There are so many ways to discover music. Whether it’s for entertainment or licensing, new technologies continue to give us even more. How do you find what you want in a sea of choices? Even with all the new platforms, record labels still play an important role in curating what plays through our earbuds.
There was a time when radio DJs, record store clerks, fanzines, and even album cover art greatly influenced our music choices. I remember flipping through vinyl record bins and knowing the local record store staff by name, taking their recommendations based on my purchases–the caveman version of playlist recommendations.
But for the music to find its way to the airwaves and record stores, labels had to make our music choices possible. That meant someone had to find the good stuff. Enter the record label A&R representative. Though the acronym stands for “Artists & Repertoire,” many bands used to refer to it as “Artists & Restaurants,” due to the common act of taking an unsigned or indie label band out to dinner at a nice restaurant to “sell” their label and get to know the bands on a personal level. But even after signing a record deal, a good A&R rep could make or break your band.
I learned that firsthand when I became the bassist for Minneapolis bandBabes in Toyland just after they’d signed a record deal with Reprise Records, a division of Warner Bros. Though we were part of the same indie rock scene that sprung Nirvana, we were signed before them and were not part of the major label feeding frenzy that descended upon the scene after “Nevermind” hit the streets. That meant our new label was taking a big chance on us. We needed a champion inside the label to make sure we didn’t get lost among the bigger, more established, and more commercially acceptable bands. We were, after all, a punk rock band.
We were lucky to haveTim Carr, who notably first signed The Beastie Boys to Capitol Records, as our A&R guy at Warner/Reprise. But he was so much more than that for our band, both personally and professionally. He fought for us, helping us remain true to our core. He championed our interests to the label when we wanted to produce our music video ourselves — and it turned out to be the lowest budget video ever to make it on MTV at that time, all because of Tim.
Our label had a hand in our band playing many festivals, including Lollapalooza ‘93 and England’s Reading Festival. Though label-curated festivals and showcases like SXSW have been impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic, their critical importance cannot be downplayed. The entire industry is keeping its fingers crossed that large live concerts are quick to make a comeback.
Music consumers need guidance to help them navigate the abundance of choices. Information overload can have a negative impact on the music economy. The fact that labels have “personalities” saves the consumer time and helps them find what resonates. As the consumer learns the nature of a label’s roster, it instantly helps categorize any new bands they acquire. In this way, labels create not only economic but cultural value.
Artistic relevance was something our own label brought to our career through our A&R person. Tim Carr’s vivid excitement for unique art — in all its forms — brought worlds together that without him would never have met. I remember when Babes in Toyland opened for multimedia pioneer, Laurie Anderson. He also connected us with the experimental photographer, Cindy Sherman, who did the artwork for two of our record covers. One game-changing new trend we are seeing in that realm is “motion artwork,’ which is on the rise on Apple and Spotify. This is another area where labels can begin to innovate and leverage new technologies.
Record labels fostered so many music scenes and communities whether they were tied to genre or, in the case of Seattle in the 1990s, geography. In the same way that labels, through A&R and distribution, helped the public find great music, we now have playlists, influencers, and music curators. Together, they make sure you find the right music amidst the noise. With so many ways to discover and buy music, whether for personal or business use, it can be an overwhelming experience, and a guiding ear can make all the difference.
About Maureen Herman: Maureen Herman is a writer and the former bassist for Babes in Toyland. Her memoir will be published by Flatiron Books and out Fall of 2022.
Learn more about Maureen in this episode of the Feed Media Group podcast, Voices Behind the Music: