Why a Major Label Doesn’t Want to Sign You

Global Managers panel discuss major labels on Monday at Musexpo 2017 in Hollywood
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Global Managers panel discuss major labels on Monday at Musexpo 2017 in Hollywood
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Global Managers panel on Monday at Musexpo 2017 in Hollywood (photo: DMN)

Reason #1: You’re ‘difficult’ and/or don’t work hard.

This isn’t the old music industry anymore.  There’s less money to invest, no more $16.99 CDs to sell, and way more pressure to show results.  So artists not only have to carry their weight, they have to work well with others and work hard.

But not even music managers are willing to be babysitters anymore.  At Musexpo on Monday, some of the biggest managers in the business flat-out refused to deal with divas.  In fact, the manager of 21 Pilots, Chris Woltman of Element 1 Music, said the biggest reason he wanted to work with 21 was because of their work ethic.

Reason #2: You don’t know the right people.

I bumped into a major label A&R guy at a Musexpo party on Sunday night.  He said half the time he can’t even listen to stuff that people hand him, even though he knows there’s great stuff in the pile.

Why?  Part of the reason is that A&R guys don’t just find artists, they also develop them.  So listening to new stuff means he’s developing less stuff he’s already signed.  And if stuff he’s already signed fails, he’s fired.

There just aren’t enough hours in a day.  And that goes for every A&R person that’s getting inundated.  So don’t take it personally.

Reason #3: You’re not playing the game right.

I wish this world was perfect and everyone got a fair shot (join my club).  But it’s absolutely, positively not a fair game.  That said, there are ways to game the system in your favor.

So how can you play the game a little better?

For starters, don’t always go directly to the front door of a major label.  An alternative approach is pairing up with a major manager.  That manager will then try to get serious consideration from one of the big three.  Because guys like Chris Woltman have every interest in not only developing you, but getting you signed so that you blow up.

Also, the guy who runs A&R Worldwide — Sat Bisla — is another example of an influencer that big label A&Rs will pay attention to.  Every night at A&R’s Musexpo (going on this week in Hollywood), Bisla has been showcasing a string of promising artists that he’s vetted.

Sometimes those artists are signed to smaller labels, other times not.  But the point is this: there are a lot of side doors that people don’t use.

Reason #4: There’s no ‘data’ on you.

This probably should be #1 with a bullet.  Because it’s 100 times more important than meeting the right people or playing the game right.

It’s data.  As in, are there people listening to you online, going to your shows, following you, remixing your music, etc.?  Do the numbers show that?

Sure, people game their social media accounts all the time.  But it’s really hard to game 40 million Spotify plays.  And it’s almost impossible to regularly ‘game’ a packed club with people screaming outside.

The ‘data’ can be local.  Chris Woltman said that 21 Pilots had already developed fanbase in Columbus, OH when he found them.  He said he could see a major connection with local fans, and realized he could grow it.

The ‘data’ he saw was a loyal, local following that really cared about this group.   The next step was managing them and signing them to a label that could scale that worldwide.

But this goes even further.  Because unless you’re a pre-teen boy band that the label puts together, you MUST have a data story for a major label to care.  “Most major labels don’t sign an artist now until they’re sure they’re on that path,” said Peter Leak of Red Light Management.  “They are definitely studying everything.  They’re looking at all the data and making sure something’s working before they sign them.”

“If they sign an artist without anything going on, that’s a real gamble.”

At a certain point, the numbers don’t lie.  BUT…

Reason #5: Your data is bulls—t

Everyone juices their numbers a little bit.  Because even if you’re exchanging a ticket for a Facebook Like you’re technically playing the social media game.  The real problem comes when you’re outright paying for massive amounts of followers, adding tons of fake engagement, and generally trying to create a social media presence that has zero connection to reality.

Here’s the thing: labels can sniff that out pretty fast.  Oftentimes there are dead giveaways.  And even if they do get interested based on fake data, they’re going to realize there’s a problem the minute the check out your show or see you in person.

It’s way, way more effective to work on your music and develop real engagement.

Reason #6: It’s not a good match.

Step back: do you really need a major label in the first place?

In many cases, a major label will actually set you back.  They typically sign radio-friendly, pop-oriented stuff, even if that’s pop-driven EDM, rap, or singer-songwriter variations.  Once a major is involved, they care about blowing you up and making a ton of cash off of the results.

We can go back-and-forth on whether that’s good or whether that sucks.  But it’s the way it is.

Do you want that?  Because even if you do get signed, there’s not guarantee of success.  “There are still going to be a lot of artists who do get signed but who don’t have success on a major,” Leak said.

