The clever folks at Mojo magazine just posted a really thought-provoking polemic by Andy Fyfe making the case that the music industry's A&R people (the ones in charge of signing bands to a label and ensuring bands deliver profitable singles and albums on time) were actually, you know, useful. (Read Paul Rogers' recently LA Weekly feature on the decline of the A&R biz here.)
Fyfe does make some interesting points, which we've digested for you in case you ever feel like being an annoying contrarian whenever your buddies and MMFs (MySpace Musician Friends) have had one PBR too many and begin ranting against "the fucking industry, man!"
[T]he decline of the record company has had one very dramatic effect: the removal of the A&R man as a filter between artist and consumer, someone to ask the question "Where the f__k's the single?", means there is more utterly awful music available than ever before.
In two celebrated instances, both The Jam and Blur were asked "where's the f__king single" about, respectively, All Mod Cons and Modern Life Is Rubbish. The results? Paul Weller was jolted out of his writer's block and realised that the album they'd handed over to A&R man Chris Parry, dominated by Bruce Foxton songs, wasn't much cop, went back home to mum and dad's, listened to some Kinks albums and wrote Down In The Tube Station At Midnight, Mr Clean and English Rose. When Food Records' Dave Balfe and Andy Ross asked Damon Albarn the same question 13 years later, he went home, listened to some Kinks albums and wrote For Tomorrow and Chemical World. With respect to Ray Davies, if it hadn't been for those A&R interventions it's arguable we would never have heard of Weller or Albarn again.
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"For a long time people have strived to make and release the music that they want to make without the industry," [musician Lawrence Arabia] says. "There's probably exactly the same amount of talent out there but for the consumer it's so much harder to pick through. I find it so daunting that I tend to shy away from the thousands of new bands you read about on Pitchfork every day and just end up listening to Revolver again."
The fact is, few musicians, or for that matter artists in general, have the emotional detachment to know whether their work is actually any good or not. It's why authors have editors and publishers, painters and sculptors agents and gallery owners.
One of the loudest advocates for artist control has been Radiohead, pioneers of internet-based releases after they'd made enough out of EMI to secede from the company and become a musical republic. "They sell us like a commodity," they mewled, as if they hadn't knowingly entered into the Faustian pact of a record deal. OK Computer eventually gave them the power and money to cut the infernal record company out of the game, but a question remains: do you want to listen to The Bends and OK Computer (filtered through a record company) or In Rainbows (filtered through Phil Selway)?
Sympathy for the record industry? Nostalgia for the days of the coked-up A&R guy (which, incidentally, provided the absolute best scene in Almost Famous)? It's not as crazy as you might think...