As an artist, one of the greatest struggles is determining how to get noticed by the right people in the music industry–and the reputation A&R has earned for itself is true: earning the attention of a label’s artist development representative is an enormous task. However, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Lindsey Kirkendall sat down with Susan Riley (A&R, Word Records) as she explains the in’s and out’s of A&R and Artist Development.

A&R departments have the enormous responsibility of finding and bringing new talent to the label’s front door; and as Susan Riley explains: “A huge part of A&R is trying to find the right artists at the right time” and where an artist lands on the development spectrum at the time that they cross paths with a label, will determine how ‘right’ the timing is. Susan describes the importance of the various elements of an artists’ career and how each element can increase or decrease the label’s interest.

CCM Indie: Since labels are no longer offering many ‘developmental deals’, what are some of the most important things to consider for an indie artist hoping to develop themselves to the point of garnering major label interest?

Susan: “The definition of success is a moving target. Many times an artist could have success in their local town/church etc. Very few artists ever get signed to a label and even then, it can typically be a pretty short season in life when they are signed. The talent that I see of some of these artists is amazing and can manifest itself in various ways as life goes on, not just on a stage.

In the CCM world, the definition of true, lasting success, is in the hope in Christ that others find through the music. The music really is just a vehicle to send hope into the world. That helps all of us to keep things in perspective of why we are doing this to begin with, and to not get caught up in the “hype” that can be associated with music business in general.”

CCM Indie: Explain the importance from an A&R perspective, of a polished web presence, social media presence and image.

Susan: “First, a polished web presence is extremely important! The first interaction with an artist that a fan, potential booker, or A&R rep may have, is through the internet. If what they see is enticing, then that will lead to music and merchandise sales, bookings, and hopefully lives changed for the better. A web page can tell a whole lot about the heart behind the artist and what really makes them tick. Social media is also extremely important because it gives us insight into the size of their fan base, how active they are online and the reaction and interaction from their fans.  

When thinking about image, it is important for the artist to first know who they are at the core of their being and to determine what the Lord is asking of them musically. From there, the packaging of that (the image) needs to be the best that it can be, so that it will show the authenticity of the music and the artist; as well as maintain consistency between what a fan sees onstage and what a fan hears in the music.”

CCM Indie: What is the typical timeline from the time you meet a band you like, to the signing and release of the first record.

Susan: “Once we meet a band that we like, we will typically set up a showcase so the artist can play for all the necessary parties at the label. If everyone agrees that they would like to move forward with a partnership, the signing process begins and it can last for as little as a month, to many months. Once the contract is signed, we go through their catalog of songs to figure out which may be good for the first record, which to pitch elsewhere and which to hold on to for later. Then we set up strategic co-writes based on what we may already have for the record. We figure out the timing and best producer. Then recording begins. After the record is turned in, we try to figure out a first single with the radio department and whether the single needs a different mix before we begin pitching. That is true for all singles as the record is being marketed. After we hand the record over to marketing, we continue to set up co-writes and get the artist to write on their own too throughout the year so that the next record isn’t difficult to start. We also help them with vocal and performance coaching in between records.”

CCM Indie: How can an artist give themselves the best chance of getting in front of an A&R rep, like yourself?

Susan: “We always tell artists that if they feel called to being an artist, go and do it no matter what. Very few artists end up getting signed, but MANY, MANY artists are used locally for the Kingdom. As a fan base grows, labels will find the artists that are thriving in a bigger scale, and will come to them.”

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