Since the age of popular music began, getting signed by a record label has the ultimate goal of any musician that wants to break into the big time. To an unsigned artist, a record deal means bigger shows, bigger audiences and bigger paychecks.
However, the music landscape has changed drastically since the human race moved online – the days of marching across the dance floor of the Hacienda and ordering Tony Wilson to sign you to Factory Records on the spot are far behind us.
Also, getting signed doesn’t mean instant fame and fortune – it just means that whichever label offers you a deal thinks that your music can make a decent wad of cash for both them and you.
Many artists today prefer to stay independent – and many of them enjoy great success – but record labels still have their place in the music industry. With backing from a label, it’s undeniable that you will be given opportunities that you probably would never have got without it.
So let’s look at some steps you as an unsigned artist can take to maximise your chances of signing your name on that life-changing dotted line.
What is a record deal?
To put it plainly, a record deal is a legally binding agreement between a recording artist and a record label which allows the label to exploit the artist’s work to generate revenue. ‘Exploit’ may sound like a dirty word, and while it’s important to bear in mind that labels are not charities and are very much in it for the money, that’s precisely what they need to do to make money for both parties – exploit your music for every penny that it’s worth.
How many pennies come your way depends on the type of deal you sign. Here are a few of the more common types of record deal you could encounter:
- Single deal – as the name suggests, a deal which focuses on singles rather than albums
- 360 deal – the record label takes a percentage of every form of income from the recording artist, including performing and merchandise
- Distribution deal – the label will get your album onto the shelves of shops, but won’t have much to do with the recording of your album
- Major label deal – the label will pay for the whole package and pay a large advance, but as a result you won’t get much in the way of royalties until this has been paid back, and you may struggle to maintain full creative control
Where do I start with getting signed to a record label?
The most important lesson to learn is: you’re far more likely to be signed by a record label if you’re already successful.
That’s not to say it’ll never happen to you just because you’re only starting out – it just means that you’ve got to put the hours in yourself and prove that you’re a force to be reckoned with. That way, the record labels will know you can go the distance – and, more importantly for them, people are digging your sound!
So, in short, the first thing you need to do is get yourself out there without any sort of deal backing you up. Here’s how you do that…
Promote yourself as an artist
As nice as it seems it would be for someone to do all the work for you, the reality is that promoting your music is part of what being a musician is all about. You’ll be doing yourself a much greater favour by engaging with your fans online and at shows yourself than by sending your demo to as many A&R reps as you can hoping they’ll just do it for you.
You need to actively promote yourself if you want to get noticed – by fans or by label execs – and you need to keep doing it. Get active on all the major social media platforms (Facebook, twitter, instagram – the lot), make yourself known in the local and neighbouring music scenes, and play as many gigs as you can – read our advice on how to promote your music online for more tips.
Gig like your life depends on it! Live performances are where you can bring the magic to life and connect
Gigging regularly can be physically and mentally draining – especially on those off-nights where the crowd just doesn’t seem to get into it – but you need to keep at it.
Rehearse until you know you could play every song blindfolded, and don’t turn your nose up at gig opportunities at smaller venues or for lower fees. You need as much experience as you can get so you can handle each and every outcome
You and your band need to become a well-oiled machine who can bash out a solid performance at a moment’s notice. Treat every night like it’s that one night an A&R rep decides to wander into your show – because you never know which night that could be!
Build a solid fan base
Record labels are essentially gambling on your success – and it’s a much safer bet for them to make if they can see you’re already growing in popularity. Plus, with a legion of fans turning up at your shows to support you and buy your merch, it’ll only be a matter of time before someone will want a slice of your pie!
The best way to gain new fans is by engaging with them, by making them feel like they’re a part of what you’ve got going on. The easiest way to start doing this is via social media – ask your followers questions, run polls allowing them to vote on which songs they’d like adding to your set list, and show them that you’re listening by taking their suggestions into account.
Work on your branding
Making yourself as marketable as you can is an essential step in making your act appealing to record labels. Think of all the bands with classic logos and symbols – AC/DC, the Ramones, Metallica – and think about how many t-shirts, baseball caps and badges are sold thanks to that iconic design.
Once you’ve got yourself a name that’s as unique as it is catchy, you need to decide how to present that name to your growing fanbase. What message do you want to give your fans? What do you want them to expect when they come to your live shows? With a name like AC/DC – stylised with a lightning bolt, no less – you know their performance is going to be a) electric and b) loud!
Perfect your songwriting craft
Songwriting is an artist’s journey, and as such is one that only ends once you stop creating. This means: keep writing newer and better songs! You may well have already written several songs you think reflect your abilities as a songwriter, but don’t go resting on your laurels just yet.
If you are successful in your efforts to get signed, you will likely discover that the label expects you to deliver a certain number of albums. So it’s important to keep your songwriting chops in check to ensure you can carry on producing high quality material further down the line.
Produce a high quality demo
Your demo could potentially be your ticket to the big time, so you need to make sure it’s as good as it can possibly be. Don’t settle for a scratchy bedroom recording, because this will immediately show the label that you’re not a serious or experienced recording artist.
