Applied Science #8: Organizing the creative process Pt. 1

"First of all, who's your A&R? A mountain climber who plays an electric guitar?"

Over the last few years, we’ve developed a set of internal tools at CreateSafe that have helped us organize the recording process and the data it generates. Inspired by experience, we’ve crafted more efficient systems to facilitate collaboration, catalog metadata, organize contacts, and collate business and consumption insights. 

In the next two editions of Applied Science, we’re introducing two of these tools: A&R Manager and Production Manager.

A&R Manager is a CRM (customer relationship management) product to help record label A&R’s, producer managers, songwriter managers, and music publishers (among others) guide their working relationships with other A&R’s, artist managers, and music supervisors. At their best, each of these parties is meant to use this communication to help create and disseminate compelling music; word-of-mouth intel pulses through the veins of the entire industry. The app allows users to track priority projects, inputting information they receive from conversations about various music-related needs: which artist is looking for beats or songs at a label, which music supervisor is looking for songs to fill a specific cue in a show, which publisher is sitting on great tracks. We intend to simplify creative infrastructure, streamlining the logistics of collaboration. Pt. 1 of this Applied Science focuses on two questions: What is A&R and how does the A&R Manager improve the process?

Production Manager is a tool for cataloging details of the song/album creation process. It helps track collaborations, credits, metadata, and relevant deals associated with pieces of music. I’ll dive deeper into its genesis and use in Pt. 2.

Both A&R Manager and Production Manager are the first in a series of tools we’re releasing to give people greater insight, control, and agency in performing their jobs in the recording industry. Whether in the the current iteration of a business still reckoning with decades old issues or a new industry emerging before our eyes, these tools will help provide clarity and control for creatives and their collaborators. 

In music, the letters “A&R” conjure a specific set of tasks. Two Hollywood-polished images jump to mind for me. The first: Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler, engaged in studio conversations with Ray Charles in Ray. Agreements and disagreements alike spur hit after hit for Charles as he and his two creative consigliere guide a superstar’s spark. The second: The A&R meeting at the beginning of Get Him To The Greek, where a group of terrified, imagination-bankrupt executives stand judgment before the wrath of Sergio (perfectly embodied by Diddy), their ideas summarily dismissed until young A&R Aaron Green (played with an accurate level of fear and daring by Jonah Hill) has the temerity to suggest the revival of flagging, drug-addled rock lunatic Aldous Snow (Russell Brand)—a decision that turns Green, essentially, into a drug-muling adult babysitter. 

Historically, A&R’s discovered and signed artists—the “A” in A&R. Post-signing, A&R’s set out to cull hit material from their signings—building “repertoire,” the other half of the A&R equation. Sign a buzzing act or a hit record. Develop superstars from scratch. Climb the company ladder (or peel off to start your own label, or enter another segment of the business). Repeat over years as the gold and platinum plaques stack up.

For many aspiring music executives, A&R is the mountain top—a front row seat for sex and sizzle, a job romanticized over decades for the access it affords to celebrity, excess, and the excitement of creative epiphanies (Get Him To The Greek nails this yearning and the darkness that inevitably chases it). My first internship validated a sliver of the thrill—I got to scour the internet for music all day and go to shows. That was “work.” It was “research.” It was a job someone got paid to do. My boss would occasionally play me songs one of his bands was working on and ask me if I had any notes. Another human being wanted my opinion on music. Even sitting in a maintenance closet packed with posters sporting lusty-eyed, bare-chested Nick Cannons from an album campaign that never was, I couldn’t believe someone allowed me to spend my days on the hunt.

The typical A&R cycle at a label resembles a version of the following (in brief): 

A&R stumbles upon artist they want to sign. 

A&R courts artist—maybe a few dinners, maybe a Lakers game (although good luck getting those seats approved by finance if there’s an IPO looming), maybe a chase across the country as the artist tours. 

A&R puts a deal together (pending approval from higher ups, including the legal minds of the business affairs department). Depending on how competitive the hunt for that artist, the deal might be a smaller “developmental” deal or it might be the kind of deal you read about in Billboard (many competitive deals today feature upfront advances in the low-to-mid seven figures, 50/50 net profit splits for royalties, and license and term language that limit a label’s length of ownership and right to commercially exploit a signing’s music). 

The deal goes out to the artist’s lawyer. 

Artist lawyer and label lawyer negotiate a short form agreement. 

Once material terms are agreed, the lawyers negotiate a long form agreement. 

The artist signs execution copies of the long form when it’s fully agreed. 

The journey with the label begins. 

(A similar process occurs for music publishers)

Some artists step into labels with fully completed bodies of work. Some walk in with hit singles and little else. Some come with half-realized demos that need polishing. Some enter as empty vessels. In all cases, it’s the job of the responsible A&R to facilitate the creative whims of their signing and to help an artist deliver music that’s commercially successful, culturally meaningful, critically acclaimed—all three in the best of circumstances. (I could say it’s the A&R’s job to facilitate the production of “great” and “lasting” music, but these are the sorts of nebulous terms that have less to do with the daily realities of an A&R job and more to do with the whims of taste and time).

