“The job was quite simply to go out and find great music.” Rick Goetz, former Director of A&R for Elektra
Signing New Music
Rick Goetz is a music marketing consultant by way of a twelve year career doing A&R and marketing at major labels like Atlantic, Elektra and EMI. He runs the music business advice website Musician Coaching and has been a bass player for over twenty years.
Hi Rick – thank you for talking with us today and for passing on some of your insights. You’ve been in many high-level positions within the industry for over 15 years now and you’re currently sharing your expertise with musicians as a music consultant and coach. But before we get into that, I’d love to pick your brain about A&R.
You started with Lava / Atlantic Records back in 1995 and eventually became their Director of A&R. That’s before you were courted by the Elektra Entertainment Group to become their Sr. Director of A&R. So you’ve seen it all. And you’ve witnessed the major changes that have happened in the recording industry first hand. How did A&R work when you first started out?
It certainly has changed since I started and it’s interesting that you would describe two different A&R positions as “having seen it all”. A&R at the time was usually a remarkably myopic existence. The job in theory was quite simply to go out and find great music that you felt the label you worked for could sell to a mass audience and make sure you helped the musicians making that music to come up with the best possible product- usually by pairing them with producers, mixers, engineers etc. It involved knowing as much about local and national music as you possibly could, knowing music lawyers (who functioned much more like agents for record deals in those days), publishers, producers, booking agents and club owners – basically anyone who was likely to be a good filter for informing you about potential signings. Jason Flom and Daniel Savage who ran Lava when I started there were very interested in numbers and statistics which was actually very rare at the time. They were among the first in the industry to put a great deal of weight in determining what the market wanted based on existing sales and radio play (at the time there was no social media to gauge interest). While I did run around and see shows many nights a week and sought out tastemakers to befriend a great deal of my job was looking for independent or self released music that was performing locally or regionally and determine if that product was something niche or if it had the potential to sell to a mainstream audience.
At the time we looked at sales spikes in Soundscan and independent artists getting spun on commercial stations. To determine the cause of the sales or the airplay (and if said airplay was translating to sales / or desired sales) we would call up retail stores and ask them if they had it in stock, or if people were asking them about it / buying it / if they knew why it was selling. That was as sophisticated as research was for record companies at the time. People who considered themselves very creative kind of frowned upon this type of research A&R but not surprisingly it tended to yield more reliable results than going with your gut.
I was once told that A&R is the only job out there that you get worse at every day you do it because your ears are less like the ears of a normal consumer every day you spend doing the job. It was only partially true in that the more quality relationships you had contributed greatly to being able to get great talent to work with and develop your signings and of course your relationships within the company helped determine if your artist became a priority. There was a great deal of internal competition and cheer-leading to get your act paid attention to within your own label.
And how’s it work now?
I only have peripheral knowledge of how it works now as I haven’t been inside for years but I can say that labels are looking at the overall health of a potential signing’s business because the way deals are structured today they can participate in all of an artist’s revenue streams. A successful touring act that had no pop singles would rarely get a shot at a deal in the mid 1990s – now they would be a great potential signing. It seems that there are less artists being signed purely on “this artist is talented, these songs are great” and the business is much more research driven. You could argue that A&R (Artists & Repertoire) has become M&A (Mergers and Acquisitions).
What do you think are the pros and cons of each system?
The labels run a much more intelligent business. It makes much more sense for them. They sign less but they seem to develop artists less too. It’s really hard to say if there are pros and cons to be identified – the world has fundamentally changed in the last fifteen years. Protecting IP is damn near impossible and a new generation views creative work as something to be streamed for free rather than owned and paid for. I can say this – say what you will about the old system and how broken it was but it was at least a system. Now it’s the wild west. Artist development has always been part of an artist’s job (whether they accept that or not is another story) but it’s now an absolute necessity that you build your business on your own before looking for a deal. Fortunately there are more tools to do that with today- but also more people trying to do that today. I don’t know- it’s just a whole new ballgame.
And what’s been better for music consumers? I know that’s totally a subjective question but here’s my personal take; it is important to have tastemakers. And good A&R reps used to function in that capacity.
