Tom Rowland (25) A&R Scout, XL Recordings
How did you get into the job? I studied a BA in Economics at Leeds, which taught me to take the emotional aspect out of work and think, 'Is this going to work or not?' There are plenty of bands whose music I like but I know it's not going to sell, so I have to look at it from a business point of view.
Job history: My first 'job' was at Warner. It was work experience; I've never heard of anyone getting a job straight away in this industry. Work experience is essential but even getting that is difficult enough. I got in touch with about 20 record labels and one got back to me! I worked for free for nine months then I turned up on the doorstep at XL Recordings with a remix I'd made of one of their artists, M.I.A. Luckily they liked it and gave me some work experience for one day a week. I didn't know much about A&R, but I started going to loads of gigs and finding good bands. Whenever I came across someone I liked I'd take the CD to the head of A&R. After a while he recognised that I could tell what worked for the label. After eight months they made it an official role, and I've now been working paid for about a year. Aside from my job, I also run a club night called Help The Jaded and I'm looking to manage an artist.
Best/worst bits: The best bit of my job is that it's truly enjoyable - going to work everyday is a joy. The working environment is very relaxed compared to other jobs and I'm treated like an adult.
On the downside, working for an independent label is quite badly paid, and I have lost my social life from all the going out - having a night in watching TV is like the Holy Grail! It can also be quite lonely - I go to a lot of gigs on my own and find myself traipsing around Manchester, bored of waiting for a gig to start.
Advice for wannabees: It's a really long haul into the job and you need to be very dedicated. Get involved promoting any kind of music, such as bands or club nights. It sounds really scary, but become a manager too. It could be your mate's band and all you need to do is book them gigs! Get into DJing, playing your own music - anything that proves you're keen and willing to get involved behind the scenes.
CV essentials: In terms of practical skills there isn't really a subject you can learn but all the same advice applies to CVs. A lot comes down to personality and it helps if you can stay up late!
As Tom's story indicates, you're unlikely to reply to a job advertisement and Bob's-your-uncle, you become an A&R scout. You need to be creative about approaching companies in order to stand out above the rest. It's a competitive industry, so they don't need to advertise new openings - you need to hunt them out.
The industry is dominated by the 'big four' record labels - or 'majors': Sony BMG; EMI; Warner; and Universal. Most of these will have associated labels and there are hundreds of smaller independent labels you can approach to build up the right kind of experience. Whenever you approach a new label, research its artists so you can enthuse about their music and explain why you are suited to that particular company. Try to be innovative, like Tom was when he remixed a song for XL Recordings.
As an A&R (short for artist and repertoire) Scout, the biggest part of your job is keeping up with new trends and new bands as they emerge. Tom says he spends a great part of his day reading trade papers, music magazines like NME and websites. "Blogs are one of the most useful things as they're the rawest source of information - you get it earliest and then it's up to me to filter what's good and what's not." He downloads a lot of music and, along with the music he gets sent, listens repeatedly throughout the day before heading off to gigs in the evening.
The next logical step up the career ladder is to be an A&R Manager, when you can start signing bands yourself and become more involved in their development and every aspect of the recording process.
Get to the top of the ladder and you'll have the title of A&R Director on your business card. Your role will be largely managerial at this stage, so you'll be managing the A&R team, a large budget and the biggest acts signed to the label you work for.
As there's no specific qualification music companies are looking for, there's no reason why you can't make your mark in A&R without formal qualifications. However, university does offer that unique blend of interacting with all kinds of different groups, learning to work independently, and a wealth of clubs and societies to join. None of these should be underestimated in terms of developing the right skills for the job. "University helped me 100% in terms of social skills and the ability to develop interests," agrees Tom.
Next, you need to learn what sells; it's up to the A&R person to know what works for a label and what doesn't. Again, the independent labels will focus on different types of artists to the majors, so study who is signed to different labels, how their music has developed, how often they release new material and what gigs they play. This will give you a good understanding of how the record company operates within the industry.
Personality/Who would it suit
You need to be confident chatting to strangers every night, so it suits the kind of person who's a go-getter and comfortable in new environments. If you're a thoughtful, musician type, don't rule it out though - having passion and understanding of music is just as important, and you can practise how to be confident in other areas of your life.
It can be difficult to work your way up. Working for an independent label is very different from working for one of the majors.
"If you get a big signing, such as Coldplay, it will take you to the top very quickly, in both position and earnings," says Tom. "Whereas, at independents, things are much steadier, and the focus is slightly more on the music than on sales. It is a nice way to work but you don't get paid as much!"
Don't be surprised if you have to work for free for a significant period before the pay cheques come rolling in. When they do, expect to start on around £16k if you're working for an independent or £22k at a major. If you become successful with big signings at an independent you could rise to £100k, while at a major the sky's the limit. It all really depends on who you sign and how well they do.
Pros and cons
by Hannah Jolliffe