The unconventional guide to getting signed by a record label

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Do you have great music and want to score a record deal? Or have you always wondered how artists got through to big labels and ended up getting signed?

In this post I will teach you my foolproof method for scoring a record label deal.

It’s a little unconventional and it requires hard work, but it sure as hell works. With this approach I have signed tracks of hardly known artists to internationally reputed labels. Even when the artists and me were just freshly starting out in the game.

 

The Basics

Before you do anything, we have to sort out the basics. These are the things that have to be right before you even attempt getting in touch with a record label. We’re talking about your music and presentation.

Music:
This is where it all begins and is the most essential part of the puzzle. You have to make sure that your music is absolutely mind-blowingly awesome. These are steps you should take to guarantee it truly is.

  • Get feedback
    Whenever you reach that point on a track where you think that it’s ready to send it to a record label, you need to pause. That’s when you should start asking for feedback. Send it over to people whose opinion you value, but not your friends or relatives. They will likely be yeah-sayers. You don’t need that. You need hard criticism. Take it all in and work with it. Not everything that others consider wrong with it has to be corrected, but if you get multiple people pointing out the same things, it should start ringing some bells.
  • Polish the sound
    Now that you have ironed out most of the track’s issues, you need to make sure it’s sounding as good as it possibly can. I’m talking about mixing and mastering here. These final touches can make a world of difference…. even if you’re not great at it, a decently mixed and mastered track is going to sound miles and miles better than one that’s not. Now, if you’re a producer, then you probably know how to put down a decent mix and master. If not, then I highly suggest you either send your polished track over to a friend who does know this stuff, get it sent over to an audio engineer or learn how to do this yourself. A great guide on the essentials of mixing & mastering has recently been posted by the engineer of my label – check it out here.

Presentation:
You know the saying ‘First impressions last’? It’s true… and highly relevant when you’re trying to get signed.

When you manage to get a label to listen to your music, chances are that they are going to catch a glimpse of your online appearance. And if they don’t, they will definitely look you up if your music has intrigued them. You want to make sure that the impression you leave is as good as can be.

Here’s the minimum of things that you should have sorted out:

  • Social Media
    Set up accounts under your artist alias on at least Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Soundcloud. Make your specific URLs the same for each platform… so if you’re www.facebook.com/thebestbandever, you want to try and have www.soundcloud.com/thebestbandever too. Then, interlink everything. All your profiles should have links to your profiles on other platforms, your website and email address.
  • Own a domain
    You should have your own .com domain. It just looks more professional. If your band name is TheBestBandEver, try going for www.thebestbandever.com. You can get .com domains for as little as $10, but with a little trick I’m about to teach you, you could score one for less than $3 a year. First you want to make sure that the domain you’re after is not occupied yet…. do that by going to www.godaddy.com and executing a domain search. Hopefully, you’ll find a .com that you like. Don’t even bother going for anything else than .com. Now, you want to find a discount coupon for GoDaddy. Go to http://www.fatwallet.com/GoDaddy-coupons/ or http://www.retailmenot.com/view/godaddy.com and find a code that offers a 80%+ discount on .com domains. Then use this code during the checkout process at GoDaddy. Booya, you’ve just scored yourself a domain. Now all you need is a website on there… you can build one yourself or run with WordPress or Tumblr if you’re not that tech savvy.
  • Artwork
    Everything has to be visually pleasing too. You should have a logo, some decent photographs and possibly artwork for your releases. Make sure these are all set up correctly on your social media sites and website. If you have mediocre designs or did a half assed attempt at crafting something yourself, ditch it. You’re better off with no design than ugly design – it looks cheap. Ideally, you want to find a designer who can specifically cater to your needs and with whom you can develop a long term working relationship. Most good designers are expensive though. Alternatively, there are a few ways you can get good design for a reasonable price; you either find a designer whose willing to work with you for free or cheap, or use design competition websites. For the prior, you can browse EDM producer forums as they often have categories where beginning designers are enthusiastically giving away free designs to practice their trade. Try looking at http://community.edmdistrict.com/. Then there’s design competition websites – these are sites where you can post a job offering, for example for a logo design, offer a set price, and a bunch of designers in the website’s community will pitch designs to best match your requirements. Once your job posting expires, you get to choose the design you like the most, and that designer gets the money. Neat places for doing this are – www.99designs.com and www.crowdspring.com.

I can’t stress enough how essential these basic things are. If you have checked and sorted out everything, you should now have built a decent foundation. You’ll look more professional to both a label and your fans.

