Adonis Sutherlin Reveals the Secret to Good A&R

Music was always the path for Adonis Sutherlin. He may have been, as he describes it, a “sh*tty” rapper and songwriter, but his insight and experiences have turned him from an excitable music addict to a major record label’s 21-year-old intern to an A&R titan.

Serving as the SVP of A&R Operations at RCA Records for just a little over two years now, Sutherlin splits the scope of his title in half. Over on the A&R side, he works directly with artists on their creative needs — building from the ground up to discover, develop and nurture the relationship. He can go from guiding them through the creative process of their first cycle in an album production to handling touring, promotion, logistics and even style and branding. “The A&R job is unlike any other,” he says. “Sometimes, I may talk with an artist about getting support on real-life issues they are working through, and in the next moment, I’m in the studio being asked for feedback on the arrangement of a song hook.”

“My goal is to help artists create the world they want to see, so I help find the resources and tools to build their worlds out.”

Moving over to the label operations side, he utilizes his one-on-one A&R skills when collaborating with RCA’s senior management team. This can involve sit-downs with label Chairman and CEO Peter Edge, COO John Fleckenstein, President Mark Pitts and President of A&R Keith Naftaly, where they discuss offering the right support and guidance to the entire A&R department. Sutherlin can be of service to any number of team members, putting on hats including curator, sounding board, confidant and leader to ensure that targeted releases are met while finding solutions and making connections.

“I must maintain a sharp skill set across all aspects of music production and artist identity,” the exec shares. ”My goal is to help artists create the world they want to see, so I help find the resources and tools to build their worlds out. I look to find that uniquely special quality every artist has and meet them there. While I hold a consistent personal style as a leader in service of the individual artist, I know that I must stay out of the way of the creative process.”

In three words, how would you describe your job to someone who isn’t familiar with the music industry?

Wild Wild West.

Can you run us through a day in your work life?

No two days are alike. I just got back from recording in France yesterday, so I spent the AM playing catchup in the office until our weekly A&R meeting. After the meeting, I met with our studio interior designer to finalize a few details, followed by a producer meeting, which led straight into a meeting with a label partner. That takes me to 5:30 p.m., and now finishing this interview, I’ll roll a call or two enroute to my 6:30 p.m. meeting and hope to be home by 8 p.m. to spend time with my family.

“The goal is growth — we track pace, not speed.”

Outside of working directly with artists, you’re also helping to develop RCA’s new creative workspace and recording studio. Can you tell us more about the project, and what it means for the label and its artists?

In 2019, Peter Edge had the idea to open a studio/workspace centered around creatives, but as soon as things got rolling, the world shut down. During the pandemic, I opened my home to create a safe outdoor workplace for some of the A&R team to gather so they didn’t feel isolated. When things started opening up again and we could restart the studio process, I had a better sense of how a creative space should feel from all of the time I spent at home with so many members of the team. From that influence, we knew we wanted to have this sense of home for the artists and the staff.

We work with creatives who make music and art, so we wanted to have a space that was reflective of RCA’s artist-centric approach. We wanted it to be warm and welcoming, a place where you can come in, kick back, take your shoes off, put your feet on the couch and write a song. My intent was to imbue the space with that intention and inspiration. Working with Stefan Simchowitz and the Simchowitz Gallery, we’ve been able to bring in over 100 works of art by developing visual artists, as well as world-renowned artists, which are now showcased in the workspace to create a full-bodied atmosphere of creative energy and intention.

Another inspirational part of the design project for me was pulling from the RCA archives to connote a feeling of participation in an iconic legacy with influences such as J Records, Jive Records, LaFace, Arista etc. The design of the space highlights the lasting impact our history has, and that profound presence is carried into the creative inspiration for everyone getting to use the space. All of our artists are part of a long, rich history and for them to feel that message and sense of belonging in it is my intention. I’m continuing to flesh out the design to be a home with soul and integrity that represents the music that our artists make and reflects our personality as a truly artist-centered haven. It was important to me to also bring in a sense of play, irreverence and curiosity that would spark surprise or dialog. I chose art with people’s reactions in mind. Knowing we have a diverse group of people moving through, I aimed to make sure that everybody felt comfortable, with a full sense of inclusion. I want it to be a space where diverse minds gather to make the best music, art and product. The finishing touches are being put in place this month and I look forward to the evolution of what the space will become.

