HOW TO GET SIGNED BY A RECORD LABEL – not your usual cookie cutter advice (MUST READ!)
This isn’t your typical 10 step guide to getting signed by a record label. Those guides are fruitless, a waste of time and leave you no step closer to your dream after reading it. Our advice is straight to the point and at times brutal but trust us -it’s much needed.
There are various factors such as talent, marketability and of course good luck that play a key role in getting signed by a record label. Major record labels such as Sony Music sign about 45 artists per year (but they also drop about the same amount every year to balance out the numbers) and major indie labels such as XL Recordings sign just 6 per year.
So as you can imagine, the competition is FIERCE and so to get one of these coveted spots it takes some know how. As former major label employees we’ll be able to dispense some advice that could help strengthen your career and enable you stand out – if only just a little- from the crowd.
So let’s get started.
YOU’RE NOT GOING TO MAKE IT
Did that catch you off guard? This is brutal and not the ‘work hard and you’ll achieve anything mantra’ that most advice guides give you- and they definitely won’t put it as their first bullet point. This industry is hard – anyone who tells you otherwise is a snake oil salesman. Even if you follow everything that is written in this guide to a T you’re still not anywhere guaranteed to make it.
About 80-95% of artists released on major labels fail and only about 3% (if that) make a long-term career out of selling music. The odds aren’t great- we all know this. So the truly desperate go on the X Factor and its clones as a ‘short cut’ but lose their credibility along the way. If you’re going to make music then do it because you love music and not because it’s a way to get famous. And be brutally honest with yourself about it- don’t lie to yourself and say you’re really doing it for the love of music when in the back of your mind you know that it’s fame that you’re really chasing. Know that you won’t become famous and at best you’ll make a couple of pennies on the side from your passion…
Ok, once you’ve gotten over the first bullet point and you’re still trying to make it, you need to understand that there is a reason why it’s called the music business (in fact it really should be called ‘business music’ as business always trumps creativity/music). As with any business you need to create what the market is demanding and to be able to sell it. Point blank period. If on a sunny day you’re selling hot chocolate, coffee and tea then your business will fail. You have to change your stock and start selling ice cream and ice poles. The same with music. If your music is failing then you have to either change or stay true to yourself and keep failing (failing in the economic sense as opposed to artistic fulfillment sense). For some bizarre reason, artists don’t treat the music business as a business- they see it as a way to channel creativity when it’s ABSOLUTELY NOT. This point of seeing the music business as a business is so important that rest of this post will be variations of this point.
REALLY WATCH WHATS GOING ON
Once you start seeing the industry as a business you need to treat it as such and study it like a business. The best place to start is TV talent shows. Now when it comes to TV talent shows such as the X Factor, we’ve concluded that there are 3 types of people who watch these kinds of shows:
Type 1. Those who watch the show
Type 2. Those who really watch the show
Type 3. Those who really, really watch the show.
You want to be in category 3. We’ll elaborate.
Group number 1 are the ones who watch the show and comment on how nice Cheryl looks like this week, her hair, make up, etc and how so and so sang better this week than last and that whatshisname should be booted off next. For what we hope you can see are obvious reasons you shouldn’t be in this category.
Group number 2 are the arm chair critics who think they know what’s going on but don’t really. They’ll call the show a fix, complain that it’s just (another) way for Simon Cowell to make more money and leave angry messages on the Daily Mail comment section- yet they tune in every week without fail to hatewatch the show. Again you shouldn’t be in this category. (By the way the show isn’t a fix – they’ve got too much money to make and won’t risk advertising pounds if people could tell the show was just a fix- but it is heavily controlled and staged. But we all know that)
You should be in group number 3. The ones who really, really watch the show. They’re the rare breed who are eagle eyed and are watching what’s really going on. This is the category you should be in. They understand why we have Michael Jackson week*, why Pharrell Williams, The Script and Ed Sheeran appear on the show**, they listen and watch the Talk Talk commercials that come before hand and already know why the participants are singing the selected songs on the commercial.*** This is the category you should be in and this is how you should start looking at the music industry.
STUDY THE BUSINESS
We mean truly study the business and the good ones in the business. You know how you used to study for exams in school? In the library with books, notepads, pens, etc til late in the evening? Yeah, well the same level of intensity needs to be applied to studying the music business. In your 10,000 Gladwellian hours about 8,000 should be applied to perfecting your music and 2,000 applied to studying the industry.
You think that’s a bit OTT? Well all the best have done it: Madonna, Beyonce, Lady Gaga etc.
Below is a YouTube documentary of Beyonce’s ‘Driven’ from 12-13 min is the goldmine. It’s here you see how she studied how to walk and talk like a superstar- videotaping herself and perfecting herself. Pay attention – she wasn’t born a superstar she had to become one.
Dig up old detailed magazine profiles and think pieces of Madonna and see how she learnt how to use her sexuality to become a super star – manipulating her bisexual manager to get want she wants. Think the word manipulation is a bit too strong? You don’t belong in this industry.
