We speak to three esteemed professionals to demystify the role of an A&R in these parts.
For many people who’ve come across the word ‘A&R’, there’s often confusion surrounding the job’s exact role. A&R is an acronym for Artists & Repertoire, and those who occupy these offices in record labels are often responsible for scouting talents, recommending them to the label and eventually officially signing them on.
In stable music climes, an A&R is heavily involved in the music creation process from start to finish. The job often includes talent development and even the marketing and promotion of these artists.
But in a developing industry like ours, the role of an A&R often takes a different shape. There aren’t many standard record companies in these parts; as such, there are common misconceptions about what an A&R should do. Does it only concern supplying advice to an artist who needs suggestions on a yet-to-be-released single?
“On the Nigerian end, I feel that name is being bastardized. Everybody feels they’re an A&R because they’re associated with an artist,” says Bolaji Kareem, A&R at EMPIRE. “People feel the closest [thing] you can call yourself is an A&R because you’re affiliated with an artist or you sit with him at the studio.”
The confusion about the role became has become so prevalent that, back in 2019, numerous music professionals had the title affixed to their social media bios. Even the back covers of most music projects often included A&R credits. The popular perception was Nigerian A&Rs were usually the ones who helped to fine-tune a record.
Surely, we can’t rely only on internet findings to fully flesh out the overall functions of an A&R in the Nigerian music space. So, we called up professionals who’ve been involved in playing this role over the past few years. Together, they help to answer some of our most pressing questions about this loosely thrown word.
It’s more than just contributing to a song
“Now in Nigeria, a lot of people just adopt the term A&R just because they feel they can say something. Or you see people, they go record a project, and they give it to you telling you: ‘come and A&R my album and pick the songs.’ For me, the role of A&R is more than just picking songs or seeking someone to put on your album; there’s a lot to it. You have to nurture the artist. Watch the artist grow. Build the artist from scratch to a level where you feel he’s presentable to the world.”
- Bizzle Osikoya, A&R and Co-Founder, Plug NG
“On the Nigerian front, people feel the closest you can call yourself is an A&R because you’re affiliated with an artist; you sit with him at the studio. But an A&R is that person that’ll help to ensure advancement in an artist’s music career. An A&R can advise that this style, you need to change it. That’s why you’re not getting this traction anymore.
An A&R can say ‘this producer you’re using now is making you sound [monotonous], can we try another producer?’ The artist might feel uncomfortable, but the job of a good A&R is never to make an artist attached to one producer so much that once the producer is not there anymore, they feel they can’t give their best. Artist development has to be your primary aim; you need to help the artist as much as possible.”
- Bolaji Kareem, Regional Head West Africa, EMPIRE
“Your job as an A&R is making dreams come true. The artist’s dream is to get hits and make money off that. The label’s dream is to put pen to paper with someone who can bring returns.
You are the guy who’s in the middle, managing the relationship. At the label’s side, you’re vouching for the artist, and to the artist, you’re vouching for the label. You make sure both sides have what they need. You’re basically the relationship manager; you're the person who makes sure everyone’s okay and gets what they’re looking for. That’s what it is.”
- Timi “TMXO” Aladeloba, A&R & Founder, TMXO & Co.
An A&R is crucial to the success of an album
“An A&R sees the album as the movie of an artist. At the end of the day, you need to be able to say, ‘okay, from start to finish, I made something on this album. I don’t want to waste anyone’s 30, 40 minutes listening to my album and not coming out with the feeling that the album is great.’ There has to be someone the album is speaking to. The best albums are those that speak about something relative.
The worst thing an A&R would want to have is when listeners get the album, the end result would be that it’s just there or it’s trash. To avoid that, you need to know how to tell the story of your artist, not just on the music side, but even on the press side so everything syncs together.”
- Bolaji Kareem
“The A&R will help you in curating the project to the point where you know the right producer to work with, the right collaborations to go with for the project, the right sound to be going for. Or the right direction: maybe it’s a love album, or it’s an album on heartbreak, or it’s a happy album. Or it’s an album where you’re looking towards making sure all the songs are good enough for sync in movies or soundtrack to a movie. You must have a direction and understanding of what you want to achieve.”
