SO YOU WANT TO GET SIGNED TO A RECORD LABEL? (Detailed Version)
The life of a professional musician has all the allure of a million dollars and a one-way ticket to being famous. Is it worth it? Heck, yes! But the only way to becoming a professional musician (and by “musician,” we mean singers and bands, not professional flautists) is to land a record deal. Whether you’re aiming for a mainstream or an indie share of the pie, you need that label to get heard.
Wait, but it’s tough to get signed to a label, right? True. And while there are many changes happening in the music industry right now (especially on the technological side), there is still no better way to make money as a musician than by having an established record label market your music. So how do you sell your soul to the corporate devil? It’s rather tricky, but we’ll walk you through the steps. (And don’t worry, it won’t involve an evening with RIAA President Hilary Rosen, a bottle of tequila, and a Barry White album.)
One more quick note: this article is written under the assumption that you do not have a manager and that you are trying to get signed on your own. If you do have a manager, let the poor guy or gal do his/her job and you just stay out of the way. Otherwise, you need us bad.
- HAVE THE RIGHT TOOLS FOR THE JOB
A mechanic would never attempt to fix a car’s engine without the right set of tools. Similarly, a band or artist who feels that they are ready to approach a record label in the interest of getting signed better be prepared. With literally thousands of unsigned bands looking for love, the competition is fierce. Here are some requirements:
You must have good music! This may seem pretty obvious, but you’d be surprised how many bands never get signed and don’t understand that this is the reason. We’re not talking about “good” as in taste (which is great news for the Backstreet Boys). We mean “good” in the sense of talent and experience.
You must look “sign-able!” No one will want to sign you unless you’re going to make them money. As such, you and your band must be confident, experienced, dedicated, and have it together (in other words, you must look like you will bring in money). Unless you’re the next Beatles, there are a thousand other bands like you – so make yourself stand out from the rest by being professional from the beginning.
You must have a professional-looking demo package! In the music industry, image and first impressions are the name of the game; for the unsigned band, your demo package is the first (and usually only) impression a record label will have of you and your music. As a result, it should be as attractive, informative, and to-the-point as possible. For a good tutorial on how to make an effective and attractive demo package (also referred to as a “press kit” when sending it to press or radio accounts) pick yourself up a copy of the Contact Record Labels List.
What? You’re too poor to buy a book? Oh yeah, we forgot – you’re a musician. So, while this isn’t a complete explanation, here are the basics to making a good demo package:
- LOCATE POTENTIAL A&R REPS
Like tailoring a resume to a specific job description, you can greatly increase the impact that your demo package will have by knowing exactly who your audience is. The person that you should be most concerned with is the Artist & Repertoire Representative, also known as the A&R rep. It is the A&R rep’s job to find new artists to sign and to develop their careers into a success story. Most bands get heard by A&R reps the same way you are trying to get heard – by sending them a good package. As a result, not only do you want the A&R rep to get your demo package, but also you want it to knock his/her socks off!
So, what do A&R reps look for? Well, that varies widely between companies and depends largely on what they think is going to be the new trend in popular music. You already know about the talent, the “look,” and the professional demo package, but what else can you do? Well, this is where it starts to get a little fuzzy. There is not a single record label out there that will sign a band solely on hearing a demo. So, expect an interested A&R rep to want to see your band perform live. Also, it is around this point that the decision to sign or not sign a band becomes based on a gut feeling just as much as on the past band’s previous record sales (if any) and size of their fan base. Does the music match where the label wants to go? Does the band have a good shot at becoming a success? These are important questions for A&R reps because their job security is highly dependent on whether they sign successful acts.
Now that you know who these A&R people are, where do you find them? Well, many would say under a large and slimy rock-but we like to think a little better of these fine people. Here are some options:
First, try a contact directory like the Contact Record Labels, this will give you a good list of record labels (and some other good contacts such as managers, producers, and publishers).
Since you are playing in a band that has some level of local name recognition, it probably wouldn’t hurt to ask local club owners, record store proprietors, music managers, or editors whether they know anyone at a good record label who might be interested in receiving your demo package. It can’t hurt to try.
Showcases. The question often comes up about whether or not showcases (e.g., South By Southwest (SXSW),North By Northeast (NXNE), Contact Record Labels, etc. are effective and appropriate ways to get your band noticed by record labels. The answer is a resounding yes! Given any chance for your band to get in the eye of the public – and the industry-types – you should go for it. Unfortunately, getting into these sorts of showcases can often be difficult for an unsigned band.
