How Record Labels Work with Capitol Records SVP of A&R, Brad O’Donnell

brad odonnell

The music business is the music business, regardless of whether it’s mainstream or Christian. Here’s proof as Brad O’Donnell, SVP of A&R Capitol Christian Music Group, shares what artists must understand about how record labels work today.

Many artists say they don’t believe A&R reps are interested in anything but cliché radio bands. From an A&R’s perspective, what do you want them to understand?
I understand their frustration but I don’t think it’s accurate. From my perspective, I think artists that get signed are a blend of both the different and familiar. It is true that if something’s too familiar it seems generic and doesn’t stand out; but on the flip side, if something is too different and only appeals to a small group of music fans, it may take a long time to find a broad enough audience to be very successful.

What I’ve seen with music over the years is that the artists/bands that experience long term success possess that unique blend. On one hand, they have something that stands out about them; maybe it’s their voice or how their band sounds? But on the other hand, they can remind us of our favorite artists (familiarity), so that means it intersects with the market and has a chance to sell. This is all subjective of course, because who’s to say that this artist is just the right mix? One person might listen to an artist and say they sound a little generic, but I might hear something special in them. So, from that end, I can understand their frustration.

I think another reason a lot of artists get frustrated is because they don’t often times view record labels as businesses. We have measurable factors that we are looking at, so it can’t only be about the creative side of music for us (label execs).

I’m glad you said that, because it is called the music…business. Can you give some insight on how the corporate aspect of music affects your decision to sign an artist?
As with anything, there are pros and cons. On the business side, measurable statistics have to be taken into account with an A&R person’s opinion of a band. If you’re selling a lot of music, getting a lot of YouTube views, and you have a lot of Twitter and Facebook followers then those measurable stats could influence an A&R person’s response to your music. They might recognize there’s an audience for it even if it’s not their personal taste. Also, artists can use these statistics as motivation to keep going because they know that they are reaching people.

But the down side of measurable statistics is that people sometimes are only looking at the numbers now, and I don’t think you can do that with music. You have to use your imagination because it’s not always static. Just because an artist doesn’t have a massive following today, that doesn’t mean the music isn’t good and can’t be successful with the right help. Also, just because something’s got a big following today, it doesn’t mean it will last. For instance, the Harlem Shake craze was huge 2 months ago and now it’s pretty much gone. That’s proof that numbers don’t last.

I look at statistics as information to help me make well rounded decisions, but you can’t let them be the final word.

Most artists take it personal when an A&R doesn’t like their music. Can you help them better understand, from an A&R’s perspective, what “no” means?
Absolutely! With music, everything feels more personal. So, when an A&R person says s/he is not going to invest in that artist’s music, it can be tough for the artist. It’s hard to walk away feeling like someone doesn’t believe in your dream, vision and gifts. That applies to all artists, secular and Christian.

But, for Christian artists specifically, they have to start from a place of biblical certainty. It’s important to know who you are and believe in the gifts God has given you. Once you have that foundation, it’s not so much about whether or not you’re valid, it’s really about what God wants you to do with it. If He wants you to do this as a career on a national or international level, then there is going to be some momentum.

Again, the great thing about social networks is that it offers measurable stats so that the artist can see what fans are and are not responding to.

When it comes to the radio, many artists feel like they are being shut out because they are not signed to a major label. It is a nightmare! [laughs]
It can be. The label says, “As soon as you get a great booking agent and a hit song on the radio, then we’ll be interested.” While the radio programmers say, “As soon as you have a record deal, then we’ll play your music.” That’s the catch 22 of being an artist, because you’ve got to get a “yes” somewhere in order to get a foot in the door.

It’s the nature of the business these days. Everyone wants to reduce their own risks; they’d rather somebody else go first. But artists can’t give up because if you’re meant to do this then you will find your way in. I always tell artists that it’s like shaking a fruit tree. You might have your eye on one particular piece of fruit, and oftentimes when you shake the tree, the one you wanted isn’t the one that falls off. But, if you don’t shake the tree then nothing ever falls. You have to shake it first; you have to knock on those doors and be persistent and tenacious. Almost always, it doesn’t go the way you thought it would. You may have your mind set on working with one person, but as you’re shaking the tree, you wind up working with someone else who helps you get where you’re trying to go.

When it comes to marketing an album, should unsigned artists have a budget?
Absolutely! The second you say you’d like to get compensated for your music, it changes everything. You now have to do all of the stuff it takes to get people interested enough in your music to get paid for it. That’s true with any business.

I personally feel that, even though you may not have the same size budget as a major label, the marketing strategy should still work in a similar way. Sure, with a label you have a lot more people and influence involved so, these people can leverage their relationships to access higher places. But, if you don’t have a label backing you, all this means is that you’ll need to be more active on all your social media networks, doing interviews and getting reviews from as many credible sources as you can, and playing as many shows as possible. It’s a very guerilla approach. I think when you sign with a label, they can help you be more strategic and leverage the relationships they have to get you in the places you probably couldn’t get in as an independent artist.

But really, it still comes down to the artist. I personally feel that when we have an artist who isn’t very active, we (labels) can’t make a big difference in the success of their project. When I see us making a difference, it’s usually because the artist understands these principals and they are really active in being out there and talking about their music. We just come in and make a big thing even bigger.

That also applies with publications like this one. When we’re on the fence about whether we should feature someone, their social media activity almost always plays a part in our final decision.
That’s exactly it. It’s a new era and social media is a real factor. If you look at the music business, or any business for that matter, things change every 10 to 15 years and a new skills set is required. I was the guy 10 years ago saying, “Great music sells on its own and speaks for itself!” I still believe great music is the most important ingredient in order to have longevity in this business but, I don’t know if longevity happens when an artist has great music and is completely inactive in today’s crowded music space. They’ve got to be out there where people can find out about this great music they have. Otherwise, how will people know you exist?

People are so busy with their lives, and then when you add social media to it their lives become insane. So, as an artist, you have to make sure your music is where people have the chance to bump into it. If you’re not providing a chance for that, no matter how good your music is, you’re putting a lid on how big your reach is.

[Originally published September 13, 2013]