How to do A&R for your sample label

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Illustration: Franco Égalité

It might come as a surprise how often the sample industry develops creators from hobbyists to highly demanded hit-makers.

Although the way people approach A&R (artists and repertoire) has changed, it continues to play a pivotal role in the success of a sample label and the growth of its artists.

As a follow-up to “How to start a sample label,” we gathered specific insights from Kate Wild of 91Vocals and Grace Roslovic from the Splice team on their approach to A&R for sample labels. Below, they share how they stay focused in their search, the tools they use, how they filter through a sea of talent, and how they vet for quality productions.

Know what you’re looking for

When you’re first starting out with A&R, know what genre, niche, or style you want to be known for before recruiting new talent. What’s your unique selling point? Do you specialize in pop and R&B vocals? Are you focused on drums for trap and hip hop? Maybe you offer orchestral sounds, or you cover all genres but work specifically with women and nonbinary people. Perhaps you’re redefining electronic dance music by discovering groundbreaking producers.

Grace says that people who are successful in the music business carve a corner of the market. It’s easy to get sidetracked by exciting talent who have nothing to do with your initial goals. Build a reputation for quality in one area first, and then you can branch out and take risks in new areas.

To illustrate this point, Grace said, “For example, TalentX Entertainment develops talent from people who get noticed on TikTok. They’re focused on music ‘for the modern digital era.’ Find, or even better, define your corner and start carving your spot there. After you’ve helped develop a couple of acts in your realm, eventually, people will start bringing you new talent.”

Knowing what to look for is inextricably linked to knowing who you are and what your label and brand represent. And by brand, we mean the type of music people think of when they hear your or your label’s name. We talked about this in depth in our previous article but to elaborate, your brand is essential for building a network. And a network is essential for discovering new and emerging talent. Grace suggests, “Spend time putting people in your circle who push you to be better, and push you to explore talent outside of that circle.”

Have an ear for emerging talent

If you’re carrying out an A&R function, you’re looking for the next breakout act in your niche. You have to have an ear for emerging talent who might be nowhere near hitting the charts. Your job is to help them get there, and if things go well, you’ll grow with them.

Grace said to look for the triple threats in your niche or genre. For example, someone who can produce, sing, and songwrite. Better yet, someone who’s pushing the genre in a new direction or redefining it entirely. She said, “Look or listen for what makes you uncomfortable sonically, maybe even something that takes a few listens to appreciate. What makes you stop in your tracks and want to know where on earth it came from? More often than not, those are the artists who are carving the path to the future.”

Kate said, “You may not be able to knock down the door of Timbaland, but how do you find the next Timbaland?” Simply put, how do you find the next producer who’s going to shape and create a platform for the voices of the next generation like he did in the ‘90s? Someone who’s versatile with a strong work ethic – who can work within different styles and collaborate or adapt to different personalities.

When looking for acts, look for someone who has a strong foundation you can build on. Someone with their own sound or point of view who’s ready to get to work. We dive deeper into this below, but you have to have an eye and ear for who’s going to make waves in your space. Who’s doing something fresh that helps their genre evolve?

Spot trends and fill in the gaps

A&R for a sample label requires a mix of spotting trends and identifying the gaps yet to be filled. It’s a matter of having an ear for what instruments or sounds truly made a track, melody, or beat stand out. What’s carrying the song along aside from the lyrics?

Grace says you have to be a detective. Scan the Viral 50 playlists for who’s producing fan favorites that you haven’t heard of. This is a great example of someone who’s clearly laying their own foundation, already building a reputation for themselves by putting in the work and building a network. They might be at the perfect stage to sign, or they may be too big already. Either way, take a look into their toolbox. Learn what instruments they’re using, what geolocations they’re inspired by, where they’re drawing influence from.

An alternate or complementary approach is to identify what you’re tired of hearing and find artists who are doing something totally different. What is going to draw a reaction from people? What instrument do you want to hear more of? Harps? Analog synths? West African rhythms?

Running a sample label is a business, so you have to make choices in part based on customer needs and wants. At the same time, you have the opportunity and arguably, the responsibility, to drive culture. To create new trends and movements. To make creative decisions that will have an impact on music either in your genre or across genres. Ask yourself what stand you want to take – this is how you’ll carve that corner we talked about earlier.

Consider investing in unique instruments and sounds. For example, Mario Luciano has a specialty with sampling unique or rare analog instruments like Moog synthesizers. His toolbox allows him to craft sounds unlike any others. Ones that artists like A Boogie, Pop Smoke, and Denzel Curry have turned to him for.

Where and how to look

When thinking of where music culture is headed from an A&R perspective, we look at music trends worldwide. We want to know what instruments both the charting artists and the up-and-comers are using. We’re looking at where they draw inspiration from and what could potentially come next.

Grace says that fans outside of the U.S. market tend to listen to more music and be more loyal. IFPI’s Music Listening 2019 report indicated that music fans in Mexico spend the most time listening to music, at 25.6 hours per week compared to the 18-hour global average. Korea leads in music purchases with 44% of respondents saying they’d bought CDs, vinyl, or downloads in the last week, well ahead of the 26% global average. The U.S. was second in purchases at 34% of respondents. The report is based on a survey taken in 21 countries amongst 34,000 people (note that the report leaves out much of Africa and the Middle East, as well as India and China).

It’s up to you to define where you think culture is going and how you want to influence it with your label. Once you do, here are some tools to leverage in your search.

Effective ways to use social media for A&R

Kate and Grace both turn to Instagram and YouTube in their search for talent. Kate said, “I use social media platforms like Instagram and YouTube where you’ll find most producers and musicians sharing their content.” In addition to browsing her immediate community, she searches hashtags like #beatproducers or #samples. She also looks at who other labels (record and sample) and producers are following.

