A guide to the music industry
Who are the different people that make a signed act work? This is an overview of the various roles that work with music artists – understand what they do and where you can fit in.
A&R (artists and repertoire)
A&R people will work with you pretty intensively throughout your career
Contrary to what most people think, most of an A&R person's time isn't spent signing new bands. It's spent looking after the ones they've already signed.
An A&R person acts as a representative for the label to the band, and for the band within the label.
An A&R person doesn't just sign you and go onto the next act. They'll be working with you pretty intensively throughout your career. They'll be attending meetings about marketing strategies, fighting your corner for recording budgets and other jobs within the label. Hence they're looking for a band that they can get on with as people and not just one that's going to sell a million records.
A&R people don't work alone. If they want to sign an artist, they may have to persuade a lot of other people that the act is worth the risk. Risk is the key word here. A small label will be gambling a significant part of their turnover on those records selling. A big label may spend a million pounds getting a new act to the point where the first album is in the shops.
Marketing & PR
Marketing is usually done by the record company and refers to all the forms of publicity that you have to pay for: adverts in magazines, in shops and on billboards, music videos etc.
Public relations or PR is basically everything else – all the promotional stuff that isn't charged for directly. That would mean radio & TV appearances and airplay, press reviews and interviews. A large record company will have its own PR department and will naturally want you to use that. Smaller labels will use independent companies for their PR.
An important part of PR is 'plugging', probably the most vital activity in promoting a record
- Taking an artist's recordings around radio producers and trying to persuade them to play that music on air
- Doing the same when trying to get reviews in the music press.
Having a plugger may increase the chances of getting a play or review, but with a bit of persistence and research a music act can do these things themselves.
PR companies and press agencies will occasionally work with an unsigned act. They'll help raise the band's profile in the hope that the band will get signed and so become a new client for them.
Music business lawyers can be incredibly well-connected and are useful to know.
Almost all contracts in the music business require negotiating, and lawyers are the people who'll do all that on an artist or label's behalf.
Most people think that legal advice is an immensely expensive thing, but in fact you can often get it for free. Many law firms offer free preliminary legal advice as part of their usual business services.
Music business lawyers can be handy people to know. They spend their whole time talking to A&R people, managers and everyone else and as a result are incredibly well-connected. Often they'll try and use their contacts to help a band get signed.
New acts mean new business for lawyers, and negotiating an act's various contracts when they make it big can mean tens of thousands of pounds worth of work for them. So they may help advise on a contract for free in the hope that an artist will make it big and will repay their fees when they're making more money.
When you're seeking advice on music matters, it's vitally important to find a lawyer who specialises in the music business. They will know what's fair in a contract and be experienced in looking for loopholes and negotiating appropriate rates.
Bear in mind that not all lawyers are the same. Some are famous for their aggressive negotiation skills and will fight their artist's corner very hard. Others are less fierce, preferring to sacrifice a few percent in order to create a good working relationship between parties. Remember this when you're talking to lawyers – who do you want representing you?
Ring around a few. That can also give you a good bit of feedback on any contracts you want advice on. If no-one will take you on, it probably means they don't see a lot of future for you with the company that's offered the contract.
The Musicians Union also offers a free contract review service for members.
Often just referred to as an 'agent', a booking agent is the person who will handle a band or DJ's live commitments. It's their job to book tours, negotiate fees and also try and get them the best billings at festivals. It's very rare for an agent to get involved with an unsigned act or up & coming DJ, though.
This is because agents work on a percentage of the money the artist gets from their gigs. In an act's early stages, that doesn't amount to a whole great deal of money. Unlike other people in the business, agents don't often have contracts binding their artists for the future, so it's not easy for them to develop a new act.
It has been known for people to get support spots with well-known bands by hassling their agents, but sending them unsolicited demos is not the way to do this. You need to get on the phone and blag for Britain!
But mostly when you're starting out, it'll be a matter of booking your own gigs.
Publishing is where the money really is – paid out for use of music on radio, TV and film; and in pubs, clubs and even hairdressers.
Bands don't generally make their money from record sales, especially in their early days.
By the time the label have charged back all the costs of making and marketing a record it can take years before an act sees any income from actually selling records.
Publishing is where all the money really is – it's paid out for use of music on radio, TV and film and in pubs, clubs and even hairdressers. Publishers can take a longer view of an act's career and so are traditionally more prepared to take on an unsigned act and develop them than labels are.
Publishers are also the people who look after songwriters. If you're a writer who doesn't perform, a publisher is the person you need to place your songs with signed acts.
Note that publishers generally want complete songs. So if you're a lyricist, you'll need to find yourself a writing partner who can set your words to music in order to approach a publisher.
It's a manager's job to make all this stuff work together. They have to ensure that an act's touring, PR and marketing schedule fits in with the release of the record. Someone has to have an overview – what if a TV recording clashes with a major festival spot? Will a spread in a certain magazine boost an act's profile or just trash the credibility?
Most acts feel that a manager is just what they need to get their career off the ground – and most of the time, they're right. The problem is that large management companies are comparatively rare. Most managers are lone operators, handling a couple of acts with maybe an assistant or two to answer the phones. They're usually working at full capacity looking after the acts they have, so they don't often have space on their roster to take on a new one.
Coupled with that, the relationship between an artist and their manager is pretty intense, because they spend a lot of time working together. So it's not as though any manager will do. An artist needs a manager that they get on really well with, and who loves their music enough to work long hours trying to get the rest of the industry to take notice.
It's a bit of a tall order to find someone who ticks all these boxes and is looking for a new act. This is why it's more normal for a manager to find the artist rather than the other way around. Or it's often the case that a friend of the band starts helping them with management tasks and grows into the job as the band gets bigger.
Producers and Engineers
The producer is there to handle the creative side, arranging the songs and getting the best performances from artists.
A producer isn't really part of an artist's business team, but they will often work with an unsigned artist in the same way as other people – it's a future investment if the act gets signed.
Many people get the job of producer and engineer confused. There is a bit of cross-over between the two, and often there's very little difference. Generally, the engineer is there to handle the technical side of a recording, like directing mics and adusting sound levels. The producer is there to handle the creative side, arranging the songs and getting the best performances from artists.
But it's all very loose and depends as much on genre as anything. For a dance or hip hop act the producer and engineer will often be the same person. Other times a producer may have no technical or musical knowledge at all. They'll be a DJ who's been brought in to steer the recording using their knowledge of what works in clubs to make a floor-filler.
For writer-performers and bands, there's usually more of a divide and there'll be an engineer to do the technical stuff and a producer to help translate songs which have been developed in a live environment into ones which work as recordings.
With a pop act, the producer may write songs as well as handling the creative side of recording them. Or a production team may share the creative and technical stuff between them.
To an unsigned act, a producer can be very helpful. Many have their own studios, so you can spend more time on recordings than if you were paying yourself. And of course they know how to make great records, so they can help take demos to a new level. Plus they're hired by record companies so they probably know a few A&R people.
© BBC Radio 1