What's That Job and How the Hell Do I Get It?
A&R executives don't make music—but without them, you probably wouldn't have heard your favorite song. They're the folks at record labels who discover bands and musicians, get them record deals, and then shepherd them through the music industry bureaucracy until their albums are in stores. It's an amazing career where you can meet unknown, talented musicians and-if you really believe in them-help make their wildest dreams come true.
You just got a little misty-eyed, didn't you?
A stands for artists, the actual human musicians, and R stands for their repertoire, or their songs. So the A&R department is the part of a record label that first scouts and discovers the Artists, and then develops their musical talent, Repertoire, with the goal of eventually making albums that earn millions. To do this, they not only find the musicians, but then help handle everything including the contractual negotiations involved in signing a band, hiring songwriters and record producers to improve the band's sound, and scheduling the actual recording sessions.
Sometimes A&R people toil to make important records, sometimes mediocre records, but either way, records that everyone hopes will make money. It's not just about art-the A&R people's job is to find and develop moneymakers. And if they don't, well, generally they get about eighteen to twenty-four months' leeway before it's time to pack up their crap and wave buh-bye.
And What's It Like to Work at a Label?
Rockin'. Well, it's not a used-record store, and colleagues don't hold lighters in the air when you make a good presentation, but as you'd imagine, it's pretty damn casual. Every label has its own culture, but it's the music world and it's open to letting you be the person you want to be. You need not hide the piercings or tattoos here; feel free to let your inner Goth, rocker, or diva show. Some labels focus on indie rock and their vibe is very jeans and T-shirts; others are more hip-hop oriented and the gold rope chains are in effect. There are large labels housed in shiny office towers and small ones in makeshift lofts. They are all places where (just about) every employee chose to work because they loved music and wanted to be close to it, from the marketers to the receptionists to the accountants.
A&R folks jobs are entirely performance based-everyone sees what you do and what bands you sign. In fact, the whole business starts with you. You find the band, sign them, get their record made, and then feed it into the company machine. The rest of the label-marketing folks, online promotions people, and so on-then works feverishly on it. They may love the album, or they might grumble, "Why are we working on this piece of crap?"
But You Won't Always Be in the Office
As an A&R person, you'll travel a lot. Sometimes you'll go see bands across the country (or world), and sometimes you'll literally be chasing them around because other labels want to sign them as well. There are a lot of frequent-flyer miles to be had.
If one of your bands is recording their record away from where you live, you'll go join them. You need to be at the studio for support, to help them make the best record they can, and to make sure they are using their expensive studio time wisely. Soup to nuts, recording and getting out a record (promotion, artwork, and so on) at a major label costs a minimum of a million bucks. And the label is doing it all because they believe in your taste, that you picked a winner. Yeah, you'll be at the recording session.
Where You Start and Where You Go
So you're getting excited—you love music and this job sounds pretty cool, huh? Well, hear this now and digest it: You are not going to start working at a label in the A&R department. There is no job there for you; they simply do not hire entry-level anyone. So how do you get started in A&R? The first step is getting in the door of a record label any way you can. Then once inside, do your best to network. Go meet people in A&R, and then, somehow, migrate over. So the first job you take at a label could be in marketing or accounting, you might be the receptionist even, but it's all a means to an end, your first job in A&R. How long that migration takes-weeks, months, years-really depends on you, and how well you work it. More advice on breaking in shortly.
Once you are working in A&R, the job pretty much stays the same, even as you climb the ladder (and you ascend strictly based on your track record of successful records). Sure, there are bigger titles and money and added managerial duties, and you'll be able to tell someone beneath you, "Hey, go check these guys out in Philly and tell me if they're any good live," but the major responsibilities will remain the same: find good musicians, sign them, and help them make a great record that will earn the label gobs of cash.
That said, rising in the organization requires a lot of luck. Everyone in the industry knows it-the best bands just don't always make it big. And behind every "almost" band is an A&R guy holding an economy-sized jug of Pepto.
What Kind of Person Fits the Bill?
First off, surprise, surprise, you should love music. Sure, in the end it's about money, but if you are just about money, there are easier ways to get rich. But even though you have the love, you also need to exercise some level of emotional detachment. You have to separate yourself from the dreams of the musicians you work with; otherwise, you'll be a mess when things don't work out, which is frequently. The band will be wrecks, but you need to be clearheaded and able to see the next move.
If you're to be good at A&R, you must be a somewhat creative person yourself. You have to be able to think abstractly and understand the band's vision. And then you need to be willing to do what it takes to make this vision a reality. Self-starters and go-getters tend to do well. With the long hours, energy and stamina are another must, so if you poop out before Conan comes on, you're probably not going to make it. Also, you must be patient; the odds are always against your making the next big album, so you have to persevere and try, try again.
Last and most important, to be successful in A&R you need to have a quality that can't be learned: the ability to identify music that will appeal to a wide audience. It's hard to define, yet it's critical to your success.
A job in A&R is truly a twenty-four-hour gig. Any time could be work time. You'll leave the office and go out to see a bunch of shows. You'll travel on the weekends to see bands playing out of town. Musicians record when they feel the muse, so your sessions are frequently late-night, early-morning affairs. And all the while, you'll be rocking the Blackberry, doing the two-thumb shuffle on one of the other projects you're developing.