There’s also a catch 22 here.  Because once you have enough traction and data to get noticed, you also have the beginnings of a completely DIY career.  And there are tons of reasons to stay DIY (including keeping 100% of the profits).  But that’s another topic entirely.

Reason #7: You didn’t get lucky.

Jaddan Comerford of Unified said he found Vance Joy because his brother sent him the music.  And his brother is in property management!  It was just dumb luck.

BUT, once you do get your lucky break, be ready.  If you have one good song and a bad work ethic, no ‘break’ is going to matter.

One last thing…

There was a really great takeaway that came out of this panel.  Back in the day, if you signed with a major label and failed, your career was basically over.  That’s because no other label wanted to take a risk on something that had already failed (artists like Lady Gaga were the extreme exception here).

Now, that’s totally reversed.  Peter Leak told the story of an artist that had an amicable split with a major label, simply because they weren’t growing as large as the major wanted.  But majors have tons of capital and reach, and can give you very valuable marketing for essentially very little cost.

I Got a Major Label Meeting and Nothing Happened

You won’t own the stuff you made with them, but you will own the stuff you create afterwards.  And you get to keep the fanbase for life.

And for those just joining: here’s a really quick primer on major labels.

The major labels — Universal Music Group, Warner Music Group, and Sony Music Entertainment — are sometimes referred to as the ‘big three’.  They own a bunch of other sub-labels and have major publishing interests as well.  They are big-time global entities.

Generally, major labels have more money and stronger relationships with platforms like Spotify.  In fact, they own a major portion of Spotify, and can push a priority artist into coveted playlists.

There are also independent labels, often called ‘indie labels’.  Those labels have far less marketing power, but can be a better fit for many artists.

Also, a music manager is basically someone that manages your career, makes deals, and shepherds every aspect of your growth.  There’s actually a lot of debate over whether bands truly need a manager any more, as well.  A great music manager can make you a massive success (and a crappy one can make you a failure).

That’s a quick primer.  Blast any questions you have in the comments!



11 Responses

  1. William

    Fantastic article here Paul. Though I am aware of what you put here, it seems that many artists/bands continue to believe a different reality than what you have stated here.

  2. CrackUser

    Paul I hope you stop smoking crack soon. It is really hurting you.

  3. Versus

    The real Catch-22 is this:
    The function of the label should be to build an artist’s success, but the label wants to sign artists who are already quite successful…in which case why do they need the label?

    What happened to the native idea of just being signed based on musical talent and ability , and the label actually doing that old thing once called “artist development”?

    Perhaps that falls to the indies…

    • Roy

      We all know what happened…the decline of sales, which means less risk taking – simple economics.

    • Music Specialist

      The function of a label is to make MONEY. There are a lot of “feel good” stories about labels that loved the artist and worked with them to develop success, but the bottom line is either make money or get out.

    • Anonymous

      “The label…” uh, which label? Plenty of labels do artist development. Plenty don’t. Do your homework.

  4. music stowaway

    I relate to the comment “…some of the biggest managers in the
    business flat-out refused to deal with divas”.

    Honestly, experience has made me very cautious with doing
    business (i.e. signing) with artists.. Every singer seems to think they’re the latest hot shot and has some shady type as their
    manager who just wants to make your life difficult..

    The rewards in the recorded music business aren’t that large anymore and sometimes it just seems better to put your own project together and work hard in making that a success.


    The problem with independent labels is often they just don’t have
    the right software/systems or staff in place to process reams of data from Apple music, Spotify and digital music aggregators to
    generate an accounting and royalty breakdown (let alone pay you..)

    So most producers/artists never see any royalties or get an

    So for many artists/producers they’d be much better served DIY’ing
    if they can’t get a deep-pocketed major to do their magic..

    • Paul Resnikoff

      The massive data issue I think will be solved in time. Actually you have companies like Rebeat (Austrian company, check them out) that can handle extreme amounts of royalty data. But you’re right, labels that aren’t dialed in or connected with the right tech can’t even count this stuff or do proper accounting.

    • alfredhitchcock

      the Spotify one would be easy. You got a million plays, here is your dollar.

  5. Alan

    Terrestrial radio does not play music that is not owned by the Big 3 or their subs. Airplay is the only reason to sign with a major!

  6. Double Shit Boy

    The major managers are the best way to go inside the world of :: ‘ Digital Convergence ‘ . I agree with that scenario strategy. Everyone would love to be a big name ; but obscurity is acceptable if you can surf the web trying to crack–burst a 50 Million dollar check. . .:: Literati X