But the best example by far is Lady Gaga. Really study her as she will give you a master class on becoming a superstar.
Stefani Germanotta was talented but not extraordinary. Pretty but not beautiful. A good performer but not exceptional. She knew all of her disadvantages and turned them around to become advantages. She created a work of art to become Lady Gaga. Masterminding her personal image and brand (more on this later) to become the superstar she is today. But the problem is you can’t be Lady Gaga – she is already taken. And trying to emulate her will only mean you become a Walmart-version of her when the original Waitrose one already exists- not a good look. You have to create your own super star. There was a comment section left in the Daily Mail (don’t judge us) which we thought was worth pondering on:
Yuck! There are so many people in this world who have REAL talent and never get any recognition. How do clowns like this end up making so much money? – JoAnne, Toronto, Canada
That’s true, there are a lot of talented people who never make it and the reason is they think like you – that talent is all it takes and that they shouldn’t have to change in order to be successful. The reality is that in any business you have to meet market demands; if you create a product no one wants then your business will fail. The music industry wants beautiful people; she obviously can’t compete on that level (I don’t think she’s unattractive – just not stunning) so she has turned that disadvantage around by creating a character that sets her apart. Madonna has also done this, continually recreating herself over the years. The reason they are successful is that they are both shrewd business women who respond to market demands, and that in my opinion IS real talent.
– Sue, Cheshire, 19/11/2009 11:50
Interesting comment and response….
But the crazy paradox of this all (NB this industry is full of paradoxes- it’s a bizarre industry) is that your image doesn’t have to be out there a la Gaga to be a superstar- just look at Adele. No gimmicks, no meat dresses or crazy stage theatrics, just an incredibly voice with heartfelt emotions that sell in their millions in an era where million dollar sellers apparently don’t exist. Also be careful if you’re trying to go down the Gaga route of theatrics, it’s a slippery slope and one even Gaga hasn’t mastered and we’re slowly seeing her decline.
STUDY THE BUSINESS
Did we say this already? Well we’ll say it again because it’s that important. Sign up to industry newsletters like Lefsetz notes, attend seminars about the business side of things. Really understand marketing. Look at new artists such as Marz Leon’s Tumblr and Instagram page. No posts about what she is eating or touristy pictures of her abroad. Nope, they’re all carefully choreographed posts that send out her message- cool edgy and obviously trying to solicit endorsement deals from brands who are into this cool edgy stuff e.g. Levi’s, Diesel Jeans, Saint Laurent, House of Holland etc.
Another interesting case study (love her or hate her) is Iggy Azalea. She started out as a pop singer but she knew that she would drown in a sea of other Britney Spears 2.0 wannabes so she created a new persona for herself- a white female rapper. But not just any white female rapper but a white female rapper from Australia. Name us another white female rapper from Australia? Exactly. But she didn’t stop there. She like Gaga and Madonna before (who we know she no doubt studied before hand – can you see a theme going on here?) knew that her image was important. Many female rappers are masculinised and hide their femininity to be taken more seriously. Not our Iggy though. She knew the brand that she wanted to create- a brand that would feel comfortable in the income supplementing world of high fashion as well as music.
Don’t give away your publishing rights under any circumstances. They’re absolute gold dust and you should fight tooth and nail to keep as much rights as possible. We see so many young wannabes who get excited because they have a publishing deal with a major company like Sony ATV or Universal Publishing. It’s one of the worst deals you can get: you give the label half your publishing rights in return you get –nothing. Just the prestige and the occasional advice and access to the label. Its daylight robbery in its finest form. Keep all your publishing rights.
[Remember to check out more music from our website by clicking on the map below- and submit your music to firstname.lastname@example.org to be considered on our catalog to earn money from licensing your music]
YOU DON’T NEED A LABEL
The truly savvy know that they shouldn’t be chasing a record label. First of all, the terms are horrendous and leave many artists broke and worst of all if you’ve been dropped by a label then the chances of you getting another deal are zero to none – others labels won’t touch you with a barge pole.
But wait, we’ve just got ahead of ourselves. Most artists never even get to see the inside of a record label head quarters never mind the golden ticket of a deal. So back to our point- don’t chase a label. If you’re chasing a label you’re doing something wrong. You need to create a buzz around you – and contrary to popular belief this isn’t through hogging social media 24/7 and tweeting and retweeting your fans’s compliments but to get in the studio and make great music. This is a little contradictory as we said that the music business isn’t a way for you to channel creativity but we also said this industry is full of paradoxes, is bizarre and that’s one of the reason that few people are able to master it.
[If you liked this guide, don’t forget you can get the full comprehensive edition here]
Once you think you’re ready to release your music to the public, craft your image with the precision and military thought that would put the 2003 invasion of Iraq to shame. Gather all the social media names that are important (obviously Facebook, Twitter, YouTube et al) and have a unified name for all e.g.
