The history of A&R can be traced back to the early days of the recording industry, when companies such as Columbia and Victor were signing acts to contracts. In those days, there was no such thing as independent record companies. The artists signed to labels like Columbia or Victor all came through the same talent scout system, which was referred to as artist and repertoire.
The first record company that used this system was Columbia Records in 1917. The company’s founder, Eraklai V. Phonograph Company, hired a young man named Frank Walker to find new talent for his label. Walker did this by going around New York City and visiting theaters where musical acts were performing. He would watch these acts perform and then sign them if he liked their sound.
This system continued until 1928 when Victor Talking Machine Company started its own talent search department under the direction of Arthur Judson and Harry Jolson (father of Al Jolson). This department was known as the Artists’ Bureau; it continued until 1931 when it became known as Artists Records Incorporated (ARI).
ARA continued through World War II, but by 1947 it had been replaced by a new company called Artist Management Association (AMA).
The term “A&R” was coined by Jerry Wexler, who was then a talent scout for the Atlantic Records label. He coined the term “A&R” to refer to his duties at Atlantic, which included both artist and repertoire.
Wexler later became famous as the vice president of A&R at Atlantic Records. He had been hired by founder Ahmet Ertegun in 1947 after having worked with Ertegun at Billboard magazine.
In 1963, Wexler described his role at Atlantic Records: “I was doing all right by myself, but then I got into work with artists such as Ray Charles, Bobby Darin and others. They were also responsible for discovering major talents such as Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett and Otis Redding.
Wexler claims that he turned down numerous artists including Elvis Presley, James Brown and Bob Dylan because they did not fit the image that he wanted for the company: “Blues singers were beginning to be heard on what we called rhythm-and-blues stations on their local radio stations” (p. 12). However, he also states that “we didn’t get into rock until we found out that it paid
A&R – BACK TO THE BEGINNING Over a hundred years ago the music industry consisted of the live industry and the music publishing business. The public could listen to popular songs by either going to see a live concert or by listening to someone playing a piano at home or by mechanical means via the Piano Roll. Prior to the invention of phonographic records (the 7 and 12 inch vinyl record as they came to be known), the music business was dominated by sheet music sales. Music publishers would discover a songwriter and print their music on sheet music to sell in music stores to the public.
The emergence of popular entertainment and success of Vaudeville variety shows across America gave a huge boost to the publishing business. With Vaudeville and Broadway shows in New York, music publishers and instrument stores started to congregate around an area that would become, famously, known as Tin Pan Alley. These publishers would hire pluggers to promote their sheet music in stores and to Vaudeville and Broadway performers.
PHONOGRAPH Records were invented by Thomas Edison in 1877, and were originally called Phonographs – the ‘P’ in the copyright symbol ℗ stands for Phonograph. The development of Phonographs over the next few decades ushered in the first record companies who saw commercial value and market potential.
Record companies, in the form we know them today, came to the market soon after the invention of the Phonograph by Edison, and the further development and innovations made by Emile Berliner shortly afterwards. With the advent of record labels at the turn of the 20th century records became the main sound-carrier format that people purchased in order to enjoy music. Music publishers needed artists to record its songwriter’s songs, whereas Record companies needed publisher’s songs for its artists to record. For the first half of the century the recording industry’s business model was founded on the hit singles market – it was all about the ‘Song’. In the early 1900s there were three major record companies: Victor, Edison and Columbia. Today, just over 100 years on and after many mergers and buy-outs, there remains three major record companies: Universal, Sony (that owns Columbia records) and Warner – and the business, once again, is all about the song.
Although phonograph records existed since the 1880’s, for the first 50 years the album and Long Playing record format (LP) did not exist commercially. The technology had not arrived to the mass market which could produce over 45 minutes of music on one sound-carrier format. The phonographic record was the disruptive technology of the time and the record industry replaced sheet music as the main form and format of music consumption.
