Free gigs, the hottest new bands as your best mates, and the chance to discover the next Arctic Monkeys: the life of a record-label scout appears terribly desirable. But is the reality as glam as the dream?
Marc Jones, 25, is a scout for Columbia Records, one of the world's most famous labels, where he has been for the past two years. "At the moment, I am on the lowest rung of plain old scout, but my responsibilities have grown a lot recently and I am starting to sign artists," he says.
Jones, who previously worked as a scout for Deltasonic, home of The Zutons and The Coral, says the reality of getting into the industry can be exhausting.
"I got the job at Deltasonic through persistence," he says. "I took two months' unpaid work experience, then worked part-time for them for a while as a dogsbody." During that time, however, he got to know the person who ran the label well and struck up a relationship with Mike Pickering (of M People and Factory Records fame and, at the time, working at Sony). He sent him demos of stuff he liked and was invited to work in London.
Jones, who studied sociology at the University of Manchester, was the music editor of his student newspaper, which he says was useful in terms of meeting people. "You have to have the confidence to talk to people working for major labels and not be daunted by them," he says.
Jones's highlight so far, he says, has been the signing of one of his "finds", Twisted Wheel from Oldham. But one of the most frustrating things about being a scout is when you let a big fish slip through your fingers. A few years ago, Jones did just that at a gig by a then little-known band called the Arctic Monkeys, at the Night & Day Café in Manchester. "I really enjoyed the gig," says Jones. "But wasn't in a position to do anything about it. I was just a dogsbody. They signed with a good label anyway and did the right thing, but it would be great to discover a band like that."
Much of his time, he says, is taken up with working with artists, arranging studio sessions and meeting music lawyers and managers. He goes to between five and 10 gigs a week and frequently works from 8.30am until 11pm. "I'm 25, though," he laughs, "and I like to be busy." He also finds himself travelling all over the UK to see new bands.
When spotting talent, you need to know that the songwriting is of a certain quality and that they have at least two or three clear hit singles. "Sometimes I see great bands who I know we just wouldn't sign. My tastes aren't always reflected in who I approach, but you have to remember that somebody took a chance on the Beastie Boys once."
At the end of April, Carl Barat, the lead singer of Dirty Pretty Things, launched the Intel Studio talent search, a web-based competition that allows bands to upload their demos to a website to win a contract with the Indie Kids label. The number of such initiatives, and social-networking sites such as MySpace and Bebo, might appear to signify the end for the scout, but Stephen Pietrzykowski disagrees.
Pietrzykowski runs – and scouts for – Midlands-based Tough Love Records and says that tools such as MySpace offer instant access to those aspects of a band that would have traditionally been restricted initially to those in close proximity. "Of course, this has its downsides," he says. "It means that people can jump to conclusions and make rash judgements based on things that don't reflect the quality of the music." But, says Pietrzykowski, just as a band shouldn't rely on MySpace alone to become famous, scouts shouldn't lazily use it to decide who is and isn't deserving of a deal.
"Discovering new bands is not a science," says Jones. "It's something you develop over time and that can't be replaced with computers. The industry still needs the enthusiasm and passion of scouts."
The job of a scout is one to do for love, not money, says Pietrzykowski. "Be prepared to work for free for a long time," he says. "Don't make money your motive. Speak to everyone. Be polite. Feigning indifference is not cool and this applies to bands, too."
* Listen to anything and everything, and keep abreast of websites such as MySpace and Bebo*Contact record labels, offering to scout for your local area
* Start promoting gigs in your area or even managing bands
* Contact the British Phonographic Institute (www.bpi.co.uk), which runs seminars on working in the record industry. HDReuse content