Have you ever wondered why some artists get signed to big labels, while others fail to even get through to A&R?
If you've progressed in your music career to the point where you're looking to score a record deal, it's important to avoid common pitfalls and mistakes that could cost you the opportunity.
Most artists approach getting signed simply by sending their demos to as many labels as possible, and failing to recognize what it is labels really want.
In this guide, you'll learn the right way to approach labels to increase your odds of getting signed, even if you have no industry connections.
Note: This article includes affiliate links where the author may receive a commission.
What do record labels do?
Many artists assume that getting signed is the key to getting famous, but this isn't the case. Labels exist to take care of the business side of things so an artist can focus on their music, and these days, they prefer to make deals with artists who already have an established following.
Much of what record labels do can be accomplished independently. This doesn't mean that getting signed won't help you, it will. Signing a deal with a record label allows you to leave the business stuff to them so you can focus on your music.
Early on in your career, things that labels normally take care of - like radio promotion or publicity efforts - will need to be handled independently until you reach a level where your music and fan base is attractive enough for labels to want to sign you.
What do record labels look for?
Stepping into the shoes of a label can help you increase your odds of getting signed. A better understanding of what they look for and what they experience on a daily basis can help you cater to their needs more effectively.
First, understand that a record label is a business.
When they sign you, they're investing money into your music with the full intention of generating sales of music, royalties, and sometimes merchandise, depending on the type of deals they sign with artists.
With this in mind, they want to sign artists that are going to help them make money with the lowest amount of risk possible. This usually means they want to sign artists that have a good understanding of their audience, and already have a relatively established, passionate following within their niche.
If labels have been successful in signing artists that can be effective in generating sales, it's expected that their name will become noticed. Well known labels often receive hundreds of submissions a day. Because of the high submission volume, labels often ignore submissions and sign new, well established acts that are introduced to them through their network.
Getting signed by a high profile label is hard work, but it's very possible. As an artist, you need to establish yourself within your scene and build a network within the industry before you submit any music to labels.
If you aren't discouraged yet, and have the persistence it takes to build your following and network with label executives, read on.
Get your brand and business in order
Part of getting the attention of labels is building a brand that they think will appeal to an audience that will want to spend money on your music. This means having music that your fans will put on repeat, having a nice logo and album artwork that represents the contents of your album, and a strong social media and web presence.
Have awesome music
The music is the most important piece of the puzzle - it has to be mind-blowing. Here's how you can figure out if your music is where it needs to be, or if it still needs some work.
When you reach a point where you think your track is finished and ready to release, take a step back and get some feedback first.
You can get feedback from friends and family, sure, but they're likely going to tell you what you want to hear so they don't upset you.
Instead, send your music to people who are going to be very critical of your work and whose opinions you value. This can be people you may know who work in the music industry, more established musicians, or super-fans within your niche.
You can even post your music to various Facebook groups or on Reddit asking for constructive feedback.
Not everything people say about your music will be true, so make sure you have a good number of people giving feedback so you can pay attention to common reactions and adjust your sound accordingly.
When people give you criticism, be careful about getting too defensive - this can turn people off from giving a completely honest opinion.
Make sure it sounds professional
Once you've gathered feedback and perfected the core of your track, it's time to polish it up to give it a professional sound through proper mixing and mastering.
Producing your music yourself or having a friend help you with it is definitely less pricey, but often times this can cost you when it comes to quality. Having a properly mixed and mastered track puts your music's quality at a level that lets you compete with major artists, so it's important to get this right. Unless you have a great amount of experience in recording, I recommend hiring a professional producer to help you with this.
Social media and web presence
Set up your artist account on the social media platforms you plan to use when promoting your music. At minimum, include Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and SoundCloud. Try and get your band name URL on each platform (for example, Twitter.com/yourbandname), and link all of these platforms together. Finally, start growing your following on these platforms as soon as possible. Don't buy followers. Earn them by using proper social media marketing strategies.
