The last few years it seems to have become an accepted fact that to become a successful DJ, you need to make a big record. I have seen how its worked for some people, but I think the success can often be short-lived, mainly because making a great record doesn’t mean you’re going to be a great DJ. The real art of DJing is a craft. Beat-matching might not be necessary in this day and age, but even people who say that they ‘don’t sync’ mix by looking at the tempo display (at Panoramabar they have tape over the tempo display, forcing DJs to mix by ear – love that!). But DJing is a lot more than just mixing: it’s track selection, track placement, layering, and reading a room. Unfortunately many DJs – even if they’re playing an opening slot in a club – seem to think that their job is to play the Top 10 tech house chart. But not only is that just following others, it means they’re not doing the single most important job of a DJ: being an A&R.
If you’re DJing properly, then you’re doing the role of A&R already, as you’re being a tastemaker and directing people towards a certain sound. I get sent more music than ever now, and as a result it means I also get sent a lot more shit – which means it really needs to be filtered. I spend at least two to three full days a week going through them and searching for new music, both promos and demos, and that’s where the role of a good A&R comes in.
A&R is like a ghost in the works: unless you’re involved in music, you don’t really know it exists. All the people who are on dancefloors around the world or buying music – they don’t always realise that at some point someone’s selecting that music and carefully putting together a release. A&Rs are always there in the background and are one of the most important cogs in the machine.
I used to work in a record shop in the mid-90s, and in many respects that was my first experience of being an A&R. When you’re working in a record shop, distributors are coming in and playing you their music and you’re deciding what you’re going to buy and sell to your punters. Your taste defines what your customer will be buying.
In 1999 I set up my first label, Harlem Records. I started it because people were always giving me music they wanted me to play as a DJ. Back then, to play a demo and test it out you had to get it cut to a dubplate as it was the pre-digital age. That was the only way you could get a feel for a record, before going back to the producer and telling them they needed to alter something to make it better or try another mixdown. That’s something you have to do a lot as an A&R: records are rarely just ‘ready’. You have to give advice on how to improve it and get it ready for release. Then there’s deciding where you want to position the release and how that influences the remixes. Do you want a Tenaglia remix or a Jeff Mills remix? If you want to get the techno elite playing it then you’ll tailor the remix package to them and get a big techno producer to do a remix. People probably don’t realise just how long it can take to get a record just right. We’ve just done the 10th anniversary release on VIVa Warriors and it took me a year to put the package together!
One person I really rate as an A&R is Jamie Jones. He’s incredible at it. He’ll get on the phone and speak to artists about what changes need to be made. I know from experience that Jamie is very choosy and it can take a long time to get a release out with him on Hot Creations. He really cares about the quality of it and the whole package. And then you’ve got Pete Tong, the Godfather of A&R in dance music, he did it partly with his radio show and of course with FFRR Records.
Strangely, A&R is one of the only jobs in dance music that hasn’t changed so much over the years, but I’d argue that it’s more important than ever. I get sent more music than ever now, but I also get sent a lot more shit, which means it really needs to be filtered. And that’s where the role of a good A&R comes in. Getting into A&R and/or getting a residency at a local bar, and learning how to work a room by playing week in, week out are the best routes into becoming a great DJ.