Using A&R in Venue Management

Live Concert Venue

Artist and Repertoire is a cool job. The A&R men, as they are known, were record label executives who found and nurtured talent toward stardom. The position was integral during the record industry boom, as they were the ones responsible for keeping a record label’s pool of talent both fresh and full.

It takes a very specific skill set to be exceptional in this department. For one, You have to have a good ear for music and be able to hear how much potential an act has by doing what I call “listening through the show.” You have to be a powerful influencer. Not just with potential artists, but with those who hold the purse strings at the record label. I once worked with a legendary A&R name on a very limited basis. He taught me that the Artist and Repertoire agent never has the “final say” if a band will get a record deal. Instead, he had to work with potential acts to prep them for the pitch to those with the means to launch their careers.

Once an A&R person lands the act they have been hunting, the job truly begins. Now, they must work between artist and label to align the talent in a way that meets the business needs of the financier. They may work on the entertainer’s image, adjust their marketing and promotion, or train them to become better performers live among a host of other tweaks.

Unfortunately, the A&R gig has been downsized along with the mammoth record labels that existed pre-Napster. Something I was saddened to be reminded of during my undergraduate studies in music business.

Six years and an MBA later and I am on my way to a second venue in one night to catch a band. This will be one of four venues visited that day and about ten in two weeks. This act is one of nearly twenty on my evolving “need to see list” that stems from research online, word of mouth, and solicitations from those looking for work. It is not uncommon for me to check a country band, Ozzy Tribute, Tejano lounge act, DJ, and guitar soloist in one week.

I am directly responsible for filling nine lounges with weekly varied entertainment. On top of that, the company I work for is always on the look out for talent to place in lounges in Vegas, Texas, Arizona, Seattle, Oregon, and on every major cruise line. We need everything from DJ’s, to duos, trios, rock bands, Latin bands, tributes, bingo callers, and soloists. On top of that, our clients demand professionals who can read the room and meet very stringent brand aesthetics.

So, I am out scouting to fill our talent funnel working like an A&R man. Never letting the bands know I am coming. You can’t see how they will “really” act if they know a suitor is there. When on site, I am working. I am observing the band. How do they look? How do they sound? Is the crowd into it? Are they holding the crowd? Are they drinking? Is the crowd drinking? Would their song choices, style, and delivery meet my client’s needs?

Now, if you think I find acts that meet all of these criteria. You are sorely mistaken.  As I analyze, I look at what they do well and the investment we would need to make them into a good match for any of our buyers. Are they simple fixes, like updating their dress or more complex situation such as adjusting their music selection or learning to read and control a room. If I think we may have a match, I reach out. If not, I may come back again to see how they are progressing.

I’ve got a list for that as well.

Much like an A&R man of 1987. After we have landed a group for our client’s. My real job begins. We work on getting them ready for our stages, our protocols, and our needs. I catch their gigs, take notes, and if needed call them the next day to suggest changes. And just like the A&R men of the past, I am working with the record label (or in my case my venue client), probably assuring them that the new act will result in positive ROI, or that we will adjust their dress, drinking problem, or break times to help push those metrics.

I find great talent and nurture it into a successful product for my client’s needs. It is just that instead of my client selling records, they are looking to sell drinks, cruise getaways, or more time in the casino. By looking at my procurement funnel from the view of an A&R man, I can help them achieve those goals by crafting a pipeline of talent that will keep their venues fresh and full.

I guess I got to be an A&R guy after all.

 

Listen Through the Show

Sound Guy with Headphones

 

As an entertainment manager, I receive a constant influx of artists looking for work. These emails and requests come from numerous sources including colleagues, agents of our venues, and (of course) the artists themselves. This results in one large “procurement funnel” I work with daily.

I attack the funnel strategically.  First, I weed out acts that do not fit our client’s geographic, budget, and demographic needs. Next, I check out the musician’s live videos. You read that right.  Their “live” videos.  From my experience, I can attest that most entertainment bookers prefer live videos that are un-doctored over flashy promo. Yes, iMovie and Final Cut are cool, but we want to get an idea of how you handle yourself in a live situation…and how you sound when you do it.

