One of the questions I am asked more than any other is, “Are you looking for any artists right now? What are you looking for?”
First off, I am always looking for artists. And if you know of one who is amazing and should have a record deal, by all means, contact me. But before I attempt to fully answer the question, it’s important to set the context of what we are talking about here.
There are countless musical artists out there, and not all of them want or need a record label. There are ways to make money — or even a decent living — in music without all the hoopla and entanglements that come with a full-fledged record deal. On the other hand, if you expect to make it BIG without a major label behind you, realistic chances are slim (how many major artists can you think of who don’t have a major label behind them?). Right or wrong, this seems to be the way of the world. And it’s true in Christian music as well. So decide now what it is you are after.
Record labels are businesses, and record deals come with significant tradeoffs. As an independent artist, you can create whatever music you want, look however you want, play shows wherever you want (or wherever you can get them), create and maintain your own web presence however you want, and keep all the money you generate. But independent artists also assume all the financial risk of pursuing their dreams (which is why sites like kickstarter.com and indiegogo.com have become so popular).
But if you want a team of professionals working everyday to figure out how to advance your career, who know the key players behind radio, media and the web, then a label is the place to be. And it comes with a price… With a label you have a team of professionals speaking into your creative work, shaping and focusing your music and image, and pursuing its own agenda, not just yours. And of course, the label will take its cut of the money.
However, a label also assumes all the financial risk of your musical endeavor. And because it is invested in making you a success, it will look for ways to broaden your platform in a way you never could achieve on your own.
So let’s assume for the sake of this article that you have decided to partner with a label. How do you get noticed? What do you need to do?
The first thing you must realize is, in the grand scheme of things, labels don’t sign that many artists. Only a handful of the artists out there attempting to make a living in music are actually signed to a major (or even minor) label. As an example, one year at South by Southwest (SXSW), in one of the A&R forums, an important point was made. The room was filled with aspiring bands and artists, all wanting to ask the panel of A&R reps from major labels questions about getting signed (I will not reveal the names, so as to protect the innocent… and guilty).
Someone from the audience of nearly 1,000 people asked the question to an A&R panel member, “How many artists do you sign per year?”
The A&R rep thought for a moment, then answered, “Hmmm, I’d say I sign… maybe… 0.7 artists per year.” There was a big gasp in the room. “Yeah, that’s right. I sign one artist every 14 months or so. Maybe.” He then went on to describe how one of his artists (a platinum-selling act) was signed.
“I first met this band 6 years before I signed them. And my advice to them at the time was the same as what I tell every aspiring artist. It’s just that this band ACTUALLY DID what I told them to do. And that was this… I told them they needed to write a bunch more songs and play a lot more shows. Get out there and see if anyone CARES about any of the songs you have. Which song(s) are causing an emotional reaction? Does anybody come up to the table after the show saying, ‘I LOVE that song! I must have it.’ If not, you probably don’t have any hits. Keep writing and performing until you have a hit. If you finally get one… or two or three… not only will you be in a better bargaining position if a record deal does come your way, you will take all the thinking out of it for the label and A&R rep. You will make it a ‘no brainer’ for them to sign you.”
While this may sound almost obvious, you would be surprised how many artists do not follow this advice. Most aspiring artists expect to do a demo, have some A&R rep hear it and sign them, then have millions of dollars and fans simply because the label “turns on the marketing machine” to make them stars. If it were that simple, labels would do it all the time. No. The truth is, the artists who succeed do so because they have honed their performing and songwriting skills, they have become audience-centric in their thinking, and they have learned how to cause (through their music) an emotional reaction in people. When an A&R person sees that, it becomes a no-brainer to sign them because they already know people want it (even if the A&R rep doesn’t like the music himself).
In PART 2 of this series, we will discuss some suggestions on actually getting noticed by a record label.