What Talent Scouts Look For
Inside the Mind of an A&R Representative
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
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
DemoDiaries.com and EarFood.net as two of her favorites sites.
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
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.
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.