James Diener: A&R in the Digital Age

Kerry Fee and Mia Verdoorn
March 12, 2011
James Diener
Photo by Phil Farnsworth

With experiences ranging from head of A&R/marketing at both RCA Music Group and Columbia Records to the development of Octone Records's unique business model, James Diener has set examples for all with his career and visionary outlook. At Berklee's 18th annual James G. Zafris Lecture in February, the CEO and president of A&M/Octone Records provided insight into the changing role of music companies in today's business environment, while stressing the continued importance of A&R and artist development. Discussing the ways the music industry continues to be tested by technology, he shared a wealth of information that kept listeners glued to their seats.

A&R and artist development will always be the lifeblood of the industry, Diener said, and it has become more vital than ever in the digital age. There always needs to be a balance between art and commerce, and each genre requires a different perspective on what an artist needs to achieve success.

At the same time, technological advancements enable greater connections between artists and their fans, Diener said. These have lowered the barriers for musicians, allowing them to enter the marketplace on their own terms, without a gatekeeper.

However, since long-term dedication and development are needed for artists to break through the noise and reach their full potential, Diener said, focus can shift to superstar acts, who are guaranteed to provide cash flow. With shrinking budgets and declining sales in all areas, the 20 percent of acts that break even or make a profit are simply not generating enough revenue to support the other 80 percent of artists signed to a label, as they were traditionally once able to do. With the risk/reward ratio for artist development out of balance, labels are financially forced to crank out that next superstar act, and are unable to focus on the long tail.

Diener pointed out that while it's easy to criticize a label based solely on the information that is readily available to the public, one must also consider the fact that many of the artists that we listen to today were built using the 80/20 business model. The emergence of DIY vehicles has enabled artists to take hold of their own careers—but in order for an artist to break into the international marketplace and achieve "critical mass," a worldwide organization and its resources needs to be behind them.

With all these new ways for artists to be easily accessible, Diener said, the mystique of an act can often be lost. Celebrities are everywhere, but for artistry to exist and thrive, artists need to know when to disappear and trust that people will still keep them in mind. An artist must create a reaction in public that is greater than ever—that defines the artist as a personality.

Now more than ever, Diener emphasized, artists should develop a marketing sensibility as well as a music sensibility, for all companies and labels favor the most resourceful as well as the most talented. He stressed that you only get one chance to make a first impression, so before artists decide to take that step, whether it be to a label or the marketplace, they must be absolutely prepared. Since each label has its own personality, artists should do significant research about the company they are pitching to before they arrive.

Having begun his musical journey as a player himself, Diener recognized that insight into the creative world is invaluable for a career in the music industry, particularly in A&R and artist development. It gives one a deeper understanding of artists and their craft.

It is no longer acceptable to be only an executive in one field: You need to be a jack of all trades and a master of two or three. Specifically, marketing experience, musical ability, and interpersonal skills open many doors. The most creative people have the most value.

In the past, developments like MTV and CDs have been the saviors of the music industry. However, Diener said that today there is no "silver bullet" to carry the industry. He left his audience with the inspiring thought that this is a once-in-a-career moment. How best to change the industry is still to be determined. With all this turbulence and opportunity, A&R and artist development are needed now more than ever.