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Back to labeling it a boys' club

With fewer women calling the artistic shots, can the record industry chalk up sliding sales to coincidence or could it be a consequence?

December 10, 2006|Melinda Newman | Special to The Times

IN between helping her three children with their homework and trying out a new chicken casserole recipe she hopes will pass muster with the trio, Teresa LaBarbera Whites sets up studio time for Britney Spears, approves a final version of a Christmas tune recorded by Nick Lachey, arranges travel for former 'N Syncer JC Chasez while signing off on his latest song mix and negotiates with lawyers about multiple deals.

It could be considered a typical evening for a female artists and repertoire executive at a major label -- if you could find one. "It's a lonely place; there's not too many of us," says LaBarbera Whites, Jive Records' vice president of A&R.

Women buy roughly half of all CDs sold, according to the Recording Industry Assn. of America, and most radio formats target women as their primary audience. Yet, according to the A&R Registry, a directory of professionals in the field, no woman runs the mainstream music A&R department at any major record label. Over the last decade, only two women have helmed A&R pop departments at major labels. The department is the heartbeat of any record company; these talent scouts discover and develop the acts that people hear on the radio and whose CDs they buy.

"If there were more women in decision-making positions, there would probably be more diverse sounds; [radio] would be a little more experimental," says Perry Watts-Russell, senior vice president of A&R for Warner Bros. Records. "If the A&R community were evenly divided, it's possible there would be more female artists signed that weren't necessarily the pure pop artists, that were more credible. I find it just as annoying and unacceptable that there are so few A&R women [as I do] that there are so few women in rock."

With a music industry that in some respects is on the ropes, struggling against steadily declining sales, the time would seem ripe for fresh ways of doing business and fresh viewpoints.

Yet, besides LaBarbera Whites, only two women with VP stripes currently sign acts at major labels: Wendy Goldstein, senior vice president of A&R/urban for Capitol Records, and Jolene Cherry, senior vice president of A&R for Universal. Several others with senior vice president titles, such as Island Def Jam's Karen Kwak or Epic's Andrea Finkelstein, are in operations and administration. But while vital to the record-making process, these positions do not normally come with signing privileges. (In major labels' country divisions, however, women helm at least two A&R departments. A handful of women also oversee the realm at indie labels.)

Why have the industry's recent troubles led to retrenchment rather than new thinking?

"The music business has always been weighted towards being very macho," says Nancy Jeffries, who was head of A&R at Elektra from 1995 to 2000, after which she went to work for the Bob Marley Estate. "Given any excuse, it just goes backwards. As the business has shrunk, it's become even more competitive. Anything that can be used against you will be, even if it's your gender."

For some acts, a female A&R exec is like a rare species -- sightings are seldom. The Donnas' Allison Robertson admits that until meeting Mary Gormley at Atlantic Records, she'd never come across one. Same with Lachey and LaBarbera Whites. They first officially worked together on his current Jive album, although the two knew each other because she signed his ex-wife, Jessica Simpson, to Columbia Records, where she also signed Destiny's Child.

While record labels have long been considered male bastions, women have made tremendous strides in a number of areas in recent years. At least three major labels have female heads of promotion and many have women running marketing divisions. Publicity departments have always tilted toward women and women also often oversee video, online and business affairs departments.

Despite these advances in other arenas, some observers feel roles for female A&R execs have actually diminished.

One undeniable factor leading to the loss of such positions for both genders is label consolidation: 10 years ago, six major record companies, each with a number of imprints under its umbrella, existed; now there are four. Additionally, sales slumps and digital piracy have led to massive layoffs.

"When the water hole is big, the animals are living in peace, but as it shrinks, the fighting starts," says Jeffries, who reels off names of high-ranking female A&R execs who reigned supreme in the mid-'90s but who have since left the industry. She attributes the decline to lower sales, but also to conservative times. LaBarbera Whites says it's a numbers game.

"There are so few successful A&R execs, the ones left have managed to make records that sell. A&R, marketing, sales ... everything combines to break an artist, but the fault many times falls to the A&R person if the record doesn't sell, leading to short-lived careers in A&R for many."

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