August 9, 2016
In a dramatically different music business environment, the A&R role, in some ways, has changed with the times, but in other ways it's essentially the same - and it remains integral to artist development and the label's overall success. With a resume that touches on multiple facets of the music industry, Aton Ben-Horin has a wealth of experience to bring to his new post as Global VP/A&R of the Warner Music Group. Here, he offers his insight into A&R in the New World Order of the music business.
You went from musician/artist to DJ and producer to studio owner to management to now label A&R. Was this something you always wanted to do, or did you just capitalize on whatever new opportunity presented itself to you?
Looking back, I was just following my heart every step of the way, not knowing what the end result would be. And with each thing, I picked up different knowledge. When I was in my band - there was nothing more I wanted to do. I wanted my band to the biggest band in the world. When I was a DJ, I was just as passionate about that. I was in it for the music, and was focused on getting my name out there, so I can perform and inspire as many people as possible. Throughout all of this, I always had a love for pop music and didn't have an outlet for some of the songs I was writing at the time. So that's when I began writing and producing for other artists.
Ironically, it was Mike Caren who gave me my first major placement as a producer in 2006. My goal with the studio was to help artists in the local community with their projects, and to also utilize it for my own projects when it wasn't booked. Purchasing the studio was a big risk for me at the time, but it ended up being one of the most beneficial decisions I made. I leveraged the studio for resources, made lots of new contacts, and was able to use it as a springboard for any project I was working on. I then ventured into management because I found an artist I believed in and wanted to make her a superstar. It's amazing the way God works. Years later, I realize that if I hadn't done each of these things, I wouldn't have been able to pick up all this different knowledge. I can now connect all the dots, and apply it to doing A&R. There is no real school for A&R, so the best way to learn is from first-hand experience.
When you say Global A&R, does that imply that artist development is essentially the same the world over?
Although music is a universal language, every territory has it's own culture and music scene. My role on the global side is to provide support or resources where needed to the A&Rs and artists in the various Warner international territories.
What are the new challenges you face with this promotion?
The biggest challenge will be expanding and mentoring the new team of A&Rs, while still keeping the same focus on all of our priority WMG projects. We're always trying to deliver more hits for the current acts on our roster, and find new superstars to sign. Finding and grooming new A&R executives is equally as challenging. One of the things I've always admired about Mike Caren, aside from his A&R skills, is his ability to also find and mentor other great A&Rs. Some of our biggest executives at this company started out as assistants or interns.
Has the concept of A&R changed since you started at the labels?
Honestly, I believe A&R is more valuable than ever these days. In the digital economy, it's becoming a singles marketplace, where so much content is constantly being pushed into the world and consumers are overwhelmed with it. They have a very short attention span, so it's all about amazing songs, now more than ever. Even the biggest songwriters in the world don't write a hit song every time they go in the studio. And with artists having such demanding schedules, it often takes a team effort to help find a consistent flow of hits. There's more pressure than ever to have a constant stream of singles because consumers are burning through the music quicker. It's so accessible to them that the lifespan of a single is lot shorter than it used to be.
So how many singles do you need to have in the pocket to start a project?
It's always good to have multiple singles on deck. If a song becomes a big hit, in most cases the artist is already on the road promoting the song, which makes it challenging to focus on writing or recording a follow-up single. And in some cases, such as Flo Rida, we put out multiple songs simultaneously, which we felt had hit potential. We were able to test the marketplace and see which song raised its hand. In this specific case, it was "My House." As soon as we found a reactive song, we went after it, but it wasn't originally planned as being the single.
Is part of your A&R efforts in helping your artists develop a better live show?
Back in the day, labels were more involved in that side of things, but we've been less involved on the touring side these days; unless maybe if the artist was really young or needed some specific guidance. We leave most of the live show development for the artists and their management, but can always make a suggestion if we feel passionate about something.
Where does branding fit in with new artists; does the artist brand come first or the song?
In most cases we start with the song first, and pitch it to the applicable brands, or look for great licensing opportunities. But there have also been cases where we've partnered with a brand beforehand and focused on creating a specific song to fit their campaign. A big sync can really move the needle and change the course of a song, and in some cases, an artist's career.
You dabbled in the EDM scene as mixer DJ8on. Where is that genre's place in terms of the major label world?
It goes without saying that the EDM genre has evolved into something way more mainstream these days. But there are lots of genres within dance music. And just as EDM is continuously changing, the songs that crossover to Top 40 are also evolving by borrowing different production elements from these genres. The trends come and go quicker than ever, so it's important to try to stay ahead of the curve and predict what's next.
So you expect EDM artists to have crossover potential?
Not every EDM artist will crossover. There's a market for those that don't crossover also. I personally have a focus on Top 40, because of the type of artists I'm working with. But Big Beat and other sub labels are also focused on other areas of EDM.
How important is radio today in the A&R process, as opposed to years past?
Radio is equally as important because it still drives the consumer. There are obviously other ways to make fans and generate sales. But it's amazing that with all the new technologies, social media and other outlets, that radio is still the most effective outlet to reach the consumer. It's super-important.
How do you balance your management duties with A&R duties?
Having a good team is everything. For both my studio and management company, I have a great team of passionate people, who help fill in the gaps where needed. The same goes for my A&R team here at Warner.
What's your take on the future? Do you set goals and challenges for yourself?
I'm always looking to raise the bar each year and have more hits than the previous year. It would also be rewarding to see our young junior A&Rs have their first hit, and help guide them through it. That for me is a big part of this next phase at WMG.