The twilight world of A&R

How is The Next Big Thing discovered? Alexia Loundras spends the night gigging with a top A&R man and asks his rivals how they go about finding the stars of tomorrow
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The Independent Culture

Paul Harris, a top A&R (artists and repertoire) man, is under no illusions. "This", he says with childish enthusiasm, "is the spit'n'sawdust, dirty underbelly of the music business."

Rock dives such as this are Harris's marketplace. The deafening noise, the crowds, the bustle, the backstage bartering - not to mention the array of fresh talent on show - are all part of what he loves about his job. As an A&R man for the respected independent label B-Unique, Harris is responsible for signing new bands to the label and, once he's got them, guiding their development.

Since joining the label as a scout three years ago, he has spent most evenings in the capital's rock dens or speeding around motorways and scouring similar joints for The Next Big Thing. And Harris knows a good thing when he hears it. Aside from his new Volvo, his most prized possession are his finely tuned ears. He popped his A&R cherry signing the Mod-rockers The Ordinary Boys in 2003, and then proved his skills to be beyond doubt when he signed this year's biggest band, the Kaiser Chiefs, last July. Tonight, as ever, he's on the prowl for something new. "It's so exciting," he says. "You just never know what you might find."

There's no better place to start than at the Dublin Castle's Club Fandango night. "You always know you're going to hear something good here," says Harris. The night was set up and is run by Simon Williams of the influential indie label Fierce Panda and Andy Macleod of Pointy Records, and every band booked is screened first by Williams. And, having released the first singles by the likes of Coldplay and Keane, Williams' platinum-plated ear is legendary.

Playing this new-band Mecca is a rite of passage: the Kaiser Chiefs, The Killers and Razorlight are just some of its graduates. So it's no surprise that almost everyone here looks like they're either in a band, with a band or trying to sign one. The place is swarming with consciously styled shags and retro fashion-medleys - and everyone seems to know who Harris is. Surreptitious nods are cast his way, and someone he's never met slips him a CDR with a sleight of hand the Magic Circle would envy. Harris smiles: "Bands must have our mug shots up on their bedroom walls."

But wannabe rock stars and scouting A&Rs aren't the only beasts roaming here with intent. As we settle into the shadows to watch the first band, the Manchester garage-punksters Kill the Young, a quasi-masonic underworld of music industry types reveals itself. Standing with us are PRs, journalists and band managers - the latter clearly identified by their suit-jacket-and-jeans combos. For their own reasons, they're all keener than ever to hitch their star to a hot new band. And the bands are happy to let them. "Savvy bands want to build a fan base before doing anything else," shouts Harris. "It's not unusual for a band to have a well-oiled promotional machine in place long before they're signed. If they can press up a single, shift some T-shirts, sell out some regional gigs and notch up a few column inches, they'll be able to get on with being a band instead of just waiting for that A&R guy to swoop."

The Arctic Monkeys, the newest chart phenomenon, are the definitive do-it-yourself band. They had a press officer and built a fanatic support-base months before the band's buzz brought the record labels scurrying to their tour-van door.

As the Monkeys proved, any new band's most vital tool is now the internet: they posted news, fans downloaded their songs, and the excitement spread like wildfire, eventually driving their debut single proper to the top of the charts.

Yet bands aren't the only ones to benefit. "It's hard to imagine how people did my job before the internet," Harris says. Contacts - band managers, industry lawyers and, most importantly, gig promoters ("they're your man in the field," Harris says) - are still invaluable sources of information, but the internet has definitely made the A&R's job much easier. "It's a godsend; within five hits on Google, I can find any new band's website, hear their music, see photos and get an idea of how many fans are already on their side."

Kill the Young have the website, the PR, the burgeoning fanbase and the beginnings of some hype. But, Harris says as the band's last frazzled chord dies away, they lack that special something. "I need to be able to see the end result with a band, and right now Kill the Young could go either way."

Climbing into his trusty Volvo, Harris turns the radio to London's indie rock station XFM ("they often play unsigned bands at night") and we head out to our second pub venue, the Water Rats in King's Cross. "A band have got to have a strong and unique identity. I want a band that's doing something different. It's got to feel natural and it's got to come from them."

Still, Harris is not one to write off a band too quickly. Just as well, or he'd never have signed the Kaiser Chiefs. "The first time I saw them, they were absolutely awful," he laughs. But he kept in touch, and the next time the band played, Harris was sold. "Everything that had been going wrong had solidified," he says. "They blew me away."

