Two years ago I moved away from Greenwich Village. I write this blog to make myself feel better.

What Is A&R? "My romp through Tin Pan Alley," Part 2

How are new songs found by record companies? What do talent scouts listen for when they pick new songs? 


Once I saw from my summer job in music publishing that the Tin Pan Alley shop for new songwriters didn't exist, I set my sights on getting into an A&R department. 
Attending college in NYC was an opportunity to work at Warner Communications and make contacts, and upon graduation in 1980 I landed a job in A&R at Warner's international label, moving to Columbia Records' domestic A&R department a few months later. It was life-changing to see out how they listened to music and signed new talent. A&R people came from backgrounds of all kinds: some were DJs or music reviewers and some were musicians who had played in bands. It was competitive, with unhappy days at the office when new signings didn't catch on, but it was a privilege to work for an iconic label; an A&R job was a steady paycheck and a better life than a musician's on the road.


Without question, longtime A&R people were essential to the label: they knew how to talk with established artists--Springsteen, Dylan, Billy Joel--and had gained their trust. Younger A&R men covered new talent in the field, following musicians and sounds in their areas of expertise; they were coolhunters and competed with other labels to attract new talent. Picking music and making hits was nothing like the way you're taught in music school. All kinds of music was played in the office; it was a Tin Pan Alley of dueling record players. It was confusing to try and keep up with it all. It seemed like 20 new albums a week came across my desk. I screened tapes by new artists and songwriters and went to concerts and clubs almost every night. I loved it but was overwhelmed. Working there was changing my ear. I stopped writing songs and focused on finding talent, but what was my area of expertise? The A&R men told me "focus on what you like." My tastes were rooted in traditional sounds by trained musicians, but I became more appreciative of imaginative artists who captured you with style and personality, even sounds that were abrasive. 


As far as songs go, these raw recordings of "Girls Just Want to Have Fun" by Robert Hazard and the songwriters' demo of "Like a Virgin" are intriguing. The songwriters and producers of both songs were early in their careers and had known each other from playing in clubs. A good song doesn't need an elaborate demo, and new songwriters often get their break with emerging artists. 


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