9 Reasons Why You Aren’t Getting Signed

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!

27 Responses

  1. Anonymous

    Paul… whatever makes you think we want to get signed?

    • LDM

      Yes,actually what does a label contract offers nowadays? Do you have that kind of information?

      • GGG

        Depends on a ton of factors. One act, a rock band, I work with is signed to an indie label that we got a very good deal with. Essentially an equal split, close to 360 deal but not quite, and $100K of capital to work with. Much more ideal than nickel and diming for years and years, losing your own money every time you go on the road, etc.

        Obviously you aren’t going to get that with a major. I mean, you could get $100K but you’re still going to be in the 10-12% royalty rate area.

        If you’re a wannabe Top 40 pop artist, you’re going to end up making most of your money on branding anyway, so even with a shit royalty rate, you’re going to be put in front of a lot of people that can grow your career. There’s certainly a potential trade-off there if that’s your end game.

        • Anonymous

          “even with a shit royalty rate, you’re going to be put in front of a lot of people that can grow your career”

          I can’t even begin to tell you how much I disagree. 🙂

          I’m not disputing that short term contracts may be relevant in some cases (for the money, not for the guys that can ‘grow your career’ haha), but they really need to get out asap.

          • GGG

            How much money do you think Katy Perry makes off music compared to all the other shit she does? If you’re an attractive girl (or guy) with a big personality that doesn’t write their own songs (or “writes” them), a singing voice that’s your tertiary at best quality, your cash cow is not going to be royalties, it’s going to be plastering your face all over as much shit as you can. Branding. For every Taylor Swift there’s about 10 standard-fare pop stars where the music is an almost an afterthought once record 1 comes out.

            I’m talking about if you WANT to be a Top 40 artist and are fine with playing that game, I don’t see how dealing with a standard royalty rate to get a room with Max Martin or Stargate or whoever is a bad choice.

      • Jim

        Labels do have money to spend on radio. And radio is very helpful to get a band more famous than they already are with certain categories of people such as radio listeners.

        Digital Music News does this thing where they put old articles on their facebook, so I’m replying over a year after you wrote that. In the summer of 2017, what has happened is that a lot of well known indie acts have been signed, and if you look at the rock formats, especially AAA, also alternative, there’s a lot of indie acts there, quality ones, LCD Soundsystem, Grizzly Bear, War on Drugs, and a whole lot more are on majors now and are on the mediabase / all access rock charts currently. Since bands like the above do tour, do tour well, making good money, adding on another group of people, the radio listeners, to their fanbase, will end up helping the acts by putting more people in the venues for the shows, their guarantees will go up. This is all for the good.

  2. L. Bart

    “Live is such a critical part of the picture that labels will often skip an artist that can’t hack it on stage.” They made an exception for Lana Del Rey.

    • Jim

      They make an exception for all the Top 40 acts. In fact, those Top 40 acts rarely tour.

      One could argue that “can’t cut it live” is just wrong these days.

  3. PM Tunes

    It’s takes more efforts and pitfalls to do this thing all by yourself inside the 21st century digital music industry. But most likely it’s not the major labels that are interested in signing a new artist. They’re more interested in leveraging their older catalog across the digital convergence ecosystems. If A label do suddenly appear in your career trying to get you signed , more than often it’s going to be a shady no connected , nobody brand that just happen to know a tad bit more than you do; and that’s primarily how to manipulate your ambitions and big dreams of success into a tangled licensing cluster fuck ! LX

  4. hank@nv.net

    “Nowadays, records get completely made before they even bring it to a record label.”

    So if an artist takes care of half the work that once upon a time a label would have done, and spends half the money a label would have spent, then maybe labels are interested. Such a “deal”.

  5. Jon Toppper

    number 8 is wrong. If a label wants you they will sign you. They do not care it is you little brother managing you. Just be careful if it is someone at the label might try and push your manager out. If I was a band today I would not worry about anything in this article except getting a great live show down , selling a few hundred tickets in a few different markets and getting a good agent.

    • Paul Resnikoff

      There are good points here: if a band is an unstoppable freight train, it’s hard to stop it. A bad manager can scuttle a lot of things, though, it’s not clear the ‘little brother’ wouldn’t be the best person in the world to advance an artist’s career. On the other stuff, think about what you’re saying: if a band is filling ‘a few hundred tickets in a few different markets,’ that’s a lot of momentum. You’ll see that online as well, and it’s based on great music (and songs).

      • Jon Topper

        Think of every band that has been successful with a first time manager and there would be no difference between that and a little brother. You either have it or you do not. The only main difference I can think of is it is harder to fire your little brother. On the other hand from personal experience it might be better that the label has less control to play mind games with the band and make them think bigger is better.

  6. L. Bart

    I figure getting signed can be worth it if the label can and is willing to invest a lot on the artist. But I know it’s very rare for artists to get this kind of deal, despite their efforts, and even when the label can do a lot for the artist it doesn’t mean it will.

  7. Thisarticleisprettylame

    it’s Lindsey Stirling, not Lindsay Sterling… get it right Paul

    • Paul Resnikoff

      Thanks, I appreciate that correction.

  8. Neverine

    Basically, they want a finished product handed to them on a silver platter. If you get to the point where labels want to sign you, that means you are doing something right and you should put your own team of people together and run your own operation. Seeing how labels no longer develop artists there is no strong benefit to signing unless you want to get into debt and lose creative control.

  9. Carl de Jong

    There’s no mention that your music has to be very good and marketable

  10. Ryan

    What about the solo act who creates albums, but plays covers to supplement his money- yet has a good SM following- but his hometown is in the dark.
    I think its kind of bullshit that the record labels kick their feet back and wait for a “freight train” of an artist to come across their path and THEN pick them up…..
    What about becoming a published songwriter?

  11. sam smiles

    these companies have a very high opinion of themselves.
    hate to say this but true artists wouldn’t touch them with their dicks.

    • Paul Lanning

      Very few of today’s major label a&rs are capable of transforming an unknown diamond-in-the-rough act into a commercial success. So it makes sense for the big companies to seek out acts who are already sustaining themselves with engaging material, a compelling live show and a significant following.

  12. jr

    We are living in an age of consolidation and if an act really wants to SCALE, only a major can do that. Even Beggar’s group needed SONY to scale Adele.
    As uncomfortable as it is this is the reality and there have been one or two worldwide exceptions, sooner or later you need to sign on a dotted line with a major media company.

  13. lovedust

    Good lord, this article is written by a true cynic. “You haven’t written an amazing song”. Drivel: songs aren’t the artistic goal, it’s the final track sound, regardless of song quality (e.g. any dance track). “You don’t have a strong following” … If you had one, you would have no interest in being signed as your fanbase would deliver the success you want – without some bellend taking 15% or more; and the label doesn’t seem to offer an increased fanbase – it seems to expect an existing one. “You aren’t getting real engagement on Spotify.” Well, if your record company cannot improve this, why on earth would you be interested in signing for them in the first place? The article merely proves that a record deal is not worth signing.