The Big Question: What are A&Rs, and can a record company survive without them?

Why are we asking this now?

On Wednesday, EMI's boss said the company is to axe A&Rs – the "artist and repertoire" scouts who scour the clubs and pubs for talent – and hand over the power to marketing men who plot how to sell the music. Guy Hands, the chief executive of private equity group, Terra Firma, which took over EMI for £3.2bn last year, announced back in January he would trim the label's 14,000 strong roster and cut down on middle management. His six-month plan included making 1,500-2,000 employees worldwide redundant (up to a third of EMI's workforce), and a renewed focus on A&R. Despite the cutbacks looming, employees were said to be positive about the new plans for the label's future, but just six weeks later, at the private equity conference in Munich on Wednesday, comes this announcement that he will hand over the power of A&Rs to "the suits". Mr Hands claims that some of EMI's labels have spent more on marketing than they made in profits.

Who is Guy Hands upsetting?

Hands' comment that they might as well have bribed customers with a £50 note attached to the album, and they would have done a better job, has probably fractured any good relations left between him and EMI's 260 A&Rs. But since the departure of EMI's former boss Tony Wadsworth, the label lost Robbie Williams who is not releasing his next, eighth, album with them, though EMI remain convinced he will return after a break. Radiohead moved to XL, but it looks as though Coldplay are fulfilling their five album deal, scheduled to release their fourth album in May on EMI's Parlophone label.

How much does an A&R earn?

Young scouts at the bottom of the ladder typically earn 20k, while A&R managers earn between 45 and 60k. Above them, senior A&Rs are on 100-120k, while the handful of heads – hugely successful and experienced – could earn up to 250k.

So what's their job?

The artist and repertoire man acts as a talent scout for bands. The young scout will first learn the art of networking with the managers and senior A&Rs as their mentors. Then they learn to develop relations with people so they are informed and aware of emerging talent. Of course, the scout will have to go to the gigs directly to get a feel for audience reaction, while having an instinct for a good song.

The most successful A&Rs have a sense of marketing, too. Simon Cowell and Simon Fuller recognised the potential of television to bring music to the masses. Reality TV shows Pop Idol and the X Factor have boosted album sales to the point that Leona Lewis and Will Young gained No 1 albums. Indie label XL, home to the White Stripes, also recently took on an act that would be a commercial success – Adele. There are other ways for A&Rs to discover talent. Sorry to dispel some of the romance, but music lawyers offer promising artists free legal advice while tipping off their A&R friends. And that's where the networking skills come in useful. Often a huge buzz will surround an artist and the artist will be put the A&R head's way.

Can't a marketing man do that?

The main difference between the marketing person and the A&R is research. Marketing is research driven, but to get the best out of an artist the A&R needs to spend considerable time getting to know and understand them. That involves spending a great deal of time meeting the artist in their natural surroundings, like gigs, at after-show parties, and in pubs. As in any good working relationship, they have to be able to relate to their subject. And that's where the "suits" problem comes in. A marketing man meeting a rock artist, brandishing a Blackberry in one hand and muttering marketing terminology, while the artist is burning to talk music and creativity, is hardly a match made in heaven. Replacing A&R people with marketing experts would strip away the ability to act instinctively on what is felt to be great music. Under a marketing driven industry, the cultural world would become a blander place if only those acts that were marketable could have a chance.

What does a record label need?

For a record label to be perceived as a good home for a new band they need to have a diverse mixture of commercial, independent and eclectic music. Parlophone has remained an appealing label because of its history of artists on its roster, including Radiohead, the Beta Band, Supergrass, now Interpol and the development of the label to include commercial pop acts Beverley Knight and Jamelia.

Who were the leading A&Rs?

Legendary A&R men include Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun, who signed the Bee Gees, Cream, Eric Clapton, Led Zeppelin, and in 1970 recruited the Rolling Stones to the label. Seymour Stein is another big name. More recently Rough Trade's founder Geoff Travis signed Britpop luminaries Pulp and Brighton band British Sea Power on the spot at a gig.

EMI sales representative Keith Wozencroft famously discovered Radiohead following a chance meeting with bassist Colin Greenwood at the Our Price record shop in Oxford where Greenwood worked. Greenwood handed over a demo tape and Wozencroft listened to it on his drive back to London, where he persuaded the label to sign them (providing they change their name from On A Friday to Radiohead). His career was made and he moved into an A&R role for Parlophone. He has since signed artists including Mansun and Supergrass.

Do music consumers get a say?

Blogging is becoming ever-more prolific, with music lovers worldwide recommending artists. Some blogs are now famous, like Nothingbutgreenlights, the UK blog nominated for an NME award. Myspace is the most famous site for promoting and discovering new bands. Music lovers have been furnished with their own opportunities to act as talent scouts via the internet. Website Slicethepie gives fans the biggest hand in scouting out, promoting and recommending new musical talent. Fans known as "scouts" review their favourite unsigned bands, earning more according to how influential they become. By reviewing and investing in bands, they have the potential to make real money if they manage to spot a future success. When a band earns enough cash from their fans' investments, they can make an album.

Sellaband is similar: unsigned bands establish a fanbase whereby their supporters invest in them, buying shares or "parts" which eventually fund the making of their album.

Is this a disastrous move for the music industry?

Yes...

* A&Rs and the new artists they bring are a label's lifeblood; if a record label stops bringing in new artists it will die

* It will lead to further differences in expectation between labels and the artists, and to reverse the mistake will cost a fortune

* The cultural world would become a blander place if only those acts that were marketable could have a chance

No...

* The magic and romance of the idea that A&Rs solely sign bands on the spot at a gig is a myth; the machinations are much more complex

* With the digital revolution and the advent of MySpace and other websites, how long will record labels be so integral anyway?

* While it would be a shame for EMI to go only for commercially profitable artists, indie labels are springing up all the time

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