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How Modern A&R Works — An Interview With Kelly Sayer

April 8, 2022

Want to get into a heated music industry argument? Just ask a few industry folks from different eras about the modern process of A&R. 

For some, A&R — which stands for "artists and repertoire" and is the title applied to individuals responsible for scouting and developing music talent — is still among the most critical elements in the industry. Others argue that the "art" of A&R is essentially dormant, replaced instead by people scouring technology platforms to see which songs and artists are already performing well on platforms like TikTok and Spotify. 

We figured the best way to get to the bottom of it was talk with somebody right in the thick of modern A&R. So, meet Kelly Sayer.

Meet A Modern A&R 

A native of South Africa and an audio engineer by trade, Atlantic Records A&R Kelly Sayer works with a handful of the labels top emerging talent. That includes Nashville's GAYLE, one of the buzziest artists on the planet thanks to her global pop rock hit "abcdefu."  

But before Sayer stepped into her role as an A&R, she spent her formative years in the fast-growing South African music scene and then at Berklee College of Music. She credits strong female role models in the faculty with encouraging her to pursue perhaps the most male-dominated field in music: engineering. 

"It was so cool for me to see these women who had done it in a time when there was even less acceptance for female audio engineers," Kelly Sayer tells RootNote. "And they had not just done it, they had excelled at it. It gave me the hope and inspiration to pursue something even when I looked around the room and had mostly male colleagues."

Experience In Unexpected Places

After graduation and years before Sayer adopted the official A&R title at Atlantic Records, she moved to Los Angeles and served as head engineer for hit producer Alex Da Kid. That role led to her gaining some invaluable tools in unexpected ways — and perhaps her first serious experience as an "unofficial" A&R. 

"No one wants an A&R sitting in the room when they write a song," Sayer says. "But you need an engineer in the room while you're writing a song so they can record you and capture what you're writing while you write it." 

This little fly-on-the-wall scenario meant Sayer got to watch some of the best songwriters work on their craft in their most comfortable space. "I got to see how important the meeting of different personalities and different musical strengths is," she says. "Because when a session went badly, then everyone starts asking me, the engineer, what I think they should do about this song that’s falling apart."

And as with any part of the entertainment industry, it's all about the network. Sayer says many of the writers and contacts she met in her early days as an engineer form a critical part of her collaboration network now. "So much of the network that I built during that time is still the same network that I lean on today to help my artists write songs," she says. 

The Importance Of Being Well-Rounded

Now, Sayer uses her experience as an engineer and producer to make working with artists like GAYLE even more streamlined. She's still in Pro Tools every day.

"Often times just because it’s quicker to do something myself, I'll go ahead and do it and send it to the artist for their thoughts," Sayer says. "Like for example, if I’m like, 'Hey I think this song should be a couple BPM faster,' instead of having to explain to them why, I just send them the bounce that I sped up. Or like, 'This section should be moved to later in the song, here you go, check it out, I edited it together.'" 

She says being that hands-on (which is not typical of a lot of A&R) has had a lot of benefits for the artists. Sayer can easily change the key of the song a few times for the artist to try out, and when they pick the one they like, she can send it on to the producer and save valuable time. 

Being able to show rather than tell helps avoid some of the dreaded feedback loops. "Having a lot of friends who are songwriters and producers, I’ve definitely heard some funny and hard stories from them about other A&Rs not being able to communicate notes," Sayer says. "But I’ve been fortunate to learn from a lot of great people at Atlantic. Everybody's process is different, and this process is working for me."

Waiting In The Rain With A Resume

While some people kind of "fall into" A&R after stints in other areas in the industry, Sayer realized fairly early after moving to Los Angeles that she wanted to work in the field. 

"I absolutely went looking for [Atlantic]," Sayer says. "I literally stood in the rain outside the Atlantic Studios in Hollywood with my résumé. That’s not how I got the job so I wouldn’t recommend anyone do that (laughs)." 

Sayer says working with songwriters and artists as an engineer made her want to help them make connections and grow, but she didn't really know what an A&R was at the time. And then when friends in the industry explained what it meant, "I was like wait that’s exactly the job I want to have.," she says. "So I ended up working in publishing for a little while at a recording studio where I was engineering and learning A&R. So my foot in the door was, 'Oh, I’ll be your head engineer, I’ll run your studios, but let me learn the A&R process.'"

Eventually she met the Atlantic team through that work, and she was able to directly email her résumé instead of trying to recreate a movie scene outside their offices. "That was a much more seamless and effective process," she laughs. 

So Is It All Just TikTok And Algorithms? 

This brings us to the heart of the matter: what is the modern A&R process? Does it still take an "ear" and a knack for knowing people? Or is it about finding whoever is popping off in the algorithms and over-indexing on social media?

"These aren't mutually exclusive," Sayer says. "There are a lot of analytics involved because there is just so much out there. How could we possibly sift through everything? But there are just so many more opportunities for an artist to be discovered, too." 

She uses the example of TikTok, which too many people confuse as a "type" of music or style of artist. We've already seen people frequently toss out phrases like, "Oh they're a TikTok artist."

"Tiktok is not a genre — it's just a platform," Sayer says. It's a place where she can very quickly get an understanding for who somebody is before she goes out to a show.

