Songwriter U: Five Gems from the A&R Department

Written by Mike Errico

Videos by American Songwriter

What does a major label A&R really want from a songwriter? I asked one.

While researching my book, Music, Lyrics, and Life, I met with an A&R rep from a major label and asked what they react to when they’re being pitched songs. Is it a wild, eye-catching subject line in an email? 100,000 Instagram followers? An unmarked box with a Rolex and a download code dangling from the wristband? Well, no.

Instead of getting standard (or joke) advice, I got these gems, which I was only allowed to include in my book on the condition of anonymity. I teach them in my classes, and I’m offering them to you in hopes that they’ll get you the kind of honest, focused listen your songs deserve.

1. Write to the Left 

For artists: “The core of why people do A&R is that they want to find exciting artists that aren’t represented in the marketplace, and they want to fight for them. So, there’s more upside in discovering an artist that’s onto something totally new than an artist who follows in another artist’s footsteps.” 

For writers: “I’ll have conversations with writers who’ll say, I have a perfect song for X. And they’ll send me a song, and it’ll sound like something that was on X’s album, or it’ll sound like something X would sound good on, but they don’t realize that I’m hearing the best writers in the world and their best song for X. And X doesn’t need not-as-good versions of things X has already put out. An artist wants songs that have a lyric, or a sense of something that speaks to them—something subconscious that maybe even they weren’t aware of. They have to think, ‘Wow, that’s an incredible story, or lyric, or narrative that I identify with. And I would never write this myself, and I have to sing the song.’” 

2. The Best Hit Songs Don’t Sound Like Pitch Songs 

“It has to be an ‘artist’ song—something an artist would become a fan of because they would listen to it. You have to think about the artists—where are they in their life? What is inspiring them musically? What do they care about? Sometimes that’s hard to do in a pitch situation if you don’t know the artists, but maybe you can get as much information as you can and try to channel that in your writing.” 

3. Artists Don’t Like Demos That Sound Like Them 

“Writers will send a demo that sounds like the artist they’re pitching the song to. Artists don’t like that. I’ve worked with lots of artists with ‘big’ voices, and we would get all these songs with singers that would try to sound like them and it was just—it was bad. People would even try to do the inflections or signature things that the artists do. That’s just . . . no. ‘Oh man, X is gonna love this.’ [Laughs] It’s funny how some writers think. But those songs never got cut.” 

4. If It “Sounds Like a Hit,” Beware 

“When someone says, ‘It sounds like a hit,’ I actually get a little bit worried because that means that it’s borrowing from something someone else has already done. That can be good, but I’m always cautious of that phrase. It’s behind the curve.” 

5. Set the Bar Higher 

“Writers will say they have incredible songs, but they ‘just need the right person to hear them,’ and that’s why they haven’t broken through yet. But the reality is that the songs are just probably not good enough. The writers haven’t pushed themselves hard enough. They maybe haven’t worked on their craft enough. 

“I used to work with an A&R guy, and every now and then, when a song was sent to him, he’d ask the publisher or whoever, ‘Is this as good as “Bridge Over Troubled Water”?’ And the answer would be, ‘Well, no.’ And then he wouldn’t want to hear it. I mean, that’s kind of extreme, but writers have to think like that—like the bar is that high.” 

Mike Errico is a recording artist, author, and songwriting professor at Yale and NYU’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music. His new book, Music, Lyrics, and Life: A Field Guide for the Advancing Songwriter, is available at: 

Amazon  | Bookshop |  Books Are Magic | Bandcamp | Mike Errico official site

Photo: GettyImges

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