- GET AN A&R REP TO LISTEN TO YOU
Wouldn’t it be nice if all you had to do was get an address, slap a label on the demo package with “Attention: A&R” and just wait for the offers to roll on in? Yes, Dorothy, it sure would be. But it’s time to come back to planet Earth and realize that getting heard at all (much less by the right people) takes as much effort and planning as writing and performing songs. There are several steps that you should go through when attempting to have your band seriously considered by an A&R representative.
Once you have a list of record labels that you are interested in sending your demo package to, call each and every one of them PRIOR to mailing anything and verify that:
They are accepting unsolicited demo submissions
They are interested in your style of music
You have the correct name/address to send the package attention to
Why go through all this trouble? Three reasons:
The worst mistake that you could make when sending out packages is to engage in “shotgun mailing.” Essentially, this means that you’re sending out unsolicited junk mail to a number of record labels that may have changed addresses, gone out of business, or may not be accepting packages because they are not looking to sign any new bands. Shotgun mailing is a waste of time and money for both you and the labels.
What do you think would have happened if 50 Cent sent his demo to Epitaph Records? Probably not a whole lot. If your music doesn’t “fit” what the label wants, then you won’t get signed, no matter how talented you are.
There is no quicker way to get your demo package thrown into the garbage than to send it attention to a former A&R executive. So, call. Sometimes, they will simply say you should address it to the A&R Department. That’s fine, just do what they tell you to.
When calling the record label to verify all of this information, be on your best behavior. If the person on the other end of the phone says that they are not accepting unsolicited demos, do not get angry, scream, and say, “You’ll be sorry when I’m a big rock star!” Simply thank them for their time and ask if it is all right to call again in a few months. Chances are they will be much more impressed by this than by a hissy fit. Also, make sure you mention your band’s name at least once (and if it doesn’t make you sound like a freak, several times).
So, you’ve made the initial phone call, and everything went smoothly. The record label is in fact accepting demo submissions and you have all the correct information. Now what? Wait. If you do not hear anything in 4-8 weeks, make a follow-up phone call. Ask for the person who you addressed the package to. If he or she is unavailable, or if you simply addressed the package to the A&R Department, speak with the secretary. Verify that they received your package, if they had a chance to review it, and their reactions. Now take a deep breath and brace yourself. If they 1) didn’t like the demo, 2) blow you off, or 3) never got it, do not overreact. Thank them for their time, hang up the phone, and gripe to a friend. There are literally thousands of record labels in the United States alone; don’t waste any more of your time on one that’s not interested in your band. Does this mean you should never send them another package? No. After about 6 months to a year, if you have a new recording (or other significant change in your demo package) give the label another call. You never know; they may like your new stuff, or they may be trying to change their image.
- WHEN YOU GET AN OFFER, KNOW WHAT TO DO!
The long journey to the Promised Land is finally coming to an end: you’ve gotten an offer from a record label! You’ve done the research and they seem like an organization you would be happy to be a part of. Not so fast . . . once you get the offer, there are still several things you need to consider:
- Get yourself a good entertainment lawyer. This cannot be stressed enough – he/she will be your best friend, confidant, and advisor through what is bound to be a complicated and arduous process. Entertainment lawyers tend to be very expensive, anywhere from $75 – $400 an hour, but they are worth every last penny of it. The terms of a record contract can vary widely, so rely on your lawyer to translate the legalese into English so you can fully understand what you are getting yourself into. You don’t want to trap yourself into something you hate.
- Make sure you have a good idea of what you want out of a record deal and where you would like to go with your career. There are many pitfalls for a band, particularly a new/small band, when signing a record deal. How many albums do you want to release on the label? How much money/royalties can you demand from the label? How large should your advance be? How does this affect future royalty payments? Who owns the copyrights to the songs? The list of debatable items could go on for a mile. Talk with your lawyer about all of the options and make an educated and informed decision. After all, this is your career.
- Pick up a copy of This Business of Music. While about as entertaining to read as a chemistry textbook, it is an outstanding resource for learning the business and legal side of the music industry.
Even though the process of getting signed to a record deal can be difficult, the prospect of being able to make a living as a professional musician is often too good to pass up. While good looks and some catchy tunes probably wouldn’t hurt, you now have a huge edge over all those morons who are sending out 10-page bios. And hey, if all else fails, there’s always the Army.