STREET SMARTS: Does A&R Get It?

Written by November 1st, 2007 at 10:50 am


The other day I went to my editor and suggested that we create an award called the Golden Hammer to give to the label A&R person who we feel did his or her level best this year to help kill the Nashville record industry.

In a recent New York Times article, record mogul David Geffen said the following: “Only 10 years ago, companies wanted to make records, presumably good records, and see if they sold. But panic has set in, and now it’s no longer about making music. It’s all about how to sell music. And there’s no clear answer about how to fix that problem. But I still believe that the top priority at any record company should be coming up with great music.”

I realize the labels are being battered by the media and other parts of the music industry, but that doesn’t mean they don’t deserve it.  Please forgive me if I am repeating myself, but I would really like to shout loud enough that just once I would get a response from somebody at a label, so I could understand why they do what they do.

As we all know, downloads have sent the industry back about 50 years, back to a time when the single was important and the album was not.  This, of course, means that hit singles are important, which also means that hit songs are important.  So one more time, I need to ask Nashville A&R people: “Why do you continue to encourage your artist/non-songwriters to sit in rooms with professional songwriters and pretend to be songwriters themselves? There are plenty of professional writers coming up with quality songs every day. You and your artists should be out on the street looking for these great songs. It takes one to three minutes to decide if you like a song well enough to take a copy to listen to again. These songs are already screened for you by professional songpluggers who are actually equipped with ears. It makes no sense to send these kids to write with the pros in hopes that the next three hours will result in something better than what the career songwriters can give you without the faux co-writer sitting in the room.  Instead, you usually wind up with something maybe pretty good that the artist may want to cut because his name’s on it, and anyway, he always wanted to write a song about split pea soup or love in a telephone booth.”

So now I have to go back to the ‘60s when Dylan and Lennon/McCartney were writing great songs and Rolling Stone was telling their readers that Three Dog Night was not a real group because they recorded other people’s songs.  That’s what started this stupid axiom that to be a great artiste you have to write your own songs. Never mind that many great folk singers were collectors of other people’s songs. Never mind that Sinatra, Presley, Mathis, Streisand, George Jones, George Strait, Linda Ronstadt, Emmylou Harris and dozens of other truly great artists primarily recorded other people’s songs. And for heaven’s sake, let’s stop thinking about the controlled composition clause. The money it saves you is not worth the sales you lose by putting out inferior product.

A&R people, please pay attention! You signed most of your artists because you liked their voices and their looks. Some of them can really write. Fine. Let them write ‘til their fingers fall off, and if they become the next Merle Haggard or Dolly Parton, that’ll be a good thing. But some of them can’t write their way out of a paper bag. There is simply no logical reason to put them in a room with a real songwriter and assume that what comes out of there will expose the artist’s soul.  It’s a dumb idea. Stop it, stop it, stop it!

Oh, and which one of you thought up that idea of inviting a few songwriting teams to your offices, giving them an hour or two to get a song started, and then sending the artist around to see which team wrote something the artist can “help” finish. That’s dishonest. It’s contrived. It’s delusional.  Don’t you know that? Oh, you can tell us that sometimes “hits” come out of these forced collaborations, but I believe the main result is that A&R people can tell their bosses they did something today, without having to actually listen to songs-which, of course, is the main thing they’re supposed to do.

You are fighting for your professional lives. The Internet is overwhelming labels. But you, as the A&R people, have only one way to fight for your future; help put out a better product. Find the best songs and record them. If you have an Alan Jackson or John Rich on your hands, good. These guys can write, and so can some of the other artists out there. But don’t contrive an artist/writer where no artist/writer exists. Anything you do that diminishes the quality of songs being recorded simply puts another nail in our coffin. Which one of you will win this year’s Golden Hammer?


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