You only need to have watched a few episodes of VH1’s Behind the Music, read a smattering of Billboard or Rolling Stone articles from the last handful of years, or scoured music industry Twitter for a few weeks to know this dance often doesn’t work out. Megan Thee Stallion and Lil Uzi Vert have aired constant grievances about their labels. Taylor Swift and former label head Scott Borchetta traded barbs in the wake of Scooter Braun purchasing Swift’s old label Big Machine—and, with it, all of Swift’s masters to a point. Kanye West tweeted out every page of his Def Jam recording contracts in an attempt to force transparency and accountability (or something like that) from Def Jam’s parent company Universal Music Group. Prince famously changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol in his exodus from Warner Records, signaling the start of his independent empowerment.

The reasons for frustration abound: A&R’s can’t deliver what their artists are asking for. Artists can’t or don’t want to deliver what their label wants. Contracts restrict artists in ways they didn’t understand they might. The incessant major label hunger for market share forces A&R’s to seize on repertoire that’s already commercially meaningful, rather than finding unknown artists and guiding them to success (a rising tide that crushes more well-meaning A&R’s each year as the demands of pie-chart dominance drown the creative process). Artists and their labels disagree on vision in spite of seeming accord before signing. A&R teams’ attention gets split over a dizzying number of new signings. Label teams chase success by pairing their artists with producers and songwriters who are already proven hitmakers, but may not be the right fit to execute a certain vision. The horror stories and burnouts pile up as the major label grist mill grinds out as many streams as possible each fiscal year. 

A&R, at its purest, is an exchange of ideas that inspire creation and the facilitation of the recording process. Exaggerated images litter the popular imagination of A&R. When people speak of “real A&R,” they’re likely conjuring notions of some legendary producer in an incense-thick studio decked with Persian rugs and scented candles, or some Bohemian kid fresh out of a downtown New York nightclub who can put you onto the all the choicest Dilla deep cuts that inspired your favorite music in ways you didn’t understand, promising they can get you some beats from Clams Casino. They’re former DJ’s and would-be producers, savvy club promoters and record store clerks, art school dropouts and liner note acolytes. Behold the inspiration feeders, the human support system helping artists mold a vision and deliver fully realized songs and albums. Their job is twofold: Drive the artist to make something amazing and deliver that amazing thing to the label in a timely fashion.

A&R is alchemy. It’s a conversation, late at night while the most of the world sleeps. It’s a challenge to achieve a specific goal, to commit something swimming in your mind to the durable life of a finished recording. It’s a song, album, or playlist shared at the right time, a bolt of inspiration previously unheard or overlooked. It is also disagreement, conflict, confrontation—heated debate that, ideally, ends in some kind of compromise (even if tense) and success.

Of course, all that magic doesn’t deliver a record to Spotify. While A&R is a title and a job, the term entails a process for facilitating music and sending it to some distributive apparatus or another. A labyrinthine latticework of contracts, forms, forms that qualify other forms, and delivery requirements comprise the mundane underside of all the sizzle and smoky inspiration. A proper A&R team requires the right balance of dream-weaving, effective scheduling, clear communication, and efficient paper-pushing—an equilibrium that gives artists what they need and ensures that music enters the world as intended. 

Further still, the term does not define one type of person. There are A&R’s that work at record labels and A&R’s that work at publishing companies; there are managers whose primary skillset is A&R, as well as music supervisors and agents who specialize in putting musical ideas together (even if they may not formally be called A&R’s). A publisher, for example, can be a helpful ally for a label A&R or manager: Publishers signs producers and songwriters, often pitching beats, full songs, and tracks with choruses to A&R’s and managers who have artists in need of records. Through it all, an A&R’s role entails bringing a record to market, whatever that market may be.

The modern record industry stands atop an ecosystem of collaboration, intel gathering, and music sharing. We built the A&R Manager with each of these facets in mind. It’s a robust mobile app that enables detailed task management and team communication.

Our goal: Making it easier to organize information about projects at the moment and their specific needs and requisite contacts—whether an artist working on their album, a music supervisor working on a show or commercial, or a producer gathering loops to build into tracks (to name but a few possibilities). The first iteration of our A&R manager tool puts particular focus on the role of publishers and managers, the people typically pitching songs and beats on behalf of their clients and scheduling writing sessions between artists, songwriters, and producers. It’s an updated take on what’s called a “who’s looking list,” a document that publishers often circulate within their A&R departments that tracks projects at various labels and their needs (NOTE: Most “who’s looking lists” are depressing graveyards rife with outdated information and hilarious descriptions of project needs; any list is only as good as the strength of the information gathered—as the saying goes: “garbage in, garbage out”).

Click here to sign up for access to the A&R Manager.

I haven’t accompanied one of these with a playlist in some time; here is the song currently bringing me peace on any given day.

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