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Hollywood's Musicians Institute teaches the endangered art of A & R

January 4, 2009 |  4:55 pm

In the troubled music industry, many labels have cut or eliminated their artists-and-repertoire staff. But instructors at MI are determined to teach the skill of making a musical connection.

TalentOnce upon a time, A&R were the sexiest letters in the music industry's alphabet.

Executives in the artists-and-repertoire division of every major record label were charged with discovering and nurturing new acts, setting them on the path toward gold and platinum albums and Grammy Awards.

These high-powered talent brokers would spend their nights scouring nightclubs and street corners after days combing through stacks of homemade recordings in their quests for pop music's next big thing.

In an era of record-label retrenchment, however, many labels have reduced or even eliminated A&R staffs. Most companies are looking only to sign acts that come to them spit-shined and ready to market, or perhaps plucked from a TV talent contest, no nurturing required.

But Don Grierson isn't going to let the trade die without a fight. Grierson, a record industry veteran who helped shepherd acts including the Beatles, Little River Band, Heart and Tina Turner, maintains that the skill set he teaches in A&R classes at Hollywood's Musicians Institute continues to be vital, even as the traditional music industry faces a daunting and uncertain future.

"The key question I always ask new students is, 'What is the first and foremost responsibility of an A&R person?' " Grierson said recently at the institute, where he's part of the music business program staff at the largest independent music school in the West. "Most of them say, 'Signing new bands.' That's important, but it's not the most important thing."

What is critical, he and the other instructors say, is training students to anticipate trends and harness new technologies to better serve artists and connect them with an audience. Bringing people together has long been an essential A&R function, and it is just as important in the modern music era.

"There's been a massive shift in A&R," added Jeff Blue, the newest member of the institute's A&R staff and a seasoned pro who has been closely involved in the careers of dozens of acts as a record producer, songwriter and publisher. "It's evolving -- and devolving -- and more and more artists have to be their own record label."

Indeed. A&R professionals once spent time polishing musicians' sound and image, frequently locating potential hit songs for them to record, pairing them with compatible producers and then serving as liaisons with other divisions of the record company that would market, promote and publicize acts and their music. These days such tasks are carried out by independent consultants or the musicians themselves.

The harsh reality is that few record companies, among the major labels anyway, have either the time, money or interest to nurture an act for four years, as Blue did with Linkin Park before the band became a platinum-selling smash.

Grierson, Blue and their colleagues Kenny Kerner and Barry Squier are hoping to equip a younger generation with the skills they'll need to succeed in a more demanding professional climate. Instead of partnering singers, instrumentalists or composers with producers, they might pair them up with a music supervisor working on a popular television series or a video game franchise, media that have become great ways to break artists.

By adapting bedrock A&R principles to a new media landscape, they're mining rock history to shape the future.

Kerner just might be the perfect person to oversee a school of rock. This beefy, no-nonsense industry veteran with an old-school East Coast accent spent nearly 40 years in the music business -- in the 1970s, he discovered now-legendary band KISS. He heads up MI's A&R staff, working with Grierson, Blue and ex-Columbia and Geffen executive Squier.

Instruction goes beyond textbook theory, or even the real-life examples Kerner, Grierson, Squier and Blue are always ready to supply. Students are assigned to set up virtual record companies. They have to find a band they would like to sign (some use fellow MI instrumental or vocal music students; others recruit them from local clubs or the Internet), make a recording and then promote, market and publicize it.

Matthew Williams, a 25-year-old heavy-metal singer who moved with his guitarist brother, Jason, from Minneapolis to Los Angeles a couple of years ago, didn't have to look far to find a project. Both enrolled at MI to hone their chops, and after a few quarters in the school's guitar program, the brothers' aspiring metal group landed a song in a movie that's due to be released next spring.

Matthew Williams decided he needed to know more about the industry, so he signed up for the two-quarter music business program, in which students earn a certificate after 30 units of course work. It can be combined with one of the instrument or voice courses for an associate's degree or taken independently. At any one time, 100 to 150 students are enrolled in the program.

Williams said that Grierson's A&R class and Squier's guest lecturer series opened his eyes to realities that have been valuable in helping him navigate the initial steps in his career.

Did you know?

"I don't know if it's vital for a musician to learn this stuff," Williams said. "A lot of musicians do fine without it, but I just think it's smart. It was really interesting to learn about the differences between indie label A&R and A&R at the major labels.

"The majors can't take that many chances anymore because there's so much on the line, and people will lose their jobs if an act they sign isn't successful right away. But the indies have to sign more acts to build their rosters, so a heavy-metal band like ours will probably go with an indie. Stuff like that has been useful for us to know."

Katie Scanlon, a 26-year-old 2007 graduate of MI's business program now working as a management and marketing assistant at Nettwerk records, said she's been able to apply much of what she learned at the institute in her day-to-day encounters.

She stressed the importance of having artists truly understand the role they must play in their own success.

"If someone develops an artist on the label or management side," Scanlon said, "there are still a handful of fans who react positively to that -- especially if it's a pop artist like a Britney Spears. But there are quite a few fans for whom it's more important to get that personal connection from a grass-roots marketing campaign through the Internet. And those fans really gravitate more toward the proactive bands who know how to effectively use their websites and MySpace pages."

One of the key changes Kerner and his staff make sure students are attuned to is the ever-increasing churn rate for bands with record deals. Between fans' shorter attention spans in looking to make new discoveries themselves on MySpace or other Internet portals and record companies' heightened focus on immediate financial returns, it's harder today for musicians to get the foothold that can lead to a long-term career.

Skills essential

It's not impossible, of course, but Blue and the others note that, despite evolving technological ways for artists to connect with fans, it's still true that the best way to get a gold record is to shake 500,000 hands through touring and personal appearances. And no amount of live Web chats or Facebook activity will substitute for good old songwriting skills.

Perhaps the big lesson for those involved in any facet of the music business is to get used to living with less -- less profit and fewer multimillion-selling acts.

"There will always be record labels, even though the nature of the business is changing so much," Grierson said. "I just think we're going to be seeing a lot more small levels of success rather than the giant levels of success we've had in the past."


Photo: A&R pros Don Grierson, front, Jeff Blue, left, and Kenny Kerner teach at the Musicians Institute.