A&R (or Artists and Repertoire, to give it it's full name) is a crucial but sometimes overlooked ingredient in the music pie. Like talent scouts for your ears, it's the A&R team's job to scour the earth for new sounds that will resonate with the wider world, and in our case at The Sound Shop, make that piece of film (whether it's an advert, a trailer or the final scene in a cinematic masterpiece) really work.
Seeing as it's so important to what we do, we thought it was only right to shine a bit of light on this occasionally underappreciated art. How? By sending our favourite wordsmith Sam Waller out for a chin-wag, a beer and some shambolic table tennis with our A&R main-man Tom...
First things first, what do you do at The Sound Shop?
The purpose of my role is to find new artists, get them on board and find ways we can work together. And then it’s about nurturing that relationship. Sometimes it can be new artists who’ve just written some demos that have an exciting quality, or it can be people who are quite established, but maybe haven’t thought about licensing their music. The aim is to forge a long term relationship with artists who we get along with and respect.
Is it almost like having a record label where you’ve got a roster of musicians?
Yeah, totally. It’s like a record label, but it feels a lot broader. A label tends to have an aesthetic or a niche, whereas we offer a super broad spectrum of music. From high energy trap to understated, modern classical and everything in between.
What’s a normal day for you? What does an A&R guy do all day?
I’ll spend a big portion of my day listening to new music. I’ll then reach out to the people whose music I have a connection with. And then a lot of my day will be spent talking to people we already work with, maintaining those relationships, meeting up and going to shows.
“It's great telling the musicians that their music is going to be used. Being able to tell someone that they might not have to work five days a week anymore and they can just write music is the best.”
How did you end up doing this job? Was it something you’d always wanted to do?
I was always in bands growing up, and never really considered doing anything other than 'music' as a job. I studied music in Liverpool and then moved to Manchester a few years ago. I carried on writing, and ended up scoring some documentaries.
Whilst I was working in coffee shops I met Robin from The Sound Shop. We'd talk a lot about music, and it quickly became apparent that we both had broad tastes and were into similar stuff. Eventually I got on the hustle and nagged him - honestly, it was probably pretty irritating. Anyway, I started interning, and it worked out. Obviously, I was invaluable…
You were saying before about how a big part of your job is finding new music. How do you go about doing that?
There’s so much music out there it's easy to get overwhelmed, but I’ve developed a few ways of finding stuff. Often I just follow a bit of an instinct and I’ll find stuff going down internet rabbit holes… following one link to another link.
Getting lost in the YouTube matrix?
Yeah, YouTube for sure. But also going to shows.
So you still find a lot of stuff in the real world?
Totally. It’s an amazing way to see raw talent. When you see someone live you can see how they connect with people in an unfiltered way. That’s the key. It’s got to tap into something universal… and live performance is amazing for that as it’s a physical thing. I see those crowds like my focus group.
What is it that you’re looking for?
What I listen for is authenticity and individuality - someone who has a sound that they execute well that can connect with a lot of people. You have to look at any piece of music from several different angles. You have to be aware of your own personal prejudices.
Can you give us some examples of how you’ve found people?
Sure. Some of the people we work with are artists I liked before I even started doing this. William Ryan Fritch being a great example - an amazing composer and songwriter. One day I decided to reach out in a really nervous, fan-boy sort of way. So he writes for us now, which is really cool. And then there are people round here in Manchester who are part of the musical community who I got talking to. That’s another awesome way to go about it.
Do you think people sometimes overlook how important sound and music is in film?
What we’d like to do is educate people on how significant the difference can be when you play your film with track A or track B. Subconsciously, music has such a huge effect on our perception of film. Its not just whether it sounds good, the right music can trigger all kinds of emotional or nostalgic responses.
Yeah, if you took a film like Pulp Fiction and changed all the music, it would be a totally different experience.
Yeah, how would you feel? Changing the music is almost unimaginable, it’s a central part of that movie.
Where would you say they really got it right? What are your favourite uses of music with film?
Often you notice it when a really bold musical decision has been made. Take some of the strongest advertising campaigns, like Guinness. They nail it by using amazing, really stirring music with a great sense of payoff and reward. And then in terms of film, you’ve got things like Moonlight which had an incredible, simple, moving score. I really like how more and more you hear artists you’ve never heard before through films or adverts.
I suppose people used to want to skip through adverts, but now people will go onto YouTube to specifically watch the new John Lewis advert.
People genuinely look forward to them. And that approach to advertising has been really beneficial to musicians. A lot of brands now want to be associated with musicians who have authenticity and credibility. Brands want to be seen to have good taste.
It's association isn't it. If you like this music, you might like this car.
It's reinforcement of identity. And that's very important now. Less and less do you see musical movements tied to subcultures. There was a time when music was tribal. You'd have whole groups of people who only listened to death metal for example - it was a belief system. Now those barriers don't exist so much you can find people who are into anything... and that's emboldening. Growing up I liked loads of music that I had to pretend not to like!
“Often you notice it when a really bold musical decision has been made. Take some of the strongest advertising campaigns, like Guinness. They nail it by using amazing, really stirring music with a great sense of payoff and reward.”
Where do you see it going? How do you see what you do changing in the future?
It used to be that you either paid loads of money to license a Coldplay track, or you paid nowhere near as much to license some stock music. And you'd only really license music for tv, film or adverts. But now, licensing is everywhere... even on those one minute Instagram videos. People have become their own brands and channels, and with Vlogging people make their lives their work. It’s created a competitive market, and higher production values often equals more hits. So in turn, that creates a higher demand for quality music.
Do you get a bit of a buzz out of hearing something you found being used on an advert?
Yeah, there are two big buzzes. The first one is when you find something that you don't think anyone has ever heard before. You just get that feeling that it will really work. And then when that music lands something, it's great telling the musicians that their music is going to be used. Being able to tell someone that they might not have to work five days a week anymore and they can just write music is the best.
I bet. We've talked for a fair while now so I'll try and wrap this up. Seeing as you listen to loads of music everyday, have you got any recommendations of things I should check out?
I think one of the most important artists of our time right now is a guy called Richard Dawson. He makes the most beautiful, expressionistic music that constantly oscillates between sublime and ugly. It's not the sort of stuff I'd work with, but that's an insight into what I might listen to in my own time. And then the new Feist album is a stunning piece of raw songwriting. There's an American composer called Bing & Ruth who I keep returning to. It's really cinematic, deeply moving and super-emotional.
Aldous Harding, Junun, Tove Styrke, Hamilton Leithauser, Matt Maltese, there’s a lot to be excited by at the moment. I just like stuff that feels a bit raw, is well written and isn't too perfect. I could go on and on...
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