A&R. A term few outside the music industry have ever heard and one that keeps our boast of being a ‘different’ industry alive!
The acronym, for the uninitiated, stands for Artistes & Repertoire. Before we get into the business of A&R, one quick clarification. I call our industry singers and performers ‘artistes’ with an ‘e’ and not ‘artists’ because I believe that is how dictionaries describe them. While the word ‘artist’ could encompass anyone who practices an art, the word artiste specifically refers to those who demonstrate their art in public, notably singers, dancers and actors. A bee in my bonnet so I have said my piece!
Back to Artistes & Repertoire. A music label historically had three functions. Manufacture and distribution of the physical product, marketing and A&R. The internet has taken over the role of music distribution and there is no need to manufacture, so the music label business today revolves around the other two functions. A&R is the backbone because the job entails discovering and signing talent, working with the talent on creation of music and assisting the marketing team in working the correct strategy around the music and artiste.
Historically, there have been two ways of doing A&R. The first is where people come to you with a ready product and want you to sign and market them. The other is to go out there and find the talent and develop it. There is no hard and fast rule or correct way but companies do tend to veer towards one or the other. Back in the day when I was at Magnasound, we preferred to sign acts and work with them on the development aspect. We signed artistes on term contracts of three years because we wanted to grow and therefore grow with the artistes. Baba Sehgal, Shweta Shetty, Suchitra Krishnamoorti, Daler Mehndi, Shaan and many others were on term contracts and we put these artistes together with composer/producers and lyric writers to create the songs and albums. That’s how one got to work with people like Salim & Sulaiman, Ram Sampath, Raju Singh, Biddu, Jawahar Wattal, the late Raajesh Johri and Shyam Anuragi and so many more brilliantly talented people. One added responsibility when you do this sort of A&R of course, is to maintain a good working atmosphere between these sensitive, creative people.
This style of A&R never left me and it was rare that one signed an album that came ready with videos, even in my stints with Virgin and Saregama. Hard Kaur’s debut album Supawoman was possibly the only one. I relished the creation process, be it two years that Tanha Dil was in the making or traveling from Mumbai to Delhi to Chennai and back to hand hold a newbie composer called Shantanu Moitra after entrusting him with an album for Shubha Mudgal that turned out to be Ab Ke Sawan.
As a non-musician, what qualified me to do this? Great question and one that still gives me sleepless nights. I think the first and biggest quality for an A&R executive is the ability to listen. One should get under the skin of the artiste, look at the world through his eyes and then see if the music fits the ambition. Once you’ve understood the artiste’s direction and style, you have to work with him to develop it and help put him back on track whenever he veers off it. It’s the ability to be objective while living the music because the artiste is too close to the music to be objective!
Second, you have to be a dreamer. You have to be a romantic. You have to dream of really big things. You have to want to conquer the world with your artiste’s music. I remember when we did the ‘Rafi Resurrected’ project at Saregama in 2008. A Belgian walked into our London office while I was on a trip there and played us a recording of Rafi Saab songs done by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO). All instrumental. While listening to it, I got this crazy vision of Sonu Nigam fronting the orchestra with this music in concert! When Saregama had never organized a commercial concert ever before! How it fell into place is a completely different and fascinating tale but suffice it to say that we got the London concert on Sony Television and got viewed in the island of Aruba! That comes pretty close to conquering the world with music!
Third, stand by your artiste. Failure is almost a given in our business and the A&R guy is always going to be caught between a rock and a hard place. If an album fails, the company management is going to blame the A&R guy for signing a non talent and delivering a dud album. The artiste is going to be screaming blue murder about the company having botched up the marketing of the best album in history. You’ll be the target of both. Don’t get dejected and never turn your back on your artiste. He may never be happy with all that you do but deep down, he can see the effort and passion an A&R guy puts into his project.
I was fortunate in many ways with this business of A&R. First, I had a boss in Shashi Gopal who placed his trust in me. He agreed to sign acts I recommended and never interfered in the creation of the music. He never pulled punches with budgets, which is saying a lot for a small, self-funded company. He taught me the mantra of getting it right. It’s a creative process so there will be mistakes or a need to go back and improve things. If budgets don’t allow that, you will be stuck with putting out something you know isn’t ‘there’ yet.
And most critically, understand that when you evaluate an artiste’s work, be sensitive to the fact that you are dealing with their careers. I’ve heard horror stories of people who were told by labels that their stuff was ‘crap’. Statements like that can destroy an artiste and cause them irreversible damage. Try and explain what is not working for you, how it can be improved or how the work is at variance from what you are looking for. I’ve been ribbed innumerable times for not having signed the Indian Ocean back in the mid-1990s. I like to think I could tell they were talented but we were looking for artistes who were doing pop songs because we had to compete against the Bollywood juggernaut that was churning out hits. Indian Ocean did not want to go down that road so didn’t fit into our scheme of things. Simple.
With the number of live gigs taking place today, the talent scouting business has extended from labels to artiste managers and event organizers. If you are out there watching an artiste, you can pick a good performer, not just someone with great vocal ability. This is important as the main revenue in the business comes from live performance. It beats listening to a recorded demo, which doesn’t tell you how much is pitch corrected and what the artiste is like on stage.
Besides, there is a lot one can do in terms of A&R on the live scene. An artiste like Sona Mohapatra picked it up when she performed at Paddy Fields in 2017. We had a roster of all women performers, of which Shubha Mudgal, Tipriti Kharbangar and Sona herself did sets they had not done in concert before. When we did the Rafi Resurrected concerts, Sonu sang Bollywood songs for two hours without a single Indian instrument and most notably, no percussion! Almost impossible for any artiste to do. In 2009, we got the same CBSO to perform Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan qawwalis with Rahat doing the vocals! People told me I was mad before the concerts and that I was a genius, after them. The truth isn’t so flattering. I had no clue about how challenging it was! The advantages of being a non musician! And to be blessed to have worked with incredibly talented musicians!
Which brings me to my final piece of advice to any young A&R people out there. You will credited with having ‘made’ such and such artiste after a success. Don’t believe it because on your own, you can’t make diddly squat. For any success, there is a team involved. Everyone makes a significant contribution, from composers, writers, musicians, performers, video directors (Ken Ghosh deserves half the credit for most successes we had in Magnasound), sales teams and the other business guys. Any lack on anyone’s part means failure. So encourage people, create a good vibe and the universe will do the rest.