You also need to get your own .com domain. Many web hosting services like Bandzoogle or Wix let you set up subdomains (ex. yourband.bandzoogle.com) through them to host your website, but you don't want this. Instead, even if you use a website creation service like those previously mentioned, you need to have a .com domain of your own to maintain a professional appearance, which services like Bandzoogle and Wix also offer. So when signing up for these web hosing services, choose the option that lets you have a .com domain of your own.
Lastly, you want to make sure you have an @yourband email address for when you start contacting people within the industry. Having an @gmail.com or @yahoo.com email address is unprofessional, and they won't take you as seriously. When you have your own domain set up, you can use Gmail for this. Bandzoogle also offers custom email addresses for musicians through their website hosting service.
Your logo, artwork, and images
While your music is extremely important, many artists neglect the visual aspects of their brand.
Your logo, artwork, and images should all be reflective of your music and style, and appeal to your audience in a way that encourages them to check out your music if these images are seen online.
You may be tempted to hire your friend who's a decent photoshop user, or go DIY using paint, but this can be damaging to your brand.
When it comes to logos and artwork, hire professional designers who have experience working with artists in your niche, or freelancers who have created artwork that appeals to your audience. When designing artwork and a logo, it should be a visual representation or your music - providing visual hints of what it might sound like.
The ideal way to seek out design work is to find a designer who can cater to your specific style, but for a more cost-effective approach, you can find freelancers to work on your logo, artwork, or social media images on sites like 99Designs, Fiverr, or Dribbble.
Set up a business entity
Often times, to avoid conflicts with individuals down the road, record labels will require that you set up a business entity before they sign a deal with you.
A Limited Liability Company (LLC) is the best business structure choice for musicians for a number of reasons:
- They protect you from personal liability in legal disputes.
- They provide the simple structure of a partnership with the benefits of a corporation.
- Band members can easily enter or leave without disrupting the system.
- Expenses can be more easily written off as business expenses.
You can set up an LLC quickly and fairly inexpensively through LegalZoom.
In addition to setting up a business entity for your music, you may want to trademark your band or artist name.
Targeting your outreach
Once you have your branding in order, you want to compile a list of 5 labels you'd like to be signed to. These labels must be compatible with your style of music, so make sure you read the about page on their website and check to see how similar their current artists are to you. Put these 5 labels into an Excel or Word document.
Once you have this list compiled, you want to find all of their online channels. A quick Google search for the label's name should show you their website and social media accounts. Follow them on all of their social media accounts with your artist account and start liking, retweeting, and sharing their content with your followers.
Next, track down and make note of any staff at the label - most importantly, the founders, directors, and A&R reps. Sometimes, this information can be hard to find - especially at bigger labels.
Here are a few places you can look to find the label staff.
The label website - Look for the contact, staff, or about us page. They may contain names, positions, and email addresses to specific staff members at the label.
The labels social media pages - Look on the about tab on their Facebook page. You may find additional contact information there.
Facebook search - Facebook lets you search for people based on their place of work. Find out the name of the label's Facebook page, then in the search bar, type "people who work at label Facebook page name" to find users who've indicated to Facebook that they work for that label in connection with the Facebook page.
Google - you can find interviews of label staff by searching Google for "label name + interview." Often times, within the interview, they'll link to the interviewees social media accounts. You can also try searching for the email addresses on Google by typing "label name + email" into the search.
LinkedIn - Find the label's LinkedIn page, then check out the "employees" section to see the names of the people who work there and their positions. You can also check out where they've previously worked and make note of that to better connect with them during the networking phase.
Twitter - If you've found the label's Twitter account, check who often retweets their tweets and take a look at those accounts.
In your Word or Excel document, make note of whatever contact info you find through these avenues. If you've tried all of these and haven't found any contact info, you can still connect with the label through the entities email address or contact form on their website, and their accounts on social media.
Network and build relationships with label staff
This is the most time consuming part of getting signed that needs to be executed with great attention to detail.
Most artists make the mistake of skipping this step and simply send demos out to all of the labels on their list, but this is a big mistake.
Well known labels receive hundreds of demo submissions every day, and most go unnoticed.