Artists such as Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole and Bing Cosby were amazing performers, personalities and vocalists who could capture the emotional essence and vocal performance of a great song. However, they didn’t write the songs so the artist & Repertoire representative would marry the artist to the song (or the artist with the songwriter, composer & arranger). Song standards such as ‘Come Fly with Me’, ‘Summertime’, ‘Stardust’, ‘Mack the Knife’, and ‘My way’ were written by famous songwriters such as Cole Porter, Hoagy Carmichael, Leiber & Stoller and George & Ira Gershwin who wrote for Broadway Musicals and the popular artists of the time.
The 1950‘s saw the continued success of the phonograph record. This was thanks to: technological advancements in recording and sound reproduction; the growth of national radio broadcasting, Broadway musicals and the Hollywood film industry; the popularity of juke boxes as well as the increased economic conditions after the great depression and World War II. The 1950’s saw the record business boom with success from global superstar artists such as Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Tony Bennett, Peggy Lee, Bobby Darrin and Andy Williams. It also saw the post-war growth of the youth market with the birth of Rock n Roll and exciting new artists such Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Elvis Presley.
A&R was most evident during this period which saw the number of artist signings increase significantly to the major record labels. It was the decade that ushered in the 45” EP, the popular format for releasing singles, and the 12” vinyl record which was soon to become the major format and game changer to the traditional business model. Originally best suited to classical music’s longer pieces, the 12” became an art-form in itself with concept albums such as Frank Sinatra’s ‘The voice of Frank Sinatra’.
Although during the 1950’s the 45” format was the biggest selling format, it soon became apparent that there was more profitability in selling the more expensive LP format and so record companies started using singles as promotional tools to sell albums. They also started making hit songs only available to buy on LPs in order to increase profits.
Singles have always been treated as a non-profit making promotional tool (i.e. a loss leader) but their purpose was to market and drive album sales. Of course if you sell millions of singles and are able to license the song to compilation albums and synchronise it to a movie or television programme then there is a very healthy income stream. However, the traditional business model and main income stream was in selling albums. Today with the fast changing market conditions and the move to online digital download and streaming services the model is changing, although albums still account for half of the recording industry’s revenue streams.
By the mid-1950s and the explosion of rock n’ roll to the youth market, artists started writing their own songs. Artists such as Chuck Berry, The Beatles, The Beach Boys, The Kinks and Rolling Stones wanted to express the feelings of their generation and started writing their own songs for creative and financial reasons.
With the advances in recording technology and technical complexities of the recording process the role of record producer developed and adapted as artists sought more sophisticated arrangements, experimentation and artistic expression in their music.
During this period it was often the case that A&R managers were also record producers, composers and arrangers for the artist such as in the case of Lieber and Stoller for Elvis Presley and George Martin for The Beatles and either worked or were hired by Record labels to work with their artists on composing, arranging, recording and producing their music.
Throughout the 1960’s A&R executives became more focussed on signing artists that could write their own songs, rather than seeking songs for their performers. Those artists that didn’t write their own songs started to form long standing relationships with songwriters such as Elvis Presley with Leiber & Stoller, Elton John with David Taupin, and still happens today with collaborations between Robbie Williams with Guy Chambers or Adele with Paul Epworth.
This era was the the domain of only 5 major labels who started acquiring other labels in buy-outs and mergers. It was a Singles driven market and the 12” was the new disruptive technology of the time.
Sounds familiar doesn’t it? These days most people download singles, cherry picking their favourite tunes rather than buying full albums. The business consisted of 5 major labels in the early 2000‘s but with the de-merger of Sony/BMG and the recent acquisition of EMI by Universal Music Group , the market is left with only 3 major record companies. Napster and iTunes are the recent disruptive technology. And all of this has happened 50 years after the launch of the 12” record.
The industry is often saying that music tastes and trends are cyclical. The same could be said for the music business – it seems that it reinvents itself every 50 years.
From its early days under Ahmet Ertegun and Herb Abramson to its maturation as an industry segment in the 1990s, A&R has seen it all. It's gone from a job title to an entire department of execs and artisinal record-makers. From its 1960s dominance to its struggles in the '90s, A&R may never be quite what it once was (or in some cases, was again), but it has always influenced popular music.