 

Think like a label

To increase your odds of getting signed, you have to understand what labels do, want and experience. Because when you do, you can cater their needs way better.

Step into their shoes with me.

  • A label is a business
    First and foremost, a record label is a business. They have operating costs (for distribution, marketing, design etc) and need to generate revenue to cover those costs. Everything in excess is their profit. They generate this revenue by selling music, collecting mechanical royalties (cash they get when people play, buy and stream their tracks), and sometimes through selling merchandise and hosting events. Whether focused on mainstream or underground, they have to make ends meet. With this in mind, think about the type of artists they want to sign Рartists that help them make money. The factors that contribute to that are great music, a (big) fanbase, good marketing and dedication. The better you score on these points, the more interesting you are to sign.
  • They are bombarded with demos
    Good labels receive tons of demos. They often have A&R’s (Artist & Repertoire) working for them, whom are the people that scout talent and listen to the demos. Top notch commercial labels such as Dim Mak, Mad Decent and Spinning Records receive over 100 demos DAILY. These pile up so quickly that it’s nearly impossible to keep up with. Some bigger labels go through their demos once a month, but I know of a few who have just given up on checking their general demo boxes and mail folders altogether. Instead, they find and sign music through their network. This is a hugely important notion which I’ll treat later in this article.
  • What are they looking for
    Essentially, all labels are looking for a hit. It doesn’t necessarily need to be a ‘mainstream’ hit, but something that’s good enough and unique to catch a lot of attention. Music that has the power to make them and their artists stand out. Next to that, there’s something else that’s becoming increasingly important – independent power. With the rise of all the social networks and other online tools, it’s easier than ever to market yourself independently as an artist. This effect has come at a cost for labels though… they no longer control the only channels through which music is distributed and are thus more dependent on the marketing power of artists themselves. As a result, labels are increasingly looking for artists that would be able to make it ‘big’ by themselves; with big and dedicated fan bases, unique marketing styles and great ways of branding themselves. This is becoming a hugely important part of the equation. They want to pick up the acts that could become ‘viral’ without them.

As an artist looking for a deal, you should be aware of these cornerstones. Great music is rarely all it takes anymore when you’re looking to get signed. That’s just the reality. To illustrate, Deadmau5′s label Mau5trap stated earlier that they no longer sign artists whom are not totally self sufficient, regardless of musical quality.

The more aware you are, the better you can prepare yourself.

 

Determine your targets

Before we get to the real work, it’s essential that you determine exactly who you’re going after.

  • Make a label top five
    Make a top five list of the labels that you’d want to release with the most. It is important that these labels are compatible to your music… it’s pointless to send dubstep to a indie rock label. You know what I mean. The more your music fits their style, the better. Create this list on your computer using Word, Excel, Evernote or something alike.
  • Trace them down
    Research all the places where the labels are located. For each of them, find their YouTube channel, Soundcloud, Facebook Page, Twitter account, website and email addresses. A good way to start doing this is by searching Google with the label’s name. If they are decently organized, the first page of Google should lead you to everywhere you need. Also, you will probably be able to find links to all their channels on their website or Facebook Page. Make sure to cross reference everything – you might find an email address on their website that’s not on their FB page, etc.
  • Get your detective on
    Now it’s time to figure out who is running the show at these labels. You want to know the names and email addresses of the founders, directors or A&R’s. The bigger the label, the harder this will be. Possibly, you already found this information in the last step. If you did, good. Proceed regardless. As you can imagine, there are many people that want to know this information. You will be surprised to see what you can find on the web. It’s marvelous.Try all of these steps until you’re absolutely certain that you’ve totally figured out who you’re dealing with and how to contact them. Make sure to take notes!

