As musicians have steadily embraced a do-it-yourself approach to varying degrees as part of their overall career strategy, made feasible by the growth of streaming and an ever-blossoming number of social media platforms, music industry professionals increasingly offer independent services to fill any number of artists’ needs, including publicity, marketing, and radio and/or playlist promotion.
Carole-Ann Mobley, of CAM Creative, aims to fill a niche in the market, offering independent A&R services to help artists find and create their best songs. She is known for her work with publishers such as Reviver Publishing and artists including eclectic singer-songwriter Drew Baldridge and country-rock duo LOCASH.
Before launching CAM Creative Services in 2015, Mobley served as VP, A&R for Warner Music Group, where she signed artists including Brett Eldredge and Frankie Ballard. Her career also includes time as Sr. Director, A&R for Sony Music, and Director of A&R for Starstruck Entertainment, as well as work for Beckett Productions and Austin City Limits.
Mobley spoke with MusicRow to discuss the current state of A&R, and the benefits and challenges of working as an independent A&R executive.
MusicRow: What is the biggest difference in working A&R independently, versus working for a label?
Mobley: I have to be a little more aggressive in doing this independently. The level of artists I work with now, I have to be savvier in getting songs, meetings and getting people excited. I don’t have the luxury of saying, “Oh, it’s going to be a Blake Shelton single.”
The most fulfilling thing for me is when they come to me they might be spending a lot of money on things that don’t matter and need help figuring out what to do. I can help get the ball rolling in a really productive way and they are so thankful, or when I bring them songs and they say, ‘These songs are so me,’ or they get the right producer, that’s really fulfilling.
Talk about the process you go through when working with a new client.
Some are more advanced, like a LOCASH or a Drew Baldridge. We have to establish trust and I have to understand where they want to go career-wise. What artists do they love, who would they tour with? So I can get a sense of who they are and reach out to the appropriate catalogs and start sending them songs.
When working with new artists, how do you manage the artist’s ambition and expectations?
I like to keep people in a positive state of mind but I’m a believer in realistic expectations. Not everyone you work with is going to be huge and famous. I think part of my job in A&R is having realistic expectations. I think that can be dangerous and I think A&R people need to be careful with their goals for their artists, because not everyone is cut out to be the next Luke Bryan. There are so many different ways for artists to have a successful career.
Perhaps the majority of country artists today also have a hand in crafting their own songs. How do you approach A&R when an artist also pens their own material?
A lot of my clients aren’t songwriters so I can kind of tell if I feel like they might have the potential, and I’ll lightly help them set up co-writes. I’ll still give them the best outside songs I can find. Sometimes they are super open to [outside songs] and then other times they are like, ‘I’m cutting songs I wrote.’ At the end of the day, I’m not their label and I’m not paying for the album, so they cut what they want. I have to sort of walk a fine line with that.
When they write more of their own songs, I take on more of a publisher role and I try to set them up on great co-writes. I also set about helping to edit their songs. They send me work tapes, and I’ll rip it apart and say, ‘Think about this hook,’ and other ways to help them with their music. If they are dead set on writing all of their own material, it’s my job to help them make their songs the best they can be.
Drew Baldridge is one of those artists who writes a lot of his own material. How did that working relationship come about?
Drew is with Rusty Gaston, a good friend of mine. Greg Hill brought me on to that project. Drew had never had an A&R person. He came out and did meetings and we found some amazing songs he was super excited to cut. While we were listening to songs, his writing level just rose tremendously because he was hearing the level of songs out there. Naturally, I think the bar was raised. That’s been exciting to watch.
Let’s say you are working with a client who already has a publishing deal. How does that relationship work, since publishers so often play a similar A&R role?
In the cases where they do have publishers, I’m usually friends with that publisher. They usually let me do my thing because they know there is a value in that, and we keep an open communication.
How has the state of A&R changed since your days working for a major label?
For years, it was so song-driven. In A&R we were all just fighting over every single writer’s demo sessions. People were putting demo sessions on hold—their whole session on hold—before anyone could hear them. We would send artists 50 songs a week. Also, we would sign artists based on pure talent; there was no social media. That’s changed now, obviously. Outside songs and writers have taken a huge hit because artists now have to write.
Who has been one of your biggest mentors in A&R?
[Former Sony Music Nashville chairman] Joe Galante. For 10 years I was his student and it was like going to Harvard. He gave us homework, he taught us the business. He taught me how to A&R a record. When we were making the second Chris Young record after he came off of Nashville Star, it was like, ‘this has to be the right thing.’ I remember Joe just talking about how to think about Chris as an artist. We had five No. 1 singles and it was a great success. Joe just had a handle on it. And it was hard, not all fun and games.
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