Everyone knows the music business has changed radically, forcing labels and A&R execs to adapt to a new sonic ecosystem—one where music consumption has increased while music sales have dwindled. Now, multiple income streams and social media activity are essential components to any successful career. Likewise, those changes have affected how A&R scouts evaluate the signability of artists. Indeed, being considered a team player is more crucial than ever. To find out exactly how the “new normal” of today’s music industry affects an artist’s ability to get signed, we spoke with representatives of four prominent labels. Their insights will help you determine if you have what it takes to get label support.
Sr. VP A&R
Called an “A&R guru,” David Wolter has been an A&R executive for 20 years––six of them with RCA. Previously he was Sr. Director of A&R at Virgin Records. Over the years Wolter has worked with a diverse range of artists, including Walk The Moon, Smallpools, Ray LaMontagne, Dave Matthews Band, the Strokes, Ben Harper, Three Days Grace and many others. RCA is home to an array of superstars, from Pitbull, Foo Fighters and Kings of Leon to Justin Timberlake, Pink, Alicia Keys, Shakira, Miley Cyrus and even “Weird Al” Yankovic.
After 20 years in A&R, what has changed about your job?
Ultimately, it’s still the same. I help artists with their artistic impression and how it is delivered. What has changed is how music is made. Artists now have more tools to record songs. They can record a song on their laptop and email it to me immediately. Before, they had to book studio time and FedEx a CD. New technology has been the game changer––and in some ways made my job easier.
Has anything changed the way you evaluate acts?
With the Internet there is much more information to consider. You can go online and see what’s happening with an act from different perspectives. You can see how they come across and how people respond to them and their music.
With so much data online, are live showcases important anymore?
For me, nothing replaces seeing an act perform live. If I’m interested, I want to see their live show and how the audience reacts to it. But, a live performance does not necessarily make or break a deal. If an act performs poorly, but has strong songs, they’ll still get my attention. You can always improve stage skills.
With all the superstars on your roster, how does new talent get attention
This label has instituted an initiative to bring in new acts. We need new artists to keep our roster fresh. We might even develop artists in areas where they may need it.
How accomplished does an act need to be to get signed?
It depends on what you mean by “accomplished.” I like acts who show initiative and make things happen on their own. I’m not interested in someone who simply makes music at home and does nothing else. If I see any activity that I believe has potential, I might take a risk and help develop them.
How important is social media activity?
It’s very important. You want to see some sort of engagement and reaction. Social media allows us to see how artists connect with people and what they think of them. But, big numbers alone don’t influence me. I’m more impressed with how people react to the act and engage with them.
What qualities do you look for in an artist?
I don’t like to set up too many rules, because that’s limiting. I want to hear great music, see great performances and most of all sense a collaborative spirit. I love artists that make me ask, “What the fuck is that?”
What is your signing process?
That’s a trade secret. Every situation is different. I need to see some synergy––whether we see eye to eye. I’m brutally honest and if I don’t think it will work I won’t offer a deal. But, if I think otherwise I’ll go for it.
Is there anything an act or rep could do that would turn you off?
This is a hard business and every day it gets harder. I need to feel confident that there will be a team effort between the act, their team and the label. If I feel that they won’t pull their weight, I will pass on them.
Are you looking for anything in particular?
I just want to work with great artists who can maintain careers. I can help them reach that goal, but they have to work at it too. The days of a label doing everything, while the artist does nothing but music, are over. Now, everyone has to be involved to make it happen.
Do you see any developing?
Expectations have changed. Record sales aren’t what they used to be. Now, I’m happy if an act sells 500,000 records. If they sell a million, it shows they can actually have a career. Our focus has shifted to how music is being consumed. Radio still remains the biggest driver––especially at major labels. But, we’re also interested in how fans discover new music, whether it’s streaming services or somewhere else.
How do you like to be contacted?
Google me. If they can’t find my email address, or figure it out, they’re probably not ready for label attention.