Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Gambling With Other People's Money: The High Life & Completely Avoidable Death of Major Label A&R!

The king of "artist development" Mo Ostin, second from left
With the state of the major label music industry in tatters, little remains of the once proud A&R profession that, for as long as anyone can remember, once played God in determining which bands got signed and, sadly, which bands did not.

Legendary A&R execs such as Mo Ostin, Lenny Waronker, Ahmet Ertugen, Jerry Wexler, and Clive Davis trusted their ears over any spreadsheet, building a deep and varied catalog of modern-era recordings that still manages to keep what's left of the music industry afloat even after most folks have stopped buying music altogether.

With each new decade, however, less and less attention was paid by labels on making sure the right people were filling the A&R positions. By the 1980's, A&R executives like David Geffen, John Kalodner, Teresa Ensenat, and Tom Zutaut were becoming as well-known as the artists they signed.

That was just fine because more than a few artists and managers left their "passions" to get in on some of that sweet, sweet A&R action (insert "rolls eyes" emoticon here); most notably Tim Sommer of esoteric mood rockers Hugo Largo, who has the unlikely distinction of foisting Hootie & The Blowfish upon us.

Of course, that was hot on the heels of the grunge explosion set off by A&R execs Gary Gersh and Michael Goldstone, who signed Nirvana and Pearl Jam, respectively, while Mark Kates (Weezer, Beck, Sonic Youth), David Massey (Oasis), and Jason Flom (Stone Temple Pilots) filled in the edges.

Next thing you know, Fred Durst is named VP of A&R at Interscope with a straight face. How far has the A&R profession fallen since that fateful day. you ask?

Well, Atlantic Records could have signed any number of bands who'd paid their dues, built a devoted regional audience, and proven themselves ready for the next big step, but, instead. the esteemed label responsible for giving the world Led Zep, Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin, signed a 14-year-old girl whose sole claim to fame was mouthing off to Dr. Phil. 

While shit hadn't gotten nearly that bad while I was chasing the major label carrot, here are some of my favorite quotes from A&R folks I've had the "pleasure" of dealing with over the years:

'90s A&R Person For Label A: I'm flying to Chicago this weekend to see a band that will be playing their fifth gig.

90s A&R Person for Label B: If they were any good, they'd have been signed after their third. (Whispers to secretary) Book me a flight to Chicago, STAT!

"Let's cut the bullshit. if you want to spend the next three years shopping for just the right deal, that's three years of not having a record out, but if you want a label that will sign you today, give you the money to make a nice record that you can be proud of, and then release it with zero fucking promotion, I'm your guy."

"When I signed them, they didn't even have a name yet!" (We should all be so lucky)

"Yeah, the difference three more letters makes." (A&R dude who informed me that dropped solo artist "E" was now in-demand as singer for "eels".)

"One week, I'm watching Beck get kicked out of a coffee shop in Silver Lake for bringing a leaf blower to  open mic night and, the next, every label in town is after the guy."

"I honestly thought Bang Tango were gonna be huge."

"Sure, I turned you guys down twice before, but that was before I found out that three other labels were interested."

"I once flew to Sweden and schmoozed a band whose music I hadn't heard, just to keep them from signing with John Motherfucking Kalodner. If that makes me a bad person, so be it."

The one conversation that I've had with the most A&R folks over the years is the one where they go on at length about all the cool "bubbling under" stuff that they love, me asking "So why don't you sign them?", and them responding with some variation of "Oh God no!", as if a band that awesome, who also works dead-end jobs between shitty tours, somehow prefers soul-crushing semi-obscurity to even just a brief, fleeting taste of life on a major label.

And my answer has always been that, at the end of the day, the reason Robbie Fulks is "Robbie Motherfucking Fulks" and not "Ralph Fucking Covert" is because Fulks cut a record for Geffen Records back in the day.

Much the same goes for Nada Surf, whose lone record for Elektra Records brought them fleeting "popularity" and then a pink slip, but not before building just enough name recognition around the world to enjoy a very fruitful and long-lasting indie existence that continues to this day.

As an A&R person with signing power, that's the best fucking gift you could give a band that you claim to love, but, hey, if you'd rather sign Trixter because you're afraid Tom Zutaut will sign them first, be my guest.

And that, my friends, is why Magnetic Fields never got a major label deal.

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