A&R is dead, long live A&R
A&R is at a crossroads, and as 2021 rolls on, the sector will be forced to grow up. In this op-ed, Travis Rosenblatt explores the mistakes A&R execs and labels make, and the changes which could see the industry evolve.
It’s the end of the world as we know it and I feel… completely and utterly worn down.
But, as they say, a crisis is a terrible thing to waste and the well-established divot in the couch where I like to work-nap is probably a solid indication it’s time to shift from figuring out how to survive today, to how to succeed tomorrow.
To a certain extent, in ‘These Unprecedented Times’, predicting what A&R will look like in 2021 is easy: the biggest influence on how we operate in 2021, by far, will continue to be the ongoing apocalypse.
In 2020, A&R research became the default. In 2021, it will grow up.
“There go my people. I must find out where they are going so I can lead them.”
— 19th century French revolutionary Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin
As the technologically-savvy generation got their VP stripes, A&R research went from necessary evil to valuable advantage at the majors who had the resources. Companies like mine then started making A&R research accessible to a wider segment of the industry as they started recognising its practicality. Coming up on a full year with no live shows or SoHo House catch-ups about how you should totally find something to work on together, it suddenly became the only available option. Unfortunately, this was too fast for us to properly adapt to how to use the information available to us and, in 2020 Panic Mode, we grasped at straws.
“A&R research” in 2021 will look more like “digital A&R coverage” as we develop a more nuanced understanding of how to read trends and crucially, learn what to ignore (spoiler: it’s flash-in-the-pan “artists” with one mediocre song that happen to accompany memes). As data fluency trickles upward, label presidents and heads of A&R will finally stop asking what records are “researching”.
Labels and publishers will become brands again.
I used to lose deals to Beggars labels for smaller cheque sizes all the time and understood why. These days, a new artist doesn’t know the difference between signing to Columbia or Interscope. With no touring, diminished importance of radio, hurdles to shoot big-budget music videos, and no in-person meetings, labels are mostly seen as validation and a chequebook. As we reach a breaking point on the sanity of deal numbers, labels will realise it’s cheaper to spend less on advances and more on communicating their value.
Private equity, thirsty for uncorrelated assets, and a few key players (you know who you are) will continue to drive up catalogue multiples. Everyone else in publishing will decide it’s cheaper to overpay for a few key deals that have the power to make them “cool” and lawyers will start looking to them for first cheques and hold out on label deals.
Distributors will fill the void.
Distribution as an A&R funnel for Top 10 doesn’t work (see UnitedMasters v. Warner for NLE Choppa, Amuse v. Columbia for Lil Nas X, Stem v. Profitability, et al). By the time there is a significant enough signal, it’s no longer privileged, everyone is in on the game, and advantage goes to the experienced player. However, the other 99% of artists are wildly under-serviced and there’s a profitable middle ground for near-automated low-cost services they need. This is a wide-open highway for distributors to differentiate on something other than cost now that they’ve hit bottom. Think: 100,000 streams per month unlocks sync pitching and 1 million gets you an AAA radio blast.
For the same reason, “AI-enabled” record labels like Instrumental/frtyfve and Snafu will partner with existing labels or die. The majors, realising their valuation depends largely on how many times they can use “technology” in an SEC filing, will be happy to have them.
Now ask me why Kobalt is in a tough spot, Spotify will buy Sonos, your mum is starting a SPAC, doubling down on VEVO to go vertical will save us all, and the conversations we should really be having about royalty infrastructure.
Just don’t wake me from my nap, I’m working.
Travis Rosenblatt is the founder of Meddling, a subscription-based service which offers real-time data on global music markets, as well as tracking capabilities, analytics and communications tools.