    • Check the label website:
      Look for the about and contact pages to see if there are any function titles or personally addressed emails available. Possibly, there will be a biography on the site giving you more information.
    • Check the social media pages:
      Most importantly, the ‘about’ tab on their Facebook Page. With a little luck, there will be more details there. Sometimes you can even find a reference to the page’s owner there. Look for it on the bottom right hand side.
    • Use Facebook’s new graph search:
      If you have this new tool, you’re in luck. This can be used as a very powerful way to find people. First, figure out the name of the label’s FB page. Then, execute the search query “people that work at labelpage“. If the employees have assigned the label as their employer on Facebook, then they will show up in the search results.
      If you don’t have Graph Search, you can sign-up here (www.facebook.com/graphsearch).
    • Google for: “labelname interview”:
      The bigger the label, the more press attention they will have had. These searches are often the best method for discovering the names of owners.
    • Look up their company on LinkedIn:
      LinkedIn is also a very powerful tool for tracing down people. Sign up for an account if you don’t have one yet. Takes a minute and you don’t really need to customize it.
      Once you’ve done that, simply search for the record label’s name in the search bar. Look for them as a ‘company’. Once you’ve found them, look at their employees. You should be able to see employee names right there.
    • Check their Twitter feed:
      Go to label’s Twitter feed (so www.twitter.com/labelname) – Open up a lot of their Tweet history. Often they’ll have sent an email address to someone in an @reply, which you should be able to find. To speed up the process, use the search function of your browser (cmd+f in OSX or ctrl+f in Windows) and enter ‘@’ as the search term.
    • Use specific Google searches:
      Google for: “labelname email”. This should return plenty of results. Check at least everything on the first page for email addresses that you haven’t found already.
    • Additionally:
      If you’ve found the names of the label’s employees then you should repeat these investigatory steps for them as individuals. Most of these people are actively engaged in social media and networking, and will have personal Twitter accounts, email addresses, possibly a website and of course a Facebook account. Track it all down.
    • *Last Resort:
      If all the above steps leave you empty handed, then you can always try calling to the label’s office. I’ll explain a good way to do this later in the article.

By now you should know who are running the label and where to reach them. If not, then you either need to dig deeper, or think of more inventive ways to uncover information. Alternatively, you could try getting in touch with people whom are likely to know more and ask them (such as artists releasing with the label or their management).

 

Here comes the hard part. This is the most time consuming step of this whole process and needs to be executed with a lot of persistence and attention to detail.

Earlier we discussed how the bigger a label gets, the more demos they receive. Their A&R’s will hardly pay attention to the public demo folder and are more inclined to sign tracks that they’ve gotten through their own network, discovered on the web or by visiting shows. Sometimes that public folder is only checked once a month. By an intern.

Assuming you’re doing everything you can to have the best music, marketing, branding and social media going that you possibly can, there’s one single thing that you can do that will make a world of difference – Make friends with the right people.

Growing these relationships can be a tough task though. Particularly if they’re brand new. To improve your chances of building rewarding relationships that last, here’s a few things to focus on:

  • Make them familiar with you
    Especially early in the relationship, you need to interact. Often. People tend to recognize things, be it brands or faces, once they’ve seen them 2.3 times. That means that you’ll probably only be recognized from the point where the label has seen your name come around about three times.
  • Show genuine interest
    When you’ve managed to get a dialogue going, it’s important to show genuine interest. Focus on the other person. Avoid talking about yourself. Ask relevant questions. Research what they’ve been up to. Act on that.
  • Foster goodwill
    People tend to do more for people they like. This is what we call goodwill. You increase the rate with which you gain this by adding value in your interactions with people. Give them ideas, criticism, links or comments that could benefit them. Point out something they could have missed. Put in some effort. Make life better for them. They’ll appreciate you for it.
  • Fortune favors the bold
    This one says it all. Don’t feel afraid to connect with people, regardless of their status, or if they are strangers to you. Good things come from those little risks.

You should apply all of these principles in many of your business relationships. Especially if you want to collaborate with someone, these things go a long way.

 

Building relationships

I will show you my approach to establishing new business relationships. Our goal here is to create friends, or at least acquaintances. You want them to get familiar with you and need to develop goodwill with them. This will later serve as the basis on which you’ll receive a preferential treatment when submitting tracks.

Apply this approach with all the the five labels on your list. With a little luck, the people you meet first will make meeting the others easier. Networking is cumulative like that.

Take note that building relationships takes time and that you should start doing this at least two weeks before you submit any music. If you rush things, you might not have had enough time to bond and can not reap the benefits. Also, getting all friendly with people and then asking for things directly afterwards usually isn’t appreciated either.

Apply the following steps for all five labels on your list and their employees.

