A&R Execs Discuss Changing Music Industry at Mobfest


Apologies for a very belated part two of my recap of MOBfest Chicago. You can check out part one here.

The second panel at MOBfest consisted of various A&R execs & music industry professionals talking about how they discover new artists in today’s world and how they help an artist stand out from the rest. Panelists were:

  • Christi Parker, A&R at Hollywood Records – the label behind Miley Cyrus, Selena Gomez and the Jonas Brothers
  • Dan Friedman, entertainment attorney
  • Tomas Costanza, music producer, Killingsworth
  • Nick Haussling, A&R at Warner Bros Records
  • Steve Smith, VP A&R/manager at Aware Records
  • Roger Jansen, owner of KMA Enterprises


Music is still the main thing

  • The panelists agreed that the music is what first attracts them to an artist – the music is also what’s going to sustain an artist in the long run
  • That being said, get your shit together when it comes to your music. Steve mentioned that many young artists lack the patience to take their time and make a song really good. Don’t send a song that isn’t your best stuff – you may be worried that if you don’t send something right away you’ll lose your chance, but sending something of sub par quality will ruin your credibility.
  • As an artist, also know the business of your genre of music. For example, Steve talked about how hip-hop is more of a singles-based business, so he would pay more attention to individual tracks. On the other hand, rock & pop tends to be more album-based.


Have a story

  • However, A&R/labels do also have to look at the story behind the artist, whether they’re packing shows, whether they’re selling merch, etc.
  • As the industry has changed, the onus has been put on artists and management to build the story – be able to tell the label what your story is and what kind of momentum you’ve built up
  • Dan reinforced this point, urging artists to build up their brand and establish what they “are” – this is your story


How the panel discovers new music
Every artists wants to know how labels find talent, and the panelists shared some of their experiences.

  • Relationships play a key role, this can include radio contacts or other sources
  • Speaking of radio, industry execs also look at what tracks are getting radio play. However, the panel also mentioned the changing environment at radio stations – there are so few slots these days, and no one is willing to take a chance at radio anymore, so this can be a tough avenue to break into


Times have changed

  • While the playing field has leveled off a lot thanks to changes in the music industry and advances in technology, you have to do things right, said Tomas. Remember that you’re still competing against bigtime professional producers and writers.
  • Nick stressed that you can do a lot on your own – and just because you’re coming to a major label doesn’t mean you stop what you’re doing (whether its packing shows, selling merch, etc.)
  • The good news is there’s never been a greater need for music, as Roger pointed out – there are literally hundred of cable channels, online & satellite radio and other outlets that didn’t exist before. However, the deals are a lot less these days.


360 deals
These were a hot topic for the panel. For those that don’t know what a 360 deal is, Dan broke it down for the audience. Basically, a record deal in the past (past meaning like five years ago) was a recording agreement. In exchange for a band signing exclusive recording and the master to a label, the label would give them an advance and royalties. The label made money off exploiting the masters.

Today, a label gets paid to create the brand behind the band. Starting five years ago, labels wisened up as record sales were decreasing and figured they should be entitled to a piece of everything the artists makes. A 360 deal represents a piece of all income: touring, merch, masters, publishing, endorsements, etc. Today, it’s rare for a label not to enter a 360 deal with an artist.

  • From an artist’s perspective, Dan pointed out that sometimes it’s not worth signing a shitty deal with a label if it means giving away pieces of a band’s 360 if those elements are bringing in money (i.e. the touring, merchandise, etc.)
  • Ultimately, the debate in the industry today is not about whether or not to do a 360 deal – it’s all about how that deal is executed
  • Roger added that this has also expanded the areas in which a label will provide support – for instance, Atlantic & Warner now have their own merchandise companies. So they may take a cut of an artist’s merch, but they will also help deliver it.


Parting words of advice

  • The Justin Bieber example. I mention this because it came up during the panel discussion (Roger’s point), but also because it came up on a social media webinar I listened to the other month. A very highly regarded marketing expert, Guy Kawasaki, actually encouraged everyone to watch “Never Say Never” as a lesson in marketing. Artists – and brands in general – might find it useful to pay attention to what the Biebs has been doing.
  • The producer’s perspective. If you’re a producer as opposed to an artist, Dan recommended to work with one or two artists and help develop them to prove yourself. Play A&R guy and find a good artist to work with. Then work together and try to shop your project around.


Ultimately, I thought the MOBfest panel discussions were so worthwhile. The panelists even stuck around for one-on-one sessions with all the attendees. How often do you have a chance to talk in person with folks like these? If you’re an aspiring artist, producer or anything related to the music industry, I definitely recommend checking out MOBfest next year!

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