I think it’s much better for the music consumer today. I’ll never forget talking to younger kids at my last corporate job about music and they knew so much more about music than I did at their age. They had listened to so many records that took me half a lifetime and a small fortune to acquire. Admittedly weeding through a ton of material that is not great can contribute to consumer fatigue and having all music at your finger tips (in my opinion) makes it an experience that is less appreciated but… There are still tastemakers out there. You may have to go looking for them but you now have that option. I think it’s important to consider that at one point in our history (when rock music was really just becoming big business) there were only three TV stations and that on any given day Michael Jackson is on two of them- there was no choice and a very small number of tastemakers made our choices for us. I personally prefer the freedom to chase down what I want online – but that’s me.
What’s your professional slant on YouTube and Facebook and how they’re used to scout talent?
I think Facebook pales in comparison to YouTube for music. In many ways Facebook has become a more elegant MySpace page for bands – everyone has to have a fan page and preferably one with a customization that allows you to listen to music and watch video but YouTube is the second largest search engine in the world and music is one of the most searched categories. With Facebook I think industry people are looking at the number of fans to determine if there is something going on with the band but I think in an age where you can buy likes people are really looking to see how active a musician’s fan base is on their Facebook page. The same is true for YouTube but with YouTube I think musicians have to be more careful- one shitty live gig goes to the top of the YouTube search results for your band name and it can have a real impact. The same is true on YouTube as Facebook though – people are looking for engagement, views, replies, playlists with your video in it etc. etc.
So all of this brings up a really interesting point which sort of dovetails into what you’re doing now. With all of the changes that have happened and the proliferation of tools that are freely available to everyone, what is the role of the labels nowadays?
It’s hard to say truthfully. I think it varies from project to project. They certainly still act as venture capitalists in the artist space – funding projects for a piece of the company. They are still instrumental in breaking acts at radio- I think that is their most valuable area of expertise these days. You can get a good start at radio on your own but it’s very rare an indie will deliver a big single without the help of a major in some way, shape or form. The rest of their functions I’m told are now starting to support the wider scope of rights that they are taking part in like touring and music licensing but particularly on the touring side I haven’t seen much support.
The way I see it, you’ve taken the position of a top-tiered A&R rep and have put it on the market as part of the a la carte label model. A musician can hire your services directly and get most of the benefits that a record contract used to offer. This industry really does boil down to who you know and what doors you can open. So with that, can you please explain what you offer as a music consultant?
A&R was the function I was in at my most visible jobs but I’ve really spent more years doing marketing at this point. A&R was an amazing job to meet people though so while I have a good vantage point from having worn other hats in the industry what most improved my Rolodex was my years in A&R. The short version is I help people who make music make money and people who make money make music. The majority of my work these days is marketing / label services. When artists want to own their own rights and have a budget they hire me to act as the head of marketing for the management company and / or label. I hire out a custom team of professionals specifically tailored to the individual project. It works better this way because there is no competition from other artists at the company and everyone hired (Press, Radio, web designer etc) is there because they are the 100% right fit for this particular project. I also offer hourly coaching and marketing plans but I have been gratefully very busy with clients who retain me for 6 months or more at a time so I seem to be doing less coaching these days.
Hmmm. Interesting. Sounds familiar. The only thing that is really different is that musicians now look for you instead of the other way around. Crazy. I bet you never saw that one coming. By the way, how do musicians find you?
I practice what I preach – I’m very active on social media, I blog regularly and I got good at Search Engine Optimization / Search Engine Marketing. I’m not hard to find even if you don’t know me by name which was the whole idea of setting up the website / blog in the first place.
And how many people have visited your Musician Coaching site since it began? Where do you get all your information from?
About 250,000. Some of the information is personal experience, a great deal of it is in the forms of the conversations I have with people that become the interviews on the site. The news is sourced from daily reading on the business from all over the place. My partner in the site, Julia Rogers, handles most of the news at this point though.
Amazing! And endlessly fascinating. Next time we’ll talk about your roles in television development. Rick – many thanks for sharing.
Rick Goetz started his career in entertainment as the bass player and manager for the funk band Dine-O-Matic while at New York University in the early 90s. The band played out in New York City regularly for about three years, and members of the group went on to play and record with David Byrne, Amy Winehouse, The Roots, Public Enemy, Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings, Antibalas and the Walkmen. It was managing this group that lead him to an internship at Lava / Atlantic Records in 1995 where he stayed for six years, ultimately rising to the position of Director of A&R.
This interview was originally published by Mike Dias for Ultimate Ears