If you’ve already followed our previous steps and have rehearsed your songs so well that you could play them in your sleep, it’s time to head into the recording studio! Be honest with yourself about which of your tracks best represent the music you want to make, and make sure everyone knows their parts before you go into the studio – that way, you won’t waste any time (or money!).
If you have the equipment and resources to produce a professional recording at home – that’s great! You need to be sure you’re using top-of-the-range gear to achieve a professional result – check out our list of the 15 best microphones for recording vocals.
Also, don’t be too proud to ask for help – even paying a producer to mix and master your home recordings will make a marked improvement.
How do new artists get signed?
OK – now you’ve laid the groundwork, let’s take a look at how artists actually do secure themselves deals with record labels.
The main goal to set your sights on is getting the right people to listen to your music – or, in other words, you need to be ‘discovered’.
How were famous artists discovered?
We’ll level with you here – there’s no set path to being discovered. It’s a lot of hard work, a lot of patience, and a lot of luck.
However, there have been some classic examples throughout the course of musical history of how artists managed to make the leap from virtual nobodies to household names.
In the early 2000s when social media was still in its infancy, a group of lads were making waves in Sheffield – so much so that their ever-expanding fanbase took it upon themselves to create a MySpace page for them, uploading songs from demos the band had been giving away at their shows for free. Things quickly began to snowball, and now the Arctic Monkeys are one of the biggest bands ever to come out of Yorkshire!
A few years later, a hip-hop manager named Scooter Braun accidentally stumbled across a YouTube video of a boy who sang with the voice of an angel. He helped introduce that boy to legendary R&B singer Usher, who helped young vocalist’s career skyrocket to the point that everybody now knows the name Justin Bieber.
Check out this video for more examples of how stars have been born thanks to the internet.
Don’t just sit around hoping that your YouTube video appears on the right screen though – you can actively try to get discovered too.
Research labels which sign similar artists
While no artist likes to be pigeon-holed, you won’t lose all credibility by admitting to yourself that you sound more like Rihanna than Royal Blood. In fact, you can use these comparisons to your advantage when researching which record labels to approach.
While many labels are home to a wide variety of artists from an array of genres, many keep their margins narrow. Motown, for example, is arguably used more nowadays to describe the genre of music rather than the label its most notable artists were signed to.
A quick internet search will show you some of the most prominent labels in any given genre – here are a few examples to get you started:
- Def Jam (Public Enemy, Jay-Z, Kanye West)
- Death Row (Dr Dre, Snoop Dogg, Tupac Shakur)
- Aftermath (Eminem, 50 Cent, Kendrick Lamar)
- Roadrunner Records (Slipknot, Machine Head, Nickelback)
- Metal Blade (Slayer, Cannibal Corpse, the Black Dahlia Murder)
- Nuclear Blast (Nightwish, Meshuggah, Cradle of Filth)
- Rough Trade (the Strokes, the Smiths, the Libertines)
- XL Recordings (Radiohead, Jack White, Adele)
- 4AD (the Breeders, the National, Future Islands)
These record labels are, of course, the homes of major artists – but when researching a label you’re thinking of striking a deal with, take the time to check out their roster of artists, and see if you can see yourself fitting in alongside them.
Send demos to record companies
There are two sides to this coin: firstly, it’s important you realise that record labels will be receiving tens of thousands of demos from chancers and hopefuls every single day; secondly, it’s essential you accept that if you don’t send anything at all, you simply won’t get heard.
Somewhere between the two extremes of ‘of course the label will want to listen to my demo’ and ‘why would the label ever listen to my demo’ is that perfect balance of self-assuredness and self-awareness.
- Remember – nobody owes you anything yet, so take a polite approach.
- Don’t forget – you believe in your music and want it to be heard, so don’t talk yourself out of it!
If you have a look around any given record label’s website, you’ll most likely find their submissions policy – so make sure you follow that! If they want you to post your demo, post it; if they want you to email it, email it.
Contact the record company
Faint heart never won fair record deal! Getting your hands on the email address of someone working for a record label is an infamously ineffective method of getting your demo heard (after all, who from the unsigned community HASN’T tried this?) – but it’s not the only option.
First of all, follow the record label you’ve got in your sights on all their social media accounts, and make sure you like and comment on their posts using your band or artist profile. This will sew the seeds of familiarity – they’re more likely to see and therefore remember your name if there’s a chance of them seeing it regularly! Also consider connecting with them on other platforms, such as LinkedIn.
Once you feel you’ve become a presence, try sending them a direct message – but don’t pester them, as this will result in failure! The general rule is to give them 10 days to respond – if they haven’t replied by then, it’s time to send them another DM.
Contact the artists
We know what you’re thinking – nobody wants to give away insider information! The music industry can at times seem like an exclusive club which outsiders have no chance of joining – but, as the old saying goes, everyone has to start somewhere.
If you’re polite and show an interest in the artist’s work without making it obvious you’re just trying to get your foot in the music industry’s door, you may well find that acts who are signed to the label will be willing to give you advice as well as an insight into what label life is truly like.
We hope, having read our guide, that you now feel you know what steps you can take as you begin your quest for a record deal. All that’s left for us to say is – good luck with your music career!