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What Talent Scouts Look For
Inside the Mind of an A&R Representative
By Jake Sibley, Musicians' Exchange
(more articles from this author)
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I recently had the opportunity to appear as a panelist at the Nashville New Music Conference, an annual meeting which provides career-building seminars for musicians. With you folks in mind, I attended every seminar I could and took so many notes my hand almost fell off.

One of the presentations was given by a panel of A&R representatives, including Sharon Fitzgerald, an A&R rep for Columbia Records, and Bubba Smith, a rep for Word Entertainment, a Christian music company that distributes through Sony Music. Here's the advice they had to offer for artists interested in a major label contract.

Where Are the Talent Scouts?

No matter where you are, A&R people are lurking nearby. Fitzgerald emphatically repeated this point. "Columbia has scouts everywhere," says Fitzgerald. "There is not a city that isn't being watched. If you make some noise, we are going to hear about it."

You think you need to play a big show to get seen? Not true, says Fitzgerald: "I can't tell you how many shows I've been to where there were less than 10 people in the place." In fact, she found one of the artists she recently signed in a dive "where there were three other people in the audience, and they weren't even paying attention. But this kid was a star, and I knew it."

Getting Noticed

So the scouts are out there... what can you do to catch their ear? Fitzgerald explains that radio airplay is not critical, due to the dramatic changes in the radio industry that I've discussed below. So don't spend too much energy banging on closed doors. Creating a local impact through live shows and word of mouth is the way to go. "We watch crowds very closely," says Fitzgerald, "to see their reactions to an artist." Bubba Smith agrees: "When they play live, how does the crowd react? It's not about whether I like the music or not. I have to push aside my own biases and personal taste and look at how the crowd is reacting."

Local insiders can help too. "Club owners love to talk, and they know more than anyone who is bringing in the crowds," Fitzgerald says.

Where else do the scouts get tips? The staff at indie labels - "Yeah, we call them, we talk to them," says Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald further reports that many bands are now being found through the Internet. She mentioned and as two of her favorites sites.

Coming Trends

According to Fitzgerald, boy-bands are on the way out, and the labels are looking for music with a little more substance. "Christian music has snuck into the mainstream, and is still coming," she says, citing under-the-radar Christian acts like Collective Soul, Creed, and P.O.D. Especially after September 11th, Fitzgerald believes that a lot of the fluff will fall by the wayside in favor of "a guy with a guitar who really has something to say."


With the growing availability and dropping prices of professional recording tools, it's becoming increasingly important to put together a quality product. "Demos are sounding good," says Fitzgerald. "I'm getting stuff people did in their bedrooms that sounds amazing."

Still, the demo is primarily an indicator of the artist's live potential. Smith's first criterion when listening to a demo: "Do I want to go see this person live?"

Fitzgerald agrees: "There is no way I'm going to take a band [with a great demo] and a mediocre performance and put that in front of my boss. I don't care what the demo sounds like, you better get up there and wow me."

The Truth About Radio

"College radio is no longer important," says Fitzgerald, "especially for the popular music styles that majors are looking for. After the late 80's, college radio began shunning 'radio-friendly bands,' which is exactly what the majors want."

Meanwhile, commercial radio has been reduced to a near monopoly, and tremendous influence is required to get a track on the air. Fortunately, labels understand that commercial airplay is nearly impossible for local bands to achieve. Fitzgerald begs artists not to make the mistake of "believing that each radio station writes it's own playlist. Four companies run almost every single major radio station [in the U.S.]. That means there are basically four people who decide what gets played in this country."

The same is true across the pond. "There is no free radio in Europe," says Fitzgerald, who worked in Europe for Sony Music.

Promotional Scams

You know all those "promotional companies" that offer to include you on a major compilation or shop your stuff to the majors for a "reasonable" fee? "In over four years in A&R," says Fitzgerald, "I've never had any of those people hand me anything." Avoid the scams. Flat, up-front fees are no good - if they really believe in your music, they'll work for a percentage of future profits.

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