The MUSEXPO conference got under way in Los Angeles yesterday (April 17) – and delegates were treated to not one, but two masterclasses in A&R and music production during the opening day.
Conference organiser Sat Bisla of A&R Worldwide introduced the first session by stating that "A&R is the lifeblood of our industry" and his first two keynote speakers, Ron Fair and Seymour Stein, set out to prove it as they traded anecdotes with interviewer Ralph Simon about their careers and the current state of music talent.
Fair – an arranger, producer, musician, and label executive at Chrysalis, Island, EMI, Virgin, RCA, Interscope, A&M, Geffen and now at Faircraft Music – has worked with the likes of Black Eyes Peas, The O'Jays, Pat Benatar, score composer Bill Conti (Rocky), Christina Aguilera, Pussycat Dolls, and countless other acts. Born and raised in Los Angeles, he trained as a musician and producer.
"To me there is always a formidable difference between music and records,” he said. “Records used music and abused music and the pursuit of a record is very different than pursuing musical excellence. A record needed to do what it had to do to get where it had to go, regardless to loyalty to music. Music for me is a religion and records is my industry."
Fair said he believes the A&R process is about finding an artist with personality, and then creating the conditions for success. He used examples such as Aguilera – only 16 years old when he heard her sing for the first time -- to make his point.
"I had this call about this young girl that I should check out," he explained. "She had been turned down by everybody, and I was probably the 15th person to hear her. I had four songs -- the first three were unremarkable, but on the fourth song, Obvious, I heard the bridge and all hell broke lose. I called up, set up a meeting, and I ask her to sing. She says, Now? and she ripped my head off. And that is when you know that you are into incredible greatness. I played it very cool, signed her for a modest amount, got her on a Disney film [Reflection for Mulan]. That one song helped recoup the whole advance from her album. It is not always that you stumble on a few good songs like Genie In A Bottle. The album came at No.1 and won Grammys. And the rest is history."
Fair also talked about his friendship with the late, legendary British artist manager Jazz Summers, who he worked with when he signed Snow Patrol in the US.
"He was almost the cliché of the strong man manager, he would torture record companies but while he was torturing me, we became good friends,” he said. “Later on, we had some great conversations, and he kept on saying that we believe, we are believers, we believe that this song, this artist, this intangible thing that you cannot point to, but we believe over and over again. When his book Big Life came out, he wrote [on my copy], 'To Ron, a fellow believer, love, Jazz."
Stein, co-founder of Sire Records, and who is still running the label, also came with a bag of anecdotes. Over the years, he signed such acts as The Ramones, Talking Heads, Richard Hell and Madonna, to name but a few. He even signed Boney M's Rivers of Babylon in the US from German label Hansa. He said that, the first time he saw The Ramones play, they performed 18 songs in 20 minutes, but what really got him was that they had "great songs”.
“That's the lowest common denominator,” he said, “That's what it is all about. I am not a musician and it bothered me for a while, but I can recognise a good song."
Stein said he did not like to pigeonhole artists according to genre. "I hate categories," he said. "It limits you. There are only two categories: good and bad!"
And he said he tried not to get into bidding wars for hyped artists. "In the past, people would sign a band for $1m,” he said. “They don't do that anymore, because the business has shrunk. But I never did it."
Asked where the next creative wave would come from, Stein said: "Watch out for Latin music, it will come roaring back because of Cuba. Most of the great Latin music came from Cuba. I hope Cuba comes back with a roar."
He concluded: "Music is a river that keeps flowing and different branches come up and others dry out. Great music can come from anywhere and we will be richer for this."
In between the two keynotes, Fair hosted the Future Of A&R panel, in which participants including Adam Clough (MD of 365 Artists), Sam Riback (SVP, A&R, Atlantic Records), Sam Watters (VP, A&R, Island Records) and Sanken Sandqvist (MD, BMG Scandinavia) debated the past and future of A&R.
Clough declared that the dog-eat-dog A&R environment depicted in Kill Your Friends was a thing of the past. “The bigger deals are still competitive, but there’s more of a sense of community,” he said.
And Riback said the rise of virtual reality could help reinvent the album in the age of playlists and single track streaming. "VR could open a whole new world of concept albums, taking you on a journey like an album used to.”
MUSEXPO continues today. Stay tuned to musicweek.com and our Twitter feed for further coverage.