How To Get Signed
I’ve worked with record labels in a few different capacities, starting out in my teen years as an artist signed to a couple of different small indie labels. I then worked alongside record labels for a decade or so as a publicist (they hired me to get press for their releases), got artists signed as an artist manager, and now do A&R and marketing for a brand new indie/punk label, Big Pink Recs–that is, when I’m not busy getting records airplay on college radio stations as a radio promoter.
Many artists I speak with have the vague goal of getting signed but don’t have a strong sense why or how it’ll happen. This is a post about what it actually means to work with a label, what it doesn’t mean, and how to approach record labels if you feel that working with one is right for you.
What do record labels do for bands?
On a recent A&R call (a call where I talked to a band that I want to sign to Big Pink), I had an artist put this question to me quite plainly: What are you going to do for us? It’s truly the most important question when you’re considering working with a record label. Here’s what record labels do.
Fund The Record
Depending on the type of agreement, a label will front money for studio time and/or the production of CDs or vinyl.
Promote The Record
Record labels usually hire professionals like radio promoters, publicists, and digital marketers to help get the word out about your campaign.
One of labels most important assets is the reputation they build with fans (also music writers, radio DJs, music supervisors, etc.). There’s a whole subset of music fans who will buy anything that comes out on a given label because they know it’ll be aligned with their taste. When you work with a label, you benefit from being exposed to their fans.
Connections In The Industry
Labels want to see their artists do well! It’s in their best interests to set them up with every opportunity they have at their disposal like sending a developing band out on tour with bigger bands on the label, pursuing sync licensing deals on their behalf, helping them secure a booking agent, etc.
Before we go any deeper into this topic, here’s a brief and general overview of what a record deal is.
What Is A Record Deal?
There are two basic kinds of record deals. This is very much simplified, but I think understanding these two types of record agreements is helpful, especially as you’re planning your band’s future and thinking about what you’re looking for from a label partnership.
1. Sound Recording Agreements
In a sound recording agreement, the record label pays for an artist to record an album. The label typically owns the masters forever, which means they’ll always be allowed to manufacture and sell the record. The artist gets a split from sales and owns the songwriting portion of their publishing.
2. Licensing Agreements
Here, artists pay to produce their own record and the label licenses the right to manufacture and sell the record for a number of years. After the term of the license expires, exclusive rights return to the artist and they can sell, distribute, and collect royalties from their album freely.
In both of these agreements, the record label pays to manufacture, distribute, and promote the album and that money is recoupable, which means that it gets paid back in full from album sales and streaming before the artist starts to make money. There are lots of other factors and variables that go into a recording agreement, but these are the most important and common ones.
What Does The Breakdown Look Like?
I’ve worked with indie labels who, when signing a baby band (see: new, not famous yet band) aim for the band’s first record on the label to sell about 500 records. This probably has to do with the fact that 500 is kind of the lowest amount of vinyl you can press in a cost efficient way.
Here’s what an incredibly basic breakdown of a licensing deal (a record label deal where the label doesn’t front the money to record) might look like. This doesn’t take into account other revenue streams that are often baked into an agreement like merch, sync licensing deals, or streaming, but it’s intended to give you a practical idea of what the (maybe underwhelming?) numbers might be on a first pressing of your first album on a label.
The goal, of course, is to get a new, or developing band to the point where they’re printing and selling many thousands of copies of a record (not just 500), at which point the vinyl is cheaper per unit, and you move beyond recouping promotional costs, but this level here is kind of what I think of as being at “level one” as a new artist on a label.
What can labels do for you that you can’t do for yourself?
In 2023, the argument can be made that there isn’t much a label can do for you that you can’t do for yourself, but there’s probably a lot they’ll do for you that most artists wouldn’t do for themselves.
While it might be challenging for artists to come up with the money to pay for studio time, promotion, and manufacturing on their own, there are certainly ways for artists to raise the money–crowdfunding and playing corporate gigs are a couple of methods that come to mind.
For my money, the most valuable pieces labels offer are their experience releasing records, their connections, and their audiences. These are all things artists can and should be building on their own alongside whoever they’re working with, but these components take time to develop.
I believe artists should be actively invested in developing their own network of other artists and industry professionals, as well as their own audience and learning as much as they can about the process of releasing records well, on or off of a label.
One point I want to drill home is that labels aren’t magic. And certainly if you’re speaking to one and everything they’re describing *feels* like magic–as in, you don’t understand how or where the numbers they’re talking about are coming from, beware. I think asking for a financial breakdown like the one shown above from a label that’s offered you an agreement is reasonable and prudent.
How To Get Signed: Understand What A Label Is Looking For
Submitting to record labels requires some self-awareness as well as awareness of the world of music at large. Before you go around asking labels to sign you, try to find a few labels where your music *truly* belongs. One way to do this is to keep an eye out for bands you feel *extra* aligned with–bands whose fans would love you if you opened for them on tour–and then look at what labels they release music with.
Labels WANT you to submit to them, but they only want to take on bands that are really aligned with the label that they’ve built.
Some labels span multiple genres, but they almost always have a strong throughline. Jealous Butcher, for example, has the beautifully succinct tagline “Quality Sonic Artifacts’. While Jealous Butcher doesn’t only release one genre of music, fans have come to rely on them for albums with rich, melancholic, and even unconventional sonic landscapes and the kind of serious songwriting that unfolds, sometimes slowly, always masterfully, and begs the listener to find a comfortable seat and offer their undivided attention.
Another favorite is Absolutely Kosher Records, whose founder, Cory Brown had this to say about his philosophy when it comes to signing bands:
“Absolutely Kosher is modeled after the “you-don’t-know-what-you’re-getting-but-it-will-be-great” models of indie labels, leaning towards experimental artists who like making pop music. We like submitting artists to be familiar with and feel an affinity for our work, so they know if they’ll feel at home.”
From him, I know I can always expect to hear something fresh, bright, a little fuzzy around the edges, and ultimately cool.
In my own signing efforts for Big Pink, I’m looking for joyful, messy punk, alternative underground hip hop and anything that blurs the lines between those two genres.
If you don’t feel that you fit into any genre, focus on what messages are at the center of who you are as an artist and what you want your fans to get out of your music. Use that as a jumping off point and begin to draw connections to other artists and labels from there.
The Business Side
In addition to having your music and vibe be a great fit for a given label, it’s important to show that you’ll hold up your end of the deal. Labels invest in artists because they believe they have both the talent AND the practical skills required to build an excellent career. You can show that you’re a great artist to invest in by demonstrating that you’ve put some real effort into the following aspects of your project.
1. Email list
Keep and regularly use an email list to promote releases, merch, and shows. Here's a blog post about building your email list.
2. Social media
Have a couple of types of content that you regularly post that work for you and get some engagement.
3. Live Shows
Put on a great live show and play regularly in town and nearby markets. Here's a blog post about how to make touring doable and easy.
Have a consistent image, portrayed clearly in your photos, videos, and artwork. This means fonts, colors, and other visual themes.
Be excellent to work with
People (present company included) work in music because they’re motivated by passion and fun. Show that you’re the kind of person who is fun and awesome to work with. Show appreciation and give praise freely. Be kind and expedient in your communications. Be a fan of the label you want to work with and the artists it supports. Say hi, submit your unreleased music.
And if you’ve done all this and you still haven’t been able to lock in a label, stay the course. You might have caught someone’s eye and they’re just waiting to see what you’ve able to pull off for yourself in the next six months or so. Stay in touch and keep releasing the kind of music that makes life worth living.