It’s not easy signing to a label. But spare a thought for staff at record labels, drowning under the weight of demo tapes, or more likely now, Soundcloud links. Inevitably, every now and again, a brilliant band will slip through their fingers, going on to massive success elsewhere. Here are a few of the funniest stories of A&R mistakes in music history…
The Beatles: Dick Rowe went to his grave known as ‘The Man Who Turned Down The Beatles’ after they’d auditioned at Decca. In truth, it was his junior that decided to sign Brian Poole And The Tremeloes instead of them. In his defence, their eventual producer, George Martin, said he would’ve rejected them too based on the audition. It’s fair to say the rejection didn’t really hold them back.
The 1975: Singer Matt Healy said his band were rejected by every record label before they eventually signed to Polydor via indie Dirty Hit, a label co-founded, unlikely as it seems, by former Aston Villa footballer Ugo Ehiogu. The band’s 2013 debut was one of the biggest success stories of the year.
Madonna: “The direction is a good one, in my opinion. The only thing missing from this project is material.” That’s what music industry honcho Jimmy Lenner wrote to Madonna after hearing her demo tape and knocking her back. The fool! The letter was auctioned at Sotheby’s in 2001.
Ed Sheeran: The multi-million selling solo artist said he was constantly rejected by record labels as he was “slightly chubby and ginger”, and that wasn’t a good “marketing tool” for them. How wrong they were. He’s since released two of the biggest selling albums of the millennium and sold out more nights at Wembley than the Foo Fighters this year.
Dave Grohl: A 14-year-old Dave Grohl wrote to Dischord Records founder Ian MacKaye asking him to put out a single by his then band Mission Impossible. Unfortunately for Grohl, the Minor Threat and Fugazi frontman wasn’t interested, but he did keep Grohl’s letter, which resurfaced recently.
U2: “We wish you luck with your future career,” said the boss of RSO records to Bono in 1979, after saying they weren’t interested in the Dublin band’s demo tape. U2 have since sold almost 200 million records. It’s unlikely luck has had that much to do with it. RSO must still be kicking themselves.
Linkin Park: Singer Chester Bennington said the band played more than 50 showcases for numerous labels before Warner Music, who had previously rejected them, signed the band. Their 2000 debut ‘Hybrid Theory’ sold more than 10 million copies.
Kanye West: The Glastonbury headliner said he was rejected by “tonnes” of labels, prior to being signed to Def Jam. They reportedly saw him as a producer, not a solo star, and not even playing label bosses a finished version of ‘Jesus Walks’ could change their minds.
Beyonce: You have to go back pretty far in Beyonce’s career to find a rejection. When she was eight, she and cousin Kelly Rowland, when part of Girl’s Tyme, entered a talent competition and didn’t win. The defeat prompted father Matthew Knowles to quit his job and manage the girls, to make sure they never lost out again.
Lady Gaga: Then Def Jam boss LA Reid had signed Lady Gaga to the label some years before she became one of the biggest pop stars on the planet. But before she released any music he dropped her. More recently he’s described the move as “the biggest mistake” of his professional career.
Venom: The Newcastle metal pioneers released two landmark album in the early 80s, ‘Welcome To Hell’ and ‘Black Metal’. Before that, however, they were the recipients of the world’s harshest rejection letter from EMI. It simply read ‘Fuck Off’, in creatively typed lettering.
Missy Elliot: Prior to selling millions of records and inspiring a generation of R&B stars, Missy Elliott was reportedly told she was “too fat” to be a successful singer by a famous major label executive. Idiot. She soon showed him.
The Supremes: Motown’s Berry Gordy told The Supremes, then known as The Primettes, they were too young to sign to his label when he first saw them. They showed up at his Hitsville studio in Detroit every day until he changed his mind. At their peak, their success rivalled that of The Beatles.
Morrissey: After leaving Harvest records following the release of ‘World Peace Is None Of Your Business’ in 2015 – an event which prompted him wear ‘Fuck Harvest’ t-shirts – Morrissey said he’d been rejected by several labels he’d approached. Wonder if those t-shirts has anything to do with it?