Making friends with the right people before you try and pitch your music will help you gain an edge above artists who are blindly submitting demos to every label they find. You want to spend at least a month in the networking phase before you pitch your music.
Connecting with the label
For the labels on your list to start recognizing you, it's important to interact with them. Follow them on their social media accounts, and start liking, commenting on, and sharing their content. People usually become familiar with something after they've seen it in 3 different places, so interact with them on multiple social media platforms by showing genuine interest in what they're sharing.
In addition to social media, interact with the label through email. If they recently released new music, check it out and send them some feedback about the release, or congratulate them on successful sales.
Keep your emails short and specific, and don't pitch your music in this stage. Something like this will do:
I saw that [artist]'s album was on the front page of the rock section on iTunes, congrats on the launch and placement! The album is awesome!
Connecting with the label's staff
In addition to connecting with the label as an entity, connect with the label staff's social media accounts on your personal ones, and start interacting with them as well.
When you interact with the label staff, don't just like their posts and comment with compliments. Share new ideas, provide constructive criticism, and share links that might benefit them.
If you have their email address, send them an email about something specific to their position. If they're the label owner, the above email can work well, but if they work in A&R, discuss a recent release of a newer artist on their label complimenting them on their ability to strike a deal with the artist.
Most importantly, you want to bond with the individual, and maintain consistency. Joke around a bit, and discuss common interests and industry news with them regularly.
How to send your music to record labels
Once you've built up a relationship with the label staff or owner, you're ready to submit your music for consideration. Assuming you're at a stage where you're ready to be signed, you've been effective in your networking efforts, and you've done a good job picking labels that may be interested in your type of music, your submission will stand out above the rest.
Fortunately, this step is much easier than the networking phase.
Here are a few things to keep in mind when submitting your music to record labels:
- Only submit high quality, unreleased, unpublicized, original work. No remixes, edits, or works in progress. Your submission needs to be reflective of a finished product.
- Don't submit copyrighted material. Labels don't want to deal with the potential legal roadblocks involved.
- Don't send more than 3 tracks in a submission, and only send your best work.
- Only send your submission to 1 label at a time. If they reject it, then you can move on to the next one on your list.
Preparing the music files
- Export your tracks as 320kbps MP3's. Higher quality can fail to buffer on slower connections or be slow to download.
- Make sure the file names and ID3 tags are correctly formatted. You can title your tracks as "Artistname – Track Title (Mix Type) (email address)" to make them easy for the label staff to identify.
- Make it as easy as possible for them to listen to your tracks. When you send your music, don't attach a file. Instead, send them a link with the option to stream or download. You can use Dropbox or Google Drive for this.
Submitting the music
Once everything is prepared, you're ready to send your submission email. When preparing an email, it's important to keep it as short and easy to read as possible. Don't ramble - just get to the point.
Be sure to use a subject line that's descriptive and stimulates a bit of curiosity so that it's more likely to be opened. Something like "Thought you'd like this" can work.
Send the email to the person at the label that you know best. If this isn't the A&R staff or owner, as for a referral from the person you know.
Here's an email script you can use:
Hey [Staff Member Name],
Hope all is well.
I recently recorded a new song that I thought would be a good fit for your label, so I thought I'd send it your way.
You can stream or download it here: [URL]
I'm interested to hear what you think.
Looking forward to your response!
If you haven't heard back from the label within a week, follow up with a short email. Something like "Hey [Name], just wanted to see if you got my previous email." will work.
Otherwise, if the label responded with a rejection, move to the next one on your list and repeat this step.
If none of the labels show interest in your music, you may want to analyze your current situation to figure out what went wrong.
- Did you reach out to the wrong type of labels?
- Did you spend enough time building relationships?
- Was the feedback of your music generally negative?
- Are you established enough yet to get signed?
- Is your branding strong?
These things need to be in order, or this process won't work in your favor.
Otherwise, if you feel you did everything correctly, you do have an established fan base, and feedback within your niche is generally positive, keep adding labels to your list 5 at a time and work through this process with relentless persistence.
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