The New A&R At SXSW

By George Howard
(follow George on Twitter)

I’ve seen SXSW change drastically over the nearly 20 years I’ve been attending. Unfortunately, many of those who attend—both performers and labels—have not changed with it.  As we approach SXSW 2012, I’d like to offer a few suggestions on how you can make the most of your time there.

As most reading this are likely performers, it’s important to realize that if you’re heading to SXSW in the hopes that some A&R person will sign you, you’re deluding yourself and wasting your (and the A&R person’s) time.

While there was a time (the 90s) where this happened a lot, and, yes, artists will get signed out of this year’s SXSW, the likelihood of it happening without a tremendous amount of other factors coming into play is pretty much non-existent.

So, what can you do to maximize your time there?

You need to first get in the mindset that your music career is like a start-up business (by the way, businesses often remain in the start-up stage for a number of years).  To this end, rather than viewing SXSW as a way of selling your business (i.e. getting someone to sign you, which, again, ain’t gonna happen), look at it as a way of accelerating/growing your career.

You do this by focusing on a few specific things.  First, view SXSW as a way to acquire knowledge and connections.  There are fantastic panels throughout. Not-so-subtle plug for the TuneCore panels. Attend these panels. Listen, learn, interact. Also download our booklets that we’ve prepared for SXSW.

In terms of connections, seek out those people who share your values.  This could be other performers, people in the industry, and, yes, fans.  By this I mean: get out there and hear music; hang out at the various hotel lobbies and talk to people, and, of course, if you’re performing, talk to those who are out to see you, and try to forge relationships.  As I’ve written, in order to find those who share your principles, make sure you know your own.

Once you’ve identified people who share your values (whether potential fans or those in the industry) find ways to connect that allow for the relationship to grow.  You do this by talking, seeing if there is value-alignment, and then exchanging something.  If you’re connecting with a fan, that exchange should be your music for their email address (better yet, if there’s really value alignment, give them a CD/drop card for themselves and a second one for them to give to one of their friends).

If you’re connecting with someone in the industry, do not give them one of your CDs, unless they ask for it.  Please don’t ask them if they want one. Please don’t just hand them one. If they want to hear your music, they will ask you. Likely, they will want to listen to it online, so be sure to have some sort of business card with a URL to your website where your music can be heard.  Don’t have a business card, or a website? You really need to question if you’re treating your career like a business or a hobby.  Again, please do not give people CDs unless they explicitly ask for one.  Here’s the thing: they won’t.

SXSW is an opportunity for you to begin—as I’ve recently written about–thinking about A&R differently. It’s no longer about meeting some A&R person, and forcing a CD in the vague hopes that this will mean something.  Rather, it’s about Attracting & Retaining relationships with those people who share your values.

To be clear, these people you attract and retain may very well be A&R people. However, remember that relationships (and markets) are conversations.  Sure, go to the panel where the A&R people are speaking, and, if in fact one of them seems to align with your values, see if you can’t at least thank them for their time, and tell them you appreciated what they said.  Do not give them a CD during this conversation.

The funny thing about networking is that it’s most effective when you do something for someone without asking for anything in return. In this way, seeds of a relationship are sown.  These seeds—perhaps scattered among fans, A&R people, media companies, managers, agents, club bookers, etc.—need to be nurtured over time before any thing of value grows.

SXSW is a place where seeds can be effectively and easily sewn.  Who knows how, when, or if they will take root, but if you think in terms of A&R as attracting and retaining relationships with people who share your values, these relationships will be far more durable than whatever might come of you foisting an unsolicited CD on an already-overburdened A&R (in the historic sense of the word) person or other gatekeeper.

For those of you coming to SXSW, I’d love to meet you at the TuneCore panels and live distribution times. For those of you who aren’t coming, download the our guides, and look for ways you can do the new A&R (attraction and retention) wherever you are.


George Howard is the former president of Rykodisc. He currently advises numerous entertainment and non-entertainment firms and individuals. Additionally, he is the Executive Editor of Artists House Music and is an Associate Professor of Music Business/Management at Berklee.  He is most easily found on Twitter at:

Related to this article: 7 Ways To Increase Your Odds Of Success In The Music Business In 2012

  • Dave Owens

     So…I guess you’re dismissing comments that aren’t in your favor now? 😀 That’s too bad George. I usually enjoy all of your posts – including this one. I’m already aware of this (SXSW) and was only saying that it would have been nice for people who aren’t “in the know” to have this information before getting to SXSW vs. during.