  • Connect
    You’ve already discovered where to find the label and it’s people. It’s time to connect with them, everywhere. Follow them on Twitter, like them on Facebook, follow on Soundcloud. If you know the personal names of the employees, try looking for their personal Facebook accounts. Add them.
  • Interact with the people directly
    If you found the names of the label’s people, it’s time to start interacting with them on FB and Twitter. On their personal FB accounts, send them a message saying “Hi’. Make sure to only do this after they’ve accepted your friend request. If you get no reply, wait a few days for them to answer. Still no reply? Then try again. You can increase your odds by talking to them while they’re ‘online’ in chat. On Twitter, try @replying them on a daily basis. Respond to content, refer them to something they’d appreciate or simply say ‘hi’. These are all easy ways to get a conversation going. In case your attempts on Facebook and Twitter fail and you have an employee’s email address, you could start there. Shoot them an email saying ‘Hi’ and respond to one of their more recent posts or releases. Try and add value. Even mail can prove a great way to start a dialogue.
  • Interact with the entity
    If you haven’t been able to locate the label’s employees online, there’s another approach you can take. That’s by communicating directly with the label entity. Obviously this is not as personal as it could be, but it beats doing nothing. You can drop the label’s FB page a message – I’d go with showing some appreciation. Don’t ask for anything. Send something like this:

    “Hey Labelname,

    Just wanted to let you know that I absolutely love your latest few tracks. Superartistdude is really killing it with his release.

    I specifically like the third track as it reminds me of Paul Kalkbrenner.

    Peace,
    - BestBandEver”

    While you’re at it, you should send the same message to their email address. Chances are that you’re going to get a thank you reply within a little while. You can go from there.

  • If they’re local – get physical
    In case the label or it’s employees are somewhere near you geographically, then I highly recommend that you get physical.If it’s a decently sized label, I’d simply go with calling up their offices, asking for the A&R, explaining who you are and telling them that you’d love to meet. They will either tell you to send them an email first (in which case you can collect the A&R’s email), or you’ll be able to schedule a meeting straight away. If they don’t pick up, or if the A&R isn’t in office, just keep trying again until you speak to them. People will remember someone who stepped in their office a thousand times more than the dude who was just emailing, so aim for that.About that email; Keep it short, tell them who you are and add some links to your music. Make sure to show interest in what they’ve been doing, and that the music you send is compatible to their style. Then ask if you could schedule a meeting, because it’d be nice to put a face to the name.Usually, that’s all it takes to get a meeting. Grow a pair and do it!
  • Do some bonding
    This is your end-all goal. Bond with the label’s people. Make some friends in the process. Let go of the ‘I have music and really really want you to listen to it NOW‘ mindset and just talk to them. Joke around a little. You’ll see how easy it is to make friends. That’s what you need to get ahead in this business.
  • Be consistent
    Once you’ve initiated a few conversations, thrown out a few emails, messages and possibly started to get a dialogue going, it’s important that you are consistently communicating. I’m not saying you should stalk them to death, but make sure the fire keeps burning. The longer you talk, the more acquainted you get.

 

Get friendly, be yourself and invest a load of time. Before you know it, you’ll have developed a little network of people you never thought you’d be talking to. It’s easy once you get started. When that’s set in place, and you’ve let a little time pass, it’s time to get to the actual demo submissions.

 

Submitting music

We’re finally here! You get to submit some music.

This is the easiest of all the steps we’ve discussed.

I’ll run you through this process in three steps; the (un)spoken rules, preparing for the submission and actually sending it in.

The (un)spoken rules:

  • Only submit finished, unsigned, unpublicized original material
    That excludes all remixes, edits, reworks, works in progress and also everything you’ve uploaded somewhere publicly already.
  • Avoid using copyrighted material
    Unless you have a potential chart topping #1 hit in your hands, labels are not too eager to release music that contains copyrighted material. Clearing it takes a lot of effort and potentially money. Only the big boys clear stuff. The smaller labels either let it slide and hope they don’t get caught, or have to pass on those tracks altogether.
  • Make it easy for them
    Good labels receive a lot of music (yeah yeah I’ve said that already). Listening to all that music is a pain in the ass. You need to make this process as convenient as possible for them. Also, there’s always a chance you’re going to be looked over. You need to be precise and persistent to get your stuff heard.
  • Quality over quantity
    Do not send more than three tracks at once in a demo submission. If you have more, force yourself to filter out the best. This will increase the odds of the label hearing something that they’ll like. The more tracks are in there, the bigger the chance that they won’t hear your best work immediately, or that it seems like a huge task to go through everything. If you want to submit an EP or Album, I’d suggest creating interest with the best tracks first.
  • Everyone wants to feel special
    Including the label. Don’t send a demo submission to multiple labels at once. Especially not when using a personalized approach like we are. Just imagine what would happen if two of them said yes at the same time. That wouldn’t go too well.