However, even though you might be working all night, c'mon, it's music. It's got to be one of the most social jobs in the world. You will be hanging out with people who, like you, love music. People who would pay to go out and see bands, find ones they dig, and help them make an album. When it's midnight and you're drinking a beer in the VIP section, it's hard to complain about it being a tough job. At the same time, it's sometimes hard to maintain a social life outside the industry. You'll go to a friend's birthday party and inevitably look at your watch and say, "Shit, gotta jet and catch this band downtown." You will always, always have a pair of earplugs somewhere on your person. (When you see loud shows five nights a week, you aren't ashamed to rock the earplugs. Otherwise you end up with tinnitus, Pete Townshend style.)
How Much Cheddar?
A&R folks make a salary, plus there is a point system, meaning they get a percentage of the sales of the records on which they've worked. There really haven't been any surveys of A&R salaries, nor is it a career covered by the fine people at the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Your first job in A&R will probably pay somewhere between $20,000 and $25,000. However, discover a few bands that make it big, and you will see the Benjamins. Pay of between $150,000 and $200,000 is not out of the ordinary. And at the top, the money is fantastic. Yacht-riffic.
I've Got the Music in Me. How the Hell Do I Get This Job?
Okay, brace yourself for another annoying nugget of truth. You are going to have a hard time getting a job in A&R if you don't live in New York City or Los Angeles. There are music labels elsewhere, but the majority are in those two cities (in America, that is; of course there are heaps of labels in London, Tokyo, Rio, and so on).
The way into a label, in any capacity, is to get an internship, or several internships year after year, and get them as early as possible. If you can get one while you're still in high school even, bravo. (If you live outside New York or L.A., consider spending a summer in one of those cities and getting a summer internship.) If you do get an interview for an internship, don't ever, ever say you want to intern in A&R. Everybody wants that, and odds are you will be rejected (since you've shown no interest in the other departments that actually have openings). Just get in, in any department, and start absorbing how a label works. And then, schmooze it up. Make friends with the A&R people; find out what floor they're on and somehow ingratiate yourself. Think of something. For example, everyone loves donuts. And once you've gotten to know them, toward the end of the current internship, ask them if you could intern in their department next semester or summer. Sounds crazy, right? It works.
There's really no other experience that will help you land an A&R job. You could be a DJ for your college radio station, write music reviews for a web site, or book bands for a local club, but only in the craziest, rarest of circumstances would that get you directly into A&R. But they are worthwhile activities, because those will help you get a different entry-level job or an internship. No matter how padded your resume, you still will need to go that route. Truth is, A&R jobs really don't exist. They are created for individuals who the label thinks might know something that will eventually land a great band. That's why you first need to get in the door and make the relationships with the decision makers. And show them how awesome you are.
Resources, or What Helps You Be the Kind of Person Labels Want to Create a Job For?
You should be immersed in pop culture. You should see shows and look for new bands constantly, be versed in who is playing and drawing people. Information can be found anywhere-there are a billion music blogs, such as pitchforkmedia.com and stereogum.com, but you have to take everything you read with a grain of salt until you see or hear the bands for yourself. The label is paying for your opinion. Talking to friends whose opinions you trust is just as important as learning about bands from the press or scouts; talk to bartenders and bouncers and sound engineers at the cool clubs, the folks who are there every night. Just go up to them and ask who sounds good, who have they seen lately who has promise?
And you should be browsing sites like myspace.com. These have become a vital place for new bands to start; set aside some time every day and go on a treasure hunt. When you find bands you love, champion them. Be one of the voices in the crowd that turns on the people who are already working in A&R.
Or, maybe just go for it on your own:
Are you talking to me? Because there's no one else here. Are you talking to me?" As just words in a script, the lines are innocuous. It is the actor's job to interpret these words and bring them to life. Like Robert De Niro did, when he took those words in Taxi Driver, and through his character, made them absolutely sinister and foreboding. The Mohawk didn't hurt either.
Professional actors work in theater, television, radio, web films, commercials, and even video games. Those who pursue it can't picture themselves doing anything else. It's not a choice; it's who they are. And you may well understand that feeling. Perhaps you were belting out "Tomorrow" as Little Orphan Annie in elementary school, or putting on your best English accent to say "Please sir, can I have some more?" as Oliver. Did you ever "act sick" to stay home from school? Did you successfully act out the "I'm getting tired" yawn to put your arm around a date? Or "cry on cue" to get out of your first speeding ticket? If so, then you just might have the acting bug. Read on, young thespian.
The Big But
As you must know, making a living solely through acting is a long shot. It is a business filled with rejection. To work as an actor, and only an actor, you pretty much have to live in Los Angeles for TV and film, or New York for theater as well as TV and film, albeit on a lesser scale. You can be an actor in other cities, but rarely is there enough paying work for you to do nothing else.
In fact, most actors have a secondary source of income, especially starting out. And most roles are for actors between ages twenty and forty, which means you'll probably need that secondary income toward the latter part of your career as well.
If you want to be an actor, take solace in the fact that plenty of little-known working actors make decent salaries and are living their dreams. And of course, there are the lucky few who've made it big and live lives of mansions, personal assistants, and stables filled with giraffes.
Auditions, Auditions, Auditions
The biggest part of the job of actor, as well as the largest frustration, is actually looking for work. This unpaid hunt for roles will take up far more time than the paid performing part. Actors' working lives can basically be split in two: life when you're looking for a role, and life when you have one.
Excerpted from What's That Job and How the Hell Do I Get It? by David J. Rosen Copyright © 2008 by David Rosen. Excerpted by permission of Broadway, a division of Random House, Inc.
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