Also keep an eye out for any new social media that may come out and sign up to them anyway in case someone takes your name. You never know which one will be the next Twitter and you don’t want to have to pay over the odds to buy someone out of your name- and it also helps to keep brand uniformity. Like the video below on Lady Gaga – craft your image with precision and thought.
Don’t do every magazine article, interview, brand endorsement etc that comes your way. Select them carefully- you should be saying No more than you say Yes. Make a list of all the brands you don’t want to associate with and those you do and make sure your own brand aligns with them and what they’re about. If for example one day you want to be associated with Levi’s or Converse trainers then perhaps taking multiple Instagram pictures in a cow print onesie is not the best idea.
This section is short because each artist is individual so do what’s best for you. The advice above is the starting point- its up to you to do the rest.
Once you have taken the steps above you have to understand the key to making, breaking and most importantly sustaining your career is those you have around you. From a manager, to lawyer, producers, publicist, makeup artist, etc they have to be carefully selected and be the best of the best. For this bullet point, we will use our favorite case study: Lady Gaga. She created a team around her – the Haus of Gaga. The team consisted of her manager Troy Carter, choreographer Lauriann Gibson and most importantly her stylist/Creative Director Nicola Formichetti. If you pay close attention to the video posted below you can tell that Lady Gaga planned her fame with military precision. She knew that she would become famous and started planning it.
But pay careful attention to what Jody Gerson and the host say at 1:31 – 2:49 min to – in spite of having a team and manager it was Lady Gaga who was in charge. Many artists rely on their manager to make all the big decisions for them. To an extent this is understandable (if you want to be an average band then its understandable) you have a lot on your plate and have to make music. But that’s not good enough. You have to be on top of your game all the time. Keep your team on their toes, make sure they are working as hard as you are. Be constantly on the look out for new talent to work with- hip hop is the best example of this. Whenever there is a new artist or a hot track floating around established artists make sure to jump on it. There are countless examples but some include Drake jumping on the Bobby Shmurda ‘Hot N****’ track and TI jumping on Trinidad James ‘All Gold Everything.’ They all do this to keep their names hot and in the streets. Keep your eyes and ears peeled to the streets – but at the same time be authentic about it. If you jump on anything and everything people will see through it. Work with people who are hot and that you genuinely like their music.
Also don’t just be on the look out for musicians or producers but also artists (as in painters, sculptures etc) clothes designers, dancers who have a unique style- you could collaborate with them on your next album cover, music video styling or backing performance etc. The best place to find them is just being glued to the internet, the clubs and social media.
All the above coupled with absolutely amazing music means that you will probably start to create a buzz in the industry and this is what you want- people knocking on your door instead of the other way round. Once people start approaching you, think long and hard about who you want to work with- like we mentioned above you need to say No more than you say Yes. Don’t get star struck by big names if they don’t offer you a good deal: walk away. Have the confidence and self-assurance that you’re in a good position and a good opportunity will come up.
And be prepared for the buzz and the fame- like really be prepared. This sounds strange but having looked at recent examples it seems like many artists aren’t prepared for success. When Azalea Banks dropped ‘212’ the hype around her was deafening but she later admitted that she got caught off guard and she didn’t have a great body of work to follow up ‘212’ with. She also stated that she got herself caught up with all the glamour and the fashion (and trying to become a fashion industry darling)and that got the better of her. Similarly after Trinidad James dropped ‘All Gold Everything’ he didn’t have a great body of work to show and none that could replicate the success of ‘All Gold Everything’ and worse still when Def Jam came knocking, he no doubt got a little bit star struck and went with them instead of going to the more suitable partnership with Jermaine Dupri- a Southern producer who understands Southern rappers (watch the whole video below esp from 3:55 onwards)
So be prepared. Have a strong body of work behind you (that’s why we advocate working behind the scenes for years building up your repertoire before you come onto social media) Have your lawyers, accountants etc ready. Have your limited company set up to handle all your business dealings. Research all the labels, etc that you think would want to work with you in the future and research how they work. How many artists that are similar to you they have made successful, how many artists per year they drop and sign. After how many years, albums etc do they drop an artist. How many artists are left on the shelf etc. Don’t get star struck, have your business mind on all the time.
We hope the above guide has helped you to see what is needed to get signed by a label. Be sure to check out our site to find great new music and send us any music you have, to have it profiled on our site.
* Michael Jackson was signed to Sony Music and so he’s back catalog belongs to them. (Sony is also tied to the X Factor and so any artist they get are automatically signed by Sony) It also means they will pay little or no royalty for using the songs on the show as they are the owners- making the show cheaper to produce.
** They are all signed to Sony Music so free publicity and more money for the company again via increased record sales.
*** All the songs sang in the Talk Talk commercials (bar one- Lorde “Royals’) are – surprise, surprise- signed to Sony Music. Again it will be cheap/free to get clearance to use the songs. And if you’re really sharp you should be asking why Lorde’s Royals is the only one that isn’t signed to Sony yet is allowed to be in the commercial 😉
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