Of the many record companies that existed in the 1930s, only a few big players survived; they did so by smart marketing, competitive prices and most of all by clever artist recording policies. The respective expert in such a recording company usually was the A&R person, short for artist and repertoire. He (as then with little exceptions, the position was occupied by men) decided where to look for new talent, how and where to record it, convince them to sign over the rights for the fresh titles, decide if this was a new musical style, name and advertise it and keep looking for new a trend again, maybe in a different region.

In the 1920s and 1930s there were millions of consumers hungry for unknown music, sold as shellacs, to be played on their new phonographs and gramophones. Rural southern music such as blues, bluegrass and country music, old time string music, Hawaiian music, cajun, border music from Texas and California had only just surfaced commercially – and in the eyes of the record companies was merely waiting to be exploited. Needless to say that if one company started marketing, for example, a new country blues star, the competitors began praising their own true and only real blues artist and musical inventor.
Simultaneously, there were various new styles of regional American musics, that generated mostly in rural areas; but that were totally unknown only a few dozen miles away. The many adventurous journeys of both folklorists and recording engineers to those rural places are documented in detail.
Finally, the record company personnel responsible for sending out mobile recording equipment, first in huge trucks, were the A&R people. As diverse as their individual characters and companies were, memoirs, accounts, tales and true stories from those years often document greedy personalities, falsified and inaccurate contracts, million hits that were sold by their authors for a few dollars to the producers, racism, sexism and fraud on many occasions. So no matter what great music those persons recorded, “discovered” or sold, some A&R people were somewhat shady business men in their line of work, since music copyright and distribution were relatively new business branches. That would change later; the book here, nevertheless, deals only with those A&R managers active in the interwar years.

“Given their importance to the development of the recording industry and American roots music, and their significance as cultural mediators and agents of change, it is striking that the A&R men and women of the 1920s and 1930s have received relatively little collective scrutiny. … [H]owever, no one has stepped back from the sometimes fleeting and fragmentary glimpses into the lives of individual A&R pioneers to chronicle their collective contributions to the business, technologies, and sounds of the pre-World War II roots recording industry. This book begins to fill that gap.”

As the 1920s and 1930s were the golden age of folklore recording and production, it needs to be said that the A&R person of that time did about everything to secure a new signing to his label. It was an occupation with constantly shifting responsibilities that demanded swift decisions, as the competitors in the field were busy, too. Being A&R manager back then meant selecting, searching and finding the new talent, having the artist sign a contract for the recording, having him (very often) sign over the rights to the A&R person, getting mobile equipment to the artist – if he lived in a rural area – conduct the recording session, select the material to be recorded, then select the best take, defining or even inventing a new marketing category, supervise the marketing material for publicity, supervise the pressing plant and decide whether to keep the talent or give his songs to another singer on the label.
The interwar years also saw now famous field recording trips of the big labels. Several thousand recordings were produced in the 1930s, often with mobile equipment. Even if the depression shortly halted recording trips (and record sales of folklore discs alike) in 1932, already by 1937 some 2,300 recordings were added to the mass of rural talent.

Many early A&R men were either Europeans, representing American recording companies or they were first-generation Americans who spoke several languages, so they could interpret and classify the many musical cultures at work in the US and saw potential for selling ethnic musics to the various groups of new citizens. (For example, very early the labels Folkways, Victor, Columbia and Odeon offered hundreds of recordings in Polish, German, Italian, Yiddish, Russian, and other languages).

As in those years almost any career in music publishing and sales was possible, it is little wonder that the biographies of the A&R legends are very different. Some came from a professional music career, some were music fans and record collectors starting their own little labels first, some were music retailers, while others were primarily technicians or stared their careers selling furniture (and phonograph cabinets), others again were originally manual workers, farmers or at some point in their lives came into sales and witnessed that under certain circumstances records were sold very easily. “Ultimately, one aim of this book is to reveal the critical contributions that A&R managers and scouts made to an enormous range of commercially recorded blues, hillbilly, and other American roots music forms, without undervaluing the artistry and creativity of the singers, musicians and songwriters in involved.”

One of the important key words of that period in record marketing was “authenticity,” as this was used by the companies to present their latest finds. Artists who would sound “like old times,” “real” and ”down home,” and who could establish an emotional connection to the land or countryside, and imagined safety that went along with the consumption of those songs for both the rural community and the modern inhabitants of the industrial cities, who may have left just such a safe environment. (While in reality, there are estimates that about one third of all issued recorded hillbilly music before 1933 in the US was actually recorded in studios in the north, using freelance singers with little or no connection to rural life, let alone a cowboy of farmer background). All of this, however, was possible since at this time in history when “… modern corporate business models of consolidation and vertical integration, whereby all stages of in the process of finding talent and material, copyrighting those musical selections … were controlled by increasingly bureaucratic, multinational corporations headquartered in northern cities, chiefly New York….”

A& Pioneers is a very comprehensive and well-researched study that will give music collectors, sound historians and fans of early American folk music lots of satisfaction; to find out how certain songs, artists, band constellations, record company marketing strategies or entire musical styles were finally commercially “invented” (or coined) either by accident or by the lone decision of one smart A&R person. And hence were introduced to music lovers all around the world. Dozens of A&R careers are presented here, covering countless songs, recording session, clandestine label takeovers, criminal theft of songs and ideas and the humble beginnings of many great artists of American roots music. A&R Pioneers also gives a good impression of how (and how fast) the recording technologies developed and what trade papers (Talking Machines World, Billboard, Talking Machine Journal, Phonograph and Talking Machine Weekly, Music Trade Review, Music Trades) believed who would present the next star, the latest hardware or the most advanced recording and playback technology.
A clearly excellent title that deserves praise. It comes with a long index of hundreds of songs, composers, sound engineers, and a huge sources section that will inspire any researcher and collector.

Review by Dr. A. Ebert © 2018

Brian Ward and Patrick Huber. A&R Pioneers: Architects of American Roots Music on Record. Vanderbilt University Press (Co-Published with the Country Music Foundation Press), 2018, 458 p.