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A&R is a shorthand for the Artists and Repertoire department of a record company. The A&R department has responsibility for finding new artists, looking after them once signed, and making sure that the music they create is likely to sell and make a profit after recording, marketing and administration costs.
If you are an aspiring producer, you would of course want to attract the attention of A&R managers. This makes it seem that A&R is something that stands outside of the production process, but in fact A&R is where production actually begins.
Let's suppose that you are an aspiring producer and that you're not a performer or writer yourself. You'll need to find people to work with, so in effect you have to be your own A&R department.
Many people who have achieved success in life, in whatever field, will give credit to the people they have had the opportunity to work with. Nowhere is this more important than the field of recorded music. As an aspiring producer you need to work with really good musicians.
But what does 'good' mean in this context? Does it mean music that you like? Wonderful vocals? Skilled instrumental playing? Yes, it means all of these things, but there is something that is even more important...
The ability to excite an audience.
To achieve success as a producer, you will need to produce recordings that sell. If your recordings don't sell, you won't be able to maintain your career, or even get it started in the first place.
When wearing your A&R hat you have to seek out artists and bands who you think have the ability to please the market, and please the market so well that the market will pay to hear their music, not just buy drinks at the bar. If you can persuade people who really do have the ability to excite the market, you have taken your first real step in production.
What if you produce yourself?
Being a self-produced aspiring artist or band is pretty much the normal thing to do these days. It doesn't cost much to have equipment and software that is fully up to the task of making professional-sounding recordings, so becoming a self-produced artist or band is a natural thing to do.
If you produce yourself, then you have already taken the first step in the A&R phase of production. You have signed yourself. But have you signed a dud act, or an act that really can excite an audience? Ask yourself this question and answer it very truthfully. There may be work to be done.
As a self-produced artist, you also have the A&R task of choosing which songs to record, or deciding what kind of songs to write in the first place. In professional circles, a lot of thought goes into this. It isn't enough to write good songs. You have to write songs that fulfil specific functions such as being good enough for single release, or for opening your set or opening an album. When you play live you'll need an 'anthem' that your fans will long for you to perform. You'll need an audience participation number too (like Queen's We Will Rock You). There's a lot more to it than just writing a bunch of good songs and throwing them together into an album.
The first stage of production is to find an artist or band to work with that you think has the ability to sell records, or become such a person yourself. The next step is to choose or write songs that the market is willing to buy.
1. If you do not perform, then you need to find people to work with who have the ability to excite an audience. If you perform yourself, you need to develop this ability.
2. You need to record songs, some of which have the potential to become hit singles. You also need an anthem song (which can be one of your singles) and an audience participation number, and songs for other functions that you consider while carrying out the A&R aspect of production.