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There is no guaranteed formula for what it takes to become an artists and repertoire representative for a music label — sometimes referred to as simply an “A&R rep” — but in most cases getting the job is a matter of having the required knowledge, experience, and networking skills. Some people get hired into this job right away, but it’s more common to have worked elsewhere in the music industry for at least a little bit first. Cultivating a wide understanding of many types of music is helpful, as is an ability to network, both with industry executives and artists. People from all backgrounds and experiences can succeed in this job, but you’ll usually have the best shot if you’re outgoing and willing to take big risks. Formal education in music and marketing can be helpful, but in most cases your experience and the value you can bring to a label are more important than your diplomas.
In most cases the very first step needed to become an A&R rep is to gain familiarity with the operations of the music industry. The main responsibility of anyone in this position is to identify new artists and introduce them to record company executives, but you’ll only be able to do this well if you have solid understanding of the industry’s hierarchies, expectations, and rewards. You also need to be able to identify talent and act as a liaison between the artists you meet and the signatories in your company. This often means that you’ll need to spend a lot of time talking with established artists, scouting out new talent, and tracking trends.
An A&R rep is usually part of a team that reports to a sector leader. In this capacity you will have to take direction from your leaders about the genres of music and number of new artists that need to be added each year, and the amount of time and effort you expend to identify and engage new artists is almost always very carefully tracked. In most cases it’s used as a performance metric that tells your bosses how well you’re doing, and most labels depend on their reps to bring in a lot of valuable deals. Companies don’t often want to invest in people that they don’t think will be able to deliver competitive numbers, so the more you can do to prove your worth at the outset, the more likely it is that you’ll be hired in the first place.
Some people start out in junior roles at recording labels in order to get “hands on” experience, as well as to establish a name for themselves within industry circles. You don’t have to already be working in the field to break into it, though. Attending industry seminars and conferences can be a good way to get up to speed on many of the happenings, and subscribing to magazines and newsletters can also be a good way to stay on top of emerging trends.
Professionals also frequently talk about flexibility as one of an A&R rep’s most important qualities. What this means is that you’re often better off with a broad knowledge of many genres than an in-depth passion for one or two. People often assume that representatives work with music genres that they personally enjoy, but this isn’t always or even often the case. Recording companies more often assign representatives to specific markets based on customer trends. Popular music tastes shift over time, with an average life span of six to eight years for each cycle. Over the length of a career, then, an A&R rep might listen to thousand of artists across all musical genres. The more flexible you are at the outset, the more competitive you will usually be.
Most people in the field agree that networking is one of the keys to getting your foot in the door. There are two different, but equally important, types to be aware of: first, networking within your organization and profession, making connections and building confidence with your superiors; and second, facilitating communications within the artist community. As is so often true in most any job, you often need to know the right people, or at least be close with those who know the right people, in order to find out about A&R openings in the first place. The ability to work well with people and bring divergent individuals together to mete out contracts and build business relations is equally important, and is a skill recruiters often look for in potential hires.
You can come into this career from a variety of different backgrounds, but in most cases you’ll need a certain set of analytic and people skills. Time spent as a business development representative, sales executive, or product manager is often helpful, since all of these jobs require cooperation with people across multiple areas, business negotiation skills, and the ability to build and maintain relationships. Sales experience in particular can be beneficial because the A&R rep uses his or her sales techniques to encourage artists to sign with the record company, as well as to identify artists that will appeal to the target customer base.
Any experience in the music industry is helpful, especially in main office administrative functions. Music journalists, business managers, and administrators all have the opportunity to gain practical experience about how the music industry works. People who want to become an A&R rep typically are naturally outgoing, make friends easily, and have the ability to work evenings and weekends. You’ll probably need to be involved in the local music scene, which includes attending performances and building relationships with local music producers and managers. Interpersonal and communication skills are also important, as are observation and analytical abilities.
Formal training in music can be helpful, but is not a requirement in most cases. In general employers prefer candidates who have completed some post-secondary education, and a university degree is often desired — but the discipline you choose to study can be relatively flexible, provided you have the other skills required. Degrees in business administration and marketing are often particularly valuable, but so long as you can sell yourself the possibilities are essentially limitless.