Many independent music artists have a burning desire to get a record deal. What does that mean? What happens when an artist signs with a record label?
If you dream to one day be on the stage accepting a Grammy Award, or on the stage in front of 20,000 fans in an arena – that journey often starts with getting a major label record deal.
In the age of the internet and wide distribution, why is it so important?
Arguably, getting a record deal has never been more important than it is TODAY if an artist is seeking global, commercial success. Even though music purchasing is down, music consumption has never been higher. Major labels can provide the promotional muscle needed to stand out.
Here we examine how an artist should prepare, what to focus on, and how to influence decision makers at labels. There is no shortage of miss-information on how to get a record deal. Our goal is to prepare you with only the essential information…nothing more.
Labels look for the most talented artists with the best songs that are commercially viable in existing (radio driven) genre formats. Just like any business, too much competition will eat away profits. So labels generally look for artists who appeal to a current set of fans, but offer something incrementally new and different. Artists doing something dramatically different usually have less of a chance getting signed and becoming successful in the major label system.
So what are the steps to getting a record deal??
1. Write amazing songs
Whether an artist is an aspiring R&B singer or a country rock band, it always comes down to having the best songs. The truth is that many hit songs today are written by professional writers in conjunction with the artist. In order to compete an artist needs to dedicate the MOST AMOUNT OF TIME to perfecting their songwriting craft. A great song can spread rapidly online in a much shorter amount of time than it takes to perform hundreds of live concerts. Becoming a great songwriter isn’t easy. Just like becoming a great author, you should try to live an interesting life so that you have something to draw from. Gain experiences. Do exciting things. Write about them and make them personal. If you try to appeal to everyone you appeal to no one.
2. Record songs early and record often
You will never become great and get a record deal if you focus on just recording an EP in a nice recording studio and never spend time learning to “perform” in a studio by doing it often. Recording equipment and software have become inexpensive and accessible for most artists. Purchase a simple set up that allows you to record often. Test ides. Make mistakes and don’t focus on trying to record a perfect hit the first time. Katy Perry recorded three albums with three different record labels before she released the album with her first hit. Practice performing in a studio by doing it often, and try to get as much feedback as possible.
3. More is better
Most artists believe that they need to focus on finding their best 1-3 songs to put online to start with. That may have been true years ago, but fans these days have access to unlimited content and they are hungry for lots of content. If they like something, they will come back for more. If you only give people 3 songs, they will get bored and move on. Most artists are also surprised at WHICH songs become favorites. Often it isn’t the song they THOUGHT would be popular. Establish an online presence and consistently release content. Songs, videos, covers, remixes, photos, thoughts, etc. Record labels look for artists who are establishing a fan base. They want to see social proof of popularity. Trying to break an artist from scratch is a risky business that labels are hesitant to pursue. Make the decision easier by building an audience of loyal fans.
*** Common Myths (lies!)***
If you haven’t noticed by now, I haven’t mentioned anything about getting great photos or designing a great website or putting together a killer press kit in order to get a record deal. It isn’t essential. It helps to have a distinct image, but don’t focus too much on that early on. Another common myth is that having a “name” producer attached to your music will generate immediate interest from A&R people. Record labels would rather hear a great song produced by a brand new producer than an average song produced by a producer who had one hit ten years ago. Here’s the big secret….none of that matters.
If you make great music and establish a fanbase YOU WILL BE FOUND.
The artists who spend all of their time focused on promotion and trying to get meetings or showcases might succeed in meeting a few people, but is ALWAYS comes down to great songs and great talent.
So what will a label do for you? The process goes something like this…
An A&R rep will establish a relationship with an artist or band. If they feel confident about the future success of that artist, they then have to build a case internally at the record label that signing this artist is a good thing. They pull together music, bring other staff to performances and schedule meetings. If they mange to convince the label bosses, the label will then offer the artist a recording contract.
When an artist signs a record deal they are exchanging revenue from future sales of their recordings for the immediate promotion and support of the label staff as well as often a financial “advance” against future royalties.
Every new artist launch process is different. Often after signing with a label the artist will then work with the A&R person who convinced the label to sign them on putting together the best songs. This process often includes co-writing with professional songwriters to produce great material and sharpen the artist’s skill. Artists write and collect dozens of songs before they decide with the label and their manager which are the best to release.
These days labels generally focus on finding a “hit” first before recording an album. They test the marketplace with one or two songs. If the music resonates with fans, they will then work with the artist to build an EP or full length album.
Record Labels have a sequence they usually follow when launching a new artist.
1) Release a teaser song with some promotion
2) Release an official single to radio
3) Release a 4-5 song EP
4) Release additional radio singles
5) Release a full length LP
This is in contrast to the past when full length albums were released first, “market testing” the songs on the road touring. In many ways this is a superior process as it allows for artists to build a fan base progressively. A full length album is only delivered when there is a substantial demand.
Major record labels have product management, marketing, distribution, licensing, radio promotion, and publicity teams in place to build awareness and create demand for new music.
Record Label Departments
Product management: This team is the quarterback of an artist’s “project” (often what new music is called). They coordinate all of the other teams, build the timeline and work closely with the artists and their managers to see everything through.
Marketing: These teams include creative people designing websites, logos, branding and other assets, digital marketers, brand partnerships, and media buyers to secure advertising. Their job is, in conjunction with the radio promotion, to make sure that the right fanbase is made aware of an artist’s new music.
Distribution: Music needs to get to stores like Target and Wal-Mart as well as to digital retailers and streaming services like iTunes, Amazon and Spotify. The Distribution team works directly with these retailers to make sure new product is in the system in time and is presented and priced correctly. Independent artists can achieve a similar process with services like Tunecore or CDBaby.
Licensing: When a song is featured in a TV show, movie or commercial, this is the result of a label licensing department. They work with people called music supervisors to secure these placements. Licensing is an important and growing revenue source for artists and labels.
Radio promotion: Even with the proliferation of digital music services and online radio, terrestrial radio is still the #1 discovery source for new music. The radio promotion staff works with local and national radio companies and stations to get them the label’s latest releases. They also often take an artist on a “radio tour,” visiting key stations around the country to perform acoustically for the radio staff and program directors.
Publicity: Late night show performances, blog and magazine articles, radio interviews – this is all the work of the label publicity department in conjunction with an artist’s publicist. This group will pitch artist interviews and performances to the various forms of media that are relevant to the target fanbase.
Back to that Grammy or Arena stage in front of 20,000 screaming fans, securing major record label support is still the best way to start. Getting a record deal is just the first step though. There are no substitutes for putting in the time to create amazing songs and perfecting your live performance.
Stay tuned for more content on this topic.