Back to labeling it a boys' club

Special to The Times

IN between helping her three children with their homework and trying out a new chicken casserole recipe she hopes will pass muster with the trio, Teresa LaBarbera Whites sets up studio time for Britney Spears, approves a final version of a Christmas tune recorded by Nick Lachey, arranges travel for former 'N Syncer JC Chasez while signing off on his latest song mix and negotiates with lawyers about multiple deals.

It could be considered a typical evening for a female artists and repertoire executive at a major label -- if you could find one. "It's a lonely place; there's not too many of us," says LaBarbera Whites, Jive Records' vice president of A&R.;

Women buy roughly half of all CDs sold, according to the Recording Industry Assn. of America, and most radio formats target women as their primary audience. Yet, according to the A&R; Registry, a directory of professionals in the field, no woman runs the mainstream music A&R; department at any major record label. Over the last decade, only two women have helmed A&R; pop departments at major labels. The department is the heartbeat of any record company; these talent scouts discover and develop the acts that people hear on the radio and whose CDs they buy.

"If there were more women in decision-making positions, there would probably be more diverse sounds; [radio] would be a little more experimental," says Perry Watts-Russell, senior vice president of A&R; for Warner Bros. Records. "If the A&R; community were evenly divided, it's possible there would be more female artists signed that weren't necessarily the pure pop artists, that were more credible. I find it just as annoying and unacceptable that there are so few A&R; women [as I do] that there are so few women in rock."

With a music industry that in some respects is on the ropes, struggling against steadily declining sales, the time would seem ripe for fresh ways of doing business and fresh viewpoints.

Yet, besides LaBarbera Whites, only two women with VP stripes currently sign acts at major labels: Wendy Goldstein, senior vice president of A&R;/urban for Capitol Records, and Jolene Cherry, senior vice president of A&R; for Universal. Several others with senior vice president titles, such as Island Def Jam's Karen Kwak or Epic's Andrea Finkelstein, are in operations and administration. But while vital to the record-making process, these positions do not normally come with signing privileges. (In major labels' country divisions, however, women helm at least two A&R; departments. A handful of women also oversee the realm at indie labels.)

Why have the industry's recent troubles led to retrenchment rather than new thinking?

"The music business has always been weighted towards being very macho," says Nancy Jeffries, who was head of A&R; at Elektra from 1995 to 2000, after which she went to work for the Bob Marley Estate. "Given any excuse, it just goes backwards. As the business has shrunk, it's become even more competitive. Anything that can be used against you will be, even if it's your gender."

For some acts, a female A&R; exec is like a rare species -- sightings are seldom. The Donnas' Allison Robertson admits that until meeting Mary Gormley at Atlantic Records, she'd never come across one. Same with Lachey and LaBarbera Whites. They first officially worked together on his current Jive album, although the two knew each other because she signed his ex-wife, Jessica Simpson, to Columbia Records, where she also signed Destiny's Child.

While record labels have long been considered male bastions, women have made tremendous strides in a number of areas in recent years. At least three major labels have female heads of promotion and many have women running marketing divisions. Publicity departments have always tilted toward women and women also often oversee video, online and business affairs departments.

Despite these advances in other arenas, some observers feel roles for female A&R; execs have actually diminished.

One undeniable factor leading to the loss of such positions for both genders is label consolidation: 10 years ago, six major record companies, each with a number of imprints under its umbrella, existed; now there are four. Additionally, sales slumps and digital piracy have led to massive layoffs.

"When the water hole is big, the animals are living in peace, but as it shrinks, the fighting starts," says Jeffries, who reels off names of high-ranking female A&R; execs who reigned supreme in the mid-'90s but who have since left the industry. She attributes the decline to lower sales, but also to conservative times. LaBarbera Whites says it's a numbers game.

"There are so few successful A&R; execs, the ones left have managed to make records that sell. A&R;, marketing, sales ... everything combines to break an artist, but the fault many times falls to the A&R; person if the record doesn't sell, leading to short-lived careers in A&R; for many."

