Well all know the top songs of the day and, typically, we know the artists performing the songs. But, there are some key "behind the scenes" people, even beyond producers and promoters, that often dictate whether most of us even ever hear a certain artist and how much "marketing push" particular artists get from the big record companies. At all labels, some of the most powerful people are the A&R ("artist and repertoire") reps.
These people are basically talent scouts. But, their job is a bit more than simply hanging out in clubs where artists perform and sorting through demo tapes. Although those are certainly historically important aspects to the position, the A&R rep also act as gatekeepers and many are quite powerful. The better you are at spotting the "next big thing" the more power you obtain. Clive Davis is a prime example of someone with a gift for picking out the diamonds in the rough and polishing them into platinum stars. Davis is credited with discovering and "developing" mega selling acts like Bruce Springsteen, Whitney Houston (yes, Whitney sold some big numbers in her early years), Billy Joel and Aerosmith. Through his skill in finding and developing talent, Davis has forged a music empire and is one of the most powerful people in the industry. He's fairly visible and is one of the few true A&R types to become a media presence in mainstream outlets.
Some, at least to this point, lesser known names are out there making their mark on the industry and are establishing themselves as top level A&R execs in the modern era. Martin Heath and are two prime examples. Heath founded Lizard King, which is now known as Marrakesh Records. A principle signing by Heath was the Killers. Heath likes to find bands he can mold and the success of the Killers is a clear demonstration of his prescience. In an interview late last year, Heath laid out part of his secret to success: "My brief is to find acts in America, make them a bit more European, market them over there, and then bring them back to the US once we have some movement in the European market..." That certainly worked for the Killers. However, Heath is not alone in helping the Killers rise to the top. Since Marrakesh is a relatively small label in the UK, some more muscle had to be brought in to achieve saturation here in the States. Enter behemoth Island Records. Robert Stevenson, A&R at Island who has also worked with Fall Out Boy and Deryck Whibley's Sum 41, was part of the reason the big boys got behind the Killers taking them from decent indie act status to the now superstar stratosphere. But for people with this kind of clout getting involved the band could very well be still on the Las Vegas circuit.
Another growing A&R power is Josh Deutsch from Downtown Records. Gnarls Barkley took the world by storm, but the buzz may not have been as big without Deutsch's help. K.C. Morton, Cee-Lo's manager, reportedly lists Universal Records, Sony Music and Interscope as labels who all declined to sign Gnarls. Downtown Records, who had a distribution deal with Warner Brothers' Atlantic label, signed them before they were even really open for business. On the shrewd signing move, Deutsch says "Once in a while you hear a record that is so obviously important on so many levels. If I find something I like there's no bureaucratic process associated with signing it." Indeed. No doubt Josh's reputation is sealed with this smash duo's success. Downtown Records is also home to indie favorites Art Brut and one of my favorites The Cold War Kids. If these acts break out the way I expect them too, especially the CWKs, Downtown may be moving uptown very quickly!