If these videos pique my interest, the next step is to go see you live…but, I won’t tell you when I am coming out.  Why? People act differently when they know a booker is in the room, so if you are in a band. Here’s a hint. Always think an agent, label, or other type of gatekeeper is in the room.  Later on in this blog, I will share a story from my days on the road that demonstrates why you should do this.

 

But Jeremy, we don’t have the gear to make quality live videos and the places we play have horrible FOH, so we always sound bad, but we are really good. I swear.

 

This is where “listening through the music” comes into play. I have over twenty years in this business with the majority as a performer in a variety of bands. I have worked with legendary artists, taught music, done cruise ship orchestra shows, fill-in theater gigs, and even studied at Berklee where I was my Production and Engineering roommate’s go-to session drummer. I have been through countless challenging live-sound situations, which have taught me some key attributes “professional” artists possess that prepare them to succeed in, pretty much, any live situation.

These fundamentals vary by instrument, but boil down to musical ability and stage presence.

Musical ability: This covers the gamut of being a professional musician.  How does the intonation of the brass section sound?  Can the rhythm section keep solid time? Is the singer holding her mic properly and projecting from her diaphragm? Is the guitarist using the right gear and producing a quality tone? Does the entire group start, stop, and make the band hits together?

Stage presence: Are all members into the show…especially when there are only three people in the audience?  Are they reading the room correctly? Are they controlling the room properly? Are they smiling? Do they talk to fans during their breaks? How are they dressed? Do they care about the show…no matter how big or small?

Now look at those again…did you notice that I am not worried about the front of house mix? Nor the monitor mix or the lighting?  That is because it is my job to listen through the show and analyze the core of the product on that stage.

But, why?

It all boils down to an old saying: “garbage in… garbage out.” Sure, a bad mix can impact your gig, but you shouldn’t let it define your musical ability.  The greatest band in the world – The Beatles played before over 56,000 fans with nothing more than 100 watt amplifiers.  They couldn’t hear themselves. Ringo relied on watching Paul’s foot to keep the show going and they harmonized blindly.  Zeppelin recorded the best drum sounds I have ever heard with just three microphones (and one in the chimney on occasion). Duke, Bird, and Miles made some of the most iconic music ever and didn’t use in-ears, a separate monitor mix, or line-array speakers.

All of these acts created great music because they relied on their musicality and ability to control the stage night after night. When this can be done, the sound crew is capable of working from a clean slate and can enhance that quality and make it sound great at any time… at any volume.

 

 

A second lesson regarding why you should “listen through the music.”

Ok, here’s the deal with booking rooms. Contrary to what everyone thinks. You are not guaranteed a great night. I have watched numerous outside forces kill an amazing event. Weather, economic downturns, a competing concert that suddenly pops up and steals your marketing momentum can all kill your night.  As a venue booking agent (especially in the minimal cover/free club scene), we must do what we can to mitigate losses on those particular nights. One of those ways is to find entertainment that can “hold a room” no matter how many people are in it.

If you have read my article on Herd Mentality in Entertainment, you know that I believe strongly that an “adoption point” can be acquired if a room-specific attendance percentage is hit. I also believe that maintaining that crucial number and avoiding the “exodus point” is critical to the success of your live venue and this is directly related to the skills discussed before.

Sometimes you catch a potential group and the room is jammed. You immediately start thinking. This band will save my venue and maybe they will, but first. Take an inventory. With the room jammed, the band may have better than average stage presence.  However, is their musical ability up to snuff or has herd mentality simply taken over.

Flip the switch.

Don’t just walk away if the room is dead. How does the band sound? Do they look enthused? Are the people in the room hanging out, drinking, and pulling their eyes away from their phones to watch the group? If the answer is yes, maybe you need to keep your eye on this particular act and return to check them out a few more times.

Data is a funny thing. The good stuff sometimes likes to hide. Checking out an act is not checking out the room. You are looking at the band to see if they meet your needs or could be coached to meet those demands. Taking away the external elements and listening “through the show” will make it easier for you to book quality entertainment for your venue.

 

Would you like to discuss your venue needs?  Contact Jeremy today.