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The World Changing Song

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.