What’s holding artists back from get signed to a label or publisher? We asked actual label executives who are signing actual artists to find out.
(1) You want it too much.
The most interesting artists are the ones that don’t need a label, yet are most likely to get signed by one. They have strong followings, great music, work hard (and usually tour), and can survive on their own. In fact, labels often prefer artists that well-developed identities and mini-machines going, because it saves them the work of having to build something from scratch. It also lowers their risk, which is huge in such an uncertain environment.
More importantly, it also gives the artist far greater leverage in a negotiation, because the only reason they need a label is to get to another level. “There are so many artists nowadays that are starting to create their own, they’re creating their own recordings and videos. Lindsey Sterling is an indie artist who plays freakin’ violin, and she’s selling 500,000 copies of every new album without a major,” said Jennifer Blakeman, chief creative offer at Atlas Music Publishing who was signed herself to Warner Bros. Records back in the 90s.
“We’re living in a world of self-starters, so for a new generation of A&Rs [the people finding talent at labels and publishers], really they’re reliant upon an artist that’s willing to work for themselves. Nowadays, records get completely made before they even bring it to a record label.”
(2) You haven’t written an amazing song.
“The main ingredient is the song,” Seymour Stein, Vice President at Warner Bros. Records, and founder of Sire Records said recently at Canadian Music Week in Toronto. Stein is the guy who signed Talking Heads, Madonna, The Ramones, The Pretenders, k.d. lang, and Ice-T, among many others, all artists that had big songs to propel their careers. “Only the carriers have changed,” Stein noted.
(3) Your songs won’t appeal to broad enough group of people.
There are definitely niche labels that focus on specific genres. Nuclear Blast wants crushing death metal artists, not Jason Mraz look-a-likes. But the bigger labels and publishers want big songs, because those get the most mileage across radio, TV, streaming, and touring (which they’ll want a piece of). Indie classics are great; worldwide smash hits are better.
This is especially true for publishers, who are always hunting for rainmaker, ‘evergreen’ tracks that are in heavy rotation twenty years from now and drawing steady revenue streams. “It really comes down to the song, and if I can listen to a song — whether it’s a rough demo, or a piano vocal, or someone singing an a cappella in my office — if that can translate that into something that my 6 year-old child and my 70 year-old mother will like, then I know it can fit into a lane where a lot of America will latch onto it,” said Blakeman.
Another pro tip: write songs that anyone can sing along to, even if they don’t speak English. “You can sing ‘Boom Boom Pow’ in any language,’ Will.i.am famously stated.
(4) You aren’t getting real engagement on Spotify.
If you’re buying plays on Spotify or paying for playlist inclusion, they can tell. So it has to be organic, and it has to be real. “Spotify recently opened up their API platform, so even if you’re not the manager of a band I can go in and I can see where people are listening, who’s listening, how engaged they are, if they’re coming back to listen to the album,” explained James Trauzzi, VP A&R/Marketing at Last Gang Records. “And a lot of that information is free to anyone who wants to go in and dig into the data. And when you’re looking for a new artist, that weeds out a lot of the bots that people can buy.”
Also, keep in mind that just getting onto a big playlist isn’t enough (though it will get you some cash). “What I’m really looking at is the engagement,” Trauzzi continued. “You can get on a great playlist, you can get 500,000 plays, but when you look at the data there’s no engagement whatsoever, there’s no one coming back. And you can put the pieces together to realize that the only reason they have that many plays is because they got onto this playlist.”
“And that’s a lot of information.”
(5) You don’t have a strong, no bulls–t following on social networks.
It doesn’t have to look like Demi Lovato, but there has to be something going on. “The song is paramount, but I use a lot of other criteria to evaluate it,” said Ron Burman, president of North America at Mascot Label Group and a 15-year veteran at Roadrunner Records (Warner Music Group). “If I go and check out their socials and there’s nothing going on, it makes me a little bit leery to get involved because we don’t have a huge machine so it means I’m going to have to start at zero.”
(6) There’s no other meaningful data to back it up.
And that includes everything. “If there’s been any radio, I’m also checking out BDS, Mediabase,” Burman continued. “And if they’re releasing indie releases I’m also checking out Soundscan (which isn’t always reflective because a lot of stuff is sold off the stage and it isn’t accounted for) — all of those have their issues but if the data doesn’t back it up and there isn’t necessarily a following, I’m going to be reticent to pursue it even if I love the song.”
(7) You suck live.
Live is such a critical part of the picture that labels will often skip an artist that can’t hack it on stage. It’s got to be tight, and kick-ass. That’s true for X Ambassadors, a group that played endlessly before getting signed by Interscope (part of Universal Music Group). “I have to be blown away live,” Burman said. “Goosebumps = signed.”
(8) Your little brother is your manager.
A real manager knows the deal, he isn’t an amateur and he isn’t wasting anyone’s time. Preferably, your manager has done this before. “They’ll know the ropes they will do a better job of negotiation,” Stein said. “They’ll help you establish the right contacts, or already have them.”
(9) If you do get signed, you don’t know how STAY signed.
Artists that think getting signed means ‘making it’ are sorely mistaken. Labels have always dropped underperforming artists, but the risk of losing a deal has only intensified over the years. All of which translates into increasing the commitment and intensity after getting a deal, instead of slacking off.
It also means playing politics. Blakeman urged newly-signed acts to start networking within the label, and winning new champions. It’s the only antidote for massive job insecurity and revolving doors. “You might be talking to one human being who might not be there in 6 months,” Blakeman warned.
Image taken by Gaetano, who got a meeting with Atlantic Records in New York and took a pic to remember it!