Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music
Artists & Repertoire. Before WWII pioneers like Ralph Peer, Frank Walker and Eli Oberstein were engineers/producers who were effectively A&R people, bringing the acts to the labels; they often started publishing companies and took pieces of songs, partly because they were so badly paid. Dave Kapp at Brunswick had his artists under personal contracts so that when he left for the new USA Decca label he could take them with him.
By the 1950s A&R departments had been established; they decided who should record what in pop music, buying in songs from publishers or commissioning them from composers. Many A&R people were arrangers and conductors (Gordon Jenkins, Paul Weston, Hugo Winterhalter, Mitch Miller); many had served their musical apprenticeships during the Big Band Era. The rules had changed and tightened up at the big labels; Miller at Columbia was one of the most commercially successful, always keeping his word and never taking a piece of anything. They were effectively producers, working on sessions with recording engineers, and power sometimes went to their heads (see Miller's entry) but it was a time of transition: the Swing Era was over, there was no more live music on the radio and radio basically wanted jingles; more records were being sold than ever before but nobody really knew what kind of music the public wanted: a retired executive described it later as throwing a lot of shit at the wall to see if anything stuck.
The A&R situation altered (along with much else) in the 1960s; the Beatles and others changed the rules because they wrote their own material. One of the first A&R people to become famous as a producer was George Martin at Parlophone in England, with the Beatles. The great producers of R&B acts, such as Ralph Bass, Jerry Wexler at Atlantic, etc had more sympathy for the artists under their control and were a big influence on the next generation. [Jerry] Leiber and [Mike] Stoller had one of the first modern deals as freelance producers with a record label (Atlantic), making a lot of the decisions that the in-house A&R staff used to make; at the same time the dead hands of Hugo Perretti and Luigi Creatore at RCA were evident in Sam Cooke's records.
In the late 20th century, because of the huge amounts of money involved the rules changed again; Clive Davis learned a lesson when he got bounced from Columbia in New York, and Whitney Houston's contract at Arista allowed her to go with him if he left, an echo of Dave Kapp in the pre-WWII business. Record companies still had A&R staff negotiating contracts and so on, but in making records they worked with producers who were often freelance and often chosen with the approval of the artists involved, and who often worked somewhere else, delivering the finished product to the company. Producers in the 1980s and 1990s often began as engineers (Phil Ramone) or musicians (Bill Laswell); with so much technology available the problem now is to avoid over-producing: mavericks like Laswell and widely experienced people like Michael Cuscuna usually managed it so that the music can breathe.
One could say that there was a lost generation of producers and A&R people at the so-called major labels in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Mitch Miller's generation having abdicated, not wanting to deal with rock and abandoning the decision-making to lawyers and accountants. The now-multinational record companies in the 21st century are still struggling to deal with cataclysmic change in the music business; the very concept of an A&R person may be obsolete at a time when a 'hit' might be downloaded from an obscure website.