Tell us the most memorable experience you’ve had with an artist so far.

C’mon, that’s like choosing a favorite child. The process of working with Childish Gambino after the massive success of “Redbone,” which led into the success of “This Is America” was unbelievable. Working with Steve Lacy through the completion of Gemini Rights and seeing him lean into the success that was in front of him was something I’ll never forget. Additionally, working on “Vegas” with Doja Cat, Yeti Beats and Baz Luhrmann was insanely memorable. I first met Doja and Yeti in 2013, before the deal, so it was rewarding to have them trust me to work on this idea that became a No. 1 record.

“I have a sincere openness in finding out who people are, what people are about and what they want to express or be in the world.”

As an SVP, what is your metric of success? When can you say that you’ve accomplished your goal for the artist?

Helping artists crystalize their vision, then seeing it materialize. How you train for the race will determine the race you run and we are only running against ourselves. The goal is growth — we track pace, not speed.

Did you always know you wanted to have the career you do now and did school play any part in inspiring you to this path?

The answer to this question is complex and ever-evolving. My perspective has changed as I learn about myself and the creative process. I typically tell the story that I was a sh*tty rapper, then a sh*tty songwriter. Thankfully, I had enough insight to know my own limitations and to know the difference between what’s talent and what’s not. I assumed that there had to be a job in music sorting that out: what’s sh*tty versus what’s good, great, or even genius. However, as I’ve grown, I’ve had a different revelation. The music was always in me, and possibly, I could’ve rapped better than I was afforded the chance to learn. But with time, I’ve discovered that my greatest musical skill is in seeing the creative spark and something special in people.

I have a sincere openness in finding out who people are, what people are about and what they want to express or be in the world. I also have an eye, ear and taste for everything aesthetic and creative in life. These two skills are the heart of good A&R. I now know that my musical skill is in listening and feeling. I had many early experiences with music that were so influential to who I am as an A&R. Listening puts us right in the moment with the artist within ourselves. Listening brings me right back to memories of singing to Lauryn Hill with my mom in a car, or a memory of sitting with my aunt watching Dark Side of the Moon spin on vinyl. The artist makes the music, but it becomes the listener’s experience. I am the listener. I listen to my instincts, and I listen to the artist; I see, feel and hear their expression. That was always innately my musical path and my passion.

“Make sure you really love this sh*t.”

Did any of your past experiences or roles prepare you for SVP?

My experience growing up in Kansas City, being kicked out of multiple high schools, having my first daughter at 23 years old, working at McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, Starbucks, Virgin Megastore, interning, experiencing addiction, losing my mother and my failures all made me the man I am today. Those three letters could be gone tomorrow, but my intentions and principles won’t change.

What are the necessary first steps a person should take to enter a career in music in A&R?

Make sure you really love this sh*t. Identifying potential is one thing, nurturing it into something that’s actualized/tangible is another. You have to be in it for more than a few Instagram pictures and artist wristbands at Coachella. If you wouldn’t do it for free, take your first steps in a different direction.

What was the biggest challenge you’ve had to face so far?

Getting out of my own way and letting go of my ego.

What is one thing about your job that most people would find unexpected or surprising?

A&Ring is much more than listening to music and going to shows. The amount of work that goes into bringing an artist/song to market is insane.

Is there a secret to career longevity in this industry?

Integrity, humility, having a beginner’s mind and staying a fan.

“I listen to my instincts, and I listen to the artist; I see, feel and hear their expression.”

What are some habits you follow regularly to always maintain a good headspace for work?

I allow time for family, for self and for learning. I read daily, and I always allow for my brain to work on the other non-music related processes — breaking sh*t, building sh*t, painting… I love learning new skills. Meditation and boxing as well.

What does a day off look like for you?

Daddy daycare and date night.

If not music, what would you be doing?

I’d be a carpenter.

Stay tuned for more features with music industry professionals — from managers to sound engineers, stagehands and others; the people who make the music world go round without standing behind a microphone.
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