Friday 17 April 2009

Music Industry Careers: Island Records' A&R Tells All

5 Years ago Ben Scarr was just like thousands of other people his age, determined to carve out a career for himself in the music industry but not sure of his exact calling.

In 2004 he enrolled on the Music Production Merit Course here at Point Blank in the knowledge that the techniques he would learn and the contacts that he would make could help him realise his dreams. 5 years on and he has worked his way up to the enviable position of A&R Man at Island records where it is now his job to find the music stars of the future.

Kind enough to re-visit Point Blank to as a guest lecturer this is an overview of his story and the advice he gave to the on-looking students packed into studio 8:

How did he work his way up the industry ladder?

• Whilst studying at Point Blank, Ben approached his favourite club nights to offer to help with the flyer distribution and earned a 6 month part time internship at a professional studio in Brixton. Standing in the rain outside clubs at 2 am and going on endless coffee runs was by no means glamorous, lucrative or much fun but it is so important to be proactive in gaining additional experience and contacts at that early stage, as well as demonstrating your desire to succeed.

• Once he finished the Merit Course he earned some extra cash as a DJ and Production tutor for the Point Blank community projects, and at the same time he had progressed to head up the street team that handled flyer distribution.

• He decided it was time to try and get a job at a label so sent off lots of applications, but with little success.

• However his networking paid off as one of his contacts, who he worked with for Hip Hop night 'Jump-Off', gave him a phone number for a record executive at Mercury Records. Having nervously enquired, Ben was delighted to be offered 1 month's work experience in the marketing department.

• Realising he needed to seize this opportunity, he showed real dedication, dropping all his other commitments, arriving early and leaving late every day. It worked and they extended his work experience to 3 months.

• Unfortunately when this came to an end there were no jobs at Mercury but they were so impressed that they helped him land a role in marketing at Island Records.

• Once there he made an impression on the A&R department by arranging for his music producer contacts to do some remixes on spec. (ie if the label don't use them then there is no fee).

• In passing, he also mentioned to his boss the idea of Girls Aloud and Sugababes covering the Aerosmith vs. Run DMC classic 'Walk This Way' for Comic Relief. Having assumed they hadn't liked the idea he was surprised but delighted to open a box full of new 'Walk This Way' promo singles a month later.

• He was offered the role as assistant in A&R where he patiently watched and learned for 6 months.

• His next major break came when he introduced his colleagues to a young unknown synth-pop artist named Frankmusik (now signed to Island and with over a million hits on his Myspace). This put his name on the map within Island records and he began to get more acknowledgement for his ideas.

• His tip-off that Wiley’s tune ‘Rolex Sweep’ was set to be a smash hit was snubbed by his boss.

• With egg on his face after it reached number 2 in the charts on another label, the boss realised Ben's talent for urban music and sent him out to unearth some other unsigned gems. He quickly hooked up with Tinchy Stryder and has been the driving force behind his success – his second single 'Take Me Back' charted at number 3 in the UK after Ben shrewdly drafted in Taio Cruz for the vocals.

• Most recently he signed the hit tune 'Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes' which became a viral sensation via Youtube.

Questions from the floor:

What does your typical day consist of?

"It is very varied. I spend a lot of time listening to new music that I am sent. We might meet about a potential new artist and talk about which sonic direction they should go. Much time is spent sourcing producers and writers who will suit our artist's style... Often I will visit the studio to give my thoughts on the artist's work in progress, The producer and artist can be in the eye of the storm when they have been listening to the same thing all day so it helps for someone to come and give their thoughts from a fresh perspective at the end of a session."

What is your advice for aspiring producers and musicians from an A&R man's perspective?

"Don't hold back on sending your music to labels, get as much feedback as possible; you don’t want to spend years on an album only to be told that the sound doesn't work"

"Target the labels that suit your sound and try to develop some kind of relationship with them. It's a good idea to find a contact name to address your mail to otherwise it is likely not to get opened. You will always find an A&R contact in an artist's album sleeve so look at an artist with a similar style to your own."

"On your demos send in no more than 2 tracks... include a short note about your act and make sure you write your contact details on the actual CD."

"Talk to people and tell them what you are aiming for. You may get laughed off by some but one time you will meet someone who can help you"

"Work on your look. Style is a crucial factor when labels are considering an artist"

What are some of the hotspots for getting spotted by A&R people?

"In London: Hoxton Bar & Grill, Yo Yos, Troubadour, Camden Barfly, Water Rats. Depending on the style of music there are different ways of getting spotted... bands tend to be discovered at gigs whereas urban acts tend to make their name on the underground scene and virally through sites like Youtube"

Do you deal with publishing deals?

"No, publishing deals are separate to record deals but every artist will have one. They are important as alternate forms of income to pure record sales... Your publisher will try to get your music on television programmes and commercials or in computer games... and if your tune is ever sampled on a hit record you will be in for a big pay day if you own the publishing rights of that sample."

Thanks to Ben for sparing his time and providing inspiration and insight for the Point Blank students who attended. Look out for more masterclasses, free for all students, coming in the near future.