-friend and...well, you get tapes from everyone you've ever met and everyone those people have ever met.

You put tapes on in the office, but the phone always rings (people calling to ask if you have listened to their tape yet), so the best place to listen is in the car and on airplanes. It's almost impossible to find enough time just to listen to everything, let alone get back to everyone with a reaction. Good thing most people understand that if you're interested you'll call, and if you're not, you won't. They may resent you for it, but they understand--sort of.

You will hear lots of garbage and lots of things that are really close, but really close isn't good enough. You have to be in love with it. You have to be willing to fight for it--to stake your career on it.

Once or twice a year, you'll find something exciting enough and, assuming you fought hard enough to get the band signed (we could do an entire column on that process alone), then it's time to start convincing the people in your own company.

Getting the rest of the company excited about an artist is crucial to the success of the project. It doesn't matter if you're convinced you've just signed the next Beatles--if the promotion department doesn't think it's a hit, they aren't going to give it the big push at radio. No radio, no hit record.

Therefore, as a good A&R guy (or girl) you will spend lots of time shmoozing your own co-workers so that those co-workers will in turn go out and shmooze their contacts at radio, retail, and press.

It pays well and the expense account is great, but it's a high turnover gig in a very volatile industry. Every time you sign an artist, you've stuck your neck out and chances are the band you sign is gonna stiff.

Something like 92% of all records released don't make any money. A couple of stiff records and you're looking for another gig.

My point: It's still a business. It takes a good business head to make enough noise for a major label to find you instead of you getting frustrated trying to get to them. Hey, if it was easy, everybody would be a rock star.

During Michael Laskow's 20-year tenure as an engineer/producer, he worked with Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Eric Clapton, Cheap Trick and countless others. He continues to write articles for magazines like Recording and Electronic Musician.