The A&R department of a record label is often regarded as the gatekeepers of the record company. A&R departments have a powerful reputation because they have the all-important job of finding and nurturing the musical talent. Imagine your importance in the music industry if you were the one who first discovered Madonna or Aerosmith or Britney Spears.
A&R stands for "artists and repertoire," but many musicians joke that A&R stands for "attitude and rejection." Without being noticed or discovered by A&R people, there is almost no way for an artist to get signed by a major record label. In times past, artists would send "unsolicited" demos (tapes that were not requested by the record company) to A&R departments, and the executives would listen to the tapes and hope to find the next big thing. Over time, so many artists were sending demos that it became impossible for A&R people to keep up. Because of this and other legal issues, labels, with a few exceptions, soon stopped listening to unsolicited material. Because it is so difficult for the average musician's demo tape to even make it to the desk of the powerful A&R execs, many people ask how A&R people go about finding talent.
If you ask A&R people, they will tell you that they are always completely inundated with new material. They often barely have time to listen to the numerous demo tapes given to them by friends, agents, managers, attorneys and other reliable sources. With only a few people serving as the gatekeepers and thousands of aspiring bands and singers out there, you can imagine how difficult it can be to break into the record industry.
The best way to find out about what kind of talent A&R people look for and how they find it is to take a sampling of opinions from some of the major label executives. For instance, Tom Devine of Columbia Records has worked in the business long enough to know a lot of people. Devine looks first at the demos given to him by his most trusted business sources and works his way down from there. Other executives, like Max Gousse of Epic Records, examine the music industry itself to see if there is a void in the market. Gousse may seek out a certain type of artist that he feels is doing a different kind of music than what is already in the stores. To read more about how A&R executives find talent, check out "Record Label 101" on the Record Labels & Companies Guide.
It is also important to remember that when A&R executives discover and promote a particular artist, they are putting their own name on the line. If the artist fails, an A&R executive's job may be at stake. As this part of the recording industry becomes clearer, you can see how difficult it is for an average band without record industry contacts to "make it." The other thing to remember about this industry, though, is that while a lot bands get rejected, some still make it through the gates of A&R. When an artist is discovered by a record company, then the full machinery of the record label must begin the work of producing, promoting, marketing, distributing and selling the album.