- Bizzle Osikoya
“You make sure they get the best of everything they need to get that project done. If they need studio time, if they need finance, if their mother is at the hospital, you need to take care of that so they can be at the studio, recording. It goes deep like that. Just always make sure you make the best decision for your artist. Sometimes a song might be good, it might fit into the sonic universe of the album, but it’s not just time.”
An A&R Helps To Prevent One-Hit Wonders
“One of the roles of an A&R is that an A&R helps to reduce the number of one-hit-wonder artists. They are artists who have one record, and the record does so well, but when you tell them to reproduce the song again, they find it very difficult.
Also, one good thing about an A&R is they are that person who [can] explain to their artist that it’s time to leave this music phase and grow to something else. Because every day, we evolve. One of the things I’ve done in the industry that I’m happy about is, I’ve worked with an artist that has spent more than ten years, eleven, twelve years, but when they get to a certain level, we have an honest conversation with ourselves that [they] need to be reborn. You don’t need to leave the game, but you need to come back anew.”
- Bolaji Kareem
“First, You have to help the artist understand that, ‘Look, it's not just about making music, but you also have to understand how to express yourself, how to use your voice.’ If you feel your artist needs voice training or voice coaching, you need to help the artist get a coach. You need to help the artist understand how to develop their sound. I mean, you can tell from Oxlade’s first project to his recently released project; his sound has evolved. We’ve been able to help him understand how to use his voice properly as an instrument. We’ve been able to help him know how to write music that’ll appeal to people.”
“You need to talk to them. You need to know exactly what they need to succeed. You need to be the objective voice in the room. Sometimes, an artist can get attached to ideas and situations which might obstruct them from seeing the clearer picture. You’re the one guy who can step inside; you know what this is what they need to do. This is where the sound is going. We can arrange this particular thing for you to ensure you don’t go too far from what you’re used to. You know, keeping the balance, that’s what you do. You’re the alignment.”
Do all artists need an A&R to succeed?
“Some artists feel like they don’t need an A&R, they can do it all by themselves, and some people do need an A&R. A&R is very crucial to any label or any artist because they help you. No man is an island. There are some artists who don’t need any help from anyone and they are dope A&Rs themselves. But you have to remember: no man is an island. There are some things you can’t see that other people can see for you.”
“An A&R helps to shake up the comfort zone of an artist. Because an artist needs to be getting better, not to remain in the same position. Most artists that are in the same position didn’t grow because they don’t have a very good A&R, or maybe they’re stubborn.
The A&R helps guide the artist during the album recording process, especially if one of the goals for that album is geared towards getting a nod for the Grammys. There are criteria and rules for nomination as regards the inclusion of native language. The artist has to know that and it’s your duty as an A&R [to teach them].”
- Bolaji Kareem
Advice to upcoming A&Rs
“The person has to be a very quick listener. Secondly, there are a lot of things that make great A&Rs, but the most important thing is that the best A&Rs are learners because you also need to keep learning. You need to check other genres of music to see what other people are doing to get better. Because most artists might not have that time to check all these things, but you go check it and bring it to the notice of your artist.”
- Bolaji Kareem
“First things first, you must have good ears for music and [a] good eye for talents. It’s not something you go and learn in school or learn from somebody. But you must be able to discover good talents and know how to develop them. Those are the qualities an A&R should possess.
For example, if you hear a song and definitely know who could be a good feature for the song, or you hear a beat and know who could be a good artist on the beat. [You] hear a producer’s sound and know it could be a good fit for Oxlade or Coublon to work together on a project because Coublon has this sound that Oxlade will bode well on it. Or it’ll be good for Spax and Oxlade to work together because Spax has a sound Oxlade will go well on. You must be very knowledgeable about sound, very knowledgeable about image, and also on grooming an artist from nothing to something.”
“Firstly, be a fan of music. Secondly, it’s really about making the right calls. It’s your job to make calls that will benefit everyone. And it’s really not about you and what you like or what you don’t like. It’s just we need to solve this problem; this is what we need to do. What’s the sound now? How can we convey this message? How can we present this artist?. It’s really problem-solving; it’s not about ‘I like it,’ ‘I don’t like it.’ It’s just being objective. Objectivity is the goal, and you need to deliver results.”