Once upon a time, A&R were the sexiest letters in the music industry's alphabet.
Executives in the artists-and-repertoire division of every major record label were charged with discovering and nurturing new acts, setting them on the path toward gold and platinum albums and Grammy Awards.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, January 06, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 40 words Type of Material: Correction
Musicians Institute: An article in Monday's Calendar about the Musicians Institute in Hollywood identified Kenny Kerner as head of the school's artists and repertoire staff. He is director of the Music Business Program, of which A&R instruction is one component.
These high-powered talent brokers would spend their nights scouring nightclubs and street corners after days combing through stacks of homemade recordings in their quests for pop music's next big thing.
In an era of record-label retrenchment, however, many labels have reduced or even eliminated A&R staffs. Most companies are looking only to sign acts that come to them spit-shined and ready to market, or perhaps plucked from a TV talent contest, no nurturing required.
But Don Grierson isn't going to let the trade die without a fight. Grierson, a record industry veteran who helped shepherd acts including the Beatles, Little River Band, Heart and Tina Turner, maintains that the skill set he teaches in A&R classes at Hollywood's Musicians Institute continues to be vital, even as the traditional music industry faces a daunting and uncertain future.
"The key question I always ask new students is, 'What is the first and foremost responsibility of an A&R person?' " Grierson said recently at the institute, where he's part of the music business program staff at the largest independent music school in the West. "Most of them say, 'Signing new bands.' That's important, but it's not the most important thing."
What is critical, he and the other instructors say, is training students to anticipate trends and harness new technologies to better serve artists and connect them with an audience. Bringing people together has long been an essential A&R function, and it is just as important in the modern music era.
"There's been a massive shift in A&R," added Jeff Blue, the newest member of the institute's A&R staff and a seasoned pro who has been closely involved in the careers of dozens of acts as a record producer, songwriter and publisher. "It's evolving -- and devolving -- and more and more artists have to be their own record label."
Indeed. A&R professionals once spent time polishing musicians' sound and image, frequently locating potential hit songs for them to record, pairing them with compatible producers and then serving as liaisons with other divisions of the record company that would market, promote and publicize acts and their music. These days such tasks are carried out by independent consultants or the musicians themselves.
The harsh reality is that few record companies, among the major labels anyway, have either the time, money or interest to nurture an act for four years, as Blue did with Linkin Park before the band became a platinum-selling smash.
Grierson, Blue and their colleagues Kenny Kerner and Barry Squier are hoping to equip a younger generation with the skills they'll need to succeed in a more demanding professional climate. Instead of partnering singers, instrumentalists or composers with producers, they might pair them up with a music supervisor working on a popular television series or a video game franchise, media that have become great ways to break artists.
By adapting bedrock A&R principles to a new media landscape, they're mining rock history to shape the future.
Kerner just might be the perfect person to oversee a school of rock. This beefy, no-nonsense industry veteran with an old-school East Coast accent spent nearly 40 years in the music business -- in the 1970s, he discovered now-legendary band KISS. He heads up MI's A&R staff, working with Grierson, Blue and ex-Columbia and Geffen executive Squier.
Instruction goes beyond textbook theory, or even the real-life examples Kerner, Grierson, Squier and Blue are always ready to supply. Students are assigned to set up virtual record companies. They have to find a band they would like to sign (some use fellow MI instrumental or vocal music students; others recruit them from local clubs or the Internet), make a recording and then promote, market and publicize it.
Matthew Williams, a 25-year-old heavy-metal singer who moved with his guitarist brother, Jason, from Minneapolis to Los Angeles a couple of years ago, didn't have to look far to find a project. Both enrolled at MI to hone their chops, and after a few quarters in the school's guitar program, the brothers' aspiring metal group landed a song in a movie that's due to be released next spring.
Matthew Williams decided he needed to know more about the industry, so he signed up for the two-quarter music business program, in which students earn a certificate after 30 units of course work. It can be combined with one of the instrument or voice courses for an associate's degree or taken independently. At any one time, 100 to 150 students are enrolled in the program.