Know The Playing Field
Author: Kirk Harding
I sit in A&R meetings every week for two labels at Universal. These meetings are probably very different from anything that most people imagine, so I thought that this article would be an opportunity to explain how most of the majors are searching for new talent in 2008.
Firstly, in addition to ‘traditional’ A&R staff (talent scouts essentially), every company has a department that spends all day chasing up what appear to be smouldering embers or burgeoning tracks in each market. They follow up on any tracks that appear to be gaining significant airplay on radio stations nationwide. How do they know this? Because BDS and Mediabase create airplay reports that make it easy for them to run a search for unsigned acts gaining airplay anywhere in the United States. For example, if a song is getting significant spins in Tallahassee, these guys will then start calling retail there to see if there is a buzz for the record. They will also check iTunes to see if it is selling online.
So in our meetings we go through the unsigned airplay report and look at whose track is growing week-on-week and if the track is crossing over into new markets. Secondly we also check unsigned artist reports from iTunes, MySpace, YouTube and we note the inclusion of music on leading blogs. For example, if Kanye West or Pitchfork is talking about you, that can go a long way towards adding to your overall case to be signed. Other things that are analysed are YouTube plays for the week and similarly MySpace page views and plays. This isn’t rocket science, and at the end of the day it’s about the music, but these are the things that most of the companies do to find new talent.
It’s also important to note that they do analyse iTunes international reports in this meeting and quite often I report in on any significant chart action for new or unsigned artists around the world.
I will never forget the day that I was sitting in my office in New York and getting a call from one of my bosses asking me, "Hey, I hear you know about this Savage guy, this one looks like it’s gonna go. What can you tell me about him?" Savage’s YouTube spins were flying, his song Swing had just been added to iTunes and was showing all the right signs by moving up the iTunes’ Hip Hop chart daily. This wasn’t the first time that this call had come in, but it was the first time that it had come in regarding a Kiwi act.
At the time of writing this, Savage is selling over 20,000 downloads and 10,000 ringtones per week! That’s HUGE. Swing is in the Top 20 on the Crossover radio chart and moving upward week on week. He is touring the country playing large radio shows alongside some of the biggest urban names in the business and has just shot a new video for Swing. We all know that it was a movie that ignited the track, but Dawn Raid was also prepared for success by having everything ready to go (digitally), should the track explode.
A couple of weeks ago, another Kiwi artist release debuted in the iTunes Top 10, but this time it was on iTunes NZ and again my phone lit up. As a result, I am currently en route to Australia with one of my superiors with a view to signing this artist.
I cannot encourage any artist out there enough to utilise the tools available to them in this day and age. MySpace, Bebo, Facebook, Wikipedia, blogs, YouTube, Last FM, iTunes and let us not forget the good old website should all be in the mix. There are digital aggregators out there that will upload your music to 180+ digital stores globally. Use what is available to you, because you already put in the hard work mastering your craft and realising your dream by making your album and videos. But like Supergroove back in 1995, being an international priority for their label only just put them in the starting blocks, they still had to run the race and they definitely had to know the playing field that they were about to run on.
Getting your music, videos, webisodes etc online will put your music in the starting blocks and from that point on anything can happen. A programmer in Michigan could stumble across one of your profiles, like what she hears and turn you into a smouldering ember that will later become a forest fire. Similarly your video could end up on an important blog and highlight your art to a wider base. And if you have a hit, touring and inmarket promo issues are no longer things that you will have to worry about.
Our playing field is changing daily, but it is your job as an artist to be aware of the changes and utilise them to the best of your ability.
NZ Musician – you have been in the industry as long as I have! Leon Trotsky said, "Old age is the most unexpected of all the things that happen to a man".
I don’t think that can be said of this magazine, it’s no miracle that you have made it this far. Happy Anniversary!
An extended version of this article, complete with a matching insight into how he helped get Supergroove’s international career underway back in the 1990s can be found on Kirk Harding’s own blog site http://movingthecrowd.blogspot.com/