LONDON — Growing up in the town of Watford, located 15 miles outside of London, Zara Stewart dreamed of pursuing a music career. But she felt she lacked the connections or background to make it a reality. “I assumed it was an industry where it was all about who you know,” says Stewart. “And I didn’t know anybody.”
Believing music wasn’t a viable option, Stewart focused her education on languages, studying Spanish and Portuguese at Leeds University. After graduating in 2019, she briefly worked in fashion retail and medical recruitment, but still found herself pining for a job in the record business.
Now Stewart, 25, has landed her dream job as a paid A&R intern at Sony Music UK imprint Dream Life Records. She joined the company earlier this year as part of its A&R Academy – one of several new recruitment initiatives that record companies are taking to bolster and diversify their A&R teams at a time when the role of label A&R is rapidly changing due to the dominance of streaming and social media.
The ubiquity of digital platforms means that when discovering new music, A&R reps now place a greater emphasis on data — how a song is performing, the engagement level of fans, where in the world a track is taking off — than traditional A&R metrics of live performance and ticket sales. That requires A&Rs to have a different tech-savvy skillset compared to execs working in the pre-streaming era.
Meanwhile, the popularity of local-language repertoire in many music markets has intensified competition between labels to sign the hottest new local acts.
In response, record companies – both the majors and leading independents — are ramping up investment in A&R and increasingly recruiting staff from non-traditional music industry backgrounds.
Sony Music Entertainment is using its A&R Academy program to target people who want to work in the music industry but lack the experience or qualifications that’s normally required. Sony Music Russia managing director Arina Dmitrieva launched the first A&R Academy in Moscow in September 2017 in response to the changing market requirements and her concerns that the small number of experienced A&R people in Russia “were probably too old school, a little bit in the past.”
“We really needed new home-grown talent, with skills tailored to the needs of our business, that could really understand the new streaming reality,” she says.
Since then, Sony Music has rolled out the model to some of the biggest music markets in Europe, beginning with France in 2019, followed by Germany last year. Sony Music U.K.’s A&R Academy enrolled its first five A&R trainees in March. (Reflecting the maturity and needs of the market, the academy model differs in each territory.)
In Russia — where the A&R Academy originated and took place annually until Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine shut down the Russian music business, prompting all three major labels to exit the market in March — trainees would spend up to six weeks attending workshops and seminars at Sony Music Russia’s Moscow offices, as well as visiting local recording studios and offices of streaming services. There, they would learn about the role of an A&R manager, the digital music business, marketing, intellectual property rights and how to develop an artist’s career.
Trainees would end with a final presentation judged by senior label execs, with the highest scoring participants being offered paid internships.
In other markets, such as Germany and the U.K., A&R Academies more closely resemble traditional paid internship schemes. In Germany, two trainees are embedded in Sony Music’s Berlin-based A&R team for 12 months, where they gain experience working for a range of labels, including Columbia, RCA/Ariola, Four Music and Epic. In the U.K., five A&R trainees are enrolled on a year-long paid internship program, spread across five sub labels: RCA, Columbia, Since ‘93, Black Butter and Dream Life Records.
To widen the potential pool of talent, the A&R Academy application process deliberately avoids traditional recruitment styles, such as the need for a CV and specific academic qualifications. Instead, the focus is placed on a person’s passion for music and creativity, while applicants are recruited from ads placed by Sony labels on Instagram, LinkedIn and company websites.
From Fashion Retail To Music Scout
When Stewart applied for the academy, she was juggling a part-time job in fashion retail with volunteering at a local recording studio, where she hosted a YouTube channel interviewing visiting artists. An aspiring music producer she had recently started managing alerted her to the A&R Academy after he spotted an ad on LinkedIn. “He said: ‘You’ve got an eye for scouting new talent. I think you would be great at this’,” she recalls.
Patrick Mushatsi-Kareba, CEO, Sony Music GSA (Germany, Switzerland and Austria) says the academy compliments traditional employment routes into A&R by opening the door to a broader, more diverse set of candidates that mirror artists’ diverse backgrounds.
“We felt that the ways we were looking at people in the A&R sector was a little too traditional,” says Mushatsi-Kareba, “There was maybe too much of an [imbalance] where, on one hand, you have [an A&R] person who comes from a very linear background… interacting with someone who maybe has a less linear background. That’s not the balance which brings out the best creative results.”
Sony execs hope that they can replicate the success of the A&R Academies in Russia elsewhere in Europe. Since launching in 2017, more than 3,000 applicants have applied for a place at Sony Music Russia’s A&R Academy, with 61 people graduating from the scheme, at least half of which were still working in the music industry prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Of those 61 graduates, 16 landed paid internships with Sony Music Russia and seven trainees gained full-time employment – six in A&R roles and one in marketing.
In the four years that the A&R Academy ran in Moscow, Sony Music Russia’s A&R team grew from just one person looking after local repertoire to six dedicated A&R personnel, plus five staff members in supporting roles.
The academy has also helped lift Sony’s share of the Russian music market, says the company, with artist signings made by academy alumni delivering 27 top-10 singles and 15 top-10 albums on local streaming service charts.
One of the artists signed to Sony Music Russia as a result of the academy scheme is pop artist Ramil’, whose single “Siyai” (“Shine”) topped the Russian charts for six weeks in 2020 and has been streamed 350,000,000 times, according to the label. Ramil’ was signed to Sony by Tural Fakhraddin Ogly Mamedov, who attended an A&R Academy in 2018, and then was hired by the label as a full-time A&R.
Other labels are also making a concerted effort to diversify their A&R departments. Warner Music U.K. will soon start its own A&R internship program, which will offer three internships targeted at women and nonbinary people from underrepresented socioeconomic and racial backgrounds.
Universal Music Group already runs local initiatives and paid internships in a variety of countries, including the U.S. and U.K., dedicated to developing future industry executives, although most focus on multiple skill sets rather than purely A&R. Earlier this year, Universal Music U.K. began what a label spokesperson described as a “pioneering initiative” aimed at recruiting female A&Rs.
Of the six interns enrolled in Sony Music U.K.’s inaugural A&R Academy, five are women and all six are from ethnic minority backgrounds. A spokesperson for the label says the recruitment process wasn’t designed to specifically target women but was focused on “getting in as diverse a pipeline as possible.”
Since being appointed CEO of Sony Music GSA in 2018, Mushatsi-Kareba has more than doubled the number of internal A&R staff at the label, from 17 to 35. Schemes like the A&R Academy, he says, offer another valuable tool in ensuring record companies have the “best possible people” within their ranks to discover, develop and work with artists. Sony Music GSA plans to expand the A&R Academy to applicants from Austria and Switzerland when it takes place again this fall.
“The main goal is not to lower the age [of A&R execs],” says Mushatsi-Kareba. “The main goal is to get the best people, who fit into the team and who can bring better music and contribute to better business.”