“I wanna get signed!”
How many bands or musicians say that? Perhaps not as many as in past years. These days, an independent musician has access to tools that allow them to self promote through a giant web of online resources and then sell their music through the same. Certainly some musicians have no desire to sign to a label contract – their musical style is one that may not be saleable to mainstream audiences, or they prefer the self-control of handling their musical career independently. Some major artists were label signed, and having already gained a large audience share, they feel their own team can now market and sell to those same fans, without the controlling relationship certain labels may offer.
As one who works in the music industry, I would never tell a musician that either choice: sign to label, or remain DIY, is the right or wrong one. It is really a personal choice. I do try to educate musicians on the pros and cons of each side, encourage them to see signing to a label as a “tool,” not an ultimate “goal,” and then ask what they want to pursue.
Over the past few months, I have met with representatives from major labels (Sony, Avex, EMI), mid-size sub- labels (labels which are run as though they are independent, at one time were independent, but are actually owned by a major label), and also mid-size independent labels. I wanted to find out, what do labels look for in an artist/band to sign?
So, what do label reps have to say when it comes to considering a band/musician? Here are some of their informational nuggets:
1. We don’t sign “newly formed” bands.
Labels do not want to sign a band that just formed last week, last month, or even six months ago. Labels want to know that the band has been together long enough to have developed a good working relationship. The members can handle internal problems on their own. They have learned each others’ quirks and know how to write music together. Time together gives the label some intangible evidence that the band isn’t going to break up right after signing and receiving a possible advance.
Check a band’s bio: you will usually see that the band was together for 5-7 years prior to being signed. The few times a band is signed after only 1-2 years together, most
times the members were “together” longer than that as they were school or university class mates.
2. We don’t sign undeveloped bands.
Ah, the innocence of a newly formed band! “We just need to get signed and then we can start making great music!” or “When we get signed, then we can play some cool gigs/live shows.”
If you do not already have great (“greatness” evaluation is subjective, of course) music written, you won’t get signed. Labels no longer have a huge development budget, and cannot afford to sign the garage band they heard practicing last Saturday, with the idea that they can be developed after signing. To get signed, you need to have at least 10 well-written original songs, already in your band’s catalog. You need to have gotten your “live performance chops” from performing at every bar, festival, event, and house party that will let you play. The label hasn’t the time, desire, or money to sign you and then wait for you to learn.
3. We don’t sign unknown bands.
What counts as “known” depends a bit on size of the label. A major label may want to see that your band can draw at least 200 people to your shows, on a regular basis. They may want to see that you have self-sold 10,000 units in the past 18 months. Perhaps they want to see that you were able to get enough fan votes to get yourself on a major “indie artist” stage at SXSW. Possibly they want to see that your streaming music sites are getting 500 plays a week.
A sub-label or independent label may feel that you are “known” if you can regularly draw 40 people to your shows, self-sell 500 units in a year, you got good write-ups the past 3 years running for your excellent performances at the state fair, and you average 15 new fans each week on your reverbnation profile.
Again, this is also where length of time together is crucial. Drawing 40 people to your first two shows as a new band may be simple. Drawing in those 40-200 ticket buyers to your shows when you play once a month, over 2 years, is more difficult. Can you do it? If not, you aren’t going to get signed.
4. (a) We don’t sign people/bands we meet at parties.
One executive stated, “When I’m at a social function, I’m at a social function. Don’t come up to me and tell me you’re in a band and try to give me your demo. I might take it to be polite, but your band’s name will be noted, and the demo will go in the trash can. Submit your demo the right way.”
Readers, please assure me that you know the “right way!” If not, it can be addressed in another article. After all, there is some flexibility and a few ways to do it the “right way.”
4. (b) We don’t sign based on oral “favors.”
Ah, it must have been great to live in the 1960s-1985! Pretty girl with a certain skill – recording contract!! Sorry, no more – there is no unlimited budget for signing and maintaining artists. Labels have to sign based on music quality or the perceived saleability of that music, not on “favors.”
Actually, I was rather surprised that this was even mentioned, but girls still try to gain meetings, demo reviews, and signings based on sexual favors. The two reps who brought this topic up said that 85% of the “executives” who accept such a favor are not even in a position to make a signing choice. Of the ones who might accept the offer, and do have the power, they won’t sign you based on their own professional reputation – and you have also just shown them how little you actually believe in your own music as being a product worth signing. Also, in general, reps from one company are likely friends with reps of another. So, the EMI guy you met, will tell a Beggars Banquet guy, who will tell a Universal rep, who will tell…You get the idea. Basically, it won’t get you signed, and it will make you AND the rest of your band members lose any respect they might have had for you going forward.
Certainly, this one article can not give you every bit of advice on what a label does or doesn’t want. But one thing is clear, getting signed to almost any size or type of label is not going to happen magically. While there may be, upon occasion, the story of a band/musician who was signed after a label rep saw them one time playing to a crowd of 5, in front of the bus station, this situation is so rare, that to base your rock-and-roll dreams on the same hope of a “lucky” signing, is asking for disappointment.
Just like any other goal, the path to a label contract, consists of persistence, practice, professionalism, creative development, and hard work.
So, You Want a Label Contract?