Signing an artist to a record deal is a lot like dating, says Pete Ganbarg, president of A&R over at Atlantic Records. But Ganbarg — who has brought in Twenty One Pilots and Christina Perri, as well as the blockbuster cast albums/soundtracks to Hamilton, Dear Evan Hansen, and The Greatest Showman — says the job of an A&R executive has been completely turned on its head since the pandemic lockdown began prohibiting people from traveling, taking meetings, and going to shows two months ago.
A&R, shorthand for Artists & Repertoire, is the department at the label responsible for discovering and signing new talent. Once signed, artists usually work with the A&Rs to create music as well, and the employees in the department serve as a front line for the artist — as champions, advocates, and problem-solvers for their work. “”Part of how we sign is rooted in the personal connection that you build with a new artist,” Ganbarg says.
A variety of executives say that without the ability to meet artists in person, signing is a lot more difficult. “We’ve definitely signed less acts than before,” Ezekiel Lewis, the head of A&R at Epic Records, home to Travis Scott, Mariah Carey, and Ozzy Osbourne, tells Rolling Stone. “We’re still signing, but I don’t think you can make an honest artist-development signing while in quarantine. It requires a touch and feel when it comes to committing the company’s resources to a developing act. You have to be that much more particular, that much more picky and more prudent about the process, because the best we’re gonna get is a Zoom call.”
Bringing an artist out to an industry hub like New York or L.A. and showing them a good time is not uncommon in this business. “Normally speaking, you try to get creative and do anything you can to make the artist realize that you’re the right home for them — especially if it’s an artist that you love, and you really want to sign that artist,” says Ganbarg, who’s noticed a decrease in pop music signings.
Earlier in the year, Atlantic was interested in an unsigned artist named Teddy Swims. Atlantic didn’t end up working with Swims, who ultimately went over to the company’s sister label Warner Records — but Atlantic spent time and effort pursuing him. “[Teddy’s] from Georgia — this huge, teddy bear of a guy with face tattoos and this gorgeous voice,” Ganbarg says. “He did a cover of Bonnie Raitt’s ‘I Can’t Make You Love Me.’ It went viral, everyone fell in love with him, we brought him to New York, and we fell in love with him.”
One of the things that Swims and Ganbarg bonded over “when we were in the romance part of the dance” was musical theater, he says. “He’s a big musical theater guy, and I do a lot of the musical theater at Atlantic. So, I said to him, ‘Hey, you’re in New York. How often do you get up here? Do you want to go see a show?’ And he’s like, ‘Uh, yeah, sure! I’d love to.’ I sent him to Hamilton or Dear Evan Hansen — I can’t remember, but it was one of the two shows that we did the music for. He loved it, and I think he took his mom.”
An in-person meet can also be helpful for artists to get a better sense of the label, says Ganbarg, who adds that he usually walks artists around the office, showing them bits of history such as Atlantic co-founder Ahmet Ertegun’s awards for helping form the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It’s also not uncommon for executives to fly to an artist’s town in the middle of wherever and meet them on their home turf.
“There are less rock deals happening right now. If live is your strong point, you’re gonna have a hard time striking a deal right now.” — Ezekiel Lewis, Epic Records A&R head
Without those physical opportunities, Ganbarg says that Atlantic has been taking virtual meetings with new artists — but the bar of who to sign is being raised higher as a result.
Rock bands in search of a label are in particularly hot water. “Different forms of artistry present themselves in different ways,” Lewis explains. “For some artistic types, that live show is absolutely paramount. Sometimes, depending on the artist, that might not be their strong point. But I think that’s probably why there are less rock deals happening right now. If live is your strong point, you’re gonna have a hard time striking a deal right now.”
Lewis adds that he thinks the process of signing and the types of deals being offered will “naturally evolve” based on the environment. “I can’t say that I personally see a one-off deal being done, but if this lasts longer, we have to be flexible to the environment and the marketplace,” he says. “You may come across an artist with the digital footprint and analytics to support whatever their ask is, and maybe they don’t want to do a long-term deal. Maybe it works for both parties to do something short-term.”
Epic EVP A&R and Lewis’ colleague, Joey Arbagey, adds: “I’m really normally more of a ‘feeling’ guy, but this is forcing me to pay a lot more attention to the analytics. I feel like, now, I’m looking under the hood more, which is not something I did every time in the past.”
Even though so much of discovery happens online nowadays, many A&Rs, Arbagey included, prefer to stumble upon an act in real life and feel it in their bones — it’s like meeting a romantic interest at the grocery store, as opposed to a dating app. “I met AJ Mitchell because I went on a charitable cruise and he was performing,” Arbagey says. “It still can happen that way. That’s the way I prefer for the magic to happen, because it feels so organic and right. Nobody was paying attention to the kid, and they weren’t looking for a deal. It took like 10 months to sign this kid, and eventually everybody was interested. But I had made the relationship — we met out on a boat, he came to see me the next Monday in my office, and we talked every day after that.”
Music companies’ struggles in the quarantine era are, of course, not limited to only signings. Ganbarg points out that execs across a label are unable to do the things they tend to immediately focus on with a freshly signed act. “You can’t do a showcase event, you can’t send an artist into a radio station, you can’t send an artist into the offices of Rolling Stone,” he explains. “It’s all transitioned virtually.”
In terms of the music-making process, “only the best of the best have figured out how to transition to remote recording,” as Lewis puts it. An artist’s team members can’t gather and hunker down in a small studio space like they might normally. The mid-level pop artist must be able to to access professional equipment and assistance, which isn’t as easy as it is for bigger stars who may already have home studios. “They have to quickly find the creme de la creme of vocal producers who know how to handle things virtually,” says Lewis. “There are no studios open right now, so you need a real network of people.”
Arbagey describes his own setup, explaining how he put up a blanket in a closet of his home studio and a mic in front of it, then had an artist come through the side office door and record music that way. “It really depends on the situation,” he says.
For independent artists who don’t work with major A&R teams, things are a bit more flexible: Some indie acts are opting to can record on their own laptops, and DIY services like TuneCore, Vydia, CD Baby, Soundrop, United Masters, and Ditto are all seeing surges in activity.
Even independent labels deal with less red tape, and without the corporate overlords to answer to, these smaller operations may have more more room to be flexible with signings and releases.
“We’ve been aspirational and are thrilled to have recently signed Evann McIntosh,” says Michael Goldstone, founder and co-owner of Mom+Pop, home of Courtney Barnett, Tom Morello, Sleater-Kinney. “She’s remarkably talented and lives in Kansas so we never had the opportunity to meet her in person, despite trying to fly right before the country shut down. We’ll continue to sign as aggressively and artfully as we always have. We’ll just have to adapt in the A&R process itself.”
Goldstone adds: “Being fully independent is without a doubt helping us continue on that path, as we are our own oversight.”
With extra time on hand, Ganbarg notices he has more time to listen to music and make constructive notes. “Artists continue to make music. We’re still able to listen to the music they’re making and judge it as we normally do,” he says. “I anticipate we’ll be signing some new stuff soon, but it’s gotta be great. We gotta fall in love with them, and they’ve gotta fall in love with us — virtually.”
Read more of Rolling Stone‘s coverage of the pandemic’s disruptions to all corners of the music business here.