Jeffries questions whether she would have reached department head status if Sylvia Rhone, now president of Universal Motown Records, had not been chairman and chief executive of Elektra during her time there. Many interviewed cite the scarcity of female label heads as a key reason there are so few females in the A&R; field.

"It's a boys' club," says Sue Drew, former A&R; executive for Elektra and Reprise. "It always has been, but for a while there, they let a few girls in." They also let girls out: Two highly respected female vice presidents, Gormley and Columbia Records' Lee Dannay, left their labels in recent restructurings.

With most executive talent scouts too busy covering their own bases to help groom the next generation, record companies looking for the next wave of reps are often forced to go outside the label system. When Steve Greenberg became president of Columbia Records in early 2005, he discovered "it was nearly impossible to find young female A&R; execs with experience at major labels, since they were basically nonexistent."

Ultimately, Greenberg, who left Columbia in June, hired three young women at the manager level, but only one came from a major label.

Some women also shy away from the field because of lingering stereotypes. "There's the old image of an A&R; guy drinking with the band, becoming their friend and getting them to sign on the dotted line," says Greenberg.

LaBarbera Whites admits that's how she felt it had to be done: "I went to so many clubs while I was pregnant. I would wait outside so I wouldn't inhale the cigarette smoke." Then she had an epiphany: She realized she'd never signed an act she saw in a club.

No woman interviewed felt she had been treated with anything but respect by her male counterparts; however, they all believed the boys' network worked against them, no matter how subtly. Some even questioned if women's odds would increase if more played golf.

A former A&R; vice president felt that once she had children, things changed. "Because I was a woman or a parent, there were certain things I was going to be excluded from, such as maybe not asking me to go out to see a particular showcase or dinner."

So how does it affect whom labels sign if mainly men are making the decisions? "You have to look like a model and dress like a stripper and it's sad," says the Donnas' Robertson. "I don't think if women were heading A&R; it would look like that."

Yes, there's a difference

TO be fair, there are plenty of men signing female artists not prancing around in high heels. But it's hard to imagine this comment about Spears coming from a female: During an A&R; panel at the South by Southwest Music Conference in Austin, Texas, in March, a male talent exec joked after seeing a wholesome photo of a young Spears with a puppy that "she was the all-American girl you just wanted to defile."

Ron Fair, former head of A&R; at RCA and now head of Geffen and A&M;, says he has always felt it was vital to have a female presence on his team. "There's a different viewpoint from the two sexes in the way talent is evaluated and the way music is heard."

In some cases, men are more image- and attitude-conscious than women, who can be more attuned to content.

"Lyrics aren't even a factor with men," says radio consultant Guy Zapoleon, "[whereas] a woman is saying, 'Can you believe what they said?' "

The same characteristics many social scientists attribute to women -- that they are often better listeners and more nurturing than men -- are skills that can make them strong A&R; execs. A vital role for these reps is to make artists feel secure enough to express themselves fully when writing and recording and reassure them it is OK to fail along the way to creating something new.

Lachey, who had previously worked with male talent execs, says he felt LaBarbera Whites really listened to him. "I've had experiences before where the A&R; executives wouldn't even pay attention to the song I'd written. When you've worked your ass off on a song, you at least want them to give it a chance."

Robertson says working with a female A&R; exec -- Gormley cosigned the band with a male rep -- heightened the emotional level, for better and worse: "When a woman's really excited, she's more excited than a man would be, very loving and caring and more like a sister. And then when you're arguing, she gets more offended."

But Robertson says that helps create a bridge between act and label. "Without that connection, you feel like it's them against you." She also feels women are more simpatico to being in the minority -- especially a plus for female musicians. "It's nice to have someone who understands being outnumbered," she says.

Fair believes that women can present viewpoints to acts in a way that "can be more effective," without downplaying the strength of their musical convictions. "[A&M; Records A&R; exec] Erica Grayson can walk into the room with six hip-hop guys, they want to use one beat and she wants to use another, and she's not going to walk away until she gets it right and has a hit."

Even then it can still be hard for the female A&R; exec to come home feeling like a winner. LaBarbera Whites has certainly helped artists create their share of hits. But at the end of the day? Her kids hated the casserole.

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