Preparation:

  • Export the right quality
    Make sure to send tracks in the right format. 320 kbps MP3 is all you need. Lossless file formats such as WAV and AIF are overkill and could ruin your chances of the label even downloading them in the first place.
  • Use correct file names and ID3 tags
    Tracks and emails tend to get lost. This is why it’s essential that you use clear and easy to comprehend file names and ID3 tags. The latter is the track info that you can edit in your DAW or in an audio player such as iTunes. You know, the ‘Artist, Track Title, etc’ information.
    I recommend that for both filename and ID3, you run with a “Artistname – Track Title (Mix Type) (email address)” format. The label needs to be able to figure out who you are, what track it is and where to reach you, if they were to just find the file somewhere.
  • Upload a streaming version and a download
    No modern label likes to receive tracks attached to emails. They often have email filters set on that filter out mails with attachments, or will simply skip the email altogether. Just don’t do it.
    The preferred method is the combination of a streaming and download link hosted on familiar places. I suggest Soundcloud for streams and Dropbox for downloads. Try and avoid other file services such as Zippyshare and such as they are less reliable.
    To do this: Go to Soundcloud (www.soundcloud.com), upload the track as with visibility set to ‘private’. Make sure all track tags are set correctly and that your email address is in the description. You can grab a shortened ‘sharing link’ from the upload. As for Dropbox (www.dropbox.com), upload it to your online folder (make sure your file names are correct). Then grab its Dropbox sharing link. Save these links as you’ll use them in your submission mail.

Doing the deed:

  • Who to direct it to
    Start writing a new email. You want to send this to the email address of the label A&R or employee that you know best. If you don’t have their personal email address, but do have a reasonable relationship with them, ask them for their email. If you can’t get that, then direct it to the label’s standard demo submission address.
  • Writing the email
    Writing a submission email is pretty straightforward. It needs to be short and efficient. Make sure you’re only sending it to a single label and let them know that it’s exclusively for them. Obviously, attach the streaming (private) and download link. The email’s subject line is important too. If you’ve built a decent relationship with an employee, then you could use something like “Thought you’d like this”. If not, then run with a generic subject such as “Demo Submission – Artistname”.As for the format of the email, use this:

    “To: Paul@djpaulydrecords.com
    Subject: Thought you’d like this

    Hey Paul,

    Hope all is well.

    Was recently making a tune which I think would fit great with your label. It’s exclusively for you.

    Stream: http://www.sndcld.com/uhier348
    Download: http://www.dropbox.com/h348f8dfh

    Very curious to hear whether this is something for you. Let me know.

    Best,

    Brad
    TheBestBandEver”

  • Wait and if necessary, send a reminder
    Now all you have to do is wait. If you don’t have a response after a week, it’s alright to send a reminder. If you’re talking frequently over FB or Twitter, then it’s cool to ask about it there. If not, send an email. The message should be short and sweet. Something like “Hey Paul, did you get my email alright?” will do. For every week that passes and you hear nothing, send another reminder. Call it quits if you’ve heard nothing a month after your submission.
  • Time to review
    Hopefully, you now scored yourself a deal. In that case, the label should be following up with more information and drafting up a contract. Possibly you’d even be invited for a meeting. If not, you might have been turned down, or just heard nothing. If they’ve given you any feedback, you’d be smart to listen to it. See if you have room to improve. Then, it’s time to move on.
  • No success? On to the next one
    If you didn’t score with the label that was first on your list, it’s time to move on to the next one. Repeat the submission process above, wait, remind and repeat. Hopefully you’ll get lucky, if not, have at it again.
  • What if none of the five labels bite?
    In that case, you need to wait a moment and think. You could have had a streak of bad luck, but chances are that if you got a negative response from all of those labels, that you have some improving to do. Is your music as good as it could be? Does it match the quality of your target label’s releases? Did you build a strong enough relationship with its people? Think about it.
    If you are absolutely certain that the fault wasn’t yours, then I suggest that you expand your label list from a top 5 to a top 10. Add five more labels you love and repeat the whole process with them. If it doesn’t work out with all of those either, then you really need to go back to the drawing board.

This is it people. All there is to it.

Getting signed really isn’t that hard. It just requires a combination of things: great music and presentation, some friends, a lot of communication and persistence. If you can figure those things out, it will happen for you.

I really hope this guide is useful to you and that it will help you score a deal. If it does, I’m a happy man. Hope you’ll be too.

 

There’s a lot more from where this came from – I’m going write at least one article on this blog every week. Also, I’m writing a book about Soundcloud and music marketing. If you liked this, you should definitely stay in the loop. Sign up to my newsletter through the form below, or by clicking here.

- Budi

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