By Kenny Kerner
During the '50s and early '60s, deciding on new talent was
a lot easier than it is today. A&R Reps heard a great voice
and, whether or not the artist wrote his own material, that
voice was usually enough to seal the deal. Frank Sinatra,
Tony Bennett, Nat King Cole, Dinah Washington, Aretha Franklin,
and dozens of other great singers and song stylists were signed
because of their pipes. The songs themselves could come from
publishers and other pro songwriters.
But then, on January 25th, 1964, something happened that
forever changed the way A&R worked. On that very date, a single
called "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" by a new British quartet called
The Beatles, hit the Number One spot on the Billboard Pop
Charts. And believe it or not, that event made possible the
later-day signings of such artists as Hanson, the Monkees,
Shaun & David Cassidy, Spice Girls, Tiffany, Menudo, New Kids
on the Block, Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears and the Go Gos,
to name just a few.
By topping the charts, the Beatles proved, for the very first
time ever, that musicians could both write and play their
own material and be successful at sustaining a career and,
that image was indeed responsible for tremendous amounts of
record sales. Whether it's torn jeans, an all-girl band or
Nehru jackets, image sells--if marketed properly.
That in itself created a dilemma for the A&R Community that
is still perplexing. Since 1964, A&R Vice Presidents, directors,
Managers and even lowly Reps, have been wrestling with the
question of "Art vs. Commerce." Whether 'tis nobler to sign
an artist who will need years to develop a following, radio
play and record sales (Harry Chapin, Tracy Chapman, Randy
Newman) or to go for the immediate hit (Hanson, Spice girls,
Britney) knowing that the longevity of these artists with
blatant image might only be three to five years. Me? I go
for the immediate hit--every time! Isn't that the object of
a record company? To sell millions of records and have tons
of hits? Sure it is!
I believe that a great, fresh, original image/look, combined
with great songs, can only help sell records, expose the artist
and build a strong following. So, when I scour the country
for new talent, I specify that I want young, good-looking
teenagers who are hungry, aggressive and have something special
to offer in addition to being able to play and write. Realistically,
I want to sell as much merchandise as records. That very combination
is what made acts such as Britney Spears, Backstreet Boys,
'N Sync, Dixie Chicks and others, international superstars.
Notice I used the word "young" in the last paragraph. These
days, record labels are making an extra effort to sign acts
in their early teens. Not only for the marketing, but as a
musician gets into his late twenties and early thirties, he
tends to let the frustrations of the business overtake him.
He/she gets jaded. He seems to focus more and more on his
day job and his boyfriend/girlfriend relationship than his
music career. He tends to believe he's heard it all before
and it just didn't work. He thinks he knows all the answers.
The aggression, vitality and hunger are gone.
The changes made in the music industry by the success of
the Beatles helped open the doors for a plethora of signings.
As an artist, your job is to understand what is being signed
and why, and to do whatever you can to make sure you appear
attractive to the labels when they come knocking.