Artist Guide

Ashley Calhoun’s Guide to A&R in 2020

By Donna-Claire Chesman on

It takes more than a good ear to be a good A&R. You have to, at once, be tapped into the here-and-now, understand lineage, and, most importantly, see the future. Call Ashley Calhoun a bona fide musical soothsayer.

Born and raised in Virginia Beach, Virginia, current Head of Creative and SVP of PULSE Music Group, and an A&R consultant for RCA Records, Ashley Calhoun has taken her dream of working in the music industry to its pinnacle.

First speaking with Calhoun in 2018, when she was Vice President of A&R at PULSE, I’ve seen her rise through the ranks and bring on beloved artists like Kehlani to PULSE, while maintaining working relationships with Starrah and Dave East. PULSE’s client list is massive, featuring top artists (24hrs, Brent Faiyaz), songwriters (Earlly Mac, OZ), and producers (Rahki) behind today’s biggest hits.

During the final days of September, Ashley Calhoun calls me up to discuss her keys for being an A&R in 2020, adapting to COVID-19, and more.

Build your confidence. “I’ve always had confidence in my taste. Growing up, I was always in the car with the cool new music, and I was on artists before everyone else. I was always playing music at parties and knew I had good taste early on; I piggybacked off that.

“Confidence builds the more you do things. I remember sitting in my first A&R job, day one, like, ‘Wow, what do I do? I’ve never done this job before.’ By doing it and building trust with the creative community, you start to build confidence.

“Of course, there are days where it’s like, ‘What am I doing? What’s my purpose?’ I have those moments from time to time, still, but the more wins you have, the more confidence you build.”

Trust your taste. “It really goes back to taste. You can do research and look at trends, but I’m not a research A&R by any means. I’ve always relied on my taste and great songs. At the end of the day, everything comes down to the song. A great artist that can write a great song is step one, and something I look for. I don’t worry too much about trends, I just like working with extremely talented people I believe in, and help get them out there.”

Ignore all trends. “I don’t follow trends too much because you can get lost doing that. If you’re an artist trying to do what’s hot, you’re gonna be too late. You have to set what the new trend is, and not follow it. You can get caught up if you’re trying to fabricate what’s ‘next.’”

Focus on the song. “It’s always about the song. I’ve signed great artists when they’ve had 2,000 Instagram followers, and now they’re the most streamed artists. But, for me, it was just, ‘This is a great song. This artist knows how to write.’”

Be persistent. “Persistence is probably my main trait in life, in general. It certainly helps in music. You have to be persistent when you’re going after talent, cuts, and placements. You have to be persistent when you’re dealing with people at the label, or dealing with the label to get producers paid. Persistence goes a long way in this industry, and people with persistence are rewarded in this business.”

Be patient. “Patience and persistence go hand-in-hand. You’re gonna be waiting a lot, and dealing with very creative people. I might have writers who wanna take a couple weeks off to get their head right and experience life a little bit. You’re dealing with artists that, when COVID is not happening, are touring and not really recording on the road. There’s a lot of patience, and when you get a song cut, it could take months or years for the song to come out. I’ve had songs on hold for months and months, so patience is super important for A&Rs.”

Be consistent. “You have to be consistent with your work, and your taste when you’re pitching records. You have to be consistent when sending great material to build trust with artists. Make sure you have everyone’s ear, so people open every email or text you send.”

When it comes to COVID, try the glass-half-full approach. “Positive things have come out of [COVID]. Zoom meetings are extremely effective. They’re more to-the-point. It’s nice to not be driving all over town all day. I’m optimizing my time more. Also, people are collaborating that haven’t before because everyone’s home and more open to try working with new people. The live business is taking a big hit right now, but with all these artists being home, artists are recording more than ever right now, and really stockpiling music.

“Our writers, producers, and artists are working harder than ever. Everyone’s working right now. I’ve never worked so hard. On the publishing side, everything’s booming. Everyone’s working, writing, and in that respect, it’s an exciting time.”

Take intelligent risks. “I like to focus on taking intelligent risks. So, not just blindly signing someone because there’s a great song. You have to look under the hood and make sure the other components are there. Yes, this artist has great songs, but do they have a great work ethic and a strong team? Who’s the management, the lawyer, do they know what they’re doing? Do they know how to build a plan around an artist?”

Artists—you have to want it. “Does the artist really want it? Are they gonna go hard and hustle for themselves? No one should outwork the artist, in my opinion. The artist should work the hardest, and everyone else should support what they’re doing.”

Photos by Brandon Dougherty and Bex Calhoun (light background).

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