Our second band of the night is a repeat visit, too; this is the third time Harris has checked out the electro-rock outfit Eskimo Disco in as many years. "We might see them tonight and think they're amazing," says Harris, with his usual optimism. But finding an act to work with is only part of the job. Harris would expect to have his say in all aspects of the band's career, from commissioning videos and picking album producers to co-ordinating the band's promo campaign. If you hear that a band are re-recording their album, odds are that the suggestion came from the A&R. They are the human face of the business, the link between the band and label. With the unassuming and enthusiastic Harris, B-Unique may have the perfect band-friendly front man.

Tonight, we don't see the future of music, but for Harris, the search goes on. He'll be out again tomorrow. And the night after that. "I feel guilty when I have a night in," he says. "You think, 'I bet I'm missing something.' Sometimes I wonder if that feeling's ever going to go. Maybe it never will. That's a daunting prospect."

Harris clearly loves his job, but it's not all glamour. Trawling through piles of anonymous demos as you drive back from a rubbish gig in Hull at 3am isn't fun. "There are nights when I get home and think, 'Why am I doing this job?' I stink of smoke and I've had one too many beers on a Tuesday night. It's 11.30pm and all I wanted to do was leave work and go home and watch EastEnders.

"But then there are the days when the rewarding things happen," he says, face glowing with fervour. "And I'll see 50 appalling bands to find that great one."

James Endeacott
Head of A&R, Rough Trade records

Biggest signing: The Libertines

Current band most like to have signed? The Coral: they're the only band I'd like to be in. They also have great shoes.

What do you look for in a band? Attitude and a beating heart.

What band are you most excited about now? Dr Dog, because they're not worried about haircuts or the cut of their trousers.

Most important A&R skill? The ability not to follow the pack like a lost sheep.

If a band wants to get signed, they should... Surprise me.

One that got away? The Mystery Jets.

Who in history would you most like to have signed? Bob Dylan, because he's a chameleon.

Caroline Elleray
Head of A&R, BMG Music Publishing

Biggest signing: Coldplay.

Current band most like to have signed? Arcade Fire.

What do you look for? Songs that make your heart beat faster and change your state of mind.

What band are you most excited about now? Humanzi.

Most important A&R skill? Patience, enthusiasm and stubborn belief in your own gut-instinct.

If a band wants to get signed, they should... Forget about everything they think they should do. Believe they are great and can't do anything else.

One that got away? Badly Drawn Boy.

Who in history would you most like to have signed? Led Zeppelin. The perfect British rock'n'roll band.

Seb Chew
A&R manager, Polydor

Biggest signing Scissor Sisters.

Current band most like to have signed? Jay Z.

What do you look for? Great songwriters, original, intelligent; they must also be nice people.

What band are you most excited about now? Arctic Monkeys. All they've achieved so far seems totally genuine.

Most important A&R skill? To be able to listen.

If a band wants to get signed, they should... Concentrate on being the best they can in all areas.

One that got away? Lily Allen.

Who in history would you most like to have signed? Beatles, Stevie Wonder.

Max Lousada
Managing director, Atlantic

Biggest signings The Darkness, James Blunt

Current band most like to have signed? Arctic Monkeys

What do you look for? Great songs, signature vocals, a star.

Band most excited about now? Paolo Nutini.

Most important A&R skill? To be able to spot a classic song, and work harder than anyone else.

If a band wants to get signed, they should... Write a hit record.

One that got away? Arctic Monkeys.

Who in history would you most like to have signed? Marvin Gaye. Why? I think that's obvious.

Ferdy Unger-Hamilton
A&R consultant, Island

Biggest signing Keane

Current band most like to have signed? Arctic Monkeys. They're effortlessly cool, they write songs that make you want to listen to what they're saying, and they rock.

What do you look for in a band? That which you hear.

What band are you most excited about now? My Morning Jacket, Tom Vek, Arctic Monkeys, Bright Eyes, Baxter Dury, Jamie T.

Most important A&R skill? Good taste in music, communication skills and boundless enthusiasm.

If a band wants to get signed, they should... Put out a very good single and play some very good gigs.

One that got away? I was at a Radiohead gig at ULU in 1992. I left early because I was tired - oops!

Who in history would you most like to have signed? Bob Dylan. You don't need to ask why.