    • Anonymous

      The article has been up on the blog for almost 2 weeks. We included it in the newsletter that goes out every other Thursday.
      Thank You

      Jeff Price

      • Dave Owens

         Somehow I missed that one…that’s great then! I’m at Touche’s on 6th tonight at 9PM if you’re out and about, would love to shake hands at some point.

    • George Howard

      what comments did i dismiss?


      • Dave Owens

         I had written a longer response…mostly agreeing with you but also pointing out a few differences from my own experience – mainly that I met with several labels this week, all of whom walked away with albums in their hands. I think it’s all in how you approach the situation and the level of professionalism presented when handing materials to people. I find that if the conversation goes well and they seem interested, offer them an album – what’s it going to hurt? In fact, some of them were at my show on Fri night, all have followed up requesting that we discuss our possible futures together further. If I’m not confident enough in myself to hand them an album, why should they feel they’ll dig it either?

        *To my fellow indies reading this – never OPEN the conversation by handing the other person as album. Feel it out, you’ll know if it’s appropriate or not (hopefully).

        So, I can’t completely agree with you saying that an artist should wait for someone to request a sample of their music – that’s going back to the old “magical industry fairies” world where artists just hope that the elusive fairy god mother shows up and hands them the deal of a lifetime. As indies, we have to take control of our own destiny. We can’t view the industry as anything more than business – we’re all humans and all in this together.

        I’ve surrounded myself with an incredible team and can’t even imagine what it’d be like had I just waited for them to request material from me first. SXSW was an incredible week of networking! 

        • George Howard

          thanks for this – great perspective. this is the point:

          *To my fellow indies reading this – never OPEN the conversation by handing the other person as album. Feel it out, you’ll know if it’s appropriate or not (hopefully).


          • Dave Owens

             I knew we were on the same page. : D Also, again, I apologize for not realizing the post had been put out a few weeks back. I almost always catch these…

  • Brian Shell

    Another great article George…

    I found it interesting how what you said about networking and doing something for someone w/o asking anything in return really resonated with an email a TV reporter sent me yesterday.

    You see, in 2009, I was about to release my first published book, and she was doing a story about a mile away from my home… so I rushed out and awaited patiently as she listened to another person’s concerns… and then in patting her pockets for a pen to jot down notes, I produced one for her.  His concerns took a while so I just waited… and when he was done, I gave her a copy of my book with a resume/contact info and explained how it was my first book.

    A couple of weeks later, she called me and scheduled an in-studio interview on Sweetest Day of 2009 in Detroit… my hometown.

    That was the fulcrum catalyst that precipitated a change… getting into shape, cutting out smoking, publishing 20 eBooks, and releasing my “Renegade Recordings” music CD via TuneCore.  So I emailed her yesterday after I passed the spot where we met after volunteering for a public radio station which plays a lot of jazz and blues (WEMU in Ypsilanti, Michigan).

    I expressed my gratitude for her championing that interview and precipitating a huge change.

    She responded simply… “You let me use your pen and keep it.  It’s easy to be kind when someone is kind.”

    So there you have it… sometimes we push so hard… when a pull often works nicely.

    Best regards,
    Brian Shell
    Be a Passion Hero… at times, use words.

    • George Howard

      fantastic, Brian.

      thanks for sharing that.

      takeaway: It’s easy to be kind when someone is kind.”


      • Brian Shell

         Thanks for the kind reply George… just enjoyed your 50 minute lecture on “The Tipping Point” and took a page of notes on a Friday night.  Gratzi…

        My grad school adviser at the University of Michigan… a former Space Shuttle astronaut… told me that it’s not about doing something to make money… it’s about doing something you love… and then the money will eventually come.

        He also said last fall about the space program… “So many of us get caught up in what was… while I like to look forward towards What Will Be.”

        Happy St. Patrick’s Day George…

        Your friend,
        Brian Shell

  • Fecking Chinese Flagpole

    A&R? I cannot honestly think of anything less relevant.

  • Zack

    This article is very helpful. Love it