Does A&R work?
are all the good songs gone?

In recent years we’ve seen a number of explanations for the current difficulties in the UK music industry. Indeed, many well-argued analyses have appeared in this hallowed column. The industry itself largely blames piracy while others point to shortcomings closer to home. My guess is that a degree of recursive arboreal myopia is to blame: we can’t see the wood for the trees.

I’m a simple country lad and where I come from there’s just one rule for successful business: good stuff sells if you get the price and timing right. Any barrow boy will tell you the same.

Everybody harks back to the golden age when The Beatles and The Stones ruled the world. In those days we certainly had good stuff and it sold like hot cakes, but what did we do then that we can’t do now? Surely, there are only three possibilities: we no longer have good stuff; it’s there but we can’t see it; or our stuff is still good but people are stealing it instead of buying.

Let’s eliminate that last possibility first. To believe that the low ebb of the UK industry is down to piracy, you have to accept something truly preposterous. You have to accept that record buyers in the US steal our stuff but still buy their own. Now, I know the Americans are patriotic but I can’t stretch credulity that far. No, either the good stuff has flown or we just don’t know where to look.

At this point, I have to a make an assumption but I think it’s a fair one. I think we still have the good stuff and the talent, and there are sound reasons to suppose we do. There are after all, hundreds of thousands of teenage musicians in the UK and it seems improbable that they’ve all lost it simultaneously. We know they are the experts in today’s music market and how they’re voting (or not) with their hard-earned cash. It’s much more likely that the talent is still there but we can’t find it. If so, it’s down to the latter day George Martins and Andrew Oldhams to hold up their hands and admit they’re stumped. You might think that’s a bit harsh or maybe facile, especially if you work in A&R, but if you recap on the argument I don’t think you’ll find an alternative unless you believe we simply don’t have what it takes any more.

But if you take my view, that poor A&R is at least partly responsible for the parlous state of the UK industry, what can we do about it? The knee-jerk response might be to blame A&R and hire some new young guns, and maybe that would work. But not so fast; let’s look a bit deeper. Maybe the problem stems from the way we handle talent and artist development. Didn’t we do it differently in the past? It wouldn’t help anybody if a new broom simply swept up new talent into the same dysfunctional system.

Back in those golden days (I’m sorry, but it is a useful benchmark) our world-storming acts sprang almost fully formed from the ranks of the great unwashed. I think that’s a strong message; remember that the source of the talent was also the marketplace. There was no industry or media buzz before they were signed. There was a bare minimum of artist development afterwards. There was virtually no hype, until the competition got hotter. Instead, there was a public buzz. Those acts were great musicians from the hothouse of the public arena and we don’t see that element today. (For my money this is probably the main reason it’s so hard to find talent from demo tapes and CDs, and I speak as a serial offender in submitting demos myself!)

Take it from the top and look at my golden rule again: what does ‘good stuff’ really mean and how do you find it? It’s shorthand for ‘stuff the market says is good’ and that’s not the same as stuff a record company manager says is good. It’s not the same as the opinion you get filtered through youth experts, stylists or other consultants. There would be no point reshuffling the A&R department just to have them second-guessed by a committee of gurus whose own track record must be in doubt. If A&R is failing today, everyone in the record industry must share the blame. Maybe it’s time to stop networking exclusively with journalists, broadcasters and other camp followers. Maybe it’s time to stop thinking about how clever those homegrown ideas are and to start listening to the market. It can’t do any harm. The real question is not ‘how many industry faces were at the pub gig tonight’ but ‘how many paying punters were knocking down the door?’

Although the question of finding the good stuff is still at the heart of future success it won’t be enough on its own. The golden age has many lessons to hand down, but it’s inevitably silent on the challenges of new technology. This is where inspiration, intuition and innovation are really necessary. Paradoxically the music industry has chosen the technology frontier as a worthy battleground for clinging onto the past rather than rethinking the rules. But that’ll have to be another article. For now, just remember the next time you scream in despair at Top Of The Pops "surely someone can do better than this?" the answer is most certainly "yes". Let’s find them.

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