"I know that for so many artists it’s so exhausting," she says. "All of the different social media platforms that they have to now work on. But I do think that the amount of opportunity that comes out of it is so exciting — and the amount of independence an artist has now in crafting their world online. To me the positives definitely outweigh the negatives in the way that we approach A&R now."

But the truth is, getting the attention of somebody at Atlantic — or any label, for that matter — is really only the tip of the iceberg for an artist. And finding talent is only a very small part of an A&R's job, too. 

"I’m involved in everything from finding those core collaborators to surround the artist with, to — once we’ve got a bunch of demos — helping cherry pick which songs to focus in on, like what are we actually going to move forward towards release," Sayer says. "And then working with the mix engineer, selecting who is the right mixing or mastering engineer to craft the sonic landscape around it. So you’re in close conversation with the mixer and just going back and forth on notes. It’s basically, to sum it up, everything that is involved in taking a song from a demo to a final master that’s ready for release."

How It Worked With GAYLE

What does the A&R process for one of the most popular emerging artists in the world look like? Not as different as it might've looked 30 years ago.

Seemingly an overnight TikTok sensation, GAYLE has actually been working under the tutelage of renowned songwriter/publisher (and former American Idol judge) Kara DioGuardi since she was barely a teenager. 

"I think [GAYLE] was 12 or 13 at the time Kara found her," Sayer says. "She had been developing GAYLE and brought her to Atlantic records because she has a longstanding relationship with Atlantic and with [Atlantic's President of A&R] Pete Ganbarg. I work really closely with Pete. He shared GAYLE’s project with me and I was instantly obsessed." 

Sayer immediately fell in love with GAYLE's lyrical perspective and how she approached topics that a teenager might otherwise typically shy away from. She had several songs in her folder by the time they needed to find her a producer (Sayer says "abcdefu" was just one of her favorites and they weren't even sure that was going to be the first song). 

"We had to take it to a bunch of producers and it’s that trial and error phrase where you’re finding out who is the right person for her sound," Sayers says of the process. "And we tried with a lot of people. It was a very lengthy process and you know GAYLE went in the room with Pete Nappi and they just completely hit it off and nailed it, but it took a lot of trying different versions of the song. We ended up with so many versions and a lot of those versions ended up coming out." 

GAYLE signed with Atlantic near the end of 2020 ("I've no sense of time during COVID," Sayer laughs). Which means Sayer and GAYLE worked together for six months before they even met each other. 

"Her lyrics definitely stood out to me, and then coupled with her gorgeous, rich tone singing these badass blunt lyrics, it was just kind of an undeniable energy," Sayer says. "And then once I met her — she’s one of the nicest people ever. She’s so kind; she knows everyone on her team by name; she's friends with all of us. It’s very easy to be motivated to do the work for her because she’s just such a good person, so I’m very happy for the success she’s having because she really does deserve this."

To somebody who first learns of an artist like GAYLE through TikTok, it can be easy to think of her trajectory as a sign of the new modern music industry. But the reality is, GAYLE's development and success is as "old school" as it comes: an artist working on their craft for years before getting the intro, winning the room, and making her way through the major label machinations.  

How To Set Yourself Up For Success

So what if you're trying to earn the attention of somebody like Sayer or her team? In some ways, if that's what you're thinking about — you're already not quite looking at it correctly.

The types of things that get attention from A&R are the same types of things that get attention from fans. Namely, releasing music, being authentic, being engaging, and taking chances to put yourself out there. But there are a few traits Sayer says can help any artist. 

"Whether you’re doing this on your own or with a team, you have to have a certain work ethic in order to be able to make things happen for yourself," Sayer says. "I think all emerging artists should be self-sufficient in making demos. Especially in case we go back into another kind of lockdown. I mean we saw so many artists just not be able to make music because they didn’t have the basic skills to record themselves, and there are so many tutorials available online."

That's not to say every artist also needs to be a producer or engineer. But you can go a long way just being able to get a nice "guitar / vocal" demo.

"A rough track so that you can get these examples of your songs out to people and out to the right people so that you can say, 'Hey I’m gonna send you files so you can produce my song even if I can’t be with you because you live in London and I love what you’re doing,'" Sayer says. "You know just being able to record your own voice, even if it’s not the final vocal that you end up using. It’s going to go such a long way in saving you time, saving you money and helping you get to listen back and hear yourself and really take in the music and see what you love best."

So What If You Want To Get Into A&R?

Not surprisingly, Kelly Sayer's advice for aspiring A&Rs is shockingly simple: "Just do it!" she says. "Don’t wait until you have an A&R title at a label to start doing A&R. It's something you can do when you’re in high school, when you’re in college, in your bedroom on the internet or at shows with your friends. Start scouting, start connecting with artists. So by the time you have that title, you already have an established network. You already have your pockets full of artists names, of people that you’re dying to sign and work with who you’ve been cultivating relationships with."

It can happen plenty of ways, too. You can start a blog or podcast and interview local artists in the scene. You can try to connect your friends with other artists. 

"You don’t need someone to say you are now a manager or you are now an A&R to start doing exactly that," Sayer says. "Just dive right in because the music is already there fore you to find, you just have to reach out and grab it." 

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