When she comes across an artist with a natural, raw sound she likes on Instagram, she saves their posts in a ‘producers folder’ or ‘vocalists folder’ to keep a running list for when she’s ready to recruit. After some initial research, she reaches out to gauge their interest and asks questions like:

  • Have you created samples before?
  • Can you record from home?
  • Do you have the equipment to create samples?
  • Can you send 10 – 15 demos or samples following a concept that they or you come up with?

When Grace is browsing social media, she’s looking for consistency, how actively an artist is releasing music, and where they are in their career. She said, “I’m looking to see if they’re in the process of being developed. While the most accurate intel can come from word of mouth, sometimes you can infer who’s on the management or label/publishing radars from the account followers before any deals are closed.”

Using social media as a tool also requires you to build your own foundation as a label. At Splice, for example, the quality of production is a large priority. So, our A&R people surround themselves with others who have an ear for high production quality. This leads to the best bubbling to the top of their feeds. Grace says, “Ask yourself what you’re missing – what are your weaknesses as a label, and how can you strengthen them? What do you need to look for to fill those gaps?”

She added that Instagram is great for learning about an artist’s or producer’s personality – to see how they’re branding themselves. She said, “For better or worse, artists have to build their basement, then your manager, label, or publisher builds the first floor. You have to establish an initial buzz to attract a team, and then they’ll help finish building the house with you.”

Follower numbers and stats matter because they indicate interests, but they don’t tell the whole story. A good A&R looks at indicators like comments and shares to determine how interested fans are in a creator’s work. Is an artist sharing surface-level content, or are they connecting with their fans on a deeper level? Are they someone producers and other creators are going to want to follow and learn from or aspire to?

Grace also wants to see an artist with quality press coverage, which can include their university paper or local radio station writing about them – anything to show that tastemakers are paying attention to their work.

Word of mouth

Pay attention to who other artists are talking about. Whose name is getting dropped consistently? Who are emerging artists listening to? For example, Grace cited Dua Lipa writing about how Rosalia’s music pumps her up to go on stage, and how that helped rocket Rosalia’s career into the Western market. Obviously a lot of industry folks are going to jump on someone a mainstream pop artist recommends; who are the up-and-comers listening to?

Before the pandemic, live shows remained an important A&R function. Grace was paying attention to who was out there playing and selling tickets, and who is going to their shows. At Splice, we want to collaborate with artists who are attracting current and aspiring music makers.

Using streaming platforms for A&R

Grace uses Spotify for research because she can find song credits there. She said, “I use Spotify to look at the credits and spot patterns and trends to see if there’s any overlap among who’s producing the hot tracks of that week. Spotify tells me who’s in the producer circle. As I browse, I’m looking to determine who their teams and collaborators are. I want to see if top artists are experimenting with up-and-coming producers, and who those people are.”

How to vet candidates

Once you’re in conversation with interested artists or acts, do what you can to make sure they’re a good fit for your label. At the risk of generalizing, some young artists can have the tendency to say yes to deals out of excitement, whether or not it’s a good fit.

Checking for technical standards

Ask candidates for sample demos. Kate typically asks them to record something new, but it can be quick and simple. She either asks them to come up with a concept or provides one herself.

She said, “Generally, I’m looking to confirm the songwriting and vocal ability as well as recording quality before green-lighting an act. I’m listening for pops, clicks, or plosives on the mics, gain distortion, hiss, electrical hum, excessive background noise, if the performance is out of tune or off-time… All these things will affect the producer’s job. It’ll either be time-consuming or impossible to fix, so it has to be right from the start. That way, the producer or sound designer can focus on the thing they’re best at: creating quality produced samples.”

She added, “If I’m not able to be in the studio, the artist needs to be a decent recording engineer or work with one. It’s not enough on its own to have a great voice or songwriting ability without that crucial element.”

Confirming originality and authenticity

She said to be wary of excessively fast promised turnaround times. The promise of speedy delivery can be a red flag that they’re ripping off someone’s work, or that the quality won’t meet your standards. The process for laying down original instrumental samples typically includes going into a studio (even if it’s at home), recording, and processing those samples. It takes time.

An A&R person, especially in the sample space, needs to have an ear for authenticity. Many VST plugins like Omnisphere and Kontakt have EULAs (end-user license agreements) that specifically prohibit royalty-free sample creation for commercial packs. To clarify, users can use these tools to create sounds in their music to be released through traditional channels, but not as sample packs.

Kate added, “Creating custom sound designed patches from anything that generates from wavetables or basic waveforms is permissible. Some soft synths with this capability are Serum, Operator, Sytrus, and Diva. You just can’t use built-in or ‘stock’ sample-based audio to compose ‘original’ samples. Analogue gear, analogue modeling, or acoustic instruments are the safest bet.”

It’s best to have extensive guidelines for any talent you sign to protect yourself and them. For more on authenticity, check out our article on how to start a sample label.

Final thoughts

When it comes to artist contracts, we suggest seeking legal advice. Considerations to keep in mind are the length of a deal, territories, exclusivity, royalties, and payouts, among many others.

Also, just because someone is a big name, it doesn’t mean they’re a good fit. Make sure your customers or community members are going to get value out of what an artist or act has to offer before signing them. A sample label is a bit like a match-maker. You have to know what both parties are looking for to find success. When you’re starting out, stay true to your focus and goals, and when in doubt, seek mentorship.

August 18, 2020

Shannon Byrne Shannon Byrne is the founder and host of The Process podcast, an interview series exploring the process of survival as a creative. She's also the brand writer at Splice.